I am morbidly afraid of wasps. As I teenager I was chased around a lake one fateful summer’s day after stepping near a nest of ground wasps. I endured so many painful stings from the horrible little creatures that the fear of them has never left me. To this day should a wasp decide to investigate what I am having for dinner, I quickly vacate the area with a surprising amount of embarrassing gesticulation and loud screeching. (It wreaks havoc with my credibility as a calm, controlled nature lover, I can tell you.)
I have also stepped on my fair share of clover-seeking honey bees with the bare feet of childhood (and gone crying into the house for the ubiquitous paste of baking soda and water) yet strangely feel no such hostility towards the humble honey bee. Perhaps the difference between these two buzzing cousins was made very clear to me during those formative years; one stings to defend its life or colony, one stings for fun and profit. I know that any entomologist worth his or her salt might take umbrage at my blatant prejudice, but there it is.
Since the very first days in our current home, we have had no shortage of flying pollinators. My son affectionately named our front garden “The National Bee-topia” in honor of the hundreds of bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees and yellow jackets that kept constant doting attendance upon the flowers. As a determined gardener, I have cultivated a high level of tolerance as I brush past them to clip a stray stem of leucanthemum, or trim a lavender hedge. They are always unconcerned, and merely alight upon the next floral temptress.
With pollinators to spare, it might seem strange that three years ago, I decided to keep bees. Becoming a bee-keeper had never featured high on my list of life-priorities. In fact, I remember sitting down with our realtor years ago and listening with amazement when he told us with pride that he kept bees. The only question I could think to ask was, “Why?” Even when he gifted us a few jars of exquisite honey, the question still remained unanswered in my mind. Why not let someone else take the (surely) numerous stings and the anxiety and the work and the heat? Why not go down to the health food store and throw money at the problem? Why keep bees yourself? It never occurred to me that the “bug” to keep bees would ever bite me…but it did.
Perhaps I watched one-too-many period films with quaint straw skep hives buzzing in the back of overflowing flower gardens; perhaps it was the thought of all that honey dripping lusciously from sun warmed combs. In hindsight it probably had more to do with the simple fact that a friend started to keep bees and encouraged me to try it myself. By that time, it seemed like the natural extension to a vegetable and flower garden, and with a little help, a class or two, and a lot of reading, I became a bee-keeper – although I wasn’t quite sure what we would do with all that honey.
Fast forward a few years to a family that eats this golden manna by the bucketful. We bake with it, we put in on cereal, it coats our toast and flavors our homemade ice cream. We couldn’t stop now if we wanted to. And after the first year, my husband came to the conclusion that he too should have a hand in this bee-keeping endeavor. At first we had a few…er…disagreements over the management of our bees. But in the end we decided to stay married and just separate our hives. His now occupy our garden and I keep mine at a friend’s place outside town. Luckily we’re more in harmony when it comes to raising our children.
I hear many points of view when visitors realize what constitutes the family pet at the Willburn home. Many are very interested in the complex relationships that bees share with one another, and the fact that all workers are female. Others wonder if I am concerned about the various difficulties that plague the bee-keeper; pesticide use, pollution, Colony Collapse Disorder, DreamWorks Animation to name but a few. Some good-naturedly report that they saw “my bees” on their clover last week and still others inform me that all “bees” are the same, be they wasp or bumble. I assure them that there are far too many varieties of bees flying around to have mine feature too prominently in their landscapes, and that a honey-bee bears about as much resemblance to a wasp as Mrs. Tiggy Winkle does to a hedgehog, but as a bee-keeper, one seems to be responsible for all flying insects within a five mile vicinity – it just comes with the job.
And now with the first warming rays of spring, it’s time to don the suit and light the smoker once again. The bees are waking up to a new year, and the age-old quest for nectar and pollen has begun. So if you should see one or two lingering in your lunaria, don’t be afraid. Take a moment to watch them gracefully flit from flower to flower, ever busy, ever buzzing. Spring is here – there is honey to be made, pollen to be collected and brood to be hatched. For, as either they or I could tell you, a woman’s work is never done – whether she hath but two legs…or six.