On Kamikazi Bees and Healing

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Kamikaze aircraft were essentially pilot-guided explosive missiles,…Pilots would attempt to crash their aircraft into enemy ships in what was called a “Body Attack” …accuracy was much better than a conventional attack, the payload and explosion larger. A kamikaze could sustain damage which would disable a conventional attacker and still achieve its objective. The goal of crippling or destroying large numbers of  [perceived threats]   was considered to be a just reason for sacrificing pilots and aircraft.” (Wikipedia)

photo 1 (5)Earlier this week my arm from wrist to elbow was a nearly useless  sausage-like appendage, the red skin of it was pulled painfully tight, erasing any definition in tendon, muscle or vein. It  burned feverishly and itched so badly that I woke myself up scratching. And just as the swelling finally began to go down, the letters on my wrist tattoo regaining their proper, un-bloated importance, another kamikaze strike occurred. In the split second it took to realize the bee had landed between my eyes, it was already over. I’d done nothing except snap a photo of the hive from several feet away.  I fled the scene with a squawk, the beekeeper mantra “do not get stung in the face” coursing through my head along with the venom. It was a rough week in beekeeping. 

It is amazing that such a tiny creature, ejecting such a tiny amount (0.15-0.3 mg) of poison a self-defense mechanism, can cause so much discomfort.

I have a bee-face now – or at lest bee-eyes. I am nearly blinded by the swelling in the bridge of my nose and lacrimal sac in the corners of my eyes. They seem set too far apart and separate from each other; the delicate surrounding tissue is fluid filled and the lid rolls over on the inside edges, leaving the outer corners looking wide. I feel like my sight is concentrated in my third eye – between and above my eyes, right where the bees have their three “simple eyes”.  I have both tunnel vision and extraordinarily heightened senses as a stress reaction. I am exhausted.  The bees are transforming me. 

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It is said that bee venom is medicine. People get stung intentionally in controlled environments to treat MS, arthritis and joint issues.The venom is said to increase circulation, decrease inflammation and stimulate the immune system. The propolis resin they create to seal their hive is used as an antibiotic and antiseptic. The bee food they created called Royal Jelly has similar effects on humans. Fed to bee larvae, it is so powerful that it triggers a cascade of molecular events that changes a worker into a Queen. (Wikipedia). 

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But the term Apitherapy refers to more than just the sting as medicine – everything about bees is considered medicine. I couldn’t agree more.

The act of becoming a beekeeper has been a profound personal shift onto a new, but strangely familiar path for me. Their importance of their presence in my yard is far more than the honey they produce or even that I may be saving a few thousand from what seems to be inevitable extinction. They are healing me even as we occasionally hurt each other.

I have already written about how being with the bees centers me – the hum of the hive and its community energy dispelling my grief and loneliness in a job that often sucks my soul.  Every day I can, I eat breakfast with the bees, sitting just a few feet from their door in the kind of lawn chair my grandma had on her porch. I watch as they emerge, wash their faces and then fly off with purpose.  I am content in the knowledge that we both have jobs that must be done for the good of the whole, despite my very human need for recognition and financial gain. At the end of the day, I return home exhausted and feel kinship with the foragers who are so tired and weighted down with their load of pollen that they cannot make it to the hive porch in one try. Their exhaustion mirrors mine as they stumble through the doorway and I imagine they take the same deep breaths I do, inhaling the reassuring scent of musky warmth and honey, family and home.

Bees can carry their entire body weight while flying, something I discovered by watching them haul out sick or dead bees from the hive.  But just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they don’t need some help.  Which is what I was doing when I accidentally brushed up against a comb bare handed, resulting in 11 stings one grief filled hive check in May. Their strength and determination also showed in how they carried on after losses, seeking shelter and healing together before moving onward. They have an emotional life that even a novice can hear in the sounds they make as well as in their behavior. As they coped with their dead, I noticed they didn’t just dump them at the first opportunity, despite their lack of stamina due to starvation. They had a specific place in mind for each of the decreased and they took time to complete each action instead of hurrying through the motions. Their routines have the feel of ceremony – their movements intentional  and repetitious, their connection to the “vibe” of each other  and their Queen more than physical . As a beekeeper, it is my job to hold sacred space for them, protecting the energy circle they have created, lending strength and support as needed. As a spiritual activist, I try to do the same for the planet.

Holding this space, both as an observer and an active tender of the hive, requires my full presence. The evening I received the sting on my arm, it was too hot to suit-up fully. It didn’t seem necessary – the bees were lethargic after the heat of the day. I stripped off my gear and tended the hive wearing a t-shirt , shorts and gloves. Normally, I don’t usually go into the hive unprotected unless I am just doing a quick check.  But when I do, the breeze from their wings against my face, the hum of them across my skin and the undiluted smell of 30 bars of honey and wax and pollen evokes a strong feeling of “rightness”  in my core. The smell of the hive causes something within me to both expand and  contract. I can only compare it to the smell of my children as newborn babies. It stirs a primal level of engagement and protection that brings me into an immediate deep connection with them and with my surroundings. When I aware of this connection, it is easy to be deliberate in my actions, to work within the rhythm of the hive. The bees and I work together instead of at cross-purposes. But, occasionally “accidents” happen. 

The fact that I got stung as I was finishing up was unrelated to anything I had done – and I would have felt that sting through the long sleeve shirt I’d been wearing when I’d started. Despite all I had done to take care, sometimes attention isn’t enough. The bees reminded me that sometimes  our actions will be misunderstood and our intentions will be unclear to those around us. Getting hurt is part of taking part in life.

It took determination to finish the hive check with my throbbing arm reminding me of the “danger” I was in. The pain kept trying to pull me out of the bee-mind groove. I was twitchy and nearly dropped a full bar of honeycomb when a branch from a fennel plant touched my leg.  But if had I rushed through the end of my check, losing the tenuous connection to the NOW, I  could have squished bees between bars or worse, jostled a soft, heavy comb and causing it to break. Despite my wounds, I needed to stay present.  The bees were relying on me to do my part in their world with as much steadiness as I could muster. What happens now is what matters, not the pain of what has already been done. Learn from our experiences, and act on the future we choose, not the one created from reaction. The bees and I  both finished the check calmly, despite the one mishap.

But it wasn’t until that kamikaze bee shot me between the eyes that I settled into what may be the hardest lesson for me – to rest. The Sisters and I are much alike in the way we make a beeline towards our goals. We thrust ourselves forward with such blinders to the external world that we bump ourselves into a human now and then. We will both work ourselves to death. I’d pushed through the sting on the arm, even though it affected me physically and emotionally. But taking a sting to the face is not something you push through. It requires less movement, less doing, less force. The swelling and pain turns you inside, and the fragile vulnerability of that left me anxious and cranky. I had to take the day off work, promising whatever I did would involve rest, water, and attention to my needs. 

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And so I sit in the garden today watching bees and hummingbirds. The gift of an unexpected day off for the first time in almost a year means no long list of stuff to do, no should’s, no have to’s.  I have nothing to do but take care of myself – something the bees would find very foreign I suspect. As I sit here writing, accepting this gift from a sacrificial bee, the swelling has gone down to almost normal. The temptation exists to get back to busy work, but for today, I think I will just bee…..

Click on the links for more information on:

Stings from a beekeepers perspective

 Apitherapy 

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