Sunday, June 19, 2011

With Honey Comes the Sting

I find it intriguing that the girl who sat peacefully covered in bees a year ago has developed a degree of fear and unease around bee stings. I have never been afraid of bees. I've even invited them to sting me of their own accord, knowing the venom is healing and transformative. I have empathized with other's fears around a potentially deadly creature, but never felt any threat from the honeybee myself. My animal fears are generally all wound around the good old rattlesnake. A frightening early childhood experience with a rattlesnake has led to a lifelong phobia, and thus a lifelong opportunity for facing the shadow and addressing the nature of fear.

As a little girl, I loved to catch butterflies on lavender and red racer snakes under stones in my front yard. I held the little black snakes until the wriggled their way out of my hands and back to their dark corners. When I was four, a rattlesnake appeared in the woodpile. I never saw it alive, but I watched it's life force drain away as its two severed halves bled out inside a large jar placed on the porch. I stopped looking for for red racers under rocks, and a lifetime of nightmares began. I became a child who could not speak of snakes without checking under the bed or hugging my knees to my chest. By the time I was 19, and experiencing bi-weekly nightmares, I knew I had to do something, so I tried therapy.

Therapy is an interesting thing. It only works if you and your therapist make the right kind of connection and develop trust, which I did not experience the first go round. My therapist put me on prescription pills for anxiety. An inefficient bandaid that dulled the senses. The right kind of therapy is a wonderful gift, but since I had not found that, I turned to the gentle and effective mentorship of my elder and friend Auntie Mara. With regular sessions in hypnosis and guided imagery, Auntie Mara helped me discover the rattlesnake as ally, sacred medicine, and gateway guardian to the mysteries of the divine feminine. She addressed fear directly, unafraid to delve into the gifts of the shadow realm. As we progressed, childhood memories of my connection to animals and the natural world re-emerged and I found and increasing number of neighborhood birds and cats watching me through the windows each time I came to visit.

My relationship with snakes deepened, and I even went so far as to fix an ankle injury with surgery, so I could confront my snakey fears by backpacking through the wilderness. As a result of deep wilderness time, dream work, vision quest and mentorship, the rattlesnake has become a strange type of ally, a totem for transformative work, sacred medicine and the divine feminine. I still experience some moments of lock-up fear in snake country, but I have learned to be welcoming to the lessons of the snake and grateful for my encounters thus far.

In many ancient cultures the serpent represents the energy of the sacred feminine, the raw power of creation: that which is known as Kundalini in Sanskrit, the serpentine energy that sits coiled at the base of the spine and rises up through the chakras like a cobra in moments of energetic activation or awakening. In dreams, to be struck with venom often indicates an infusion of sacred wisdom or prophetic power. I began to see my nightmares as moments of being followed, surprised, awakened and infused by my own source of feminine power.

It is no coincidence that the Oracle of Delphi was known both as the "Delphic Bee" and as the Pythia, or Pythoness. Bee and snake become one and same, creatures of prophetic wisdom accessed through the dark caves of inner mystery traditions. The Delphic Oracle was classically believed to get her powers of prophecy from the God Apollo who conquered Delphic when he vanquished the great Python living on Mount Parnassus. However, Delphi was associated as a goddess site long before the new order of Apollo. The Python was considered sacred to Gaia and in some myths she is an Earth Goddess of her own right, known as Pythia. Many of the oracles of ancient greece were named Pythias in honor of their connection and embodiment of this goddess. Apollo's vanquishing of the Goddess as represented through the Python, thus becomes a symbolic myth depicting the shift in power from Goddess-based culture to the inherited model of Patriarchy we live today.

John Collier's Priestess of Delphi (1891)

I am not trying to make a pro-feminine, anti-masculine argument. It is simply fascinating to discover the myth behind the myth, the history behind the story. We live in an imbalanced time, and have for thousands of years. Patriarchy is not evil, but its imbalance has provoked evil acts. I see the arch of Patriarchy as a necessary lesson for humanity in working toward a more sustainable future. The Goddess culture of the ancient world was heavily suppressed, and at times, all but lost. It is through the unraveling of myth and story that we discover the threads of the Divine Feminine weaving her way through history despite persecution. As an active seeker of balance and temperance in this age, my hope is not to restore Feminine over Masculine, but to seek union and alchemy between the two.

If the Divine Feminine is recognized across time and culture as the Earth herself, the great Gaia, Mother, Life-Giver and lover to Father Sun, then in our disconnect from her, we invariably find disconnect with nature and the "wild". In doing so, a great, grief-filled cavern has erupted between ourselves and our place in the natural world. No wonder there is such fear and misunderstanding around the Earth's venomous creatures. They no longer carry wisdom, they only carry evil, pain and death. Death itself becomes a process we no longer honor as sacred and life-affirming. It is the great specter. The Grim Reaper, haunting us from car to store, youth to adulthood, wellness to disease, seed to plate.

