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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The feel of spring

Because we are situated high in the Judean hills, midway between Hevron and Jerusalem, Spring comes to Gush Etzion somewhat later than to most of the country.  People in Natanya and Rehovot have been walking around in tank-tops and shorts for some time now, but sweaters and jackets were still de rigueur in 'the gush'... until last week, that is.  Spring has finally arrived here!

This past Shabbat was such a glorious Spring day that I decided to forgo my usual afternoon nap and instead went for a walk with my father and my oldest son. 

Gilad wanted to walk down to the ball-field and toss a baseball around.  My dad didn't really have a preference.  For me, the choice was obvious; We walked over to the neighboring kibbutz (Migdal Oz) to visit my bees.

'My' beeyard is actually a small meadow perched on a protected hillside above the kibbutz's cherry orchards.   I picked the spot as much for its eastern exposure (the earlier the sun touches the entrance to the hives the longer the bees have to forage for nectar every day) and proximity to the local flowering trees and plants, as for the beautiful setting (click here to see pics from the last couple of bee seasons).

Several times during the walk I stopped to point out the thousands of honeybees on the flowering bushes lining the street... each gathering pollen and nectar.  They were so intent on their work and besotted with the sweet nectar that I was able to gently stroke their fuzzy backs with the tip of my finger as they worked without any fear.  Bees can forage as far as 3 or 4 miles from their hives, so it was certainly possible - even likely - that some of these bees we met along the way were 'mine'... but there was really no way of knowing for sure. 

Anyway, it was a 20 minute walk out to the hives, but it seemed longer to me because I hadn't visited the beeyard since I 'bedded down the hives' for the winter after Rosh Hashannah.  All I could think about was; 'were the hives all right?  Were the colonies healthy? Had they all survived the winter? '

There are all sorts of bad things that can happen to beehives over a long, cold winter: 

  • They can run out of food stores
  • They can succumb to any of several bee diseases
  • They can die off after having been disturbed by man or animals
  • The queen can die and the colony might not have time to raise a new one.
  • The hives could be stolen (there is a big problem in this country with Arabs from the territories stealing Israeli hives in the early spring because they deliberately doom their own hives in the fall by not leaving any honey for their bees)

As we got closer to the hives I honestly didn't know what I would find.  I had left four healthy hives in the fall with strong queens and plenty of food stores for the winter.  They were nicely sheltered from the winter winds and blowing snow, and I'd reduced the entrance to each hive to a very small passage to cut down on drafts and help keep the place warm.  But for all that, it wouldn't be uncommon for one or two hives to have died off.

As we walked down the sun-dappled dirt road through the cherry orchards I could see the white hive boxes nestled up on the hillside.  The rocks I had placed on top to keep the covers from blowing off in a storm were still there... but I still quickened my pace and asked my dad and Gilad to wait for me a few yards away as I approached the hives.  I didn't want to alarm the guard bees that should be at the entrance of each hive with three people approaching at once.

I shouldn't have worried.  To my delight, as I inspected the entrance to each hive I found a veritable parade of bees flying off on foraging missions and coming back so laden that they practically crash landed on the front platform of the hive entrance.  The traffic was so heavy that the guard bees were barely able to check each bee as it entered the hive.

One of the hives seemed to be a bit weaker than the others, but the reason was immediately apparent; a big tuft of meadow grass had grown up to partially block the flight path directly in and out of the hive.  The bees had dealt with the problem by taking off and landing on the very end of the entrance board... but it was costing them a few extra minutes on each trip to walk their heavy loads to the hive entrance.  I waved my dad and Gilad closer to see all the bee traffic and pointed out the one with the partially blocked entrance.

Obviously since it was Shabbat I didn't have on a bee suit, but I really didn't want to leave the entrance to the hive blocked by the tall grass.  So I got down on my knees next to the hive and pushed the grass down and out of the way.  Instantly the bees began flying straight in and out of the entrance... bumping gently off the back of my hand as they passed. 

My face was so close to the hive entrance that several bees alighted on my shoulder and brushed by my cheek as they went about their business.  After having seen how little mind they paid me during the walk over I really wasn't worried about being stung.  I wasn't going to open the hives (much as I was curious about how things were going inside), and I knew from experience that the bees were so sated with the abundant spring bounty that they would put up with a ridiculous amount of human interference without getting angry.

During the summer when I go out to make sure the bees have ample room inside the supers to store the honey, I often sit down near the hives and simply watch them come and go.  It is endlessly fascinating and teaches a work ethic that any human company would envy. 

Every bee has a task... some gather sweet nectar... some gather the brightly colored pollen.  Droplets of water are brought back by other bees... and still others bring back propolis with which to seal and waterproof the inside of their home.  Inside the hive there are bees who look after the queen... others who tend to the young, and a host of others whose job it is to meet the returning forager bees and distribute their cargo throughout the hive. 

Anyone who has ever tried meditation of any sort without success should really sit and watch a beehive in the Springtime.  The calm wholeness I feel while watching the bees in their idyllic meadow setting is something I have only glimpsed a few times before in my life; standing under the chuppah... holding my children for the first time.

Everyone has their own private way of noting that Spring has arrived.  For some it is in the sound of kids playing in neighborhood parks or the crack of a bat on the local baseball diamond.  For others it is looking out at the rich, loamy potential of their gardens or watching their fruit trees begin to blossom.

For me, Spring officially arrives when the sun shines warmly on the front of my hives and I can sit in the tall grass and hear the honeybees' gentle buzzing as they come and go.


