HONEYBEESA visit to Deirdre Imus' page talked about the value and problems of bees. Written a few years ago, here's my essay.
THE DESERT AFTERNOONS SLIP BY, LIKE GOLDEN HONEY DRIPPING FROM A SPOON. Drawn to the blue rapture of rosemary in bloom, the bees stay close. I hear their buzzing in the garden, then watch, as inflamed with pollen, they fly away to spin their energy into a treasure comb of miracle.
Insects bearing gifts, bees pollinate crops, fruit and wildflowers, to play a life-giving role in sustaining our healthy eco-system. It’s been their business for ages. The flight of bees reaches back to ancient times, illustrated by Pliny the Elder’s tribute to the organization of bees in his encyclopedic volume, Naturalis Historia. Long ago in Rhodes, brides dipped their fingers in honey before entering their new home. During the Roman Empire, citizens could pay their taxes with honey, instead of gold. In Egypt and the Middle East, people embalmed the dead with honey, of particular interest to me since my father was a mortician.
It’s indisputable that bees and honey have left their mark on spiritual tradition. In the Bible’s Old Testament, Matthew 3:4, tells of John the Baptist living in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey, while in the Book of Judges, (14.8) Samson finds a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of a lion.
In Jewish tradition, honey is the symbol of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Apple slices dipped in honey celebrate the anticipated sweetness to come. Buddhist monks receive honey during the festival of Madhu Parnima, a practice that commemorates Buddha’s retreat, seeking peace with his disciples. The legend states that while away, a monkey brought him honey and thus began the tradition. Regarding Islam, there is an entire Surah in the Holy Qur’an called the Honey Bee and according to hadith, Prophet Muhammad strongly recommended honey for healing purposes.
Inside a rocky cave in Valencia, Spain, Eva Crane discovered evidence of a Middle Stone Age painting. Her book, Archaeology of Beekeeping, finds humans hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago. The artwork shows two female honey-hunters collecting the sweetness from a high bee hive. The women, depicted in the nude, carry baskets and use a long, wobbly ladder to reach the wild nest.
Dwelling on the illustrious history of bees makes reading about their recent mysterious disappearances truly distressing. Millions of honeybees have disappeared, as Western hives suffer from colony collapse disorder. Articles blame mites, malnutrition, pesticides and cell phones, with the mites receiving the most scientific attention.
Fortunately, worldwide research rises to protect the honeybees. It’s discovered that some Russian varieties are resistant to the destructive mites. Organic beekeepers also claim success in keeping their hives buzzing with activity. Spanish researchers isolate the parasitic fungi that invades hives with disastrous results. When treated with an antibiotic, the bees completely recover.
At our first Tucson home, a black mass shaped like a football appeared in the low sky and swarmed around our scraggly orchard of fruit trees. We stood a distance away, as this dark, traveling beehive floated here and there, looking for a place to land. The thought of honey produced in our back yard intrigued us, but since our arrival in the Southwest, the innocent Arizona honeybees merged with the Africanized type. Even appreciating their place in nature, the close presence of bees more aggressive and sometimes dangerous, flashed a worrisome note. I thought of the naked women in the rock art and admitted I was not a honey gatherer of that courageous type. When the bees in the orchard swam through the air to find a better home, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Years later, in a new house, another swarm arrived, to nest inside the hole of a saguaro outside our back wall. The cactus stood tall, a sentinel guarding the swimming pool. Cautiously, we watched the bees gradually establish ownership of our backyard, dipping regularly into the pool to seek a drop or two of moisture. We chose a path of peaceful co-existence and whenever possible, avoided them, knowing that now all Arizona bees are called the killer kind.
With grandkids scheduled to visit, I remembered the beesting I’d suffered years ago in our Nebraska pool. The image of kids splashing in the water, hovered over by ever-present killer bees made us reach for the phone. Rather than risk grandkids’ stings from riled up insects, we called the University of Arizona Agriculture Division. Soon, a well-garbed, head covered team arrived to remove the mass from the saguaro hole.
Eventually, the bees returned, bringing their electrostatic charges and voicing their authority. Now, they rustle about when I seek the cool water, buzzing my head. Since I live on this property too, I swim regularly, but with a costume change. Submerged in the pool, I wear a large purple sunhat to protect my head from curious bees. The Cone of Silence, my kids named the hat, after the old TV show, Get Smart. Every time I think of Agent 99 as my alter identity, I laugh, but cling to my practical solution of safety.
We can’t escape them. In symbol and reality, bees and honey exist everywhere. Shoppers choose from orange blossom, mesquite, rum truffle honey or other wildflower variations. Loved ones are called, “hon” and “honey” or in the musical South Pacific, the affectionate “honeybun”. Turning the pages of our kids’ favorite book, I once again enjoy Winnie The Pooh’s affection for that sweet stickiness. I fondly recall the lyrics of the first song our son Judd learned as a little boy after hearing Burl Ives. It began, “The buzzing of the bees in the sycamore trees.”
As the heat of the sun drips thoughts of bees and honey into my desert hours, the buzzing sound of approaching visitors reaches my ear. I think of apple trees. Peach trees. Almonds and alfalfa. Cabbage. Onion. Pumpkin. Cotton and soybeans. These industrious insects pollinate a long, remarkable list that covers two-thirds of the globe’s major crops. Out of respect, I tip my purple Cone of Silence hat to the bees that bless the delicate balance of our good earth with their good work.