Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Wild Honeybee Hive Spills the Beans

It looked like something you'd find on the beach--a fragment of coral, perhaps, washed up on the shore. But no. It was found by a hiker in Herrontown Woods.
It started with Emma Kohn, one of our volunteers, bringing this piece of honeycomb to the Sunday morning workday. There's always something memorable about our workdays--interesting people, interesting nature. 

She had found it while walking earlier that day with her dog, Nahko. She described where, and I thought "I know that tree!"--a snag, really, meaning a very tall trunk jutting high into the canopy, having long since lost its limbs, dead but in many ways still alive. In a forest, saved from the raucous chippers, trees live a long and very productive life after death, as host to countless creatures. We followed her back to the source.

The old snag had fallen, spilling the contents of a wild honeybee colony that had thrived for years in a cavity 30 feet up. I had written about this bee tree two years prior, with its busy bees coming and going from a hole high above. 
Now the entrance hole was lying on the ground.

We sorted through the wreckage of the beehive, looking for clues as to how the bees had built it.
It appeared that the plates of honeycomb were attached to the inside of the trunk cavity only here and there along their otherwise rounded edges, 
and had been oriented vertically.
By coincidence, several days later we met with Allison Gratton, a bee keeper and student of bee guru Tom Seeley. We gave her a looksee, and she said the wild beehive remains were the coolest thing she'd seen in a long time.

The holes found here and there on the combs, she explained, serve as traffic control. Bees are constantly walking along the surface of the comb, as is the queen, who has her own special pheromone that tells the other bees, mostly her daughters, that all is well.

The hive is constructed to promote good airflow, which helps the bees maintain a temperature of 95 degrees in the hive year-round. 

I mentioned having seen bees swarming around this tree three years ago, and she explained how the old queen will sometimes depart with half the colony, leaving the existing hive with a new queen, and seek new accommodations elsewhere. This is a sign of success, not discontent, a natural way for the hive to reproduce itself. Hives can continue to grow, split, grow, split. 
On the inside of the hive's entry hole was a thick layer of propolis. Propolis is a kind of bee glue, made of tree resin and bud exudate that the bees collect, mix with enzymes and saliva and use to patch up any cracks or holes. With this bee glue's antiseptic, antiviral qualities, a beehive lined with propolis creates a medicinal envelope for the bees to live within.

Even the sound of a beehive can be medicinal, having a calming effect used as therapy for people with ptsd. Bees? Calming? It brings back memories of the peace Yeats finds in the "bee-loud glade" of Innisfree

All of which begs a question: Why do we often find a walk in the woods calming? A woods in our culture would seem a heresy. It breaks all the rules so rigidly enforced along suburban streets, where nature is mowed and trimmed into a state of neatness, simplicity, and boredom, and all signs of death and decay are quickly whisked away. In a woods, leaves, branches, whole trees, fall where they may, there to rest and fade away at their own leisurely pace. 

In a woods, life and death comingle. Decomposition is happening, silently, all around. Having purged all signs of death from our yards in town, shouldn't we find this disturbing? Instead, it is calming, relaxing, endlessly fascinating. Can we say that any leaf on the forest floor is out of place? It is what it is, where it is. Might we find such acceptance in our own habitats.

The quiet message of this bee tree, which stood for so many years as a snag in the forest, is that the death of a tree is really an extension of its life, as the structures it slowly built become home and food for myriad creatures, large and small. Can we not find this reassuring? That, perhaps in our own lives, the creations we leave behind, or help to maintain--buildings, organizations, writings--might serve as habitat for those who follow. The books we read, the music we listen to--these are structures of thought we inhabit, venture forth from or return to, use as springboards for our own creations. 

All of this begins with a Sunday morning workday, and a piece of honeycomb found in the forest.