As someone who was allergic to bees as a child, I spent most of my life afraid of stinging insects. Although I outgrew the allergy as an adult, I continued to panic, move too fast, and release a frenzy of fear pheromones every time a stinging insect was nearby. Of course, my behavior just made them that much more interested. It wasn’t until I met Susan Foster, a hobbyist beekeeper in Beverly, Massachusetts, that my attitude changed.
Long before the scientific community became concerned about colony collapse and the diminishing bee population, Foster advocated for hobbyist bee-keeping. A lifelong gardener, as well as a beekeeper, she was quick to inform me that one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and that the humble little honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of it. But bees are also important to other food sources, such as livestock, because cattle consume alfalfa, which depends on bees for pollination. As I listened, I realized that I had it all wrong. It wasn’t the presence of bees that should make me panic, but their absence.
I learned that the idiom “busy as a bee” is far more accurate than I had imagined. The typical hive needs to fly about 90,000 miles—roughly three flights around the earth—to collect one kilogram of honey. In order to communicate the location of nectar, pollen, water sources, and potential locations for new hives, worker (or “forager”) bees return from their searches and perform a series of movements. Their direction and duration, known as the “waggle dance,” corresponds to the location of food, water and future hive sites. The more excited the forager bee is about what it discovered, the more it waggles in an attempt to convince the other bees to check it out. I couldn’t help thinking about how something similar happens when we discover a great new restaurant and can’t stop talking about it. All the talk creates a “buzz.” I began to recognize that we had more in common with these social insects than I realized.
As I watched Foster handle her bees, I realized that the magic of beekeeping isn’t just in the sweet reward of honey or in the opportunity to observe bees firsthand. It’s also in the relationship between the bees and the beekeeper. Bees react to rapid movements and even the pheromones we release when we feel fear. So beekeepers need to possess a Zen-like calmness and quiet confidence near bees. Foster’s movements were gentle, steady, and focused, without a hint of anxiety. Nonetheless, my own habit of feeling fear around bees prompted me to ask her if she was ever afraid. “Of what?” she teasingly answered, but then quickly acknowledged that it wasn’t always easy not to feel afraid. She admitted that learning to control her emotions was as much a part of the process as learning about hives, gear, and bee health.
After a day spent watching bees and sampling honey, Foster asked if I was ready to start my own hive. Despite my newly discovered enthusiasm for beekeeping, and my life-long love of honey, I confessed I was worried that I might slip back into feeling afraid, the bees would sense it, and sting me. “So what if they do,” Foster replied. “You’re not allergic anymore. Get stung. Let the bees teach you something about yourself. It’s a lot cheaper than therapy. Plus you get the honey.” Foster’s advice lingered with me over the winter, and I hope to be ordering my first hive this spring.
Note: “A Hive of Your Own,” is dedicated to Susan Foster, who passed away unexpectedly