This essay on our relationship to our environment reinforces the general perspective of traditional Oriental medicines that health cannot be maintained without a correct attitude and behavior. Practitioners of Ifa in the new World may have to adapt its teachings to present conditions, just as Tibetan medicine has had to adapt to treat Tibetans living in India, or Westerners living in the United States. What follows is the perspective of a Babalawo and an Iyaorisha who have found beekeeping to be one path with many benefits for themselves and others.
L.B. Grotte, M.D.
Offerings to the Earth
Beekeeping as an Offering to the Earth
Despite the great fortune and the unusual number of blessings which most of us enjoy, there is no evidence to suggest that our place on the Earth should be regarded as an entitlement. Even though we rarely question the stability of our surroundings, the mere fact that we have the good fortune to end up in such circumstances does not represent any guarantee or obligation from the universe that we will continue to exist as individuals or as a species.
Life on Earth is precarious; not only are there many hazards and dangers to life and health, but even those factors that normally support life can destroy it in seconds: we may develop a fatal response to a properly prescribed medicine; we may drown in a bowl of soup; or we may choke on a delicious meal. I am sure you can think of many other examples.
Normally we passively accept the illusion that we are insulated from our environment and from social chaos, so surprise and frustration are the usual response when natural upheavals toss us out of our complacency or even out of this life. Long periods of relative stability allows us to think of natural disasters and the vast forces of nature made manifest as unusual events, rather than the constant presence that they actually are.
There is, however, clear evidence for those who study the interface between ikole orun (the spirit world) and ikole aye (the place of ordinary consciousness; the world that most of us perceive) that valuable resources and support from the Earth are proportionally associated with the effort and sacrifice that we make, and in part, this includes respect shown the Earth.
Followers of Ifa are among those who are especially blessed to have the privilege to develop their insight into the interactions between these worlds, and it presents us with an opportunity and a responsibility to make offerings and sacrifices to ask that the Earth and its inhabitants continue to support and teach us. I have noted that good character also seems to accompany those who practice respectful obligation to the Earth.
As our knowledge increases, so our respect increases. To know even a small facet of the Earth from even the most materialistic of viewpoints requires careful study of what Western scientists have termed the natural sciences. Botany, meteorology, biology, geology and other disciplines are among the paths we can take to begin to know the earth. Yet few of us will become farmers or scientists, and the most practical way to open up a connection to the Earth is to dedicate some of our life to an involvement with the world at some level.
Beekeeping is one such path. It is not apparent how our ancestors in Africa related to bees, as there is little record from that period. There is evidence from Egypt and other civilizations that in the thousands of years B.C., there were efforts to create and maintain artificial hives. Egyptians housed bees in clay pipes, or coiled straw baskets, called skeps. Hollowed out logs may also have been used in areas where trees were plentiful. It is likely that this knowledge was also available throughout the rest of Africa through trade or migration.
Until recently, there was no need for intensive management of the bee colony. In the modern era, the emergence of bee diseases and the accumulated results of human error have created risk to the balance of the human world and the plant world. These changes are placing the survival of a variety of species at risk. As practitioners of Ifa, we can address these imbalances through the various tools we have been given.
In addition, I would suggest that an interest in beekeeping would open a path to the Orisha. Well known are some traditional associations of bees and their products with various Orishas. Obvious candidates would be Oshun and Osanyin, but I would suggest that if you think about it, there are many ways in which the process of beekeeping could open a relationship with Eshu, Ogun, or any of the other Orishas.
The Primacy of the Plant World
Directly and indirectly, we are primarily dependent on the plants of the Earth. It is obvious that for food and shelter, and as a source of power (coal, wood, natural gas, oil), our world would simply not support life for human beings without plants. Animals too are dependent on the plant world for their existence, and could not exist if there were not sustenance for their prey or themselves.
Plants are also the dominant source of medicine for people and animals. The traditional medicines of many cultures relied on the tastes and energies of plants to create their medicinals. Almost all of the major classes of modern drugs can be traced to traditional plant usage, and many of these original drugs and medicinals have not been surpassed for safety or efficacy by modern synthetic derivatives. Some of these synthetics which were once efficacious are no longer so, and the skill of compounding a prescription for individualized effect has largely disappeared in the modern world, with the result that efficacy of treatment has decreased and toxicity has increased.
Modern Western physicians have also lost touch with the skill to create new medicinals from plants, as our ancestors did, creating a handicap as we face new and evolving diseases and epidemic infections. Many species of plants have yet to be evaluated for medicinal effect and the knowledge and experience of our ancestors is gradually evaporating as economic or political forces suppress traditional cultures and their medicines.
Often overlooked is the fact that without the plants of the past, we would have no synthetic or pharmaceutical drugs, as every carbon-based molecule on the planet has its origin in an ancient plant. Without the resulting oils and gasses, there would be no organic chemistry, at all.
