The form of an organism – and its relationship to the space around it – will reveal to us the characteristics of its being1
I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind. Maybe characteristics such as the sounds they make – moo – baa – bzz – (or in Germany where I spent a few of my younger years – muh – mäh – summ) would have seemed more appropriate. From the earliest age, we are encouraged to look at life in terms of what can be extracted from it. What we can take, rather than what we can give. We do not think of ourselves as stewards, guardians of the earth. We are managers. Consumers.
When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others. Thinking about a single bee is like thinking about a single cell in an eyeball without considering its context in the body – its dependence on arteries, tissues, orbit, muscles and brain – all the things that together permit sight. You may choose then to refer to the Bee, a name encompassing all the bees in a particular nest as well as their comb.
The hive is in many ways similar to a mammal. Its heat is carefully regulated – on hot days bees will stand in the entrance and fan their wings to introduce an air current. On cold days they’ll cluster within the hive, ensuring that the temperature is maintained at the warmth necessary for the survival of queen and young. This temperature is precise – only slightly lower than the temperature of a human body. Young bees are raised internally, in an area called the brood nest.
The bees waterproof their home with propolis, an antibacterial paste made from the resin of trees. The scent of propolis is heavenly. A transcendent perfume. One sniff and you are transported into the realm of the Bee – one of nectar, air and light.
Once you begin to think of the bees in this way, the idea of removing a comb as it pleases you, of extracting honey and using wax for candles and beauty products becomes problematic. You are not just reaching into a box of insects, but entering the body of a living animal.
The Sun Hive
German sculptor and beekeeper Günther Mancke united his extensive observations and artistic vision to guide the creation of a new kind of hive for the bees. He called it the Weissenseifener Hängekorb. In English we call it the Sun Hive. Round in shape, it is designed with the needs and natural preferences of the bees in mind. This marks a profound difference between the Sun Hive and ‘conventional’ hives, which have developed according to human convenience, prioritising ease of access, ease of honey harvest.
Günther noted that bees often choose to make their homes in the hollows of trees, at a preferred height of between 2.5 and 6 metres. The Sun Hive is therefore suspended from a tree or from a purpose-built frame. It must be sheltered from the rain. When unconstrained by the boxes we put them in, bees build rounded combs. The curve of the comb is determined by the arc of a chain of bees stretching from one side of the nest to the other and can be calculated according to the formula for a catenary curve. The form of the Sun Hive mirrors this curve, allowing the bees to build their comb without impediment.
The shape of the Sun Hive echoes the oblong form of a bee’s body. It consists of a combination of two skeps (coated with cow dung for warmth) and wooden support structures. Skeps are baskets woven from natural materials, usually rye straw (biodynamically grown where possible). They have been used as beehives for hundreds of years, although the use of box hives with movable combs quickly became more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Sun Hive is a conservation hive whose form is guided by the needs of the bees rather than the aim of honey production. A bee-centric approach recommends minimal intervention in the life of the hive. The Sun Hive is therefore seen by many conventional beekeepers as a threat not only to their practice of honey harvesting but also to the health of bee populations as a whole. Advocates of the Sun Hive often refer to themselves as bee guardians or natural beekeepers – they aim to provide habitat for the bees but to otherwise leave them in peace. Some see this hands-off style of beekeeping as irresponsible. The chemical treatments used to control bee pests such as varroa are claimed to be indispensable, despite the fact that untreated, unmanaged bees do just fine on their own as they have done for millennia. The Sun Hive is designed with a movable comb system, unlike a traditional skep basket. This permits the bee guardian to inspect the hive when necessary, although such inspections are kept to a minimum and the bees are not treated with chemicals.
Weak colonies die. Strong colonies swarm. They split in two. This is their means of reproduction. A virgin queen goes forth on her mating flight and only the strongest, healthiest, fastest males are able to mate with her. Swarm suppression, queen breeding and importation, artificial insemination, the use of chemical treatments and pesticides – is it any wonder that ‘colony collapse disorder’ is occurring with increasing frequency in places where practices such as this are mainstream? Humans interfere with natural processes and then wonder why things go awry. Must be something wrong with nature, we say. There’s something wrong with the bees.
The boxes we’ve built for the bees reflect our own homes with their angular walls and corners. Our cubic, linear thinking. We find it hard to think in curves. The move away from keeping bees in skeps has been ‘a move away from the principle of rounded forms to that of cuboid and square ones, and thus from the holistic and organic to the atomistic and additive. That is to say, the materialistic modes of thought that have been developing since the fifteenth century have also come to permeate the relationship between mankind and the bee.’2
Each bee has a role within the hive. This is a fiercely and undeniably interdependent community in which the work of each serves the needs of all. Far from the ‘rigidity of parallel lines and the monotony of equal distances’3 characterised by conventional box hives, the Sun Hive epitomises love – both the love of humankind for the bees, and the principle of love at work within the hive itself. As author and social activist bell hooks writes: ‘remember, care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving’.4 Just showing care for the bees is not enough – ‘there can be no love without justice’.5
With our shrinking forests and dwindling forage, the bees face a diminishing habitat. The Sun Hive and other bee-friendly hives, such as log hives and the Freedom Hive (a cylinder made of wood and straw, lighter than a log hive and easily hoisted into trees or placed on a tripod stand) created by beekeeper Matt Somerville, seek to restore lost habitat. A resurgence in traditional practices such as tree beekeeping (in which hollows are formed in living trees) and the work of communities of natural beekeepers and allies such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based in southern England, represent a vital turning of the mind and will towards giving to rather than taking from the bees.
