The bees were living in the walls long before I heard them. It was Indian summer a few years ago when I discovered a small cleft along the seamline where our brick chimney pressed against the outer wall of the house. High overhead, scores of pollen-laden honeybees whizzed with industrious delight through this narrow fissure into the inner core of our home.
As a meditator and gardener I have an immense respect for bees, grounded in the close observation of these ancient insects that appeared more than 150 million years ago, coevolving with the first flowering plants of the mid-Jurassic. The honeybee, Apis mellifera,has flown through the pages of sacred texts from the Rig Veda to the Qur’an, with the prophet Muhammad proclaiming that the bee is the only creature to have spoken directly with God. Accordingly, in Greek mythology bees are known as “the birds of the muses,” bringing eloquence to seers and sages, and bees are rumored to have swarmed at the mouth of Plato when he was an infant.
The honeybee is a social insect. I remember this each time I hear the hum of a healthy hive containing up to sixty thousand individual bees, each complex colony functioning as a single genetically related organism. Every hive requires one sexually fertile female, the queen bee, who lives for about two years and is the only egg-laying insect in the colony. The queen produces thousands of infertile female workers bees who live for a short six-week period doing all the work of the hive, from feeding and tending the bee brood to cleaning and building new honeycomb cells. The queen bee also produces a smaller number of virile male drone bees who live for four months, their sole purpose being to fertilize the next virgin queen.
Although wild bee hives in secret woodland grottoes have long been linked to fertility rites celebrating seasonal death and rebirth, I did not plan on hosting such ceremony in the walls of our home, so I summoned the counsel of my beekeeper friend, Michael, who lives and practices Buddhism with his family at Green Gulch Farm. Born in Germany, Michael grew up with bees as an integral part of his life until personal tragedy drew him away from his hives. But bees will not long be separated from those who love them. Michael began to dream about bees first, so he and his wife were hardly surprised when a thick swarm of five to six thousand bees arrived at their Zen cottage one warm May morning about four years ago. Michael hived the wild swarm, and Zen practice and beekeeping flowed together for him like ripe pollen and sweet nectar becoming honey.
As I stood with Michael and his young son Lukas, a fledgling beekeeper himself, transfixed by the sound of bees entering and exiting our home, my friends solemnly reminded me that bees need shelter when the weather grows cold. I promised to protect the wall bees until spring when we could free them.
In the dead of winter that year, I invited Michael and Lukas to come sit zazen in our living room. They arrived in noble silence before dawn to a room lit by firelight and the single beeswax candle they had given me at the winter solstice. The room was alive with the scent of wild honey. From the inner walls around the fireplace the steady hum of the hive rose and fell in rolling waves all around us, somehow anchoring our sitting with their sound. Without speaking a word, we closed our meditation at daybreak by sharing a single teaspoon of Green Gulch honey, the entire life’s offering of one worker bee.
When spring arrived, we sawed open the outer wall of our home and freed clouds of wild bees just when the garden was coming into full bloom. The inner wall around the chimney was patterned with hexagonal comb, dripping with warm honey. It has been a few seasons since this encounter with the wall bees, but I still hear them as I sit, fervently hoping that all hives in the ten directions are protected from winter cold. A small jar of honey from Michael and Lukas is on our home altar. The garden outside is white with hoarfrost, yet the amber hum of bees, the birds of the muses, pours out from the frozen throat of the flowers.