Saturday, June 26, 2010
A Ritual for our Times: An Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee
Paper for Uncommon Kinship Class
by Urania (Barbara "bee" Framm)
Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
June 10, 2010
Instructors: Luisah Teish, Judy Grahn, Dianne Jenett
In “Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect our Lives, our World”, Joanna Macy writes: “…in our time, these three rivers—anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and ancestral teachings, flow together.” In creating a community ritual, it was these three rivers that informed three women, including myself, who banded together to create an event which would educate, honor and grow community around concern for the honey bees.
Our ritual developed synchronistically: we were three women who had known each other over many years, mostly in the context of world music and dance. A chance conversation about the plight of the honey bees, triggered by a lecture given Marguerite Rigoglioso on the Delphic Oracle and bee priestesses, or Melissae, of Ancient Greece, led to the discovery that my two friends had traveled with Joan Marler on an anthropological tour to Bulgaria several years back. In the course of this tour, they had been introduced to the Bistrisi Babi, grandmothers from the villages of Bulgaria who still maintain the traditions of singing and dancing. The Babis taught my friends Karina and Jana a song to the honey bees, which would have traditionally been sung in a circle of six women --mirroring the sides of the honeycomb-- with a ceremonial matriarch standing in the center.
Hearing this, and discovering that this had only been performed once for the public, the idea arose that we could create an entire evening around this one song in praise of the honey bee. We met together and brainstormed. First we came up with the name: An Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee. We wanted the word “sacred” to be prominent, so that it was apparent from the outset that we were honoring the honey bees; this would also be reflective of a long history of cultural connection between the honey bee and the sacred –in literature, poetry, mythology, stories, saints, and symbols. We decided that we would use several different mediums throughout the evening: film, lecture, poetry, participatory ritual, music, and dancing.
The Evening began by greeting each participant at the door with a beeswax taper. When everyone was gathered, a candle was lit from the altar, which we had elaborately decorated with imagery relating to the bees, and this flame was passed on, one by one, to everyone in the audience. We then all processed up to the altar, and placed the lit tapers in a large bowl filled with sand. The procession was accompanied by live Eastern European folk music. This was followed by the showing of a film trailer of “The Vanishing of the Bees”, a work-in-progress which just recently premiered in London. Marguerite Rigoglioso then spoke about the bee priestess of ancient Greece and illustrated her talk with images relating to the Melissae and bees. After this, the heart of the evening was enacted: the Bulgarian bee ritual, originally performed out in the fields, surrounding the beehives. In the place of an active beehive we had placed a traditional woven “skep” (bee-hive) at the center of the room. Six singers surrounded me, arms entwined with each other, as I stood in the middle of the circle, holding the place of the matriarch. We each wore ceremonial headdresses composed of grain and greenery, and were dressed in either Bulgarian finery or special ritual clothing of our own choice. I carried a small cauldron of water, and a whisk made up of green grass. The singers sang the bee song: “Pchelice medna iliadina”, in praise of the sweet, small honey bee. (The song can be heard online: http://www.music-bulgaria.com/show.php?action=artist&xid=151-Bistrishkite_babi_-_Avtentichni_balgarski_folklorni_pesni).
After the song was sung several times, the matriarch (myself, in this case) took the grass whisk, dipped it in the cauldron of water --now blessed, by the singing of the song-- and sprinkled each of the singers, and the audience, with it. The conclusion of the ritual, and the evening, consisted of the entire audience participating in Bulgarian circle dancing, accompanied by village folk music of Bulgaria, played on the gaida (bagpipes) and daval (large drum).
When we actually enacted the ritual evening, we ended up with over 150 people, in a space meant for closer to 120. The advantage of this was that, although we were definitely crowded, we had somehow created a ‘hive’ of our own. The closeness lent an intimacy and friendliness to the evening. At one point towards the conclusion of the night, when the dancing had come to an end, but we still remained in a standing spiral, a spontaneous hum arose from the group, as if on cue; it had not been planned! If anything was an affirmation of the power of our shared community ritual, this moment was emblematic of that. We all stood in the glow of that hum, aware of the connection between ourselves, and aware that something special had just occurred: for several moments we had dissolved together—become unified--through our joined focus on the bees. Through the music and circular dancing, we had momentarily, at least, erased divisions between ourselves, and perhaps even forged new long-term connections and understandings.
As Native American poet Victoria Lena Manyarrows writes, we were ‘dreaming together’. Her poem “See No Indian, Hear No Indian” speaks to the importance of sharing dreams with each other:
“i tell you how we the indians always listened
listened to one another and
talked out our differences.
i tell you this world
this world, strangled and distorted by white men
will die a bitter and harsh early death
if no one learns to listen
and dream together.”
