CBC’s 2022 Nonfiction: Advice to a new beekeeper

Susan Cormier, author: “Advice to a new beekeeper” (credit: CBC)

“Do not keep bees. . .

“Keep cattle, or chickens or dogs. Their emotions are recognizable, their ailments familiar. Their speech, though foreign, is in a language we understand.”

Thus begins Susan Cormier’s seasoned advice to beekeeping wanna-bees. There are sufficient reasons to refrain from beekeeping, but I hadn’t thought of the communication gap – the bees’ foreign speech. We relish the knowledge (with a bit of pride) that a human among us was able to decipher the code, the language, of scout bees who tell forager bees the distance and direction to fly to visit a meadow of sweetly scented nectar-bearing flowers. That human, Karl von Frisch, sat at a glass-covered colony of honey bees and watched their strange little dances. A bow to the right and a quick wiggle to the left told the other bees to fly two kilometres at a right angle from the sun’s position. The human who interpreted this language was given a Nobel Prize by suitably impressed other humans.

But our communication ends there. It’s a one-way path, from bee to human, and coveys little news of interest to us. Of course, bees communicate other signals to each other (odours when annoyed, brisk movements when defensive) and an astute beekeeper learns to hear this language, too. But we have no real conversation with the bees.

We humans have a much more nuanced intraspecies vocabulary to convey our thoughts and feelings. The CBC Nonfiction award-winner, Ms Cormier, exemplifies this with her light treatise on the gulf between the bee and human species. And she has advice.

“Do not fear deaths, or stings. Both of these happen frequently. Fear fire, drought, dusty parched earth and scorched, wilting flowers. Fear fire, yet carry one with you, waving smoke like fairy dust, like a priest’s incense-filled thurible, quietly chanting blessings and calm.

“Do not fear stings, or the possibility of them. Carry in your arms a box housing 50,000, and think nothing of it. Place your bare hand softly on 200 moving bodies at once and know only warmth.

“Fear tiny mites, the spread of spores and viruses — watch for twisted wings, spasming bodies, the rotting stench of dying brood.

“Fear animals with paws, and hornets. When a small midnight shadow scurries across your lawn, throw rocks, apples, anything at hand. Hiss and growl. Set up traps and hope for the best.”

There is more to Susan Cormier’s story. Her lyrical style should be read for comfort, not for a beekeeper’s enlightenment. To enjoy more passages from her work, read this piece from CBC’s Literary Prize committee; To learn about Susan’s story, see this.

Learn the language of bees. There is no lexicon, no dictionary. They speak in song and scent and secrets and dance. The closest similar language is that of a school of fish, or octopi, or trees. 

Learn the smell of anger, sharp and thin like spilled bleach. Learn the sweet air and low, soothing hum of a balanced colony.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He’s based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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