The Secrets of Bees

By Amanda

I’ve always thought bees were mysterious and wonderful. And when I began to pursue my interests in local sustainable farming, I considered bees as probably the smallest animal husbandry option available. Later, when I found out at this year’s Rooting DC garden event that urban beekeeping was possible, I tracked down people and resources initially provided by the two enthusiastic urban beekeepers in the bee session.

That led me to an introduction to beekeeping class at Prince George’s Community College, led by another enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructor, Jeff, who keeps numerous hives on the roof  of his Georgetown home. What I’ve learned in this process so far is that not only is DC wonderful for bees because of the diversity and length of blooming flowers and trees for bee ‘forage’ as its called, but a lack of pesticide use makes the bees healthier and the honey better. Honey from different neighborhoods of DC tastes different, as the bees pick up nectar from different sources of plant life. Urban beekeeping in DC is growing and stretching our idea of farming in an urban setting (more on that later.)

So I found myself last Saturday, on my first bee-lesson day, with a veil covering my face, standing in a semi circle around two hives with the seven other students. Our instructor wasn’t wearing any protection, comfortable as we was with the bees. He used a ‘smoker’ to puff smoke into the hive to calm the bees.

I didn’t take photos – but this is similar to what we saw when he opened the hive.

As Jeff lifted the top of the hive off, revealing the bars of honeycombs and the heart of the hive, the hum and  buzz was amazing. It was quite loud, and unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It was like someone cued a movie sound track of  ‘bee noise’ and turned it up to 11. Except it was all natural, coming from the moving mass of golden bodies on the hive and buzzing (yes, you have to just use that word) around us.

With the use of the smoke and his easy movements, the bees were not threatened and  buzzed around us. I was amazed as I looked at my fellow students, who all stood there, calmly and interestedly, with bare arms exposed and only faces covered, peering into the hive.  I realized how we take our cues on how much to be afraid from other people: I kept looking at them to see if they seemed scared, and since no one was, I didn’t panic.

As Jeff explained all that we were seeing – bees, honeycomb, eggs, and stashes of honey and pollen the bees place carefully to keep their lives going, I lost most of my tense apprehension and began to focus on the bees.

An overly dramatic re-creation of what I saw behind me

At one point I happened to look behind me and our semi-circle of people around the hives. Probably 200 bees were in the air, buzzing up and down circling, filling the air behind us. Jeff remarked that he saw this phenomenon often when having a group around the hives. These were returning  bees merely ‘waiting’ for us to leave as we were a barrier to them getting back into their hive. They were literally in a holding pattern, buzzing up and down, patiently.

When two people in our circle backed out, creating an opening, many of the bees instantly started a bank down through that space to the opening of a hive. But only to the hive on the right. The one on the left was still being blocked by people. The bees of course knew which one was their home, and as we eventually all walked away, the remaining waiting bees, swooped down and into the left hive, clogging the entrance with their backed up arrivals.

That was my introduction to bees carefully ordered pattern and world. Their patient waiting gave me a glimpse into this thinking, fascinating society, a world within a world that I am grateful to get to peek into.   More to come next Saturday – and this time I’m taking photos!  – Amanda

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