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Of Bees and Beasts

January, 21 2013

Of Bees and Beasts

As some of you may know, Rudolf Steiner's "9 lectures on Bees", given to  the workmen at the Goetheanum in 1923, became an impulse in my life when I was only 25 years old.. Five years after the first reading of these lectures and raising bees, they led me to become a Waldorf Art and practical Arts teacher, a calling which I have since followed for the past 29 years. Although I was not always able to keep bees myself, due to outer circumstances such as the location of my residence and local laws regulating the keeping of such "dangerous livestock", whenever possible, I would "hive" a swarming colony and explore the mysteries of such a "Bien". To hive a colony simlply means to catch a swarm and establish it in a box. These hives would often end up in the garden of a Waldorf School where students then could observe and learn from and about bees. It has always been important to me to bring children close to the workings of these incredible Sun Beeings and now that we are in this beautiful, remote Wilderness along Last Chance Road in Big Basin, the apiary becomes a special focus point of all educational efforts. Here at Pine Mountain Arts we are creating a bee sanctuary, where students of all ages are able to learn about bees, the environment, and themselves. I am hoping that this blog will give you the possibility of following our striving. As the title "Of Bees and Beasts" indicates, it will not be limited to bees, nor to beasts.I am inviting you to send comments and questions via our contact page e-mail if you wish, as we explore.

The very Beginnings

I started to keep bees first in 1976 after arriving on the east coast of the United States from Germany.

At first it was the longing for the sweet product of the hive, honey, which attracted me. Living in the large deciduous forests of West Virginia I occasionally came about swarms of feral bees living in hollow trees and wondered what it would take to hive such a swarm and to become a "Bienenvater", a bee father. After reading: The Hive and the Honey Bee, edited by Dadant and sons, I set to work and laboriously built 2 brood boxes out of local oak boards, ordered some wax foundation, 20 frames and was burning to go and " catch me some of those wild Honeys". Dispite my naivete and ignorance at the time I had enough sense to go out and look for some practical advice from a local West Virginian bee keeper to whom one of my neighbors had referred me.

Will lived with his 40 plus hives in a typical Appalachion Mountain shack complete with a thriving garden, an outhouse, root cellar and of course the usual piles of junk wood and metal. When I first pulled into his driveway he was sitting on an old, rusting folding chair amidst his hives, which were spaced about three feet apart in rows of eight or nine. A man of undeterminable age between seventy and ninety plus years, a crumpled felt hat on his head, and an equally crumpled, weathered face underneath the brim, sized me up with sparkling eyes and his mostly toothless mouth gave me a laconic:" Howdy boy". With a small branch he was swatting at bees which were attempting to rob one of his weaker colonies of its honey. While he was talking to his bees, I presented my hopes and why I was intruding on him on such a fine spring day. My limited command over the English language and his strong accent and slang, which did not sound like any English I had ever heard at all, kept us buisy for a while. Two hours later, after he had found out enough about my life, reasons to come to America and other assorted questions, he finally offered me the much desired help and advice. " Well boy, if ya wanna get yourselves some bees, this is what ya gonna have to do. Out there on Hwy 32, just about by the red farm house you park your car and walk out on that ridge for about 3/4 of a mile and you'll see a gig oll gum tree, just to you left. now you take your chainsaw, cut that tree down, split it open and wire yourself some of that comb into your frames. Gotta make sure you get some eggs, brood and honey just in case you miss the queen so they can raise themselves a new one. scoop up as many bees as you can get, close the box and take em home".

Well, I was excited, my dream was coming within reach. Enlisting two friends, we lugged the heavy oak box, a chainsaw, axes and a few other tools out on to the ridge, stumbling along, trying to follow a hardly existing trail. Finally we found it, a gigantic beech tree, hollow with a five foot vertical crack in it, buzzing with bees from top to bottom, some 15 feet above ground. Needless to say I was on my own now. My friends settled down at a more than respectable distance from the danger zone, offering sound advise:" be careful now".At this point my initial excitement gave way to a feeling of caution, much like that of a sailor in the light of an impending hurricane, mixed with a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Contemplating Will's instructions and a strategy for their execution, or was it going to be my excecution, we talked it over. Where and how to make the first cuts to bring this formidable tree down, felling it in such a way, that it would drop uphill rather than down. We sat there watching the constant in and out traffic all along the large crack in the tree. It was obviously a vital and well populated colony. The sweet scent of wax and honey filled the warm air and the constant humming of the golden gems put my fears at ease. But one can only contemplate for so long, These were the ones I had come for and now it was time to act. After slipping into a full-body bee suit I took the running chainsaw from my friend's hand and made the first undercut on the uphill facing side of the tree. Neither the noise, nor the wretched smelling smoke of the saw, seemed to bother the bees much; they were after all high above the perpetrator trying to bring down their home of many years. But when the tree came crashing drown, after another cut from the back side, all hell broke loose.The tranquil humming gave way to an angry buzz, as a giant cloud of winged worriors rose up out of the depht of the fallen tree, which I was now splitting open with a felling ax. I was in the middle of cutting out comb containing eggs and brood, when I realized that my defenses had been breached. The suit I was wearing had a couple of small holes in one leg. In addition,it had not occurred to me to tie the legs into my work boots. The bees were now inside my protection and the cloud of them was inside the veil rather than outside.  The attack began immediately.  There was nothing to do but proceed.  As I was wiring the comb into frames for my box, I do not remember ever having such a sense of commitment in my life. At this point there was no reversing of course. Should I miss the Queen in the process, I had to have the brood, so that the bees would be able to raise a new "Regina" from eggs or larvae in the first stage of development.The instructions given to me were very clear and resounding in my mind, The wiring went well I must say, but by the time I was scooping a few pounds of bees with a dustpan into the new hive body, the bees had arrived at my head. The stinging continued into my face and hair. Finally I nailed the lid onto the screened box and walked slowly away from the scene of the crime, slowly, arms and legs spread. My walking towards my friends, sent them scurrying away from their prime show seats and into some safer distance. There I stood, like a scarecrow in the woods, slowly removing the suit. The stinging stopped little by little and the bravest one of my companions approached to pick the last guards out of my hair and off my back. What was left of the colony in the tree had already started to reorganize itself while the buzz of the population in the closed box was still at a high pitch. After another 30- 50 minutes all were settled and we started on our way home. We counted well over 120 stings on my body, but the feeling of elation I experienced at the time is indescribable. A bee father at last, I was so happy, and thus started my life-long passion for, and relationship with, these marvelous "Sun Beings".

Needless to say, my next visit to Will's homestead,two weeks later and still swollen, produced the greatest smiles and an outburst of laughter which closed  the eyes in this old man's wrinkled face." All right boy, got yourselves some bees,huh? You must really want them".He set me up with some more equippment, including a fine smoker, and became my first mentor,as well as a friend for the rest of my time in those fine Appalachian mountains.

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