The Zen of Bees
December 17, 2009

It’s a warm December day in Iowa—the kind where you can stand outside for hours and not feel cold. I’m on my bike, headed to the southern edge of the greenhouses on the Maharishi University of Management (M.U.M.) campus. I’m humming a happy song because today at lunch I happened to run into Alex Kachan, a faculty member in the M.U.M. sustainable living department. He’s teaching a course in natural beekeeping and invited me to observe the students as they open the hives to feed the bees.

Of course I have a vague idea of the importance of bees and their fragile existence on this earth. They are crucially important to us, since they pollinate about one-third of our food crops (including our livestock’s food,  as alfalfa and clover and more), yet they are dying now in vast numbers due to decades of manipulative management and environmental stress, which some call the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. And I have read something about biodynamic beekeeping theory, in which the beekeepers maintain a peaceful, nonviolent mindset and behavior (practical hive management) resulting in no need to wear protective gear when they open the hives. The bees on the M.U.M. campus are not yet certified biodynamic, but the faculty are working toward that.

“Biodynamic beekeeping is more spiritual in its approach,” Alex Kachan explains. “It recognizes that bee hives are an organism rather than a machine with interchangeable parts. Everything the beekeeper does aims to enhance the well-being of the bees, rather than focusing on how much they can produce as a kind of honey factory.”

Alex Kachen and I stand behind a bee hive.

Alex Kachen and I stand behind a bee hive.

When I arrive at the spot behind the campus greenhouses, the eight students are sitting quietly behind the hive. No one is wearing protective clothing. With Alex Kachan’s gentle guidance, they take turns mixing organic sugar and spring water and a little sea salt in a large bucket. Already scout bees from the three hives are buzzing around the bucket of sugary goo, but the students are unperturbed. Alex says they should make the mixture in a spot farther away from the hive next time.

In talking to the students later, away from the bees, I find out that most of them are majoring in sustainable living, such as Sondra Cladwell, who owns a small sheep farm with her husband in New Mexico and plans to keep bees there. She loves bees. Last time, a bee took a liking to her and crawled on her arm for twenty minutes, like a pet.

Justin Saving traveled to Fairfield on a David Lynch Visitors Weekend and decided to enroll. “I’m a Kansas City boy,” he tells me. “My interest in organic agriculture started with my interest in organic foods. I used organic foods to lose 100 pounds. While looking into the sources of the organic foods I was eating, I found out that you don’t always know where they come from, and they’re also expensive. That’s when I decided I wanted to grow my own.”

Victor Castillo says he and his girlfriend, also a sustainable living major, found out about the university’s programs on its website, and are delighted with the loft they rent downtown Fairfield for 1/10 the price it would cost them in New Jersey. They are serious about their plans to establish two sustainable farms, one in Dominican Republic, where their parents have already purchased land, and one in Maines. “I think people are going to need local food sources to survive in the future,” he says quietly.

These students all practice the Transcendental Meditation technique twice a day to reduce mental and physical stress, and so do I, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m relaxed enough to be a biodynamic beekeeper. Seeing how the bees react will be a kind of test.

When it’s time to open the first hive, I panic. “What if I’m not calm enough?” I blurt out. I’m seeing visions of tearing through the forest surrounded by a swarm of bees. “We’ll take a moment to settle down before opening the hive,” Alex reassures me.

Sondra gently moves bees out of the way while Viktor prepares to pour the liquid syrup into the hive.

Sondra gently moves bees out of the way while Viktor prepares to pour the liquid syrup into the hive.

Finally, after a few minutes of quiet, the time has come. Josh Wilson pries open the first hive. I move into a better position to take a picture, but Sondra warns me not to stand in front of the entrance, where the bees come and go from the hive. The aggressive guard bees could attack you if you step too close to the entrance. But no one gets stung, even when the students take turns prying the covers off the other two hives. In one hive, the bees are collected in the exact spot where the students have to pour the liquid food, so Sondra gently nudges them out with a stick so they won’t drown.

Josh talks quietly to the bees as they buzz around his unprotected face and arms. He calls them “girls.” I learn that not just the queen but all the worker bees are female. One of the male students jokes, “Otherwise, nothing would get done.”

These bees were purchased a year ago from California, and were originally fed with genetically modified corn syrup. But bees live for a short time (except for the queen bee), between three weeks and three months.

“So these bees have actually been born on our campus,” says Alex. “Bees are sensitive barometers. They sense the environment, and we are very lucky to have a calm feeling here. I think the bees feel that.”