Adelma Aurora Hnasko
Each spring when the snows melt and the ground thaws, I carry a chair out to the orchard and position it close to the entrances of my honeybee hives. With cup of tea, I sit quietly, waiting for sunrays to crest the mountain and hit the metal roofs of the hives. In this moment of warmth, bees crowd the doorways of their homes and begin, one by one, to fly out into the morning glow in search of nectar and pollen.
The bees are nimble when they exit: Thousands dart out in straight vectors on their foraging journeys. When they return, they are full of nectar from reaching their tongues inside dozens of flowers. They are now carrying more than half their weight in pollen, packed into the baskets on their hind legs. They then descend slowly back to their hive, where hundreds of other worker bees help them unload and store their caches.
Before they leave on their next flights, the honeybees perform a “waggle dance,” vibrating their bodies across the hive’s honeycomb to signal the precise location of nearby flowers. Through this communication, conducted in a figure-eight pattern, the bees relay direction, angle and length coordinates to other bees. And so it is that at any time in the summer months, I will find hundreds of bees working together in a particular area of the watershed—as far as six miles away from their hives—collectively kissing the centers of whatever plant is most vibrantly in flower.
I began backyard beekeeping eight years ago in an effort to do my small part to support honeybees in an age of colony-collapse, heavy pesticide use and climactic shifts. I had no idea then that this practice would introduce me to the most altruistic, socially minded community I’ve ever encountered. Nor did I know then that I’d fall completely in love with these ancient, brilliant creatures and their highly sophisticated organizational systems. The presence of 100,000 honeybees in our orchard has had a profound impact on my own life—both during their busy season when the queens are laying upwards of 1,500 eggs a day and the worker bees are foraging from thousands of flowers—and also in the winter when the bees significantly decrease the size of their colony, insulate the hive with propolis, and slow down all metabolic and social systems to conserve energy to increase longevity through the cold months. The hives invite me to remain aware of them, and, by spillover, of all the land around me. The bees encourage me to notice.
The bees tell the story of each season through its blossoms. In late May, they congregate on the wild honeysuckle bushes along the river, bringing home pollen of the very lightest shade of yellow. In early June the bees buzz en masse on the delicate flowers of the box elder trees, before they move on to the lavender, the catalpa trees and the raspberries. My favorite foraging moment comes midsummer when the giant red poppies open, revealing purple pollen. The bees brush their legs on the poppy corolla and antlers, emerging with purple pollen packs on their back legs and a light dusting of purple covering their bodies. In September, the bees’ leg baskets are weighed down by dark-yellow, pungent chamisa pollen, and with it an increased vigor to harvest, as these brilliant creatures know the warm season soon will come to an end.
Honeybees are highly evolved, having existed for more than 100 million years. A single honeybee displays more than 60 separate behaviors, including counting, reading symbols and solving multi-phase problems. The colony, as community, exercises democratic decision-making, cooperation and shared work through a range of tasks—only one of which is the magical and magnificent production of honey.
Yet while so resilient, honeybees are also fragile beyond measure. Honeybees are our barometer: environmentally, biologically and socially. My hives have suffered colony collapse and queen deaths, bear lootings and pesticide poisonings. My hives have frozen with unexpected late spring cold-spells; they have waned with nectar droughts. The honeybees are our contemporary canaries in the coal mines: so sensitive to adverse and shifting conditions, they clearly indicate where we are out of balance in our ecosystem. When we listen to the bees and apply our concentration to the natural world, these sophisticated insects provide us with instructions for how to tend gently and cultivate creatively.
The gifts of the beehive are many. Twice a year I open the hives to check on the queens and their colonies (and, if lucky in the spring, to harvest a bit of excess honey). Visiting the hive is like being underwater, or in another universe altogether: thousands of worker bees each at a different stage in her life, hundreds of drones, brood cells, pollen, nectar and capped honey cells of comb. The buzz is mighty, the hum of work infectious. Outside of the hive, I know that every foraging bee I encounter is making dozens of flights a day, visiting hundreds of flowers to bring their sweetness back to her colony. The intimacy of this connection to the micro-level bee workings highlights the importance of our own work in community. Every little bit matters.
Beekeeping has ignited in me a wide-awake gratitude for my local landscape. The bees remind me how the Earth endures, yet also how she needs our help to heal. They encourage me to slow down and to observe. If this magnificent universe of inner-workings exists within my hives, what other worlds of possibility lay hidden beneath the leaves of the plants I encounter, or deep in the soils where I plant? Where, next, can I nestle my chair, quietly observe, and stay present to the wonders and to wisdom of our natural world?
Adelma Aurora Hnasko spent her first years of life near Coyote, New Mexico, where she now tends two family ranches and is a parciante of the Arroyo de Agua acequia. A graduate of Stanford University, Hnasko has been involved in numerous community arts learning projects. She lives with her husband and two boys in Santa Fe.