Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the
Needs of the Many
As regular readers will know, I am the proud keeper of four hives of
honey bees. I studied bee-keeping at school; because I refused to do
needlework or cookery and wanted to do woodwork or metalwork, the school compromised and allowed me to do rural science instead. That afternoon lesson was the saviour of my third year at high school,
because I could enjoy doing something practical, and I loved working
with the bees. My husband does a lot more with the bees, being more
confident than I, but usually our weekly bee inspection is split
between the two of us. One smokes while the other inspects frames and then we swap over.
This week we did our usual routine, and this morning, on the stairs I
spotted a stowaway. One of the bees had come home with us. Now, our hives are over three miles away and clearly this was one tired and
disorientated bee. I put her in a jar with a blob of honey and left
her to feed. When I came back, she’d nearly drowned in the honey so I had to rescue her with a pen she clung to. Some hours later, she’d
cleaned all the honey off herself and was ready to go home. I put her
in my water bottle with the cap on loosely so air could get in and
she’s gone off with my husband to be dropped off at the farm on his
way somewhere else.
Now I can hear what some of you are saying. All that fuss for one bloody bee? I know. Every time we open a hive for inspection we kill a few bees no matter how careful we are; a hive at full strength has over fifty thousand bees in various stages of their bee careers, and there are casualties all the time. We even managed to kill one queen, so some of yesterday’s work was reducing the thirty or so queen cells
the bees had produced down to one good one so we didn’t end up with lots of new queens each flying off with a retinue, taking our hive
down to nothing. It hurt me to destroy those half made queens but for the sake of keeping a healthy colony thriving, it had to be done.
Bees are the ultimate social creature; theirs is an almost perfect
society. Each worker is born knowing what to do; the first thing they
do when they hatch is clean out their cell so it is ready for the
queen to lay another egg in. They go through various stages as they
live, starting out working in the nurseries first, tending to eggs
and grubs, then making wax and building cells, then finally going out
to forage for nectar and pollen. A worker bee in her days as a
forager might make a scant teaspoonful of honey. One bee makes little or no difference; it’s the sheer numbers that make them successful. A solitary honey bee is a lonely thing; she is lost without her sisters and her function. The chances are they will not even notice her missing. And yet, I grieve for every bee I accidentally kill, for
those that have stung me and will therefore die (fact: human skin is
the only skin that bees cannot withdraw their sting from. Bears and
badgers can be stung repeatedly without ill effect to the bees;
humans cause the stinger to die, ripped more or less in half)
There are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet. Seven billion individuals. It’s an astonishing figure. Imagine: that many people all with needs and wants and thoughts and feelings and dreams. Some are starving to death, others dying of diseases caused by excess. Each and every one has the same value as another, and yet, when tens of thousands die half way across the world, we cannot
comprehend it. It takes a single human interest story to engage us;
we cannot relate to thousands, or even hundreds. We can barely relate one-to-one.
The gift of that single bee I found on my stairs is to remind me that
each is precious and worth saving, and that if I make no effort at
all with one, I cannot hope to care for thousands. It might make me a
slow bee-keeper, unfocussed on harvesting the golden glory of the
bee-people’s hard labour, but I think it might make me a better human being.