By Grai St. Clair Rice
Honeybees hold a special place in the realm of gifting, and they give without question or concepts of reciprocity. The history of gifting across human cultures has often defined communities, and yet it is unlikely that honeybees are conscious of gifting in the way contemporary society engages the concept and the activity.
The foraging season has come to a close for honeybees in Northern climates, as the cold temperatures keep them inside their hives generating the warmth required for their colony to survive until spring flowers bloom. Their gifting to us continues in the food that we cherish, the savory-sweetness of their honey, and the beeswax candles that illuminate the darkness of long nights.
Bees, honey, and beeswax have been gifted by humans for millennia. Ancient cultures held honeybees as sacred beings and the delicate substances from the hives were offered to the gods as a way of honoring. In feudal times, honey and wax was used for payment of taxes to the lords and their value was greatly prized. Honey as an item for sale is a practice that has only developed in the past 150 years as our commodity culture has shifted our daily lives.
Philosophical minds have pondered the beauty of the gift in its purest essence beyond commodity. The giver and the gifted each play a role. Talents such as a gift for music seem to come from beyond the physical and reach out towards the unknowns of the universe. It is not a thing, it is a spirit. Often we don’t really know the gifts we ourselves give others.
Sometimes things are just things. We desire things and need things, however life is about living experiences. Experiences take on a life of their own and often lead us further along the journeys of our lives. Traveling to a distant land can offer us knowledge of other’s lives that can provide perspective on our own. Beekeeping is this kind of journey, and is yet another gift the honeybees offer us without their knowing.
Gifting an experience of beekeeping can be transformative in ways you can hardly imagine. The journey can take many intellectual and spiritual turns beyond the physical practice and sensory revelations. One of the beautiful aspects of becoming a beekeeper is that you can gift it on, sharing the experience and transforming someone else’s world.
Each Winter, HoneybeeLives, a beekeeping team based in New Paltz, teaches beekeeping to students preparing to start hives in the spring. I am blessed to co-teach these classes and help impart the spirit of the bees into the hearts and minds of those seeking to embark on this journey. There is always an intricate weaving of information to nurture budding beekeepers and prepare them for their own experience. It is a complete delight to see who embraces the richness of this gift in the relationship between honey bee and beekeeper that moves beyond the ‘thing’ part of it.
Beekeeping connects us to time and place, evolution’s past and future, nurture and nature, a sense of well-being that embraces life and accepts loss, and an appreciation of spirit beyond understanding. The humble honeybees with their Group Soul and their altruistic proclivity have many gifts to share.
Once spring arrives, new beekeepers come to the HoneybeeLives apiary to collect fifteen thousand honeybees in a Nuc, which is a nucleus starter colony. We offer live demonstrations and seasonal classes, which tempers the newness of the experience and encourages calm for beekeepers and subsequently honeybees. The humming, industrious worker bees, with their queen, go about their lives as they are established in their new home with their gentle tenderness. Together the beauty and wonder of the seasons unfold. As the HoneybeeLives gift certificate says, “The Gift of Honeybees is the Gift of Life.”
In these cold months of winter, when the bees are not flying, I miss the sight and sound and smell of the hives. The life-force of the bees lives in my heart filled with light. It’s not the gift, it’s the gifting.
Grai St. Clair Rice is a photographer/writer. Grai teaches beekeeping with HoneybeeLives in New Paltz and Brooklyn, and lectures on honey bees and gardening, and reminds everyone that August 19 is National Honey Bee Day. Visit HoneybeeLives.org for info on her upcoming lectures and to download a plant list for honeybees.