Through the presentation of information on the honey bees, as well as music, dance and ritual, we were able to create a space for listening, hearing, and dreaming. We also had a question/answer time when members of the audience could ask questions and voice their opinions about the current state of the honey bees; this led to a passionate discussion about Colony Collapse Disorder and it’s possible causes. Many members of the audience were already bee lovers, but few had actually heard the statistics, or understood the implications of massive bee die-offs that have been occurring since 2006, around the world.
I think we were dealing with two different levels of uncommon kinship in this crowd: on the one hand, we had devoted beekeepers and persons who already had an interest in the honey bees. On the other hand, we had curious participants, who came out of an attraction to the cause as well as the knowledge that ritual, music and dance would be part of the event. There was some disconnect between these two groups, as the beekeepers—not a homogenous group by any means—had their own agenda (some of them rejected the “sacred” label), while the more ritually oriented participants were passionately attached to their belief system regarding the care and breeding of the bees (which in many cases diverges from standard beekeeping methods), using an entirely natural, pesticide free, approach.
As an example of this divide, I even received a “hate mail” letter from a Marin County beekeeper the morning of my second bee event in August of 2009. He wrote something to the effect that I was a “greedy, money-mongering, hypocritical new -age space cadet”, and I should desist from presenting such events --which apparently I was only doing for the massive amounts of money I was making (!!). This really opened up my eyes to the opposing mind-set that I was dealing with as I embarked on the path of “bee activism”. I was temporarily shocked, depressed, and daunted by his hateful email, but since I received it the morning of the event, I was forced to put it out of my mind and carry on, which was just as well. It was a good lesson in an unfortunate type of diversity, however, and it made me reflect on the ways our presentation could be fine-tuned so as not to be offensive to mainstream beekeepers.
Joy James, in her essay “Truth Telling” writes: “ I have found that, while it is easy to dismiss my opponent’s humanity and use that heightened anger and that “moral justification” to push things through, anger is not the best energy to work with if it doesn’t have a loving perspective…A very important aspect of the idea of community is that you can’t learn this loving in isolation. You really only can learn this kind of loving when it is not easy. It is almost as if through struggle you learn love that is reconciliation without acquiescence. This requires understanding the lay of the land and then doing what is necessary to change the terrain, to change the landscape and make it more habitable for human beings.”
When I originally began this project of getting involved in honey bee activism, it never occurred to me that this subject could in any way be controversial. Who doesn’t love honey? And who wouldn’t love a honey bee, or want them to survive and thrive? I never imagined that this sub-culture (which I have discovered it to be) could be so diverse in its own way, and also so quirky. The range of people who keep bees encompasses a complete spectrum. There is as much variety in this group of people as any cross section of the population. Interestingly, the current problems afflicting the bees have brought together beekeepers in an unlikely accord; the overriding concern about the survival of the bees has transcended differences, and united individuals under the banner of saving the bees.
I feel strongly that nature is speaking to us through the bees, as well as many other insects, mammals, and fish: if we do not wake up to the call of the animal world, and the natural environment which sustains them, we risk our own survival, as is becoming increasingly evident. Referring to this awakening as “the Great Turning”, Joanna Macy writes: “the shift that is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening…is the third, most basic dimension of the Great Turning…The realizations we make in the third dimension of the Great Turning save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis. They help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand. They also help us withstand the temptation to turn on each other, finding scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage. But when we know and revere the wholeness of life, we can stay alert and steady. We know there is no private salvation. We join hands to find the ways the world self-heals—and see the chaos as seedbed for the future.”
I think that both of our “Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bees” events, one in February of 2009, and one in August of 2009, did provide a forum for deep listening; we were able to engage the community in discussion regarding issues surrounding the disappearance of the bees, as well as provide a historical, cultural background of their prominent place in ancient history. The seed of this discussion was rooted in a concern—love—for the honey bees; through compassion we can arm ourselves to make this fundamental shift in consciousness—the “Great Turning”, as Macy names it.
On another level, we were also engaging in a conversation with the bees—insects which have been misunderstood and feared, as much as they have been loved and appreciated. By presenting information about the bees, their importance to the planet and their integral role in the life of all of us, we hopefully were able to undo
some misconceptions about the bees, and replace those falsehoods with credible knowledge.
Gunther Hauk, a German beekeeper, disciple of Rudolph Steiner and the Anthroposophic philosophy he formulated, writes in his book “Towards Saving the Honey Bee”: “At this time, I cannot ward off the feeling that the GREAT BEE herself is in despair for the general misuse and treatment of her colonies. It is withdrawing, collapsing, unable to give of her blessings because she is simply too exhausted by our exploitation…Let us consider, in our mind and heart, a renewed approach of reverence and care for all of our earth’s creatures. Let us help the honey bee regain her health and joy of living.”
