Honeybees, Home, and the Holidays

My life with bees over the past 40 years — first as a commercial beekeeper and now as a hobbyist with a few hives in my back yard — has given me a unique lens through which to look at nature, community and the work I do for a national nonprofit, creating parks and protecting the natural places people care about.bee hives

Recently, my beekeeping activities have me thinking about the concepts of place and home.
I doubt that bees like having their hives moved any more than beekeepers like moving them. Years ago when I was a commercial beekeeper, producing honey and pollinating crops for a living, moving bees was part of the job. It was hard work. I spent many long nights loading heavy bee hives onto a flatbed truck, driving to farms in the next county or state, and then unloading the hives in apple orchards or fields of blueberries, melons, or cucumbers. I’m glad my bee-moving days are long over and that, most years, my few hives stay right in my yard.

But not this year, when I had to move my bees to do some yard work. It would have been relatively easy to carry the hives to another part of the yard and then move them back after the work was done. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work for bees. They are highly oriented to their hive’s location and navigate their way home from distant foraging trips using the sun’s position and a series of specific landmarks. They do it so well they can distinguish their hive from among a dozen identical hives in a grassy field. But move them a short distance, as little as twenty or thirty feet, and they won’t reset their orientation. They’ll continue to fly right back to where the hive used to be. They may never find the new location only a few yards away. So I needed to load them on a truck and move them several miles where they would reorient themselves to their new surroundings — and then bring them home when the yard was finished.

Beekeepers move bees at night when they are all settled in their hives. It’s hot and tiring work. The hives are often heavy with honey and it takes two people to lift and stack them on the truck and tie them down. Bees don’t fly in the dark, but they do crawl and are much more likely to sting. And bee-moves don’t always go as planned: I’ve spent many a night in the cab of a truck stuck in the mud or sand of a farmer’s field, with bees crawling everywhere (and stinging), waiting for daylight and the farmer’s tractor to pull me out. Other beekeepers have fared far worse — falling asleep at the wheel or otherwise managing to overturn truckloads of hundreds of hives.

Fortunately, this year’s nocturnal bee-move to an open hillside five miles away went smoothly. After unloading the hives, I stood there in the dark, listening to the quiet buzz as the bees crawled out on their entrance boards and fanned fresh night air into the hives. I knew that when the sun came up, the field bees would be out in force. On their first flight they would orient themselves, soaring in ever-higher and ever-wider circles above the hive to fix its location and surrounding landmarks before heading off in all directions to scour the neighborhood for nectar-producing flowers. Returning to the hives, they would dance circles and figure-eights on the honeycombs to communicate flower locations to the other bees. Honeybees have an uncanny ability to quickly inhabit a new landscape and forage the nectar and pollen they need. I knew that they would easily adjust again when I moved them back to my yard.

Moving my bees got me to thinking about the idea of “home” and how different the reality of home is for bees and for people. Having my own house loaded onto the back of a truck and dropped off in the middle of the night in some strange zip code wouldn’t work for me at all.

Home is a lot more than the structure I live in: It’s the landscape I know and my deep connections with people and nature. For bees, home is the hive: a self-contained family unit that has a wonderful and mutually beneficial relationship with nearby trees, shrubs and flowers. The large rosemary bush outside my front door or the flowering eucalyptus trees on the hillside above the yard are important nectar sources for my bees, but they’re important to me, too, for very different reasons. They are part of a deeply familiar and comforting landscape and a set of relationships that together feel like home.

Home embodies some of our deepest connections to what is most important in our lives — family, friends, community, and nature. For each of us, home is a different and complex collection of geography, relationships and stories. Home is the known and cherished landscape: the garden where we get our hands in the soil, the tree-lined street where we watch the seasons unfold and listen to birds, the park around the corner where our children play, our favorite place to watch the sunset or the bike trail along the creek. Home can also be that wild and remote place of inspiration where we return time and again to connect with nature and a presence much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. And home is also people: family, friends and the neighbors with whom we stop to chat in the hall, on the front stoop, in the street or at the farmer’s market where we can go to experience community while we buy our produce. Home is a geography of the heart, a place we hunger for, work to create, and what we wish for others.

In this holiday time of celebration, giving, and thanks, may we all feel the touch of home. May those who are displaced and in search of home, find comfort. And may we all have those moments of deep connection, so often associated with home, that take our breath away and remind us that, for all its challenges, our world is full of joy and wonder.

Happy holidays!


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