TW warning for abuse survivors
The bees have already begun to enter out of hibernation as the flowers bud from the earth. There is an increasing range of activity at their entrance that flows more fluidly. The last I saw my bees was in August when I tucked them in for winter and wished them a temporary farewell. Now that the days are becoming longer and warmer, it's time that I open the girls back up and check to see how I can best care for them. However, before I go to open their hive the first thing I must do is ask the bees permission to enter and receive their consent.
"But how do you get the bee's permission if they cannot speak?"
Reading the hive
Who said anything about bees not being able to speak? The bees are constantly talking to all of us. You just have to be willing to listen and learn how to understand their language. Bees are excellent communicators, some of the best in the animal kingdom. They use sounds, body language, scent, and a variety of other modalities to communicate. I've been beekeeping for 5 seasons now and it's been a journey learning how to decipher the hive and read their behavior. I've made many mistakes but the lesson I carry away with is that each opening of the hive is a learning opportunity.
Like learning any new language the key is repetitiveness and emergence. The more I was allowed permission to enter the hive the more I was able to code what they were saying and how to respond to their needs.
Why consent is important to me
When I first began to keep bees I would wear a full suit, head to toe because I feared being stung. After a while, the more I built a relationship with the bees the more that fear turned into respect. Piece by piece layers of gear begun to come off as the walls in my heart came down as well.
Everyone feared for my safety going into the hive, but little did they know that the most dangerous place I could be turned out to be one of the safest. There was an empowerment I felt knowing that nobody would come near me when I had a frame full of bees. They felt like my true protection and made me feel indestructible. Once again I had space to play, have wonderment, and curiosity. I could make mistakes and know that it would be okay. Bees are incredibly resilient and know how to reregulate. They became my teacher in showing me how to mirror this for my own body and mind.
Prior to, as an abuse survivor, the way I carried my body left me not wanting to be seen or touched in fear of provoking unwanted attention. I began to hunch my spine because when I stood up tall or pushed my shoulders back I feared I was 'showing off' too much. I was afraid of the stigma placed on a lot of survivors that leads them to believe they did something to cause and deserve their abuse. I had my body used against me in an unwanted way and was not too sure how to use my body before I began to keep bees. As their bee tender, I saw I had a decision to make towards developing what type of beekeeper I wished to be.
I noticed early on that I had a few options in how I wanted to define my bee practice. When you begin to keep bees you have to decide on what type of beekeeper you wish to be and what feels aligned with your morals and ethics. I could be like the commercial farmer who puts on a suit and uses smoke to stampede my way through a hive and penetrate their inner sanctum...or I could be the type of beekeeper who romances them and learns how to become invited in.
As I opened the hive I had an opportunity to reassociate how I experienced the sensation of danger in my body. I could recreate connotations associated with pleasure, rather than pain. I was able to tell my body that I was 'safe' and 'nothing was going to happen' as I handled a hive while 60,000 bees flew around me. I felt empowered as I entered out of this fight or flight response in my head and into deeper relational space with the body.
There is a misunderstanding about bees which leads us to fear or avoid them. We know we must "save the bees" but we don't know from what, how, or why. Often people's only association with bees is with their honey, something they produce, or their bodies which can cause pain if provoked. Bees, when romanced, are gentle. They want to invite you into their hive because they are wonderful teachers.
Working intimately with their hive, I've been able to open those stigmas placed on the bees and see that there is more to their narrative which has been perpetuated in our society. They are gentle creatures who do not want to sting. No life loving bee wants to sting you! However, she will if threatened. When I began to expose my skin I realized I had to move at a different phase than the one I was working at so they do not feel threatened by my presence.
When I open the hive I want my presence to be seen as an extension of them which is to enhances their natural essence.
Too often bees are seen as a commodity and something to dispose of, but I knew I wanted to be the type of earth guardian that works to preserve as many bees as possible to help regenerate our planet. I began to move my body differently, standing tall and dancing with the bees.
We've already seen the way that bees have been managed has NOT been working. As a survivor of abuse, I know what it was like being vulnerable at the hands of someone abusing their authority and power for self-gratification. Walking away from it, I KNOW that ultimately that is never power. It is never a strength, nor is it ever sustainable. We need another system. Anything rooted in non-consensual abuse will not work, even when dealing with our environment.
That is why I began to keep bees and advocate on behalf of them by proposing a new way of preserving bees which are rooted in consent and regenerative conservation.
Every time I opened my hive, I felt as though I was opening pandora's box. Beekeeping became a therapeutic tool to feel through the rage I felt done onto the bees and onto my own body. My past became a tool in how I understood the bee's secret language and could hear their cry which was begging for another way of being tended to. It better equipped me in knowing how they are needing to be nurtured, not managed.
I felt this holy rage when I began to lose my hive and see firsthand the problem our earth has on its hands facing Bee Colony Collapse Disorder. I'm asked all the time if bees are really in danger and I'm here to say... YES. They are. We have a problem and we won't be able to solve it unless we curate a new solution. I have been losing my bees not because I was being a bad beekeeper, but because of pests and diseases from years of mismanagement and land use. I felt rage that I was dealing with the repercussions of other's poor choices and decisions to abuse their power. This wasn't my fault or had anything to do with me, yet here I was dealing with the weight of the ramifications of other's improper choices. So what now? What could be the solution?
The very answer was in the problem. Choice.
Provide a different choice, show that there is another way to keep bees and that there is an option rooted in consent. Demonstrate that choice is power and you can work collaboratively with nature rather than taking from it or one another.
How do we ask the bees for consent?
