I’m living between worlds right now—between the world of my rental house and the world of our new house. Contractors have laid claim to our new house, and every room is full of construction tools, or construction detritus. Our rental house is a mess, because I spend most of my time in the yard of our new house cleaning up for spring. The previous owner, I’ll call her Polly, lived there for the past 45 years. In her final years, she tended the house alone, and the yard—a glorious flower-filled garden—got neglected along the way.
As I rake, I find tiny plants poking up through the expanse of dandelions: A yellow tulip here, a star-shaped white jewel there, occasional bursts of purple popping out from under the leaves of grass. Gardening helps settle me, and I can use all the grounding energy I can conjure. Moving is hard, but living in limbo between moves is no picnic, either. In the garden, I find it easier to live in the moment, to breathe, to find some focus.
Putting my hands in the garden dirt, my ears are free to listen, my eyes free to wonder. Already I have learned things about my new home: There is a chatty osprey who flies over many times a day. The Columbia river is only a mile away or two as the crow flies, and I’m sure this osprey has a nest nearby with some good fishing on the river. I’ve begun anticipating her fly-bys with anticipation. Her call carries far, yet the notes are gentle and musical…
Beneath a shallow layer of garden soil, most of the yard has been buried under many layers of plastic weed cover and weed cloth. Everywhere I dig, I find the stuff, and everywhere I find the stuff, I pull it out. I am surprised at the lack of worms in the yard, and, in fact, the scarcity any bugs. I’m used to gardening with spiders racing across my hands, pollinating bugs swishing in front of my face, and the occasional toad leaping out from nowhere. My yard is full of plants, but not so full of other life. I’ve put out bird seed, and we’ll see how long the birds take to find it. I have seen one very busy squirrel race by on the fence on rare occasions, and I hope I can convince him to stop and enjoy the birdseed and nuts I’m leaving for him.
When I am away from the garden, I fret. I fret about spending all day at the “new” house, and finding time to get dinner on the table at our rental. I fret about the construction process and all the things I have to keep track of while it is happening, and I fret about scheduling the coming move. When? Who to do it? How much will it cost? Oh, yes, I do fret about costs, too. Old, tired houses can really eat up the bank account.
When I start to fret too much, I think about the bees. The bees in the church roof in Washougal.
A couple of weeks ago, I went along to help with my very first bee removal. I belong to a group of people who are students of a remarkable woman named Jacqueline Freeman. Her life’s work is to speak and teach on behalf of bees. Go visit her at spiritbee.com. She is amazing. That’s all I can say. Amazing.
One of the things she does is to help “rehome” bees that people need removed from their properties. Sometimes, it is a swarm that has shown up in someone’s tree or on their porch. Sometimes, a hive must be cut out of an existing building for safety sake, or because people are simply unwilling to share their space with bees. Two weeks ago, I helped to cut out a hive that had been residing twenty feet up in the eves of an old church for at least four years. A beekeeper named Wes was coming to the church with a big top-bar hive to load the displaced bees, and Jacqueline said they could use some extra hands.
The week before, I’d attended an all-day workshop at her farm to learn all about moving bees from one place to another. The videos and stories were fascinating, and I was psyched up for the event. Jacqueline loaned me a white bee hat and veil, and told all of us that the main thing we needed to remember was to just stay calm. She said the bees would need our calm reassurance that all would be well. I love that woman.
On a beautiful sunny morning with the spring flowers popping, four of us gathered to remove and rehome the bees. From the parking lot, I craned my neck up to see a steady, relaxed stream of bees coming and going from the front eve of the church. The moving process seemed brutal to me, but it had to be done. First, Tel would rip off the facing board on the eve to see inside and determine how extensive the hive was. Then, Tel and Wes and Eric would begin slicing out wafers of comb. The comb itself would be filled with either honey or brooding babies or pollen. Some might be fresh comb and still empty.
Those wafers or sheets of comb would be handed down in a bucket or a cardboard box to me. I would take the comb and tie it carefully onto small dowel-like bars of wood, which would then be lined up like coat hangers across the length of the hive box. Simple, right?
Not so simple for the bees, who would be in full attendance and full confusion as we set to work. Jacqueline says a hive can contain 50,000 or more bees. That is, 50,000 creatures being ripped from their home by hulking, stinking (the bees think so…), clumsy humans doing their best in a tough situation.
When I was very young, maybe six or so, I was stung by a honey bee, and I blew up like a balloon. I’d not be stung since but my desire to be in the presence of the bees completely squashed my concern about stings and bee venom. I sensed I would be okay no matter what happened, and I chose to listen to my intuition.
