At the very beginning of my very first bee class, we were asked: “What do you wish to leave behind from the beekeeping you’ve done up until now?” - or, for the newbies, “What draws you to this particular class?”.
I was new, and I’d been drawn there through an impulse that had arisen suddenly and surprisingly, to tend bees. I’d come more than 600 miles to attend That Particular Class because the impulse insisted I find supremely natural methods geared toward saving bees. Our main text was called “Toward Saving the Honeybee”, so while I knew I was in the right place, I had virtually no experience and thus nothing to leave behind (other than the mistaken assumption that I was afraid of bees).
Many of my cohorts, however, ranged in experience from one to twenty years, and from one to hundreds of hives. When they spoke of what they wished to leave behind, some of the things that fell from their lips landed hard upon my ears, which were still tender with the innocence of unknowing.
They said things like: chemical treatments, plastic foundation, pinching the queen (plus grafted queens, artificial queens, mated queens)… getting bees in the mail, wired frames, feeding patties, trucking hives, sugar spraying…
Blank slate that I was, I had no idea what most of these things even meant, but they left an impression that felt cold and almost clinical, not at all the warm feeling that I associate with bees. I was aware of a faint bristling inside, a restless sense of discord.
I looked to my teachers. Their faces did not distort into grimaces, they did not shiver to shake off the mechanical-sounding practices my classmates described. Instead they listened deeply, one might say compassionately, seeming to absorb not just the content but also the feeling that accompanied the stories. They were kind and free from judgement.
What I could not know then is that these things my classmates were describing, that evoked such disharmony in me and to which my teachers nodded with calm knowing, are exactly what most beekeepers are taught at their first class, under the simple heading “How It’s Done”.
Humans today tend to learn by absorbing instructions. We get our how-to sheets, write our to-do lists, and we place our faith in what we’re told without examining its origins. We have lost touch with the times when learning meant to engage in observation and deep inquiry, and to draw conclusions based on what arises within us in response.
And so it is no surprise that when even the tenderest-hearted of new beekeepers is told they are “supposed to” do this-or-that thing, they do not think to question why, or what effect it has on the bees’ health (or trust) in the long term, or whether it arose for the benefit of the bees or the beekeeper.
After all, most “hobby” beekeepers have simply fallen in love. They wish to exchange housing for pollination and maybe a little honey to share, and are only doing as they’ve been taught. Most will tell you their aim is to save the bees.
What they won’t tell you, because they don’t know, is what I learned next: that many of the methods/practices/equipment that they’ve been taught to use are handed down from commercial beekeeping. This is beekeeping where the bees’ natural behaviors are distorted and manipulated by humans for the sake of productivity and profit. It short-circuits the expression of natural instincts that keep the bees healthy, and feeds an industry of interventions for problems that were brought about by earlier interventions. This industry produces most of the literature on beekeeping, including what’s taught in bee clubs and kid camps, creating a cycle of dysfunction for which the bees are paying with the risk of extinction (that year more than 60% of hives in the US did not survive the winter).
We took a deep breath and got a glimpse at what we’d be learning instead. Starting with profound respect for the bee and her ways, we would develop actual relationships with our bees so we don’t require “protection”. We’d learn to observe and discern when, whether, and how to act on a hive’s behalf with only natural means, and how to read her health based on the cycles of the year and the mysteries of the hive. We would learn to tend the landscape for her benefit and support her natural impulses toward vitality and rejuvenation.
At the Q&A someone asked what percentage of hives the school had lost compared with the national average. One. They lost one hive out of more than 45, and she was nine years old.
As we paused for some fruit and tea, I checked to see if any part of my earlier naïveté had survived the morning session. I found that I had gladly exchanged it for a burgeoning sense of purpose and a deep gratitude that I’d started where I had.
A crisis is a signal that it's time to change direction, and Beginners’ Mind never felt so good.