Honeybees are so important and so endangered in our world today. I’m grateful for the years I spent working in the office at The Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York, where I learned something about these amazing creatures, and got to know some beekeepers who are doing wonderful, holistically-oriented programs. If you want to know more, I encourage you to check out pfeiffercenter.org. On the Facebook page, you can view videos including this one of hiving a swarm.
I wrote this essay years ago for Parabola, on the theme of “The Seeker,” and they liked it but didn’t have room for it in that issue. I’ve never found another way to publish it, so you get to be the first to read it. Enjoy!
There is much that man could learn from the bees, but he does not have the patience.–Karl von Frisch
Having built a beautiful new home, filled the larder with food, and started a family, would you leave it all behind and set off on a journey with no known end? Could you let go of all that you had made, and seek no other object than to be permitted to try again?
For us, this would be extraordinary behavior. For honeybees, though, it is entirely natural. When a bee colony has prospered through the spring, filling the combs with honey and brood, the urge to swarm sets in. On a sunny day in early summer more than half of the colony may set off with their queen, leaving an infant queen behind, not even hatched.
A swarm emerging from the hive appears as a wild, chaotic cloud; the beating of so many tiny wings rises from a buzz to a roar. There is little danger of being stung, for the bees are full of honey and intent on their task. Yet the sight of swarming bees almost inevitably inspires fear in us. We do not want to be reminded that we must at times abandon our settled past, and seek an unknown future.
It is a kind of death, and bees are often associated with death in folklore. An Irish superstition has it that the sudden swarming of bees foretells a death in the house. In Celtic tradition the soul was thought to leave the body in the form of a bee, while in Brittany a jar of honey was left in the death chamber for it to fortify itself before departing. The custom of “telling the bees” of a death in the family was taken very seriously; if not solemnly informed of the event, they might leave their hives, never to return.
It is no wonder that bees should be considered initiates and guardians of that realm which to us is so strange, fearful and unknown. Bees willingly “die” to their old hive in order to seek a new one, that the colony may be reborn and regenerated. The drive for new life is the only law they know. We grasp what we already have, and become imprisoned by it; the bees give everything away, and are free.
When they swarm, their final destination is not yet decided. At first, they do not go far from the old hive. They will cluster on a nearby bush or tree, or on a telephone pole or traffic signal if necessary. This is the moment when beekeepers may recover the colony and settle it in a new hive; but if left to themselves, they begin to send out explorers who search for a suitable home. Scouts fly in all directions, returning to “dance” their findings on the surface of the cluster.
These movements, described by their discoverer Karl von Frisch in The Dancing Bees, enable the bees to communicate their findings to one another with incredible precision. The scout runs in a short straight line, at the same time wagging its abdomen. It returns to the starting point with a semi-circle and repeats the first movement, followed by a semi-circle to the other side.
The direction of the straight line indicates the location of the target in relation to the sun; the distance to be traveled by the rapidity of the movement. Shorter distances get more runs per minute; longer distances are danced at a more measured pace. The liveliness of the dance corresponds to the desirability of the location. The more enthusiastic the dancer, the more followers she attracts, and the more likely her choice is to be accepted.
As the followers sense the dancing bee’s movement, they interpret her message and learn where to fly. Even when forced by obstacles to fly a roundabout route, they are able to arrive at the correct location, up to two miles away. How exactly these tiny creatures, buffeted by wind and weather, are able to calculate time and distance so accurately, is still not understood.
This astonishingly ingenious system of communication seems to embody what we usually do not attribute to other creatures than ourselves: “an intelligence independent of instinct.” (1) Scientists are still baffled and awed by it. The more we study what happens within the hive, the more an intelligent being appears to be at work, not in the individual bees, but between and among them, guiding and directing. As we scurry about on our isolated, self-oriented quests, could we not stop to consider whether, if we let ourselves become aware of it, a higher intelligence might speak to us? As Karl von Frisch remarks, “There is much that man could learn from the bees, but he does not have the patience.” (2)
If not captured by a beekeeper, the swarm will settle in any protected place where they can build new combs and raise their young. In their new home, the bees dance again, this time to tell one another about food sources. To seek out and bring back nectar and pollen is a serious task, for the colony must store up honey for the winter or it will perish.
Though they knew nothing of the remarkable “language” of the bee dances, the ancients recognized the creation of honey as wisdom made manifest. The Bible is full of it:
My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste; So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul… (3)
It is notable that in gathering nectar, the honeybee need not destroy or injure any living thing. A Buddhist proverb advises, “As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, or its color or scent, so let a sage dwell in the community.” Indeed, the bee not only does no harm, but performs a vital service in carrying pollen from one flower to another. The true seeker, she reminds us, is one who serves the whole.
After taking in the already rarefied substances offered up by the plant, the bee further transforms them within her own body, not in the stomach but in a special honey sac where enzymes produce complex sugars not found in the original nectar. The honey is carefully spread in the comb so that water can evaporate; the bees know the exact moment when it is ready to be capped without fermenting.
The transformed nectar takes on an eternal quality, remaining sweet, fragrant and golden indefinitely without preservatives. It is literally food fit for the gods; it nourished Zeus in his cradle, and has been found in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. The Vedas describe it as an attribute of the Asvins, twin gods of light. For the bees, of course, it is life itself.
Sweet things are no longer a rarity or a luxury to us today. But when we taste a drop of honey, we may try to recapture the reverence and wonder that once arose from this experience. It is the product of prodigious feats of navigation and tireless labor, a living symbol of the sweetness that springs from wholehearted entry into life, seeking only to transform what one meets and offer it back again. Truly, there is much we may learn from the bees.
There is a land where no doubt or sorrow have rule,
where the terror of Death is no more.
There the woods of Spring are a-bloom,
and the fragrant scent “He is I” is borne on the wind:
There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed,
and desires no other joy. (4)
1 William Longgood, The Queen Must Die (New York: Norton, 1985), p. 203.
2 Karl von Frisch, The Dancing Bees (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1966), p. 148.
3 Proverbs 24:13-14.
4 Songs of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore (New York: Macmillan, 1915), p. 56.