Above me on the scaffolding, Tel was prying off the eve board with a crowbar. Suddenly, I could hear a different tone in the droning of the bees. The humming went to a slightly higher pitch, and I could feel the bees’ growing concern. “Do you want to see this—see the inside of the hive?” Wes called down to me. He waited for me to climb the scaffolding while bees circled his head and clambered down his shoulders. All of us were wearing hats and face veils, but little else in protective gear. I had on a pair of light-colored pants and one of Carter’s old dress shirts.
“Were you nervous?” a friend asked me later, and I told her no. Ascending to the hive, hearing the bees humming about my head, seeing them move like transluscent amber waves all around me, and then seeing the remarkable beauty and sensual, organic symmetry of their honey-colored comb—their city, if you will—I was suddenly overtaken by a sense of utter, deep peace and calm. A sundance song came to my mind and I began singing it softly to the bees. I sang what is called “The Healing Song.” The sundance ceremony songs are ancient and powerful, and I thought that perhaps the cadence or the tones might help the bees in some way. I don’t know if it did, but what astounded me in those first moments in close communion with the bees, and extended through the next six hours as we worked to move them, was the incredible gentleness and acceptance of the bees. They could not know what our intentions were, and yet they did. I’m certain they did.
I descended the scaffold, still humming The Healing Song. I hummed it as the first pieces of comb were passed down to me in the bucket tied to a long string, and I was still humming it when our work was complete hours later.
Now, I have to take a moment to try and explain to you the process involved in tying the honeycomb onto the top bars of the new hive: Living comb is not stiff. It’s not like taking a wedge-shaped piece of cardboard and tying it to a small stick of wood. The comb came to me in slabs the consistency and size of a large slice of fresh pizza. You know how when you try and fold a slice and get it to your mouth, it flops like Dali’s watches? Well, that is how it was with the comb, except that instead of being covered with cheese and olives, the honeycomb was covered in several thicknesses of very active, working bees—hundreds, perhaps thousands of bees.
I had asked Jacqueline what kind of a sound bees made when they got angry. She said, “Oh, you’ll know it. It’s a sharp, high, ‘bztt!’” The only time I heard that sound all day was when I would inadvertently smoosh a bee beneath my fingers while trying to string-tie the comb onto the wooden bar. That’s also the only time I got stung. Considering that I was handling thousands of bees for six hours nonstop, with nothing but a thin pair of laytex painting gloves on my hands, I consider it a miracle of bee grace that I was only stung four times the entire day, each time on the pad of a finger that was pressing just a little to firmly on some poor, indignant bee’s butt.
The hours went by timelessly. The comb came into my hands, I fumbled with the strings and the wooden bars, I hummed and hummed, the bees hummed along with me, and I never once noticed my sore feet or tired back or stung fingertips. All of that was background noise and I never let it come into my conscious mind. All I had mental space for was those bees, those suddenly uprooted, chopped, dropped, mangled, gentle bees.
Hundreds of them died in the move and my heart hurt for them. Some, we stepped on. Others got soaked in honey. I’m certain I smashed some beneath my clumsy fingers. Still, thousands found their way into the new hive box where their comb was hung and waiting for them like the contents of a messy coat closet.
At the end of the day when all the comb had been removed, Wes and Tel swept up the remaining bees in the eves with feathers and deposited them into pails, which they lowered down for me. By that time, I was working barehanded, the thin gloves too much of a bother. I would use the side of my hand to gently slide the bees into their new hive. Sometimes, I would gather up handfuls of them, like you would cup your hands for a drink of cold water, and shake them softly into the hive.
I will never forget the feel of their warm, furry, vibrating bodies in my hands. I will never forget how kind they were, and how brave they were, and how strong and resilient the gods and goddesses had made them. Later that week, still hearing their vibrant thrumming in my head, I emailed Wes and asked how the bees were doing. They were settling into their new home with surprising determination. New comb was being constructed. New foraging pathways were being formed. The bees were doing just great.
When I sit and whine softly to myself about the rigors of my upcoming move, I try to quickly bring up the memory of my day with the bees. Sometimes, my whining gets the better of me, but in the moments when I let my bee memories take hold, I am awed all over again, and humbled to my very core. I ask Spirit for just a tiny bit of the courageousness and dignity of the bees as I struggle with the challenges of my own uprooting. For I am only a human being, and lacking so many of the gifts and strengths of my relatives, the bees. I like to pretend that in those few, painless stings on my fingertips, the bees left me some of their magic in their wondrous potion, and I am grateful.