Chrysalis

Pass It On

If you’re new to all this, you might be starting to pick up on some of the vocabulary of beekeeping. Maybe you can envision a frame now, and a super; you might have figured out that bees not only bring nectar to the hive but pollen also; and you sort of know what propolis is. Words like smoker and frame that you understand in everyday context have new meanings.

So vocabulary is important. A vocabulary list is just a complex process or story taken apart and put in alphabetical order. While it helps us to understand the terms, the words make the most sense when we weave them into the context of the bigger picture. Nature has its own ideas of order, despite our efforts to classify and pigeonhole. Everything – the weather, flora and fauna, stones and water – is intertwined in the dance of nature, choreographed in real time. The natural world is a hodgepodge of organic beings and fundamental elements woven together in an intricate story, beginnings and endings circling each other. Lining them up anteater to zebra would be like putting the words of the Star Spangled Banner in alphabetical order. There is history behind those verses that connects humans, just as food webs and the water cycle connect all of nature.

That’s where a teacher comes in, someone who throws the words in the air so students can watch them whirl like maple samaras and settle into the forest floor; words for anatomy intermingling with words for nutrition and protection and other beings, and coexistence with those other beings.

New beekeepers need a mentor. Someone older (at least to beekeeping) and wiser when it comes to bees, methods of beekeeping, and timing. Because on one hand, beekeeping is easy. After all, if you offer bees a hive, they will move in and do what bees do naturally. But these new homeowners also need key things at key times from their caretakers. Like children do. You can’t leave a child generally untethered and expect a valedictorian to walk across the stage at 18 years old; likewise, you can’t install a colony of bees in April, go about your business, and expect 30 pounds of honey in September.


When I first started beekeeping, it felt like I’d become a worried new mom, responsible for thousands of little lives. Did they have enough to eat? Were they warm enough? Too hot? Were they safe from robber bees and skunks? Should I give them a night light, check on them at 2 am? I guess the term ‘raising bees’ is an appropriate one. It’s like raising children. I had millions of questions. Luckily, I also had Tim, my mentor.

A beekeeper for more than 25 years, Tim was there when I installed my first hive on a chilly April morning 6 ½ years ago and he still willingly checks on the status of my colonies whenever I ask. We tweak equipment, find the queen, high five at the sight of a full honey super and support each other through mite infestations. He taught me to never, ever give up even when my colonies became totally unbalanced and queenless, teetering on self destruction. He taught me patience, taming the need to hover, my big human face staring at my bees through the inner cover. If they could talk, they’d be grumbling, “leave us alone, we can do this,” just like any independent-minded kid. Just enough hands on and just enough hands-off is a fine line to walk.

Because in reality, honeybees can’t do it alone. They have become, if not domesticated, then at least necessarily managed. More often and with greater intensity, bees are exposed to the activities of human living. The bottom line is that if we want to eat, we need pollinators. And if we want to keep pollinators alive and instrumental in pollinating our crops, we need to mitigate the negative effects of human behavior with some positive or protective measures.

New beekeepers can’t do it alone either. If you’re considering keeping bees, make sure you have a mentor, whether it’s in the form of an internet forum, a book, or a real human. I vote for real humans; the others are supplemental. And then, as a real human with real beekeeping experience, you can pass it on when the time comes. There’s a fledgling beekeeping group at Connecticut College that needs a mentor and I’m stepping up. Of course, the biology teacher in me loves this, nerd that I am, and big fan of young adults in general. Like Tim, I will coax out the answers to their millions of questions by asking my own. I’ll be right there with them when they go into the hives, interpreting what we see. I’ll help them learn that elusive menagerie of skills called patience, trust, and resilience. Their bees will be ok, through storms and swarms and summer droughts. And if a colony dies, they’ll learn to begin again. Just as nature does.

 

Chrysalis

B-Day

Today’s post isn’t about bees. Well, perhaps a little. I’m trying to find my posting rhythm here in the blogging arena, like music notes and the spaces between them, creating a melody instead of a cacophony of sound.

Image: duniellauxepices.net

The trick it seems is to find that sweet spot between overwhelm and disinterest. Not so many that you swipe it from your inbox before reading thinking, “yeah, yeah, not today,” and not so few that you forget how amazing bees are.

How to do this? When is Bee-day? Well, of course, Bee-day is B-day. I’ll explain. As a teacher with the North Penn School District, I was part of something bigger. The students learned biology from me; English, History, Art and Math from others. I thrived on the routine: bells, schedules, the students that passed through my classroom daily, the quiet at the end of each day when I strolled down the hall to Mary’s classroom to brainstorm the next day’s nerdy-bio trivia fact. And Letter Days. Instead of a 5-day schedule, the district operated on an A-F Letter Day schedule. For instance, if A-day fell on a Monday one week, it was on Tuesday the following week, Wednesday the next and so on. The other letters lined up accordingly. If there was a snow day or a short week, we picked up where we left off, C following B following A, etc. Simple, continuous, rhythmic.

This time of year as the buses rumble by again, I miss teaching biology and my routine more than ever . . . even after 8 years. I like to be productive, useful, a contributing member of society. My job fills that need. But I also miss being able to freely express my biology nerdiness. It seems I’ve unconsciously taken the biology I had immersed myself in and channeled it into bees, one of the best examples in nature of organisms working together, each member of the colony contributing their share.

So, B-Day it is. For the sake of simplicity and my need for planning, it’s every sixth weekday, give or take the equivalent of a snow day or a holiday. Nerdy-bio trivia fact included:

Sealed honey found in King Tut’s tomb is still edible,
despite lying beneath the desert sands for over 2,000 years.
Amazing!

Chrysalis

Transformations

The events occurring inside a chrysalis are nothing short of violent from a cellular point of view. Imagine your body as you know it, a larva, fat and juicy, happy to eat all day. Now imagine stuffing yourself into a tomb and allowing (yes, allowing) enzymes driven by hormones to dissolve these body parts. Your insides turn into a liquid aggregation of cells. And ever so slowly, the transformation begins. Legs and wings form. Mouthparts are designed for sipping nectar. Your tomb, which also protects you from predators and holds all those soupy insides together, begins to soften; your colors begin to show through its pearlescent shell. A split, an unzipping of sorts and you are free. Emerging as a soggy heap of crumpled wings, you are vulnerable and exposed to the outside world. But ever so slowly, those wings dry and enlarge, life coursing through them, and you become that delicate butterfly or that industrious honey bee that even the most hardened of souls stops for a moment to gaze at.

Oh, that the transformations of humans should be so easy. We can blame it on hormones. We can say we are hanging on by our fingernails. We can say we feel trapped by the very things that also keep us feeling safe. But transformations, or the opportunity for them, are universal and inevitable. I tend to write about transformation, the kind that doesn’t change us as much physically as soulfully. Oh, we might get a few more gray hairs and a few wrinkles as the soul learns to fly but most of it is internal, inside our chrysalis. And once complete the physical self shines no matter what we look like.