I recently took a trip to Scotland, thought I’d spend a couple weeks in these northern lands to which I’m drawn by a mysterious magnetism. I wanted to simply be there, and also to meet with potential doctoral supervisors at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’d looked forward to this journey for some time, but I’d been struggling with the sense of crushing fatigue that is often a feature of my life with chronic illness. Instead of abandoning my plans, I opted to take the train rather than drive.
With hindsight, I see that I expected to find an illuminated path waiting for me in Edinburgh. Everything would click into place and I’d know what I was supposed to do. Instead, I found myself on a bridge over Waverley Station. I was on the edge, looking. I went back to my rented room and sobbed. I lay silently on the bed staring at the ceiling. It got dark outside.
I called a local Thai place, ordered a curry for collection. Stepped out feeling shaky, pierced by streetlights and voices, unsteady on my feet. I sat on a bench opposite the curry house just south of the Meadows and it was there I realised that I was ill again, that I wasn’t just having an emotional moment, I needed help.
I ended up in a crisis house. I was fortunate to find myself there instead of the hospital. I was free to be myself without the imposition of other people’s prescribed modes of health and being. I was able to express myself, to rest and to recover in a way that felt right for me. When I’ve been hospitalised in the past, I’ve been treated as a case to be managed, a problem to be solved, a body to be confined and kept alive. In a residential crisis house you are regarded as an autonomous human, albeit one in pain. It provides a safe space to be with that pain, to move through it instead of around it, to encounter it instead of numbing or ignoring it. I emerged on the other side of my distress without the need for medical intervention.
There are very few such crisis houses in the UK and in my view there should be more. I have experienced this setting on both sides – as a guest and also as a volunteer at a house in north London, where I served as a befriender for several years. People in crisis are initially befriended over the phone. Conversations may lead to an invitation to stay at the house for five days, free of charge, where the guest will encounter and be befriended by numerous volunteers. The essence of befriending is non-judgemental active listening. Not trying to fix, to deny, to solve, to dismiss, to console. Simply being with the person and accepting them as they are. No matter what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. Honouring their intrinsic value, validating their experiences, holding hope for them when they are hopeless. It was a compassionate and demanding place to work. By no means does it transform the lives of everyone that comes to stay. Five days is hardly enough to undo a lifetime of trauma or heal a broken heart. But providing people with an opportunity to reflect, to be heard, is invaluable. Ultimately the crisis house maintains that humans have the right to choose to end their lives. The hope is that they will find another option, and that they can be supported to think carefully before making this decision.
As someone living with ongoing physical and mental health problems, I feel especially grateful for places that allow me to simply be – that don’t make me feel worthless, dispensable or a burden. The amount of energy that goes into hiding sickness could be better spent on other things. ‘For where I am closed, I am false’, says Rilke. I need contemplative time built into the fabric of my days. If I don’t get it I start to become unwell.
Love is generous and fearless. It creates space for something to be itself, to evolve, to be ever in flux and in harmony with its own nature. Sometimes I feel I’m being forced into a form that doesn’t suit me. I must seek a habitat for myself in which I can flourish.
The wisdom of beings
The pathologisation of distress is in many ways akin to the pulling out of weeds we deem unsightly but that may be contributing to the health and balance of the soil. When we think in terms of roundness rather than linearity, we recognise the vast ecological network in which all things are connected. This isn’t to say that there are never times when pulling weeds or medicating distress is beneficial or even necessary to promote wellness. But my instincts tell me we are too quick to judge things on the basis of immediate utility rather than longer-term sustainability and growth.
In considering the Sun Hive alongside my personal experiences of distress, I do not mean to use the bees as a metaphor, to plunder nature for her poetry. Instead I wish to suggest that our reductive attitudes towards both bees and human health may be symptomatic of a prevailing mindset of exploitation and control. When we operate from a place of fear rather than of love, there can be no health, no harmony. There is much to learn from the Bee. By offering our attention and letting go of our received knowledge we may come to understand her true nature, with humility, awe and kindness.
What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings? What if we permitted things to live according to their own principles, allowed them to organise their own lives? Consider the wisdom of the swarm. The triumphant joyous flight of a virgin queen. We have much to gain from acknowledging that not everything can be known. That what we think of as ‘understanding’ is often inadequate. Purely cerebral thinking is in many cases disengaged, confined to existing constructs and narrow vocabularies that seek to make sense of and thereby limit life. Our words imply a world of things with secure identities to which things happen, rather than a fluid world populated by beings in a process of becoming. If our language and our modes of being and relating could somehow make room for surprise, discovery and change, how different we might feel. Ultimately our feelings are not the priority, but rather liberation from a human-centric and materialistic way of thinking that limits the potential of humans, bees and the broader ecosystem of which we are both part.
1. Günther Mancke, The Sun Hive. Natural Beekeeping Trust translation of newly revised and expanded version of the German 2005 edition of Günther Mancke: der Weissenseifener Hängekorb – Eine Alternative.
2. Mancke, p.74.
3. Mancke, p.70.
4. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.8.
5. hooks, p.19.
Sun Hive photographs courtesy of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Honeycomb picture by Carrie Foulkes.