Interestingly, the life of the honey bee provides a model of community interaction and cooperation. Without this intensely focused cooperation, the colony would not survive. A strong colony of honey bees can contain between 40,000 to 60,000 bees. The majority of the colony are female worker bees, who are responsible for feeding larvae, feeding drones, nectar ripening, producing heat, collecting water for cooling, housecleaning, guard duty, and field collection of pollen, propolis, and nectar. A female worker lives approximately 6-8 weeks in the summer, and she will work until her wings give out. If the workers stopped feeding the drones (responsible for mating with the queen), they would die. Additionally, the workers must feed the queen royal jelly, without which she would not be a queen, or be able to produce in excess of 1000 eggs per day.
“Honey bee colonies employ strategies remarkably similar to those of mammals, and raise relatively few, but extremely well-prepared and carefully protected reproductive individuals to release into the world. To this end, honey bees have developed specific abilities and behaviors that belong among the most amazing in the living world. We are only just beginning to understand this highly complex tapestry….Maurice Maeterlink, a scientist from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, was still able to perceive the life of the colony as an organism and express deep awe and reverence for the greater forces and mysteries indicated by the life of the bees (Maeterlink 1915). Modern science creates a dichotomy out of this very advanced and integrated life expression. On the one hand, researchers marvel at the intricacies of activity, timing and production that the bees so amazingly execute among themselves, to provide gifts for the rest of the world (not only pollination, honey, wax). Yet under the sway of our technological mentality, they try to define the life of the bee colony by separation and delineation of its ‘individual’ components: queen, workers, and drones.”
Even as scientific knowledge about the bees has increased, our “technological mentality” has stripped us of a compassionate understanding and approach to beekeeping. We have “commodified” the bees, turning them into--like everything else in this Western society-- a “product”. The standard method of reproduction is now no longer the naturally occurring mating of the queen with her drones; queen bees are now routinely artificially inseminated. This process, available for viewing on the internet, is akin to torture: the queen is placed in a holding tube of an instrument and anesthetized with carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the drone’s head and thorax are crushed, effectively turning the drone inside out, so that semen can be collected. Hooks are used to help insert a syringe with the semen into the queen bee. Noah Lewis, who has posted a page about artificial insemination of the queen bee on her website www.vegetus.org, writes about the practice: “I do not mean to trivialize human rape and certainly an individual human rape is far worse than an individual honeybee rape, but as a cultural phenomenon, they are equally evil and, in fact, flow from the same source.”
When considering the current plight of the honey bee, we cannot overlook this insensitivity to the basic impulses and natural functioning of the honey bees. In nature, the queen normally mates once in her life--in mid-air with 7-17 drones (male bees) who then die. By submitting the queen bee to this ‘rape’, we are erasing a fundamental function within the hive, of both the drone and the queen. Gunther Hauk feels that “the single most serious factor causing the lowered state of health and vitality of the honey bee (is) our ‘great’ achievement of artificial queen production”. Michael Bush, of Bush Bees Farms, Canada writes, “We have a narrow gene pool to start with, and between pesticides, pests, and overzealous programs to control Africanized Honey Bees, many of the pockets of feral bees have been depleted leaving only the queens that people buy. When you consider that there are only a handful of queen breeders providing 99% of the queens, that's a pretty small gene pool. This deficiency used to be made up by feral bees and people rearing their own queens. But the recent trend is to encourage everyone to not rear their own queens and only buy them.” This is ultimately leading to a situation where the gene pool is deteriorating. Marin County Beekeepers recently have launched their own program called “Survivor Stock Queen Project”. Under the guidance of master beekeepers like Serge LaBesque of Sonoma County, the Marin Beekeepers will attempt to raise their own queen bees, without resorting to artificial insemination methods, removing the necessity of purchasing queens from one source, as is the current custom throughout the United States.
Awareness of all the above facts—the commodification of the bees, artificial insemination, and other contemporary beekeeping practices—has led to a slow shift in consciousness; beekeepers throughout the United States can no longer ignore the fact that the bees are dying and that this will have an immediate and highly detrimental impact on the production of produce, their jobs and livelihoods, and in general, the continuation of life as we know it.
The bees are communicating to us through their demise. We have to make that shift, entering into the “Great Turning”, and direct our energies to focus on ways that we as a global community can come together, in the richness of our diversity, in an uncommon kinship, and find ways that together we can help the honey bees. In helping the bees, we will also be aligning ourselves with “our deepest desires…we will choose life.”
Photos: August 15, 2009
An Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee. Pt. Reyes Dance Palace. Pt. Reyes, CA
The Melissae Chorus, dressed in Bulgarian traditional costume