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A long, skinny, bundle of hopeful bees

I had almost forgotten. But the second the sound reached my ears, memories flooded in: The sound and the controlled frenzy of thousands of bee bodies in the air, the sight of them moving like an amorphous amber cloud across the yard, then up high, high into the air and down again to settle in my neighbor’s maple tree just a few feet above my head.

The first swarm of the year is not just the bees’ rebirth but mine, too; that precise moment that I step out of a long, cold winter and into the promise of the sun and all that she bestows upon this good, green Earth. Standing before a swarm, my hands tingle, my breath quickens, my eyes flash a little bit of fire.

It was our first warm day in the Northwest, the first day my bees could possibly be thinking of swarms and sun and flying queens and amorous drones. My Gobnait hive wasted not a moment of the morning before suddenly spiraling into the sky, throwing fate to the wind, and trusting the benevolence of the world to guide her to a new home. How quickly it all happens, such a huge and profound risk for the departing bees. Yet I know the planning happens weeks and weeks before the bees leave. Such enormous undertakings are not enacted on the spur of the moment, no matter how much it looks like that from outside the hive.

Accompanied by my neighbor Eric, the artist/biker/best-ever neighbor, and carrying bee gear, a ladder and my largest skep we set down our tools beneath Gobnait’s beautiful swarm that hung like a long pour of molasses from the maple’s lowest-hanging branch.

Eric said, “How can I help?”

“Take pictures, please!” I said. “It’s something I always forget to do.” I looked at my bee hat and veil on the ground and pondered putting it on. Gobnait is my most defensive hive. But I hate the feeling of screening between me and the bees, so I left it lay in case I needed it.

The ladder was sturdy enough, and it was easy to clip the two thin branches that were holding the swarm. I climbed carefully down as the swarm began inching upward, bees engulfing my bare hand.

When I gently shook the branch over my upturned step, the bees dropped in like water, then rose like a honey-colored geyser into the air. “What happens now?” Eric asked, phone camera clicking away.

“Now we watch and wait. If the queen is inside the skep, the bees will let us know she is there by ‘fanning’ with their tails in the air. They are wafting out a ‘come home!’ scent. See? Look at that mass of bees on the edge of the skep. See how they all have their tails pointed in the air, their wings buzzing so fast you can’t see them? This is all good, all good.”

We sat on the concrete path near the hive and watched. Eric said, “I’ve never been this close to thousands of bees before. It is just amazing. If I’d have stumbled upon this on my own, I’d have been terrified.”

Climbing down with my precious bundle…

To all those who say swarms are scary, and beekeepers who allow their bees to swarm are bad neighbors, I say swarms are the most perfect teaching moment. No one who sits beside a swarm and learns even just a tiny bit from the beekeeper collecting them will ever see bees the same again. They will be transformed into a state of wonder whenever they recall that moment of sound and scent and thousands of gentle bees moving, humming, and working together. Twenty-thousand bee bodies, one inscrutable mind joining them all together in unity. It changes you to see such a thing, and in a good way.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, the bees began to settle into my large upturned skep. They condensed into a small cloud circling the hive. They took a long time to settle. After weeks of rain and cold, I believe they were so elated with the 80-degree weather that they just wanted to fly and sing.

Whatever I had planned for the day was over. On swarm days, I am too filled with wonder to give up a moment of this magic. This day, I simply gave myself over to this new, wondrous being in her first moments of birth.

Swarming is something healthy bees do in the spring. Come the warmth and sun, the hive’s Queen begins laying eggs, making thousands of new bees in time for the major flower blooms coming very soon. But the colony also reproduces in another way: a swarm is when the Queen and about a half of the colony’s population takes off to find a new home, essentially birthing a brand new hive. The Queen lays queen eggs before she leaves the hive so that the old colony can create a new Queen. So, the swarm takes the old Queen to a new home. The remaining colony makes a new Queen but keeps the old home intact and thriving.

An hour or more ago, this new being was “Gobnait,” living in another of my smaller skeps. Now, by a process of natural alchemy, she has become someone else. She has split apart like an amoeba or a starfish leg, and both parts are moving forward into their new forms. Gobnait will need to create a new Queen. The new being is now housed in a skep named “Genesis.” Genesis has a lot to do now: make comb, gather nectar, organize this new living space that is set up clear on the other side of where Gobnait sits in a modified, shaded greenhouse.

My three new straw hives being covered with cow dung to protect them. Genesis hive is on the far left.

It’s been five years since I got my first hive. I was telling my husband John Carter that this spring, I feel like I’ve “settled in” with bees. The restless agitation, sense of clumsy bumbling, the anxiety that used to grip me every winter as I wondered if my bees would survive till spring—all this unsettled emotion is, for the most part, gone. I walk more in trust now. Trust that my body knows instinctively how to behave around the bees. Trust that my hands know just how to scoop a handful of bees off of a tree branch, that my breathing knows to become still when working around my hives. Trust that the bees know what they need and how to get it—or how to let me know when they need my help.
It feels wonderful, this new sense of ease and confidence with my bees, and with myself in relationship with them. I have so much more to learn, but the nervousness that comes with inexperience has thankfully left.

The sun is beginning her warm descent into the ocean. Gobnait and Genesis—twin souls of different mothers—are quieting for the evening. I am still in a fuzzy state of rapture, the sound of humming still in my ears and the sight of the Genesis bees slowly floating in front of the entrance of their new home etched behind my eyelids.

Now I can say aloud what I have been quietly recognizing these past four years: Bees have become my spiritual practice. I realize the full force of their impact on my heart on wonder-filled days like today where the bees invite me—as Spirit invites me—to step into a dimension beyond time and ego, where delight and love wait patiently for me. The bees call me to be more than myself, to be my best self.

Genesis in her new home

To be with my bees—safely—requires me to be in the present moment, to be still, quiet, to reach out to the bees with my heart so as to better understand their connection with me, and mine with them. More than this, they ask me to step into their presence filled only with love.

If each person who entered a church or synagogue or mosque entered there with the same frame of mind I conjure when I enter my bee garden, we would have peace on Earth by next week. We would have true religion. Perhaps this—more than the finest honey—is the gift of the bees: To simply call us home to wonder and love. They doused me with that today—wonder and love. Welcome home, Genesis.