In confronting fear of the rattlesnake, I had to ask "what are you afraid of really?" Moving beyond the psychological possibilities of loss power, fear of pain or fears, sexuality, etc., my answer is Death, of course. By addressing the snake as ally, I am becoming more intimate with death and the transformative powers of death or near-death experiences. Similarly, with the sweet honeybee, I find the possibility of death suddenly on the mind.

Why now? Why after all my calm assuredness and grace with the tiny venomous creatures? Because of my stings. Six in total since April. Three to the face, two on my hands, one on my leg. Each stings has become progressively worse, swelling my face or hand to a degree of cartoonish comedy. The reactions are localized, but growing in size. I was expecting this. I have done my research. I know this is not an allergic reaction, as so many falsely assume. In fact, many beekeepers say increased swelling is normal and part of the initiatory road to desensitization. Bee Venom is even used medicinally by beekeepers and apitherapists alike. In ancient China, bee venom was used as special form of acupuncture. Today, Bee Venmon Therapy is wide-spread throughout China and is growing in popularity in the states. Apitherapists use Bee Venmon to address a number of ills such as MS, arthritis and tendonitis, while prescribing honey, pollen and propolis for a number of other health benefits.

There is a small percentage of a chance, that one can develop increasingly worse reactions to stings until eventually experiencing anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is when the bee venom effects the body systemically, causing hives, dizziness, shortness of breath, closing of the airway and possible death. As my bee sting reactions intensify, so do the fears and reactions of others. Susceptible as I am to those I love (coupled with my own concerns) I find myself smack dab in the middle of my reoccurring challenge: Fear or Trust. A choice. Every moment, every day. A dance between the fine line of practicality and fear. Do I carry an epi pen? Do I wear fully protective clothing every time I near hive? Do I stop sitting near the bees in the afternoon? Do I sting myself in hopes to acclimate to the venom? Do I worry? Do I ignore it? Do I let it go? Can I trust? Fear or Trust? Fear or Trust?

And guess who's been sitting on the edge of that choice? My baby. The spirit who left my body two months ago and watches as I ride the waves of doubt, anger and grief. How do I find my way back to the divinely inspired trust I felt while pregnant and while experiencing miscarriage? How do I move through grief that rises fresh and new, haunting me with fears? There are days I trust the spirit will be back when the time is right for her and us. There are times I fear I've missed my window. There are times I feel the spirit near. There are times I feel nothing.

Last week I opened hive. I wore my veil, but left my hands bare. It was the first time I fully inspected the hive since moving them in, and it is not something I intend to do often. What beautiful creatures! Twelve panels of comb fully drawn out, brimming with brood, pollen and tiny amounts of nectar. I never saw the queen, but the bees were so many, even in the heat of the day with many out foraging, that I doubt I could have easily spotted her. They never even gave an aggravated buzz. They were the most calm I had ever seen them. They crawled on my hands, danced on the comb and continued their work building, feeding, storing, as I raised one bar after the other into the welcomed sunlight.

Bee chains!
Bees holding onto each other with their legs as comb separates.

Second and most recent hive check, because i do not have photos of first.
Bee's energy was different yesterday so I wore
gloves this time because I was concerned I might
react to a sting by dropping the comb! No stings either way.

I had been hoping for at least one sting, simply to address my fears directly (yes, I have an epi pen for precautions). It seems my humming and gentle approach to the bees on a newly warm spring day (after two weeks of rain), resulted in a very benevolent exchange for both of us. I closed up the hive and chose, finally, to sting myself. Since the sting kills the honeybee, I have been reluctant to try, but my hope is that my approached and gratefulness to the bee is felt by the bein (hive). I feel it is necessary to truly tune into the animal and ask permission. I waited for a bee to land on my hand, and then, as carefully as possible, I held her by the wings and gently pressed her to my right hand until I watched her sting emerge and pierce my skin. Immediately I scrapped the stinger away and thanked the bee. A day later I sit with a Popeye hand and a continual question mark around bee venom and my body.

normal hand

bee sting hand :(

I think it would be quite ridiculous to develop a life-threatening allergy after all the magic that has surround my relationship to bees, but I know it is entirely possible. I will continue to practice stinging myself, but currently, I do not feel any resolution around my body's relationship to venom. However, I do feel a tiny bit closer to that sense of trust. The trust that says bee venom is medicine, grief is necessary, bees came to you for a reason, your baby will return.

Snake season has arrived again, and so has the start of honey flow. In the dance between fear of and peace with the natural world, I am reminded to go toward the dark corners, for in them you may find many unexpected treasures. Welcome the honey, welcome the sting. Both will give you exactly what you need.

I leave you with the phrase shared by guides from the School of Lost Borders while on Vision Quest in the desert five years ago:

"Always remember, the greater the wound the greater the gift."

- Honeybee mama

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hive Update

Happy Summer to you all! (Finally)

The bees are doing quite well. I am now involved in three hives on three different properties, so I have the opportunity to watch how different colonies develop.

