“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
And in keeping them there is great reward.”
The Gospel is a deep well. I have pondered this mystery my whole life, up against the advice of the well-intentioned, the deep thoughts of philosophers, and the scholarship of the learned. Sometimes I have been best informed by what the Apostle Paul refers to in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, the silent witness of nature. The most subtle things can speak loudly.
“…what may be known about God is plain… because God has made it plain…. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”
I am a child of the sixties. We were not sequestered in front of a device like the youth of today. We lived close by nature. There were woods all around, and farmer’s fields. I was out in God’s green earth from dawn to when the streetlights came on, barefoot from June to September and taking it all in. Somebody my own age has commented… running around all day like this, there were no fat kids. We all looked like the product of a third-world country, positively emaciated and never able to eat enough to keep up with our physical activity. Added to this preponderance of nature, my dad at one time was a teacher, teaching biology, chemistry and physics. It was not just a cerebral exercise. He really liked those things. They fascinated him because what they were could be seen in the daily functions of life all around us. Science lessons are not of a book. They are looking closely at the world we live in.
One day when I was about eight, my dad came home with a very dramatic science lesson; a colony of bees in a screened box. Looking at them and hearing the angry buzz, we were terrified of what would happen if they escaped. Not to worry, my dad informed us. This would all calm down once he introduced the queen, kept temporarily separate in a tiny box and fed with sugar water. The queen bee would get the others into action doing what bees do by nature. Bees are creatures of routine. If you foster their natural habits, bees are your friend. It’s bee husbandry, one of the oldest forms of man co-opting nature. Its official term, is “apiary”, to be a bee keeper. And so despite the objections of my worried mother, a realtime real-life science experiment began in our own back yard. My dad was not a stranger to the apiary craft. His own dad was a bee keeper in addition to being master of many other household arts. It simply made good sense. Keep bees, and you will be kept in honey. You will also learn to wonder.
And so, here is a short list of fun facts about bees. A longer version would fill a book. When you have a bee colony in your back yard, you get to see the secret life of bees play out. It is a miracle of nature, a tiny one, but profound nonetheless.
The first thing to know about bees is that no one needs to tell them what to do. Man only benefits when he pays close attention and adapts to what is already happening. Bees operate by instinct, to support the life of the hive no matter what. Hence bees in the wild have made their nests in hollow trees, or wherever they sense a place high or hidden enough to discourage natural enemies. After all, everyone likes honey.
Women will be glad to know that at the centre of a bee house is the queen, and the entire colony serves her. When a queen hatches, the expression “queen bee” comes to full force because a queen will instinctively sting and kill any other hatching contenders to the throne. The queen is served by all the worker bees, who spend their time in organized group functions to build the nest, collect food, and rear the next generation of offspring. Each member of a hive has a specific task, and will do it without instruction. Male bees are called drones. Unlike their female counterparts, they have no stinger, but will buzz around any intruder in an attempt to disorient and intimidate them. A drone’s prime function is to procreate with the queen.
A hive seeks its own equilibrium. If a hive grows too large, the queen will take half the hive with her and establish a colony elsewhere. This instinctively occurs just a few days prior to the new queen hatching to rule the old hive. Bees are not messy. They will never deficate inside the hive. A hive also maintains a constant temperature. If a hive becomes too hot in the summer, the bees will fan it with their wings in order to cool things off to a constant of 95°F, the perfect atmosphere to foster honey production. A hive is also extremely clean. If an intruder such as a mouse enters, the bees will sting it, pick the bones clean, and hermetically seal the remains behind a barrier of beeswax so as to contain pathogens.
When a beekeeper makes an artificial bee home for domestication, he builds according to bee behaviour. He plants man-made wooden frames in the bee house, separated by a space of 3/8 of an inch. If you leave less space, the bees instinctively fill in the gap with wax. Sufficient space means they will form their honeycomb on the frames you have provided as they would in nature. You have only to remove the frames to harvest the honey. Fun fact, if you sight along that edge of hexagonal rows, it is as if someone snapped an invisible chalkline for construction. Bees instinctively know how to produce this to a uniform size in perfect mathematical order. There will be perfect engineering and no off-kilter hexagons despite the notion that nature is random and wild.