Posted by David Bogner on March 13, 2007 | Permalink


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Sounds great! :)

Would a visit to the hives be possible next time I'm over?

Posted by: tnspr569 | Mar 13, 2007 1:17:12 PM

Dave, I don't remember the bee location being something close enough to walk to... it seemed that we drove over when we were visiting. Regardless, it's a stunning location. The visual of you touching their fuzzy backs is very cool.
Nice write-up.. it took me back to that sunny day that we were there with you.

Posted by: val | Mar 13, 2007 1:43:47 PM

Wow, you are like Moshiach to those bees! Nice going.

I had the pleasure of being able to watch the activities of bees up close myself when a friend of mine brought me back a yellow & black windchime in the shape of a birdhouse from the Catskills.

I placed it outside my bedroom window and the bees flocked to it, having conformed it into a hive of sorts.

I was sad to have to remove it, but it was impinging on my family's enjoyment in the backyard (outside my window), them being afraid of bees and all.

Still, it was nice to spend many a quiet hour watching them do their thing.

Posted by: Erica | Mar 13, 2007 1:45:44 PM

May our days be as productive, our interactions be as harmonious, and the product of our work be as sweet.

Happy Spring, David.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Mar 13, 2007 3:54:38 PM

Every time you talk about the bees I get this image in my mind.

Posted by: Jack | Mar 13, 2007 4:47:14 PM

There's an article in Salon.com today written by a beekeeper whose bees "disappeared" over the winter (in California). Glad yours are ok!

Posted by: Kayla | Mar 13, 2007 4:59:06 PM

And when will you be out in tank tops and shorts?

Posted by: soccer dad | Mar 13, 2007 5:00:32 PM

Tank top and shorts weather has arrived in LA- it is a cool 85 right now.

Posted by: Jack | Mar 13, 2007 7:06:22 PM

Bees are indeed amazing creatures. It's hard to believe they are such an organized society. (Ants are another type, but bees are cooler!)

Posted by: Irina | Mar 13, 2007 8:45:06 PM

Haaretz had an article about the bee crisis in CA, and yesterday they published a response from a beekeeper who was having problems here in Israel too. In CA it's a potential agricultural nightmare.

Posted by: mother in israel | Mar 13, 2007 9:35:42 PM

You wrote: "Obviously since it was Shabbat I didn't have on a bee suit" and since my only knowledge of beekeeping comes from you, I am unsure about what's involved in donning a bee suit that makes for the prohibition. Or is it that putting it on unavoidably moves you into the "working" column?

Great reading, cool writing ... I just wondered what (possibly obvious point) I'm missing. Thanks!


Posted by: Drew | Mar 13, 2007 11:27:29 PM

wow. I'm terrified of bees.
I sure wish I could calm down and consider something like bee watching to be a contemplative experience.
Happy spring, though! It really sounds beautiful there.

Posted by: Shosh | Mar 14, 2007 1:14:05 AM

Bees and ants, brother. My wife has picures of me which echo ones taken by my parents of me: hunched down over some anthill or plant or starfish. Charming to see a kid doing it. Not so many find it charming when they catch a "grown man" doing so, or idly brushing tree leaves or bark with his hand, or standing in the middle of a street or parking lot and looking up at the new moon, or the night sky.


I'm teaching my sons to pause, and hunker, and look. And marvel.

Beats watching television. Heck, it even beats *beating* a television with a stick.

Thanks for the post; it made me dreamy-eyed just thinking about being there.

Posted by: Wrymouth | Mar 14, 2007 9:44:45 AM

Wow, spring really was here. Now, as I read this post, it is raining cats and dogs outside and they predict snow tonight! Never a dull moment here in Israel.

Posted by: westbankmama | Mar 14, 2007 10:35:58 AM

I was thinking of the Preface to "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", which said, paraphrasing, that reading this book you will learn a lot about life, and a little bit about motorcycle maintenance.

Now, thanks to you, I know a lot about Israel, and a little bit about beekeeping.


Posted by: dfb1968 | Mar 14, 2007 12:25:33 PM

Send this one to Mother Earth News, or some beekeeping magazine. People should give you money for this kind of writing. (I gave mine to my son for his last song; so don't think I'm offering. Just pointing out that I knows good writing when I sees it.)

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Mar 14, 2007 1:58:08 PM

tnspr569... Absolutely.

val... Yup, just a short walk. We took the car there when you visited because we were on our way somewhere.

Erica..."Wow, you are like Moshiach to those bees" I'd never thought of it quite that way. Neat!

Doctor Bean.... Amen.

Jack... Thanks for sharing. :-)

Irina... Organized. Huh, maybe that's why I love to watch them... they're everything I'm not! :-)

mother in Israel... I had heard that it was mostly migratory beekeepers who were suing their bees to pollinate crops. I'll have to do more research. Yikes.

Drew... Well, there technically wouldn't be a big problem with the suit (although, as you pointed out it wouldn't be in the spirit of shabbat to dress in work cloths), but get all my equipment and tools to the hives I would have to drive. Not only that, but one of the things I have to do before opening the hive is give them a few puffs from the smoker can. Obviously this would be a no-no on shabbat. I guess my statement was meant to convey the idea that I was not equipped to really work with the bees.

Shosh... It's an acquired taste. :-)

Wrymouth... Glad you liked it. I really enjoy taking the kids to help me with the hives as each time they join me they become more knowledgeable and gain a new love and respect for the beauty of nature.

westbankmama... I was just thinking that as well. Oh well.

dfb1968... Don't thank me... I'm a giver. :-)

rutimizrachi... I do get paid... in honey. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 14, 2007 7:32:04 PM

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