A bee hive is so much more than thousands of individual bees living together in a box. While they show us a great deal about community living, they are much more than a community of individuals, they are a superorganism. As Rudolf Steiner illustrates, the comb is their tissue, the wooden box, their skeleton, the bees, individual cells. They are completely dependent on the survival of the whole. In winter for instance, they greatly reduce their numbers to help control honey consumption through the cold months, but the organism as a whole stays intact.

Furthermore, each hive or "bein" (as Michael Thiele refers to them) has a personality. I have experienced this first had through the two swarms I caught in April. One swarm lives with my friend Mistery up in the land of Scotch Broom and Oaks. They are the sweetest, calmest bees I've ever met. They land on you freely and have a soft little buzz. My hive, on the other hand, has a much more intense energy. I would not call it aggressive, but they can be very moody. They are incredibly active and are quick to let me know if they don't want to be bothered. I am still waiting for them to tell me their name.

Spring Cold Front:

We had a terrible cold front right at the end of May which sent most beekeepers funning to feed their bees. Rain and cold temperatures in early spring are often deadly for new hives because they do not have enough pollen or nectar stores to feed all the new bees emerging. There were a number of nectar-happy sunny days right after I installed my swarm, which means the bees got right down to building out a bunch of comb and collecting pollen and nectar. The queen went ahead and laid a whole bunch of eggs, so by the time the two weeks of rain came, there were hundreds of new, hungry bees being born. It's hard to tell if my bees had enough stores because it was too cold to go into the hive to inspect (bees need to keep the hive warm at all times or the brood will die).

Feeding the Bees:

Finally, when another week of rain was predicted at the end of May, I decided to feed the bees one jar of honey water. I can hear a thousand beekeepers scoff. Honey water? You're not supposed to feed bees honey!! This is true. The reason you don't feed bees honey is because the honey may be carrying disease such as foul brood, or toxins that will reduce the immune system of the bees. Sugar water, on the other hand, greatly reduces the immune system and natural survival mechanism of the bees and is something I just can't ever get on board with. At the suggestion of local permaculture beekeeper Neal, I chose a trusted local honey and mixed it with a 2:1 ration honey to warm water and installed in in a bottom-feeder jar at the back of the hive. There is no easy way to feed bees in a top bar hive, so I had to open up the follower board (a solid wood divider used to control space in new hive) and place the jar just inside with a few extra top bars to cover the width of the jar.

You should have seen the bees the following day. We had about 45 minutes of sun in the afternoon and the bees exploded out of the hive. They were everywhere! Landing on railings, bushes and leaves. Sitting on the roof, sitting on the ground, just absorbing the sun. (note: the bees don't "sit", they forage with purpose every day, all day). I still don't know what this behavior was about. Perhaps they were considering swarming, but then the rains returned? It was truly amazing. I went around back to check the wild hive living in the wall of the house and they were doing the same thing. Bees just perched up and down the wall of the house while about a hundred buzzed at the entrance. Maybe they were simply celebrating the emergency of their solar life source!

My sweet intrepid bees (they're not really mine) continued to forage in the rain and when the sun finally came out last week we added 5 more top bars to complete the hive. They now have full access to the hive and boy are they using it. Comb is turning dark orange with propolis and new comb is being built at a rapid pace on the new top bars.

Swarm Preparations:

I am watching the bees closely because I believe they want to swarm. I can see a few swarm cells at the top of the hive, but they have not been completed. When swarm cells appear, it means the bees are feeling a bit overcrowded and begin to create cells to raise a new queen. My job it to watch and see if they close of the cells. If so, then it means they are raising new queens and I have 7 to 8 days before they are born. Once the new potential queens hatch (only one of the them will ultimately win out), the old queen leaves the hive with about half the hive in tow. They will land on a nearby branch or post while scout bees look for a new home. What I wouldn't give to watch this happen. It can be in a matter of minutes, so unless I sit outside day in, day out for the next week, I probably won't see it.

Think these ladies might be a little crowded? In the other hives I've seen you can almost always see comb under the bees, here it's just bees bees bees. This is the most recent panel of comb they've built, all the way at the back of the hive and it's still full of bees.

Glorious Raspberries:

Since I was a little girl, my mom has grown raspberries in a bed off the side of the back deck. It becomes quite a competition to see who can get the the fresh berries first: birds? dad? mom? sisters? friends in the know? There are rarely more than a few berries at a time, and we used to glory in the sight of a tiny bowlful.
This year, there is not a moment of daylight which you don't see bees on the raspberry blossoms. They are everywhere! And now, I can see bunch after bunch of tiny green berries ready to burst into red delicious abundance in a matter of weeks! Yay bees! It's the biggest raspberry crop I've ever seen! What to do? raspberry ice cream? raspberries dipped in chocolate and honey? raspberries in salad? Raspberry torte? Eeeek! I'm excited.

It's so gratifying to see the effect of honeybees on a garden. The berries give them nectar and pollen, and they give the berries prolific life! Perfect. Nature is good at her job.