Photo by Katy Morikawa
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I spent last week really busy, including preparing for, participating in, and then decompressing from a gathering to celebrate the Coming Home to the Living Earth retreat initiative that Sustain Floyd has been working on this spring at Riverstone Farm in Floyd, Virginia. It’s just down the road from me – I can walk there if I really commit myself to several hours on a gravel road, where I might add, the people often drive like demons – with no regard for the little pedestrian they’ve now covered in a cloud of dust! We invited the early brainstorm team, organizers, presenters, and a few local friends interested in the same kinds of things to a meal on the river, and an afternoon of exploring the grounds, campus, and proposed retreat home base up the hill at Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary. The gals on the planning committee, plus a friend, also camped on the river that night (more on that in a bit).
Wonder, Magic, Beauty, and Epiphanies
To call Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary a magical place leaves out so many important things about it. But it’s a good place to start. It is also beautiful, rambly, and a mixture of wild and cultivated that adds up over time to a kind of haunting charm. It was the very end of No-Mow May, and the grass and weeds were high, seed heads nodding on their stalks. Once you got past that, you might have found yourself gazing at the tree trunk bee hive. This imaginative structure is a German design, originally done high in the trunk of a living poplar tree. At Spikenard, the trunk hive is a dead stump (standing log) taller than me and capped with a thatched hexagonal cone roof. A wooden door in the side was firmly latched shut, and the whole thing bolted to the ground by ratchet straps–since the bears do get into the fence and can throw around a lot of leverage. In fact, all of their beehives are bolted down with ratchet straps! I looked at the whimsical structure and thought it looked like something out of legend, a gnome home, or the house of the spirits. That’s Oscar in the photo, describing the origins of the design. He and his wife have started their own bee sanctuary in Spain and they spend summers volunteering and living at Spikenard (and escaping the Spanish summer heat!).
We tromped around and listened to Alex talk to us about Spikenard, its history, its mission, and its bee hives and flower gardens. The hives are named for their Queens, with each daughter named using the same first letter as her mother. The particular hives he named for us were Fae and Francesca. The mother, Fae, was a honeybee queen with an injured wing who tried three times to fly out a new swarm before dying in the process. Her hive was in this amazing structure called a sunhive: egg-shaped, woven from grass fibers tightly formed into a hollow egg, supported by an internal wood structure, then covered in clay mud and hung in a pagoda style shelter. This was clearly not a structure driven by commercial imperatives for efficiency!
Fae had died in the process of trying to lead her swarm, and so the hive was in the process of creating a new queen. The bee activity around the building was thicker and fanned out into a larger area in front of the hive than the other hives we saw. I asked Alex about this, and he explained that there were a lot of new bees right now, all learning to orient themselves to the entrance to their hive, performing an intricate dance while entering and leaving. Through orienting to that exact GPS location, they memorize the hive’s location. The hive’s current recovery and growth phase was being danced before the opening as a large cloud of swirling and darting bees.
Throughout our visit, none of us felt even a hint of discomfort or threat from the bees, even when one of them flew up and bumped Alex in his face after we’d overstayed our welcome at a set of box-style hives bolted to a free-standing decking and backed by a windscreen of basket weaving willow. He blocked the bee with his palm the second time it darted toward his face, and said, “Okay, okay, I hear you. We’ve been here too long,” and then led us on.
There was a charming frog pond, created to provide easy-care water for the bees: thickly clustered arrowhead water plants growing in several inches of water that they periodically refill with the hose. A water pump keeps the water flowing and filtered. It’s as beautiful as any water feature and lined with stones. There are large flower gardens ample enough to stroll through. I bent down to smell the downy gray-green flower spike of a mullein just preparing to flower. It was lemony and deep.
The Questions We Hold
Later that evening, after enjoying a delicious spread laid out for us by Woody and Jackie Crenshaw of Sustain Floyd, sponsor for the event, I got to catch up with Alex about my borer bees, my work with wasp relocation, and my many qeustions! It was so thrilling to speak with someone whose expertise extends so broadly and deeply, focused on a topic adjacent to mine but with overlaps, and who is deeply living in an inquiry which continues to unfold. The work in biodynamic farming (of which Spikenard counts itself a honeybee-focused practitioner) remains emergent, as it continues to expand, explode, and transform notions of agriculture inherited by those of us born into a Western paradigm.
