Buzzing bees are one of my favorite sounds in the world.
Last week Joseph and I were driving back to the farm from Portland. A gorgeous day. All I wanted to do when we got home was get out in the garden. But to earn a living, we need to spend at least a little time in the office. Joseph teaches Structural Integration for horses at our farm school and I teach and write about bees and farm life. We don’t have jobs outside of the farm. Our income depends on communicating with the world so people know about our mission. And that requires time in the office.
The conversation was mostly me musing aloud how to convince myself to spend a few hours in the office every summer day, to have the willpower to plunk my butt down in my office chair and get stuff done. Even as I said it, I recognized the conundrum. I need to work, yet I prefer to be outside playing with bees.
Most of the year I truly enjoy writing and speaking about bees and caring for the farm, but when it’s fabulously perfect weather and the sunflowers are covered with bees, it’s difficult to convince myself that sitting in front of this computer is more exciting than watching bees. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know what I mean. Bees are amazing and there’s no place I’d rather be than in their presence.
We pulled into the driveway and as I gathered up our packages, Joseph walked through the garage to the front door. He abruptly came back and said, “There’s something going on with your bees.”
Sure enough, the air around the patio and second story deck were full of bees. Almost like a swarm, but there was no central focus point, just thousands of bees in the air. For the moment I chalked that up to bees doing curious and inexplicable things, as bees are wont to do. I went inside, put my packages on the table, then went upstairs to my office. As I walked down the hallway, I heard the buzzing of bees.
I stepped through the office door into a room filled with 10,000 bees. 10,000 buzzing bees were flying about my office, half in the air, half crawling on windows, walls, the desk. The sound (the sound!) of 10,000 bees humming filled every inch of air.
Still not understanding why they were there, I stood in the middle of the room for a full ten seconds delightedly wondering how? Why? What would make all these bees want to visit me? In my hive?
Curious event #1: Normally in summer I leave the windows open, but the house was being painted this week, so we’d removed all the screens.
Curious event #2: Last week I harvested a few honey combs that I’d placed on a table, waiting for me to take photos before I processed them.
Curious event #3: Explorer bees smelled the honey and flew in through the open windows to scour the comb,
That’s the logical explanation — bees smelled un-guarded honey and came through the window to harvest it. But a truer explanation is this: I said out loud I needed to find a way that would make me WANT to go into the office and stay there all day. Oh golly, the bees answered that in the best way ever!
I sat at my desk working, enveloped by the song of 10,000 bees. 10,001 of us got a lot done that afternoon.
How the buzzing bees got home
Most of the bees filled their bellies on honey and nectar and flew right back out one of the open windows and door, but I noticed many honey-filled bees crawling up and down the windows, frustrated by the glass. I caught one or two at a time with a cup and a post card and let them out the open door, but with hundreds left on the window, and more joining them every minute, I could see that wasn’t the best system. So I came up with a solution clever enough that I want to share it with you.
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In case you don’t know this, bees orient to “home” with a tiny chip of magnetite in their brain. A bee flying home in the direction of a window can easily get stuck there. They absolutely KNOW that home is in that direction, so they try to fly through the window again and again. No go.
[From my book, Song of Increase:]
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“Why do they get stuck? Because a honeybee cannot override her sense of direction. To guide her home, each bee has a tiny speck of magnetic oxide nanoparticles concentrated in her antennae and abdomen. When a bee flies up against that west-facing window, she knows absolutely that home is in that direction, if only she could get past the window. She will continue buzzing against the window until she exhausts herself and dies. You would imagine these bees would eventually figure out that they cannot get through the closed window, and then they’d go back out through the open door, but they don’t work that way. Curiously, other bugs nearly always find their way out quickly. Only the honeybees get caught there and die.”
I realized that there are actually two components to a bee getting stuck in a window: (1) The window is in the direction of the way home, and (2) that the path through the window looks transparent. All I needed to do was alter one of those situations.
I had a roll of black paper in the studio, so I laid it across the window and taped it in place. In the time it took me to change the transparent window to opacity, 95% of the bees found their way out the door. If you ever find yourself trying to get a bunch of bees out of a room, block the windows and leave the door open. They’ll find their way.
I took the remaining honey comb and placed that out on the deck. Within ten minutes nearly every bee had re-oriented and found the honey source outside the window. My deck had 9,900 buzzing bees on it while a hundred bees stayed behind to help me finish writing, and then they were on their way, too.
Since then, every day I walk into my office, a bee or two finds her way in. I sit and write while she checks out the area to see if any honey comb remains, or (as I like to think) if I need another moment of inspiration.
Click here to watch the video.