Honey Bees and Shaky Knees

As a child, my family and I took routine trips to my grandpa’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was an old cabin made of logs the size of burly men, with mossy front steps and a brown-painted dock in the back. I loved waking up to the smell of pine trees and the tapping of waves on rocks. Everything there seemed peaceful and easier; the air was warm the way it gets in kitchens, and there was a row of copper-bottomed pans hung from a cork board next the stove. Everything seemed calm—it was a kind of retreat for me.

Until I was eleven, that is, and I unintentionally walked too close to what I thought was a beehive. The bees were big and black and made a sound like Velcro separating when they flapped their wings. They fastened themselves onto my back, flying down my shirt and stinging me, unforgivingly, until I went to the dock and jumped into the lake. As my mom helped me put ice onto the 8 stinging spots on my back, I thought,

“I hate bees.”

For a while, I stuck to that hatred of flying things with stingers, until I learned that what stung me that day were actually wasps, not bees.

Bees are mostly harmless and extremely necessary creatures. We need them for 1/3 of global crops, and without bees we would lose a lot of foods we love to eat like almonds, peaches, and apples, and autumn would be a dismal time of year without apple orchards and fresh apple cider.

It’s because of insects like wasps and hornets that bees get a bad reputation, but here at Volunteers Peru, we feel bees should get a little more positive publicity. Which is why we want to tell you about our recent trip to Tomepampa.

For those of you who don’t know, Volunteers Peru supports a local school, Colegio Honofre Benavides, in a town called Tompampa. Tomepampa is about an 8 hour bus ride from Arequipa, and is located in the Cotahuasi Canyon. About 200 people call Tomepampa home; it is a small, quiet, and the air smells warm the way kitchens do, just like at my grandpa’s cabin.

Marita, founder of Volunteers Peru, is from Tomepampa, and she has family members who live there, one of whom—Lucho—has several beehives in his backyard, next to his grapevines and the avocado plants. Two weeks ago, Megan—Project Manager for Volunteers Peru—and I got to take a trip to Tomepampa to help our new volunteers get settled in. During the few days we spent in Tomepampa’s winding streets and tiny produce shops, we got to make some new bee friends.

Lucho led us into his backyard, a small grassy area protected by a handmade stonewall. Megan and I picked fresh grapes from a vine growing above the red pickup parked in the grass before following Lucho to a circle of raised earth with 6 beehives, all facing each other. It was like the bee version of the suburbs.

Lucho gave us brightly colored veils to protect our faces, but white sweatshirts, as white is a calming color for bees. We stood to the side of the hives—rather than directly in front of them—because bees have a certain path they always take when directly leaving and returning to the hive. The paths are so exact that bees will crash into your leg before righting themselves and going around you: they, like humans, are creatures of habit.

Bees always follow the same path and always return to the same hive, even if the hives are right next to each other. Each hive has its own smell, and if a bee tries to enter the wrong hive, he or she will be stung and killed by guard bees that stand by the door, as the bees who live in that hive will think the neighbor is coming in to steal honey. Imagine if this were the case in your childhood neighborhood: Mrs. Johnson constantly punching and killing people when they came to the door asking for some of her famous rhubarb pie or strawberry jam.

Lucho taught Megan and I about his bees—how they will dance to indicate where a new set of flowers or fresh blossoming tree is, how you can see collected pollen on the back legs of each bee as it enters the hive. He took the lid off of the hive and found the queen, marking her with a yellow marker so she can easily be found again.

In some of his hives, Lucho grows queens. Queens require special, larger cells, and are fed “royal jelly” by the worker bees. He also has more traditional hives he uses for honey, and Megan got to hold a frame—each box in a hive contains nine wooden, rectangular frames on which bees make honeycomb which they then fill with brood or honey—literally crawling with bees with her bare hands. And we are proud to say she is still sting-free.

The bus ride to and from Tomepampa is 8 hours long, and as such it provides time to think. On our ride back to Arequipa, I thought about bees and how they make a good, albeit slightly corny, metaphor for fear.

Just like most things we fear, bees are tiny in the scope of canyons and mountains. They come towards us, their speed often making us fear them more, flying around our heads and crashing into our legs. We are frightened because we feel they are inescapable and we feel helpless. But when if we can take a breath and stand aside to let them pass, they do. If we are patient enough to let them.


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