I thought it would be appropriate for our first honey bee blog of the season to answer the question, "Why Keep Honey Bees?" Many people who have never kept bees think the answer to this question is obvious - honey. The more a person digs into beekeeping, they will see the benefits of honey bees as pollinators for their gardens or for commercial crops. Some people become interested in bees for their other products such as wax, pollen, propolis, and venom. When you begin to learn more about bees, you might be interested simply because they are so absolutely fascinating. It wasn't until I conducted my first solo hive check that I realized why I would never tire of keeping honey bees.
I start my time with the bees sitting on a bench outside the greenhouse and get the smoker started. I haven't found my perfect mix for keeping the smoker going (all beekeepers will tell you something different), so this part of the inspection is still an experiment. I add newspaper, wood chips, burlap, leaves, whatever I have readily available that day and set a match to it. The smell of the smoke is different depending on the fuel, but it always leaves the same summer campfire smell on my clothes. I grab a hive tool and a veil to go with the smoker, and start walking to the hives. Along the way I note wildflowers - purple, yellow, white - most of which I vow to come back and identify later and many of which are sporting busy honey bees. I greet them as I continue to walk to their hives. The boardwalk brings a dappled sun in contrast to the bright path I've just left. The boardwalk path is surrounded by ferns and jewelweed growing in soft mud dotted with the tracks of raccoons and moles. Beyond the edges, insects and birds dart in and out of the tall grasses and flowers in the marshy field. Looking up I am surprised to notice individual trees rather than the wall of green I used to see before I started my daily walks to the hives.
When I reach the sunny part of the boardwalk off of which the hives reside, I put on my veil and step into the bee field. I begin my inspection by marveling at the bees on the "front porch" of the hive. Some bees are sitting out on the porch to greet the many bees that are coming in with bellies full of nectar and legs full of pollen. A few bees are waving their abdomens in the air to send a scent that draws the foraging bees back home. Sometimes on a very hot day many bees crowd the entrance to take a breather from the 95 degree core of the hive. I open a corner of the cover, and the propolis the bees have lined the hive with gives with a crack. I puff in a little smoke to move the bees further into the hive so I can open it without any casualties. I pull out each frame, one at a time, carefully, deliberately. When handling the hive, I cannot think about things that have happened that day or things that I need to do later. I must be present, aware of where my fingers land, aware of where I move my feet so I don't trip and drop a frame full of bees, aware of the proximity of the bees around me, aware of their mood. I pull out each frame and look at it closely with the sun to my back. I smile when I see eggs and small shiny larvae because that means the hive is healthy. I am amazed at the many different colors pollen comes in. I sneak a taste of honey fresh and hot off the comb. It feels like a privilege to find the queen, marked with a blue dot to make her easier for the beekeeper to see. I carefully put each frame back where it came from and ease the whole thing back together. I gently slide the covers on, take a step back, and suddenly realize that the world is still there. I have been so engrossed in the hive that everything else around me has fallen away. I wasn't grumbling about my bad morning or mulling over the things I have to get done before 4:00. I wasn't worrying over the oil creeping up to our southern coasts or the terrorist that tried to bomb Times Square. I was there, in the moment, taking part in the work of the honey bee that has been perfect for thousands of years. And when I step away from them I realize why I keep coming back. It is simply for the feeling that blankets me when I step away from the hive and look back at the trees, the tall grasses, the ferns, the flowers. Peace.