As essential as plant life is to the sustenance of the animal and human realms, it is also clear that plants are much less dependent themselves on the animal realm for their existence, though some plants have evolved relationships with insects and a few flying animals (such as bats) for pollination.
One of the more interesting relationships between plants and insects involves the honeybee, an insect non-native to the new World. Because of various factors that reflect poorly on our stewardship of our planet, honeybees are in a precarious position and cannot survive unless humanity takes an active role.
The Importance of Bees
The benefits to the earth from and the personal rewards for beekeeping are significant on several levels. Honeybees pollinate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, enriching our lives and diet. They collect nectar from various flowers and convert it to honey, which in its raw and unprocessed form is a supreme medicine for all sorts of cuts, burns, and other damage to the skin and mucous membranes.
Honey is useful when taken internally for a variety of ailments, and serves as a preservative and vehicle for traditional medications, such as the highly regarded jawararish of Afghanistan and northern India. Among members of the Catholic faith, the mystical benefits of using only pure beeswax candles in their places of worship is well known, and beeswax is essential for a variety of artistic and medicinal uses, having unique physical and chemical stability as well as a useful stickiness and adhesiveness. Honey as a Medicine Article
In addition, bees collect resins from various plants to create propolis, a sticky and aromatic substance that serves an antibacterial and antiviral function, and can also be used to cement up cracks and defects in the structure of the hive. Propolis, its extracts and tinctures, can be used by trained practitioners to treat various viral and bacterial disorders of humans and animals.
Finally, the venom of honeybees is helpful in the treatment of various arthritic, autoimmune, and rheumatic disorders.
One of the ways in which we can offer gratitude and service to the earth is by thoughtful stewardship of its other inhabitants. Beekeeping can be seen as not only a benefit for ourselves but as sacrifice of effort and time, a possession which is possibly the most valuable of those we can offer.
The Role of Sacrifice
One of the tenets of Ifa practice is the concept that to gain something of value, we must offer something comparable. Even if some teaching is freely offered, to gain the value and capability of that knowledge usually requires the application of considerable effort. In most tribal societies and other civilized cultures, the most highly regarded level of effort is personal sacrifice.
In the modern West, as in ancient times, personal application and time is acknowledged as perhaps the most precious, closely followed by money and other wealth. And, although most members of our society value money very highly, it is clear that personal effort is usually appreciated at a still higher level. We are always more impressed and pleased when someone makes the effort to cook us a wonderful meal than if they make us a gift of taking us out to dinner; paying someone else to cook.
In agrarian societies, an offering of wealth in terms of crops or food animals represented a larger percentage of a persons wealth than in urban locales. For a man in Nigeria who has 50 chickens and depends on them for his family and livelihood, the offer of one chicken is a considerable sacrifice. To an urban American who can buy a chicken for a few dollars, the personal cost is much less.
The man in Nigeria also knows the time and effort required to feed, raise and maintain a chicken. Defending a chicken from predators, disease, and malnutrition demands attention, skill and effort over months and years. In addition, it is our nature is to become attached to some animals, creating an emotional bond.
Death of an individual sentient being is immediate and real to the person performing the sacrifice or slaughter; an experience in reality unimagined either by the businessman as he casually and unthinkingly orders his steak in a restaurant or the mother who buys hamburgers for her children at McDonalds.
Initiation is Not an End, but a Path
When we are initiated, whether to Ifa or other traditions, we are essentially being given permission to begin to take on responsibility at a level that suits our abilities. We are thereby charged with the mission to further our knowledge and improve our character. Unfortunately, I have observed among some of the initiated an attitude of entitlement, and worse, an attitude that this new status creates a license for bad behavior.
There are those who seem to be highly placed in the world, who have even written books and led conferences, who themselves have not developed the humility and gentle nature that I believe is the best path for practitioners of Ifa. Therefore, despite a certain level of academic achievement, in these cases there has not been spiritual progress, and in fact, I have observed among some of these practitioners an ongoing degeneration of character and asé. Rather than expecting status and entitlement when one has the good fortune to be initiated, a more appropriate response would be greater adherence to the ideals of character, moral behavior, and humility.
If we are elevated by initiation, the access that this privilege creates also involves a mighty obligation to respect the Earth and align ourselves with the Orisha matrix so that we can learn and progress. Along with respect for the Orishas and the Witness, we must develop a realistic perspective on our place on the earth and our relationship and dependence on the plant and animal realm, as well as the tribal support of our brothers, sisters, ancestors and family, as well as many strangers outside our tribe who support our lives, health, and environment.
Making a Connection to the Earth
Our lives in modern society are detached from reality in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin a change. Detached from the tides of the seasons, few who do not work as farmers or astronomers are even aware of the phases of the moon. Modern inhabitants of the United States envelop themselves in a fantastic cocoon of controlled sound, temperature and stimulation and are able to ignore the foundations for our existence and the cycles of the World outside of our houses.
