One of the saddest sights I have ever been exposed to was the mound of dead bees in their hive once my brother opened it up for inspection after a cruel winter. To realize that more than 60 000 individual beings did not survive the freezing temperatures was astonishingly numbing. To appreciate the bees and their existence one must come close to them, observe their wings and pollen-laden hind legs, listen to their humming (happy as well as angry), share with them the fruits of their labor, and, yes, see them die by stinging you (unless you are allergic). Harsh winter die offs are not the only problem worker bees encounter during their short lives. As any beekeeper knows, honey is just the tip of the iceberg which is created when the bees and the keeper respect each other.
One such respectful relationship is the object of Mark Magill’s short book, the Way to Bee. Meditation and the Art of Beekeeping (Lyons Press, 2011).
Magill describes the effects seasonal changes bring to the bees’ lives, their cycles of being, their purposeful existence, their focus on protecting their queen, feeding the brood, guarding the hive’s entrance. He mentions the research into bees behaviour and communication, especially that conducted by Frisch and Langsroth.
Magill also includes his take on the art of meditation. But his desire to somehow connect apiculture and meaningful meditation, to teach the steps to achieve one’s focus, seems too earnest and too rushed. It is as if he were searching for a focus in his own life. The book is lyrical and documentary; it leaves the reader with the desire to keep bees, and, as an aside, how to learn to meditate, presenting the necessary conditions and steps to meditation.
Some introspective books are written with the sole purpose of allowing the author to document an aspect of his or her life which still awaits a conclusive word. The danger in offering such a book to a wider public stems from the ephemerality of one’s experiences and feelings. Thus, documentary elements are mixed in with philosophising and, and, if the author is prone to pedagogize, all this is sprinkled with an earnest desire to teach. Perhaps giving the reader a nice package all wrapped up in colorful paper and topped up with a magnificent bow is not the intended aim. If nothing else, I hope that this book is read wisely so that it may instil different denotative and connotative meanings to the word “bee” to an English-speaking readership. Human culture and experiences are shaped by the language we speak, as Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis indicates. Although Whorf and Sapir were more interested in the grammatical/temporal categories of languages, the meanings of words are a prime example of this relativity, and there is no better example of this than in the denotation and connotation of the word “bee”. For English speakers, “bee” is a non-marked, general term that denotes any insect that hums, flies, and possibly stings: wasp, yellow jacket, hornet, bumble bee, etc. The connotation is that if a vicious stinging insect, instilling fear and hate in children and adults alike. Speakers of other languages do not share these connotations, nor the generic denotation. For Slovaks, for example, the word včela is not the unmarked, general category, or hyperordinate term, but it denotes the Apis (mellifera). The connotations assigned to this word include laboriousness, cleanliness, and the attitude it brings to the Slovak speaker’s Weltanschauung is that of respect, not fear. Children used to receive a stamp of a stylized bee on their work in their notebooks, and that was a sign of great pride. Rather than trying to get rid of a buzzing bee, kill it or zap it, children were led to admire its characteristics and be inquisitive about it.
Having a negative connotation about all types of bees makes it perfectly acceptable to kill them using all kinds of chemicals which, in the final analysis, harm all living things. This is the strongest connection between beekeeping and meditation: there is a relationship between humans and bees (of all types) which goes far beyond enjoying a spoonful of honey.