Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Romantic Beekeeper

I once found myself asserting an utter lie to some lovely people. That I was not a romantic who thought that I could “commune” with the bees, or that they would know me and intentionally relate specifically to ME. It isn't a lie actually - I do know that the bees don’t “know” me, but it is a lie to say I haven’t any romantic ideas about beekeeping.

When I first started beekeeping in the Spring of 2001, I bought some of my equipment from a beekeeper who was downsizing. I also talked to him from time to time about what was happening in my hives and he gave me the benefit of his considerable experience. Comfortable talking with him, on one occasion I heard myself gushing about the romance of beekeeping - the open air, the oneness with my surroundings, the companionship of the bees.

My normally talkative friend went mute. He wore a particularly intense version of a look he gave me at our monthly meetings of hobby beekeepers when I was speculating on some practice that he believed resided on the lunatic fringe. When he spoke again, it was to change the subject. I had evidently embarrassed him with the intensity of my feeling. Either that or he may have been afraid of fracturing a skeletal plate laughing too hard if I continued if I continued my gushing.

Until recently, it seems the majority of beekeepers were men. Beekeeping is hard, physical outdoor work. Beekeepers have to lift 60 to 80 pounds and twist and bend while they do it. Beekeepers work with fire, tools, other men and the triple threat of chance - weather, crop/vegetation hardiness and pesticide applicators. Some would say there is a fourth - parasitic infestation, but that isn't chance. It's a sure thing. In the past, these factors have made beekeeping a men's occupation. When I began attending out hobbyists' group meetings, they were dominated by men, whose "get to know you" questions could only be answered with distances, quantities, volumes and duration.

But, times change, women handle fire, tools appreciate the thrill of risk and fgure out how to be beekeepers without the heavy lifting. Now, I'm asked first about the knitting I'm working on, about the writing I've done for the newsletter, about the taste of the honey I got this year. Often, we talk about how good it is that we had a stretch of windless calm days when we could search for queens on sweet-smelling frames next to open hives and be among our bees, hatless in the dappled shade.

I have fairly been called pretentious, but mine is surely an innocent kind of pretension. I’m just a bookish type who uses big words to stall for time while I figure out what I want to say. But it's like Twin said - better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt. I'm working on that.

But I will confess - I named my queens, weighed them down with names. One of the farmers who own Rising Moon Farm, where I keep my bees, is named Melissa. I am charmed by the fact that her name comes from the Greek word for honeybee. That had to be the name of one of my queens, and I gave it to my blue hive’s monarch. The temperament of that hive proved to be much like that of my friend - competent, focused and cheerful. When that hive’s queen was replaced by the colony, the successor was Q. Melissa II. The lavender hive’s queen was given the Hebrew name for honeybee - d’vorah - or Deborah. Q. D’vorah’s brood was like a whining black tornado every time I tore into their boxes. Biblical in their rage and vigor and beauty.

I have scoured my memory for an honest answer to a question that I am frequently asked about beekeeping. You know what it is - it's the "why" question. Well, I grew up in a very Irish household, where we were taught by my great-Auntie Julia that although we didn’t believe in the leprechauns, they were there just the same. Irish music, dance, politics and literature filled the house, and I grew up with a special love of a W.B. Yeats poem that I recited in my mind for entertainment in my loneliest childhood moments. I think it was partly in the poem’s imagery that my life as a beekeeper began:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin built there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

There was also a moment several years before, after hiking to a waterfall outside of Tralee in Ireland, I noticed a couple of beehives behind a stone fence. I doubled back and bought some honey from the farmer. Something of that "tucked in a cranny" of a little beeyard must have stuck in my mind also.

Finally, I know that I wanted to do something, even if it was a small something, to help with crop pollination and to forge a connection with the production of my food. It is unlikely that I am eating anything my bees pollinate. I don't know where they go, and I don't much care. They are in the midst of farm country, and I know they are helping some farmer somewhere within their range, and that's good enough. They also help pollinate the pastures where the sheep raised by my farmer friends graze. Every year, we purchase a butchered lamb from Rising Moon Farm and enjoy the meat through the year. So I have that connection, I guess.

In the end, I became a beekeeper for its own sake. In quiet, golden, sweet ways it has required me to alter how I approach the world - more than yoga, more than years of tai chi play, more than years of religious training, more than all my good intentions in loving relationships. I was a tough case. Thanks, bee.

No comments: