I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Anne Marie Vencill’s reflection on the spirituality of beekeeping.
For more than 30 years I had an idea. It bubbled to the surface at odd times, often with the change of seasons. Thoughts tumbling; gossamer threads pulled out in moments of daydream. The reasons to keep it suppressed were numerous: early on there were frequent moves and limited resources; then a flush of children, five in six years; the busy-ness of caring for said children; the potential for failure. The list goes on. It broke wide-open while lingering over a cup of tea when my husband asked, “What would you like for Christmas?”
“A beehive!” I blurted out, not pausing all to think about my response.
A large box appeared next to the Christmas tree, resplendent in brown cardboard glory, beckoning me to enter with those who have gone before keeping bees: Gobnait, Hildegard, Bernard, Dominic, and Ambrose by association. I wonder, did this provide grounding for them too; the simple work of tending bees?
I have come to understand the keeping of bees is more than a popular “protect the pollinators” project; more than an intellectual entomological exercise. It is spiritual experience, exposing my greatest fears and wildest joys. Sometimes it brings an exhilarating sense of awe and understanding. Other times I am perplexed, unsure, even stung. Beekeeping, the ways of the hive, the hopeful anticipation of a fruitful harvest are metaphorical mirrors in my quest to be a monk in the world.
Bees, like me, move through different stages of life. They change both in physical form and function within the colony over time. The hive is mostly female. Newly hatched adults begin their work tending the young bees. They feed them, clean their cells, and cap them when they are ready to pupate. These workers stay close to the hive and are attentive to the needs of the individuals within the colony. It is only as bees age they leave the hive to forage for nectar, pollen, and eventually die.
For more than two decades, I too, stayed close to home. I was the full-time caretaker of my children. Some I homeschooled for a period. Now I find myself drifting uncomfortably through the flotsam and jetsam of mid-life. I struggle to understand how I fit into a family mostly grown and moving away (three of my children are in their early 20s, the other two in their late teens). The role that has defined me over the last 20+ years, is no longer. Suddenly I am not Elizabeth or Theresa or Benjamin or Alexander or Henry’s mother. I am just me … Anne Marie.
I play the “what if” game. What if I joined a religious order instead of marrying? What if I chose to pursue my academic career instead of raising a family? What if we moved? What if? What if? What if? It is like bees swarming. It unsettles me. Breeds discontent. Makes me prickly and on edge. I know I can’t go backwards yet I continue to play.
My physical form too has changed too. I have more gray hair, wrinkles, less muscle tone. I wear trifocal glasses. Sometimes I peer into the mirror and see my mother staring back. I am not the regal matriarch of my dreams. Bees too age. They become more ragged and worn, lose the pubescence that identifies newly hatched adults. This is when they leave the hive to forage for pollen and nectar. It is in mid-life they take flight.
Just as there is freedom in flight, there are conditions which may cause harm: mites, wax moths, hive beetles, extreme heat or cold, etc. In my own life, it is not varroa mites that infest, but a painful, crippling, exhausting, and debilitating disease: rheumatoid arthritis. Diagnosed nearly 20 years ago, I must face the reality that I can no longer just “push through” ignoring my body. The disease and medications have taken a toll: Constant pain that wakes me up at night and lasts all day, crippling fatigue, frequent and persistent illnesses brought on an immune system suppressed. I scream over and over and over in my mind, not fair! What have I done to deserve to suffer like this?
In those moments when I am trapped in pain or feeling sorry for myself or need to get out of my head, I wander back to the hives. They are a place of calm and peace. As I watch bees flying in and out, my heart rate slows. My mind focuses on something other than me. I marvel at the beauty and complexity of the bees, and the mystery of the One who created them. I can observe bees for hours without distraction or boredom. I talk to the bees. I move more deliberately and slowly, with care. I’ve been stung too, a wake-up call to be more mindful.
Maybe the bees call me to do this with my own life: To stand back, observe, marvel, and be mindful. To set aside my preconceived agenda and ebb and flow with the natural cycles of family and aging. To give myself permission to take flight and explore where I am at this moment. To move deliberately and slowly, taking time to enjoy what is.
Anne Marie Vencill is an entomologist from Athens, Georgia and works as an academic advisor at the University of Georgia. She is an avid quilter, knitter, and bee keeper.