Back Fence

Hive Minded

What backyard beekeeping really does for people.

By Kathryn Robinson April 1, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Seattle Met

When my friend Catherine lays her head on her pillow at night, she lays it just across a wall from 15,000 honeybees.

Sometimes by day she’ll go outside and sit alongside the hive, reading or whatnot, no protective gear. The bees fly in, the bees fly out. “I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me,” she says happily. 

It occurs to me to remind Catherine that bees sting people.

She smiles patiently, groping to make me comprehend the appeal of it. The awe of it. How honeybees live in colonies of thousands—an army of workers, a clutch of drones, one majestic queen—and how each knows and fulfills its role. How the bees who buzz off in search of food or a new home report back to the colony with a dance—a dance—which precisely communicates the location of the find. How, given enough experience, a seasoned beekeeper can decode the mood of the hive with a whiff inside it. (And God help her if she smells bananas.)

“It’s being on the edge of this thing I don’t really understand, but get to be a part of,” Catherine says. “So much else in the world is a manufactured way of spending time. This goes right to creation. It’s almost a religious experience.”

She apologizes for her corniness, as beekeepers invariably will, but frankly, corniness seems reasonable. Divorced at midlife, Catherine sought a diversion to fulfill her environmental interests, and found beekeeping. She studied colony collapse—the persistent die-off of honeybees that threatens fertilization of the world’s fruit—and attended conferences. And then she built a hive: a long, narrow wooden box with bars across the top, off of which the bees she ordered from California constructed their first golden honeycomb. 

I built them a coffin and they made it into a food source, she marveled. Not an awful metaphor for a woman building a new life out of the husk of a dead one. 

Indeed, the metaphors piled up like beeswax. As she lost hours watching the bees—for its sheer time-sucking addictiveness, hive-watching is the Facebook of the natural world—she began to discern the organization of Hive Mind…and it blew hers altogether. Each honeybee knew its job and performed it, not as individuals, but as vital parts of a single organism. 

The implications, in a world growing smaller and more crowd-sourced by the day, weren’t lost on Catherine. Each individual bee knows which chore is theirs for the good of the whole—“like housemates in college”—right down to the frat boys of the hive, the drones, whose entire existence adds up to lying around and scoring chicks. 

But hardly chicks, these are queens—the lucky ladies, one from each hive, mysteriously selected by the worker bees from birth to be fed an extra-rich diet allowing her to lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, thereby securing the survival of the colony. The queen is the world around which the hive buzzes. As metaphors go, this one wasn’t bad for a middle-aged single mother—until the morning last spring when she woke up and found her hive empty.

Rattled, she emailed her bee people. Could be a lot of things, experts told her. Changing agricultural practices. The weaknesses wrought by inbreeding. Stronger pesticides. Seattle winters are tough on bees to begin with, offered Brad Jones, the founder of Seola Bee Company in West Seattle. But factor in these other things and it’s a recipe for colony collapse. One longtime local commercial beekeeper of Jones’s acquaintance used to feel bad if he lost 5 percent of his colonies to winter. Now he considers 30-percent loss a good year.

A few years ago Jones, a software developer by day, began breeding his own queens, convinced that queens who overwintered here with their own workers would create hardier colonies. This spring, Catherine’s betting on one of these. She even got to choose the temperament. 

Catherine, not really in it for honey, wanted gentle bees. That’s because for her, beekeeping is principally a meditation on mindfulness. “When you work with the bees you have to be there,” she says. “You can’t do anything fast, you have to be deliberate, pay attention.” Jones says he’s distinctly calmed by his bees, who with their pungent sweet odor and buzzy drone induce something like a meditative state. 

Corky Luster, owner of Ballard Bee Company, isn’t surprised. “The main thing bees reliably do for people is take them into the moment,” he says. “You focus. Time disappears. Because you’re working with a stinging insect, you have to concentrate. The bees are very aware of quick, jerky movements. The calmer you are, the calmer they are.”  

Stings will happen. (“If I wore a sting counter, that thing would be like the national debt clock,” Luster cracks.) For a certain type of beekeeper—the kind like Luster who rejects gloves—stings are what one risks to be a better beekeeper. “Without gloves there’s less chance I’ll squish the bees, so they’re less defensive,” he says. Barehanded he can move with the gentleness required when he feels a bee buzzing around his fingers—finding the rhythm most likely to leave both apian and human life forms unharmed, and at least one of them inexplicably enhanced.


Further reading: The Bee's Knees: Start Your Own Bee Colony

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