I Believe in Living Sunlight
Today I checked my hives after days of hard wind and rain. A honeybee pulled out a young, deformed worker, and dropped her a few yards away. The sick bee moved a little, but had no hope to live. Her sister took no time for pity. I did, but couldn’t know whether a short tap from my toe would end her misery or shorten her only moment of sunshine. So it is with bees.
I’m a hobbyist beekeeper, but my companions are a theme of my days. I speak to youth groups, summer camps, and festivals about the miracle and importance of honeybees — how they can plug a jaded urbanite into a world of sun, rain, and blossom. Kids and adults respond with wonder. The bees are the living embodiment of sunshine, dependent on plants and their blooms to flourish, a need which is returned by the wild plants — as well as crops — that depend on pollinators for another generation of seeds and flowers.
In the city, I live like a yuppie but think like a farmer. I know the temperatures of the past 6 months and the forecast for this week. I know how much rain we’ve had, and how much we need. Since the bees arrived, I’ve smelled the blanket of sweetness that the linden trees lay down in June. Have these been extra-fragrant years, or did I just never notice before?
The bees are Tinkerbell vegetarians, less than 1 inch long and hanging from borrowed-looking wings. You can see gold sunshine through their bodies, as if the sweetness of honey starts inside. Being a ham-handed mammal pawing through the delicate home of 50,000 bees has underscored the clumsy truth about power: it’s impossible not to kill or injure on the way to staving off disease and starvation. I’m wrong from time to time about how to fight those foes. Size and strength are no help in fixing my mistakes, made by clumsy fingers 20 times the size of any bee, by limits on what I can see and understand about their lives.
Bees live in a tight family communities, something many of us crave. Workers that stow honey in May will never meet the December sisters who eat it. Yet the bees are ruthless: the ill are cast out, and the old try to die outside the hive. They can’t change how they live, even with the new illnesses and parasites that humans brought. Paradoxically, they need us more, since they can’t survive alone. We need them more, too, as other pollinators disappear with their habitats.
Living with honeybees, I see the life force of sunlight streaming through our lives, in sweetness and danger. I don’t know if the bees and I are within the cascade of warmth, or if it is in us. But I know we are together just the same, and our very different worlds will have their stories written in the same light.
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