Shimer College

August 26, 2013

Beekeeping

We find ourselves, at the hive, at a fascinating interface between the human creative process and nature’s processes.
By Ed Vlcek

Look how desire has changed in you,

how light and colorless it is,

with the world growing new marvels

because of your changing.

 

Your soul has become an invisible bee.

We don’t see it working,

but there’s the full honeycomb.

 

-Rumi

 

It may seem a bit unusual for a Shimerian to choose to learn the fine art of beekeeping, but I have for years had a fascination with agriculture and the bugs that make it happen. I chose to intern as an urban beekeeper as a way to explore how we can alter the content of our daily lives, practically, in immediate (and often delicious) ways.

I started the first day of my internship with the Chicago Honey Co-op, a cooperative urban beekeeping endeavor with hives all over Chicago, by going to the thrift store. My mentor told me earlier in the week that I needed to wear light colored clothing (which he later explained had to do with the fact that throughout the evolutionary life of bees they have been attacked by animals with dark colored clothing), but I realized that I, in fact, did not have any. I searched the aisles endlessly, but couldn’t figure out what to do - should I get a long-sleeved white shirt, or a brown coat? Cotton or polyester? Unable to make the decision, I got a blue raincoat I had been meaning to get anyways, and walked away without a single piece of light colored clothing. In the end I went in the gray brown flannel I was already wearing. Maybe it was mildly offensive to the bees, but they were not immediately compelled to sting me, and it covered my arms pretty well.

The honeybee typically swarms in the spring when new brood (bee babies) is being laid. When a new queen has hatched out and challenged the authority of the old queen, the old queen leaves, and over half the hive can and often does go along with her. They will follow her wherever she goes, and this time she decided to land on a tree. Fascinatingly, the queen bee and the worker bee are genetically identical. It is only because of the ‘royal jelly’ the worker bees feed her in her development that she becomes a queen.

To clarify, all worker bees are sexually immature females. The queen is a mated, mature female, and the ‘drone’ bees are males, whose only function is to fertilize the queen. All hive and child care, including food forage, repairs, and everything else barring actual reproduction, is done by the female workers. The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, most of which are workers, who live for about 3 and a half weeks. The hive is constantly reconstituting itself, and so the swarm is a natural expanding function – a way to create more hives from a healthy queen. Some Biodynamic beekeepers suggest that swarming is so fundamental to bee life that it should be allowed to happen, but this is not a common practice. Most beekeepers are very careful to destroy queen cells before they develop larvae, and thus limit the chance of swarming.

We find ourselves, at the hive, at a fascinating interface between the human creative process and nature’s processes, as well as the poetic and the scientific. We have lived with bees for so long, and we have perhaps begun to think that we know what they need, and what is best for them. But as they provide us with the gift of honey, we forget that the bee is not a machine that can be fixed or broken – they are living like us, only in a very different way.

Something about being with bees makes one reflect on these things. Maybe it is the hardly audible humming, or their peaceful nature, or maybe it’s the hot sun, but every day I spend with the bees I feel a little more centered. My guide is in some ways the same as them – he has something of a bee nature, and his way of approaching the world easily rubs off.

 

-Ed Vlcek