Of Sowing and Swarming

The experience of planting a seed and watching it grow is a fitting analogy for my time here at Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary. My first month here, March, was a time of breaking down, of softening and germinating, of darkness. Snow was still on the ground, the trees were still bare, and I came from Chicago with several layers of protection, physically as well as emotionally. As March transitioned into April, we began to see the first few flowers break ground and bring color back to the land. During this time I, too, saw old ways of being, thinking and acting, as well as old layers of emotional protection, begin to fall away.

It’s humbling to see how deeply connected we are to the land and the seasons, and to watch the same processes unfolding both inside and out. From this experience naturally arises the question…where exactly is the boundary between what we call our inner and outer experience? Does it even exist when we go looking for it? One of the greatest things about this place is their love of good questions and their encouragement to hold these good questions in our hearts so they may touch, transform, and guide us throughout our lives.

These first 3 months have been challenging in every way, but the new growth, opportunities, and possibilities that have begun to emerge have been well worth it. More than ever, I’m finding great joy and reverence in the simplest things, especially the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly rhythms that a healthy farm, or any organism, is sustained by. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming, reminds us that rhythm restores power. Finding a healthy rhythm for eating, sleeping, working, meditating, nature walks, artistic and creative expression, as well as community and social life has been hugely empowering and I have never felt as nourished, grounded, and vital as I do now. And, just like in the sanctuary, the real fruit of our rhythms and labors have yet to arrive. Except for the strawberries – they’ve just started coming and are out of this world!

These last two months have really flown by. I had intended to write in April as well, but suddenly it was mid-April and May was fast approaching. Then, in the beat of a honeybee’s wing, it was mid-May already! The trees are green and the grass needs mowing and the garden is always in great need of weeding. The majority of our perennial flower garden has yet to bloom, and I’m told the month of July will be the most beautiful month of the entire season. It’s hard to imagine that it could get any more beautiful than it already is, but I’m looking forward to it.

When I first arrived, I felt like this place was a good representation of what nature is like when we just “get out of the way” and let it take care of itself. More and more, however, I’m realizing how special this sanctuary is, and how nothing like this could ever exist without the caring hands of a human being. We humans are capable of such destruction, yet here it’s also clear that we are capable of living in harmony with the land, it’s animals and each other, enriching and enlivening all that we touch, and that our hearts, minds, and hands can indeed come together with wisdom and reverence for all life. If I leave here with nothing else, I will leave with hope.

The bees have also been busy, and swarming season is upon us! This may be the most exciting time in the whole year. For those of you who are new to the world of the honeybee, swarming happens when everything in the hive is perfect: there is an abundance of food stored, there are many flowering plants and fresh nectar sources, morale is high, the days are getting longer, and there isn’t any room to build new comb and expand the colony. At this point, usually in the spring, the colony goes into swarming mode. On a nice sunny day, the queen and roughly half of the colony, perhaps between 20,000 to 30,000 bees, triumphantly spill from the hive and create a huge spiraling vortex that you can hear across the entire sanctuary. Swarming is quite possibly the most joyful thing I’ve ever experienced; time stops and the air is literally alive with the hum and excitement of birth and a new beginning – the queen and half her children leave the hive in it’s absolutely perfect condition to search for a new home and begin building anew, while the hive they’ve just left will soon raise a new queen and carry on their good work. Honeybees are at their most gentle when swarming; when the swarm lands and gathers nearby, we can actually collect it with our bare hands and transfer them into a waiting hive.

One thing that makes this place a true sanctuary is that we always encourage and support the instinctual behavior and rhythms of the bees, such as swarming, while, in contrast, many commercial and hobby beekeepers actually take action to suppress swarming, as well as other natural colony behaviors. And, sadly, I just read that 42% of America’s honeybee colonies died over this last year…of course there are many factors that contribute to these tragic and unsustainably high losses, but for perspective, Spikenard had a 100% survival rate last winter, and a 97% survival rate this winter.

We’ve also had several workshops over the last 2 months, which is always profoundly inspiring to be a part of. People from all over America, and even from other countries, come spend a few days or even a week with us to explore the foundations of sustainable beekeeping and biodynamic farming. Even though I have heard much of this information before, it somehow seems to get more powerful, important and relevant every time I hear it. The sense of community and friendship that develops within our classes is also very moving, and helps us remember that we are not alone in our efforts or struggles with the conventionally accepted ways of thinking, living, and acting.

And what else…the vegetable garden is overflowing with an abundance of leafy greens, asparagus and mushrooms, and we’ve got so much more on the way: carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, peas, beans, rye, onions, garlic, a myriad of herbs and spices…and so much more I can’t even remember right now, and there is still more that has yet to be planted. I’m still waiting to go on some more hikes…the bees, sanctuary, garden, and classes have been needing our attention, though I think we’ve got a short break in the action for the first few weeks of June. And, last but not least, there is a small river that runs along the border of the sanctuary’s bottom lands (planted with a few acres of pollinator forage) that we love to cool off in after our long hot days in the sanctuary…again, at day’s end, it’s those simple and unglamorous things that actually seem to be the most important.

May you enjoy these beautiful days and all that life has to offer!

~Ryan

Gunther sharing some cow horn wisdomOur bees enjoying one of the first warm days in April Look what we found!Our best friend, the Dandelion Gunther and Alex inspecting a hive with our students Introducing a swarm to the Sun HiveBeings of the SunGroup discussion with studentsBottoms up! This family drove 8 hours to spend the afternoon with us Gunther with an about-to-be-caught swarm I'm about to shake this swarm into that box!