For each of the past three school days, I added a pause to the typical after school routine. Formerly, we'd arrive home and jump right into homework, grading, dinner prep, or whatever the evening required. But this week, I took a few moments after arriving home to head out into the backyard to watch the bees. It's a very calming and centering moment, watching the bees leave and arrive, much like watching fish in a tank, really. The older worker bees leave the hive, taking their funny little bee steps and then suddenly, they take flight without preamble. Other workers are returning with nectar or water, or my favorite to note, pollen. Pollen with some other secret bee ingredients is fed to the larvae (beekeepers call this 'bee bread'). The bees returning from foraging with pollen carried in 'buckets,' hairy receptacles found of their hind legs. Right now the pollen they're bringing in is white, or yellow, or bright orange. Earlier, it was mostly yellow or purple.
Pollen buckets, aka pollen pants:
It's fascinating to watch a species that works so communally. Each worker bee, throughout the course of its life, cycles through a series of jobs. Each of these jobs is for the good of the whole hive and many of the jobs that a bee performs does not actually benefit that individual bee. And from my human perspective, it seems that the bees perform these tasks without complaint or expectation of reward. Even when the new bees emerge after pupating, they begin to clean the cell they were just in to prepare it for another egg to be laid by the queen. These young worker bees, sometimes called house bees, feed the young larvae and help make honey. They guard the hive, make honeycomb, and help the foragers by removing their pollen and storing it in cells. They eventually, toward the end of their life cycle, leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen which will feed the next generation of bees. The worker bees also act as undertakers, removing any bees that die in the hive. On Friday afternoon I witnessed this, and even captured on video, two bees pulling a bee carcass out of the entrance and one of the bees flying away with it to dispose of it.
Bring out yer dead!
This sense of absolute devotion to community rarely exists in the human world. We certainly have our moments of selflessness, our acts of generosity and heroism, but notice that we humans sometimes reward these unusual acts with honors and awards because they are out of the ordinary. Our sense of individuality trumps our collective best interest more often than not. If we can learn anything from the bees, perhaps it should be that there are sweet rewards when we can find it in ourselves to work together for the common good without the expectation of what's-in-it-for-me.
A second lesson I’ve learned from the hive is not to neglect wonder. Two months ago, all I knew about honeybees was that they produce honey. Ever since we impulsively acquired this hive, I’ve been obsessively reading and learning all I can about them. I’ve gotten some flak from some people, but to each her own. I don’t expect anyone else to get as excited about bees as I am. I don’t get excited about some of the more conventionally acceptable obsessions of our society, like football, television shows, or Disneyland. But here is what stuns me: there are incredible worlds within our world, most of which we walk on by and fail to notice. But new worlds are awakening my senses, and it’s fascinating how much I still have to learn at my age. Caring about bees has made me look more closely at flowers. And I look at all kinds of bugs and spiders with interest now. I’ve been thumbing through Audubon’s wildflower and insect identification guides. I am learning the naming of things. I am learning to wonder.