And bees are my favorite. I like to watch them relentlessly collect nectar and water from dawn to sunset. I remember how they constantly visited the flowers of the lavender bushes we planted in our backyard years ago. Those bushes are now gone, and so are the bees. We have new flowering bushes in our garden, but lately, I have not seen a single bee.
I have always felt comfortable around bees and I have never been afraid of them. As a child, I used to gently grab a bee from its side wings with two fingers while it was sipping water from a fountain. I would examine it for a while as it wiggled from side to side, and eventually I’d release it.
My father was a beekeeper who developed this hobby due to mere happenstance. In the mid-1960s, he worked as a clerk at city hall in the small town where I grew up. With his meager salary being hardly enough to feed a family of five children, he liked to go hunting on weekends and brought back wild rabbits, quail and other game.
On one occasion, he took me hunting with him in a nearby forest. Hearing some buzzing in a tree, I pointed to a big black blob on top of a tree and asked what it was. He looked up and told me that it was a wild beehive.
The next day, my parents got up before dawn and drove to the forest on a motorcycle. When they arrived at the location of the beehive, they gently nudged the blob until it dropped inside a basket, which they covered with a piece of cloth. To this day, I am still trying to picture my mother riding behind my father while holding a basket full of bees with one hand and holding on to my father for dear life with the other. Eventually, they both made it safely to the house.
My father built a cylinder-type home from flexible plywood and dropped the hive in it. He made small entrances for the bees on the front disk and placed the beehive high above ground near the entrance of our house. The bees settled in their new environment and got to work.
Several months later, my mother noticed some drops of a viscous fluid on the ground. She soon realized that it was raw honey overflowing from the unsealed edges of the makeshift beehive. My father opened the container and discovered several layers of honeycombs. We feasted on the providential substance, which prompted my father to teach himself about becoming a beekeeper.
We moved the following year and took our bees with us to a new orchard with plenty of space and flowers. Eventually, my father taught himself how to become a beekeeper, and bought several commercial beehives and the necessary equipment to extract the honey from the honeycombs without damaging them. At the height of his enterprise, he was taking care of nearly 80 beehives. Each hive had its own personality and temperament. Beehives that were more docile were placed close to our house, whereas the fierce ones were located farther away.
These fascinating creatures have been immortalized in Chapter 16 of the Quran: “The Bees.” Verse 16:68 describes the dwellings of these insects in mountains, rocks and trees. It is interesting that these creatures are addressed in this verse with Arabic female pronouns. Modern science teaches us that it is indeed the female workers that gather the pollen and make honey in an extra stomach dedicated for this purpose.
The Quran is full of other examples describing communities of insects and animals, and it urges us to study them and learn from them. I have watched a swarm of bees in the summer hover over a beehive and create a ventilating effect to cool the temperature inside the beehive. In the winter, the bees will move closer together to generate heat and warm the whole colony.
I was saddened to hear that worker bees started disappearing in Florida in 2006 after abandoning their queen and hive. By June 2007, similar disappearances had been reported in 35 states in a mysterious phenomenon termed colony collapse disorder. The number of bees has continued to decline in recent years because of the introduction of new pesticides and specific pests from Europe.
The good news is that scientists are now investigating how these industrious insects live in the wild and why they are more resilient than the domesticated honeybees. In his book, “The Lives of Bees,” authority Thomas Seely tells a captivating story about how wild honeybees may hold the key to reversing the catastrophic die-off of the managed bee populations.
Seeley explains that bees in nature differ substantially from the domesticated honeybees living under human management. He argues that the toolkit of survival skills developed by wild bees over 30 million years can be adapted by beekeepers to generate new solutions for the challenges faced by bees today.
Returning to nature may be the key for saving our honeybees — for the enrichment of their lives as well as ours.
By Said Ahmed-Zaid