As I’ve alluded to on this blog before, I started beekeeping this year. I wanted to tell the story of that journey thus far, seeing as it is the Summer Solstice today, and share some insights on my process of sacred beekeeping!
Inspiration for keeping bees
Sometimes the most amazing things arise out of regular meditative and magical practice. Take, for example, one of my daily spiritual practices, which started the journey of beekeping for me. The Ancient Order of Druids in America’s sphere of protection ritual is a general protective ritual that those of us in the order do daily. At the end of the ritual, one circulates a sphere of light around oneself or a space one wishes to protect. I’ve been doing the sphere of protection here at my homestead each day since I moved in five years ago–I envisioned the protective sphere reaching out to the edges of my property, protecting all life within. About a year into the process of doing this, things began to get interesting. Instead of the rainbow light circling around, the protective sphere I put up around the property took on a life of its own. First it grew vines, then the vines flowered. It continued to grow in strength and beauty with each passing year. Then, last summer, I helped a friend rescue some hives and work with his bees….and the next day, bees showed up in my sphere of protection to pollinate the flowers. The whole thing was so incredible, so magical, that upon reflection and meditation, I decided that I needed to take up beekeeping.
The other reason I wanted to take up beekeeping was that I’m very interested in long-term solutions and moving towards a sustainable future. Bees are critical partners in our continued survival as a species and as a planet. And, today, bees are under terrible duress in our lands. I wanted to cultivate a personal relationship with the bees and learn how to help them survive. So many pesticides, approved by the EPA, cause death to bees. Combining this with GMO crops that how have pesticides and insecticides written into their genetic codes, extensive loss of habitat and forage (in favor of the lawn, and you likely know how I feel about lawns), colony collapse, varrora mites, and so on…the bees are in need of some help. I wanted to contribute to the solutions and partner with the bees for my own land, and to help others in my community do the same.
Beekeeping, of course, also has substantial benefits for a homesteader! Beeswax can be made into soaps, balms, salves, and candles. Honey is one of the the greatest delights known to humanity, and having it from my own hives and own land was certainly something I was interested in! If I get a harvest this year, you can be sure that I’ll be posting about what I’ve made with the wax and honey!
But beekeeping also presented serious challenges–I’ve always been afraid of bees and stings. I wanted to help overcome that fear, face that fear, and realize just how strong I could be! I knew this was the right path because of the meditations and magical work I was doing, and I know the bees have important lessons to teach. But still, the first day, when the bees came, I was terrified. I’m growing more confident with each visit to the hive, and am realizing that the bees are incredibly gentle, amazing creatures. They are calm, they are loving, and if you nurture them, they will nurture you in return.
After deciding to move forward and partner with the bees, I needed to educate myself and make some decisions about the kind of hive and bees. All through the winter, I read books on beekeeping. I’ve read almost a dozen books at this point, watched videos, read forums and blogs, and talked to as many beekeepers as I could. I read about Warre hives, Top Bar hives, and finally, Langstroth hives. All had their benefits and drawbacks, and I wasn’t sold on any approach. That was until I discovered Ross Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. I loved this book so much, and his approach so much, mainly because Conrad sees beekeeping as a partnership, and he writes in a sacred loving manner. He argues against common beekeeping practices, like “requeening” in most cases (where you find the queen, kill her, and then replace her with a new queen) and so on. I decided to use Conrad’s approach and asked around till I found someone who had hives and bees for sale.
Preparing for the Bees’ Arrival
Your first year of beekeeping requires a pretty substantial investment as well as a lot of preparation time. The hives had to be picked up, painted, have some foundation added (I’ll post about my experimental approach to foundation for bees in a different post) and so on. Here are a few photos of my beekeeping partner and friend, Paul, and I painting our hives (and yes, as druid beekeepers, we totally painted our hives with protection and inspiration in mind!) AODA members might note the colors of the two hives :). Painting the hives, and weaving in protection, was an important part of this work. While I have many wild lands and natural foraging areas nearby, I also have neighbors who spray chemicals on their lawns–and I wanted to protect my bees from such poison.
We also had to prep the beeyard; we cut back blackberry plants and pulled some additional ones out (saving the roots for medicine). We leveled the space and sheet mulched around the hives to keep the weeds down and give us a place to work. The beeyard is in the back of the property, within view of the sacred stone circle (to the upper left in that photo, about 200 feet away).
The Bees Arrive
It was a cold day in late April when we went to pickup our bees. Nothing in bloom due to the cold spring, the temperature hovering somewhere around 45 degrees. By the time the bees arrived and we returned to my house, it was too late and too cold to put them in the hive that day. So where did we put them? The only reasonable place to put them and keep them warm–in my house, in a closet :P. Talk about overcoming one’s fear! The bees taught me my first important lesson that night–a lesson in trust. I realized the next day as we transferred them into the hives that even if they would have escaped into my house, they would not have gone far, if at all. They would have stayed in their cluster surrounding the queen. I guess in America we grow up with all sorts of assumptions, like how bees would behave if they got into your house. After working with the bees, I realize that so much of what I thought I knew about them was wrong. Its gentle lessons, like these, that develop a sacred awareness of their wisdom.
The next day, the bees finally made it into their hives. Prior to putting them in the hive, we opened up a sacred grove in which the bees could do their good work and made blessings for the hives. The bees went into the hive without incident, of course! Here’s my friend shaking the bees into their hive. They were flying about, but otherwise, were happy to have their new home.
Growth of the Hives
The hives have grown considerably since the initial 3lbs of bees were added (that’s about 3000 bees) two months ago. We had to feed them sugar syrup (and continue to do so to help give them the nutrients to build up the colony till we can add the “honey supers”). The hives are a joy each day to visit; I sit near the hives and watch the bees come in and out and spend time in meditation and observation at the hives. The clover patch in my yard and the many medicinal and culinary herbs I grow have also become favorite spots for the bees, another spot to meditate and learn the lessons of the bee. I am thrilled to see so many bees here now, and they are so joyful in their work.
Opening up the hives was scary at first, but I’ve learned a lot, and am thankful that my beekeeping partner, Paul, has a way with bees–I’ve learned much from his careful patience, diligence, and his ability to intuit the state of the hive. I brought the book knowledge to the endeavor and am hosting the hives, but it was Paul who taught me how to hear their humming, communicate, and use one’s intuition to work a hive.
Whether or not we’ll get a honey harvest this year is unclear–the bees have a lot of work to do in building their wax comb and so forth. To me, the honey is just a bonus. The real joys have been to learn the lessons of the bees–their alchemical work, transforming pollen and nectar into wax and honey. To see their dances and communication with each other. To have one land on my had and lick the sugar syrup off of it. To smell the hive when you open it–nothing smells quite like it. To work the hive knowing that the bees know you and put their trust in you. I hope to share more stories of the bees as we continue through this first year!
PS: This is my 150th post on the Druid’s Garden! How exciting!