I asked Alex about the carpenter bee: What does it eat now that the locust blooms have faded and the forest appears quite green? Where do they live in the wild? He voiced his own uncertainty like a poet, “I’m holding those questions with you.” And that’s because his primary focus is the honeybees. But Spikenard attracts a large diversity of native bees and wasps, and they’ve created accommodations for them and they are watching a lot going on on the Farm. They’ve built a solitary bee condo near their visitor welcome center in support of native pollinators. By the way, the maintenance on these is you have change out the condo wood every two years!
They’ve got the paper cone shaped nest of a white-faced or bald-faced hornet (technically a wasp) forming on the corner eaves of their main hall, the Bee Barn. Alex pointed it out to me with delight, and I have to admit I flinched a little. It’s still a daunting sight to me. I’m still, after all this, afraid of them a little and the sight of that thing carries archaic impressions of horror and ominous threat echoing in my primitive back brain. But Spikenard has, as he describes it, a pact with the hornets, allowing them to build even in high traffic areas so long as they tolerate human traffic and don’t pose a threat. It becomes part of the teaching experience for visitors. Sometimes they have to put up caution tape, but they haven’t had a single sting so far.
Again the Wasps Lead the Way
Today, I found and watched this awesome video from a permaculture fruit orchard farmer in Canada about how to approach a wasp’s nest without endangering yourself (apparently you simply have to stay out of their traffic lanes), and how the wasps saved his orchard from tent caterpillars and other over-eaters. All without poisons! Well, except for wasp venom.
This channel, by the way, is excellent for a deep systems understanding of permaculture within a northern mid-latitudes North American fruit orchard perspective. Stefan Sobkowiak of The Permaculture Orchard is an excellent teacher, and really understands a very broad range of the complex living systems. He doesn’t understand as a scientist, but as a farmer, and his understanding is deep. He’s also pretty entertaining.
Back to Alex, I just had to ask about psychic communication with hive insects. He agreed with me that when they “talk” to him, it’s subtle and he’s not always sure he’s heard what he thinks he’s heard. What I’ve found is that I might get a flash impression, but I’m not certain, or it’s so clear that I doubt myself. I then need to triangulate this with behavior and real-world results. He was impressed by my results in relocating the wasp nests, especially given the short timelines in those instances and their apparent moves against their behavioral programming. He himself has never had to deal with an emergency situation like the ones in which I developed my early methods. I’m sure he would have educated them instead. I was too ignorant to do that. But I suppose that’s the virtue of beginner’s mind!
While on the tour, I hadn’t probed into the minds of his honeybees. It didn’t feel appropriate, they didn’t need me, and I was just visiting. But now as we pondered the nature of psychic cross-species communication, I asked about the consciousness of honeybees. Did they always carry the queen in their awareness? I asked. “No,” he said, “I think those descriptions (of queen, worker, drone) are for humans. The sense I get from them is that it’s all one.” That struck a wild chord in me and I stood wide-eyed at the implications. A literal hive mind, without Borg-like domination. A multi-body being, connected by family ties, held together by mutual benefit, and probably love. I believe that, anyway. I think they dance in ecstasies of love for her, for life, for each other, but I gots no proof of that! Still, it connected a lot of dots for me.
I had the sense as I stood watching a hive later that evening high in a locust tree where we had our picnic (the hive had swarmed from Spikenard down the valley to Riverstone)–that by seeing it as one being, viscerally experiencing and knowing it as one being, is to be changed, even enlightened. On offer here is far more than tending honeybees for their honey or their pollinator services, or even to save them from colony collapse–although that is important! It turns out the honeybee is the world’s oldest domesticated animal, and we have a moral obligation to the creatures we’ve domesticated. And in fact, some have posed the question: “Did we domesticate them? Or did they domesticate us?” Because apparently, the Agricultural Revolution was made possible by the honeybee as crop pollinator.
To dance with the honeybee as Spikenard offers a model for doing is to enter into a deeper communion with a wise sentience of a whole other order, one which can lead us through the doorway to a mystery. I believe this mystery holds hands with the same which has drawn spiritual seekers and mystics for millennia. And it is to take up the task of co-creating with the non-human world in ever more innovative and wise-conscious ways, here at the brink of the Sixth Mass Extinction as we grapple to create new methods and approaches to face the New World dawning before us. To do this, we must listen more deeply, open our minds beyond our limited belief structures, consider the least of these even the most seemingly unimportant life forms and problems, and join hands as we do it.
Touring Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary
If you missed the tour, don’t feel envious! They open their doors to the public for free tours throughout the growing season, usually on the last Friday of the month. This is the upcoming schedule:
- June 24, 2022 – 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Read more.
- July 29, 2022 – 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Read more.
- August 26, 2022 – 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Read more.
- September 16, 2022 – 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.
- October 7, 2022 – 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.