When doing an inspection it's proper to go in with an intention and to know why you're going to do an inspection. We've all heard the saying, "Curiosity killed the ct." Well... the same goes for the bees. You should never open your hive for the sake of opening it, you need to have an intention or purpose. Are you looking for egg development= queen health? Are you checking to see if your hive needs repairs or improvements? Adding a box or frame? Looking for honey production? Doing pest prevention? Regardless of what you are intending to do, tell the bees.
Before I go to inspect I sit down and do a few things
- I review my notes/data recorded from the last inspection.
- Look over any journal entries, reviewing what may have come up for me from the last inspection or the duration in between inspections.
- Give gratitude to the bees and provide an offering (lay flowers, give them some honey or wax, recite a poem I wrote for them, etc.)
- Then I explain what my intention is for opening them up and what I wish for my presence to be for the hive.
- Then I wait and read the hive, feeling and observing for their answer.
I do a body scan tapping into each of my senses to notice which of them are picking up on how the bees are choosing to communicate that day.
Do I smell warm honey coming from the hive? That will lead me to infer maybe their honey production is going well and a harvest is needed. In my experience when I smell that sweet, warm honey smell it is associated with docile bee behavior. This is because they feel less threatened and stressed knowing that they have enough supplies to sustain their colony. They are not in a scarcity mindset and I have found them to be more accepting of my presence. I don't always smell that warm honey scent, so when I do, I take it as a welcoming invitation to enter.
Some of the times I will close my eyes and try to tune into my other senses such as hearing. What do I hear? What are the bees saying to me? What does their song sound like for the day? One day they have a light flowing vibration as they move in and out of the hive at a consistent motion. Other times it may be more aggressive and sound like a battle zone as they work together to fight off invading forces such as wasps or robber bees.
If I am wanting to use my ears to try to find the queen or check to see if my bees are still in the hive in the winter I will place my ear to the box-and listen... I'll start from the bottom boxes and work my way up. I can usually pick up what side the queen is on based on the clicks and mass vibration that swarms around her. It sounds more muffled and during the winter I can detect where in the hive they are based on where I hear them collecting.
I try to use my sight last, but it the most reliable way to see if you have the consent of the hive. I'll open my eyes to check on the entrance of the hive and observe what their flow looks like coming in and out. If it is fluid and flows like a flower in the wind, then I know it's a good day for an inspection. If the guard bees are active but not attacking, then I know they are going to be calmer and welcome me.
However, if at the entrance there is a high pitch and collection of bees that are forming a ball, then I know it's a battle zone. They are more than likely pulling out a wasp or a robber bee. I know my presence will only trigger their defense mechanisms and ultimately lead me to get stung. Bellow, you can hear and observe the difference in the bee's behavior and tell what mood they are in.
Good mood, less agitated, and not feeling threatened by invaders or robbers. Would probably be a good day to open the hive!
Bad mood, more aggressive, and in defensive mode. Probably not a good day to do an inspection and should wait.
If I'm sitting too close to the hive and they are having a bad day one of the guard bees will come and give me the warning to back up. She will hover by my face, park it, then vibrate in a higher- more threatening pitch. If that doesn't scare me away then she will do a warning circle flight pattern. She will come to hover by my face or give me a warning tap, if I don't back up then she most certainly will sting. However, if I obey her threat and back up then she will retreat. In her warning circle flight, she will do a circle and each time widen her radius the more I step backward away from the hive. She will go back to her hive only when she thinks I have backed up an appropriate distance from the hive. Other times... they may just go in for the kill without giving a warning.
Just like us, bees can have bad days too.
Bee sting I got on my nose in 2019. I was sitting and observing my hive. They were having a bad day and were not wanting visitors.
While it's important to have an intention and goal when going to give an inspection, it's vital to understand that not everything is going according to the agenda. There have been times when I have gone in to give an inspection and I have gotten a no.
Learning to keep bees has been a journey in reconnecting with my senses. After a while, you develop a 6th sense of some sort. You get familiar with the bees and their needs. You begin to trust your intuition and 'gut' feeling.
The days that I didn't respect the bees 'no' were the days that I got stung or made really bad mistakes in the hive. I like to believe that every living thing wants to have a choice. By helping to provide choice for the bees, simultaneously, it helped me heal from all the times that I felt my own power of choice was taken.
Bees' survival is becoming more and more threatened each year. There is a compound of reasons as to what has contributed to bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) all funnel down to anthropogenic, human-caused, behavior.
Honeybees throughout cultures have been idolized and worshiped because of the significance of their contribution to both humanity and our ecosystem. It is in recent years that they have been seen as a commodity and as something disposable or replaceable. But, in reality, they are not and beekeepers like myself are losing their colonies due to improper beekeeping techniques.
In a field compiled of predominantly male, it is important to me to expand the gatekeeping within the beekeeping community.
Bees are a society of female workers (female relating to the biological anatomy- not gender.) Yet, they are managed by a patriarchal system that has been reinforced by western colonization. In my practice of ecological restorative justice, I work to help others see an alternative way of interacting with nature.
Earth as our lover, not our mother
A mother expects nothing in return for the love that they give, it is purely unconditional. Humanity has been taking from earth and its resources for granted, believing they are infinite. However, the earth is not like our mother; it's more like a lover and its resources are finite. A lover needs replenishment for what they give. They need an exchange and to feel as though they are in a partnership that is balanced.
Just as you ask another for consent before entering or playing with their body, you need to ask bees before you open the hive and expose their vulnerabilities to the outside world. Being a beekeeper is a huge responsibility, it's up to you what you choose for yourself in becoming the type of earth guardian you wish to be.