Honey itself is a miracle. It is pure glucose without any impurities. This means that honey is the one food that will never rot. Desiccated but intact honey has been discovered in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Bees will travel a circuit of about two miles (3.2 km) when foraging for pollen to make honey. They are indispensable to the biosphere because their circuit allows for cross fertilization of flowering plants. The pollen is stuffed into receptacles on their hind legs, and a bee can carry about half its own weight in pollen. The bees store flower nectar in their stomachs and pass it from one worker to the next until the water within it diminishes. At this point, the nectar becomes honey, which is stored in the cells of the honeycomb. Honey is domesticated according to taste. It will take on the flavour of whatever is most abundant in nearby fields.
Despite the bad rap sugar gets today, honey is considered to be very beneficial to your health, filled with many natural ingredients that will boost your immune system. Honey also has antiseptic properties. In ancient times it was applied to wounds and is effective in treating boils, burns and non-healing ulcers. Its natural antigens kill bacteria, and its thick consistency draws swelling from inflamed wounds by osmosis. Bacteria will migrate also from a wound into nearby honey because the sugar is an easy food source. Most famous is Manuka Honey which is expensive because of its famous antiseptic qualities. Made with pollen from Manuka trees, this honey contains Methylglyoxal which is on its own a cytotoxic substance.
Why bees attack some people and not others is another mystery. Like humans, bees see light in combinations of red, green and blue. Bees are very sensitive to colour so as to spot out flowers. They naturally approach things which on the yellow and blue end of the spectrum so if you avoid these colours, you will have better luck on a family picnic. Bees are also very sensitive to body chemistry which releases any pheromone that might indicate aggression. This might explain beekeepers who can calmly work in a hive without any protective clothing. Bees are easily roused. It just takes one angry bee to quickly encourage the others into a dangerous swarm. Most people who have been stung will remember the stinger, still pulsating and driving home its poison before your mother removed it with tweezers. The stinger is torn out of the bee’s belly, which means the bee will die. The Greeks have an ancient story whereby bees pleased the god Jupiter with a present of honey and asked in return for a stinger to protect themselves. Jupiter granted the wish, but balanced the equation by ensuring that use of the stinger will also kill the bee.
Our own bee adventure came to an end when I was watching my dad harvest honey, and the colony suddenly decided to attack me. Most people will survive such an attack. I did, although I looked somewhat like a Goodyear blimp that had been in a fight for about a week. The neighbours were also complaining because the bees would sun themselves on bedsheets hung out on the clothesline to dry, and they would cover the sheets with their bright yellow poop.
Bees are presently endangered. Their numbers have been diminished drastically by crop pesticides which disturb a bee’s homing instinct. The bee will fly around disoriented until it finally drops down dead. There is however a resurgence of bees far away from the country in urban settings. It has become popular to locate a hive of bees on top of skyscrapers. They. go about their business high above the crowds, doing what bees must do. Bees located in downtown Toronto fly over to Toronto Island where they gather their pollen from the abundance of Linden trees there.
Watching bees will fill you with natural wonder, marvelling that their instinctive behaviour is predictable and uniform wherever bees may thrive. People might conclude that the existence of such a thing as bees can only be an act of God. Human beings even in the age of robotics cannot produce anything close to what bees have been doing routinely since the dawn of time, speaking silent witness of the wonders of nature.
As long as mankind has existed, part of his quest has been to come to terms with his maker. The question where did I come from, and where am I going eventually comes to all. The best of minds like Saint Thomas Aquinas have tried to lay out an orderly explanation for things of the heavens and have failed. Saint Thomas wrote an enormous sum of all theology which he ultimately abandoned unfinished when he dreamed of trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. He capitulated to wonder, saying “All I have written is as straw!”
I cannot pretend to explain the wonders of the world, only that I too see them and know that there are mysteries beyond me, that I will someday know, just as I am known. What’s the buzz? Sometimes silent witness can speak volumes.