One benefit from the practice of beekeeping is that we are forced to understand the lives of our charges in terms of the cycles of their existence. Different tasks required by the beekeeper by the life stages of her bees are closely tied to seasonal changes. A beekeeper becomes aware of the effects of weather change on her bees, notes the changing colors of pollen collected by the bees as populations of different flowers open and close.
If you become a beekeeper, you will of necessity become more in tune with the rhythm of the plant world in your climate. Rain, sunlight levels, and temperature also affect the temperament and activity of the bees. At each juncture, the successful beekeeper becomes more sensitive to the ebb and flow of the earth, and through this, to know other aspects of the invisible realm.
The Invisible Realm
One path to an understanding of the Orisha matrixes and our relationship to them come with development of our appreciation of the subtleties of creation. There are certainly aspects of the Orisha that are obvious and easy to appreciate, but I believe there are levels of less obvious interactions, which are valuable to the initiate. As with any skill, to become aware and remain aware of these levels requires practice at the level of these subtleties. As with the cycles of the plant world, the more one becomes involved with the inhabitants of these realms, the more one becomes able to see and discern factors that to others remains unseen.
From this viewpoint, the invisible realm is not invisible because it is occult. It is invisible because it is unlooked for. The invisible realm is not a place of unreality or another reality; it is a subtle aspect of our everyday-every moment reality, accessible to intuition and cognitive focus. Although becoming sensitive to such subtleties may seem to be an unusual ability, many examples from everyday life present themselves.
To the student of nature, the first walk into the woods to study the birds evokes a sense of overwhelming diversity, and a chaos of movement and form. With time and focus, the student learns to discern the different songs of the birds, distinguishes among the many patterns and rhythms of flight, and perceives something about the character and behavior of different species. Soon, even a glimpse or a fragment of a song may be enough to identify the source bird.
Through the process of becoming a successful beekeeper, you will become much more aware of the subtleties of life on Earth and much more appreciative of the invisible interconnections that maintain and guides us. Although it takes considerable effort to maintain a commitment to a hive of 30-60,000 bees, those who can choose this path to offering and to sensitizing oneself to the subtleties of nature will gain both wisdom and character from such a commitment.
In addition, for those who are capable of understanding the concept of being initiated, and then initiating oneself, any path of offering may also enhance one's connection with the realm of the Orisha.
How to Begin
For Ogunsola and me, beekeeping has served to train us in many disciplines of practical value, and we believe that our connections to the Earth and to the Orisha have been strengthened though this activity. If you think that beekeeping is a suitable offering for you to consider, the first step is to investigate the specific requirements of building hives and starting a colony of bees.
Bees are best housed in a wooden box designed to hold a series of frames containing a beeswax foundation. The bees build their comb out of wax in these frames, and fill them with brood or unborn bees, or food supplies they collect, such as nectar and pollen. Bees are vegetarians, unlike their relatives, the more aggressive wasps. The nectar will be transformed into honey over time, which the bees use to maintain themselves during periods without flower nectar. If there is more honey than the hive needs, the beekeeper may collect this surplus honey for herself.
Many people believe they are allergic to bee stings, but they are usually recalling episodes where they were stung by wasps. Beestings can certainly be painful, but the fear of stings usually exceeds the reality for most people. Even though, on occasion, local reaction to beestings can be severe in terms of discomfort and swelling, it is never life threatening. In fact, there is some evidence that bee venom is beneficial for some conditions.
Nonetheless, it is wise for any beekeeper to learn how to deal with the rare episode of anaphylaxis that may occur after a bee-sting. Anaphylaxis is a systemic reaction in which difficulty breathing or swelling around the mouth and in the mucous membranes occurs within minutes of being stung. Swift injection of adrenalin (also known as epinephrine) is appropriate.
All beekeepers should obtain a prescription from a physician for an epinephrine syringe and buy some over the counter benadryl, and you will be prepared once you know how to use it. Instruction should be obtained from your doctor or many of the sources listed below. Usually, the epinephrine will expire and will have to be replaced before you have to utilize it. Nevertheless, like having a fire extinguisher, being prepared is the only rational choice.
Winter is an especially good time to begin research into beekeeping, as you can begin obtaining information and building your frames and hives, or obtaining them if you want to buy them ready-made. They are simple construction and do not require any carpentry skills beyond hammering nails and a coat of weatherproof stain or paint on the outside.
Most of your hive boxes and frames should be made new. These days, used equipment can harbor disease spores and so it is wise not to buy or accept gifts of used equipment, gloves, suits, or tools.
You will have to determine which strain of bees and which suppliers you will use, and there may be local beekeepers who will be willing to speak with you and provide you with advice and even the supplies you need. Honeybees cannot survive outside until the weather reaches about 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, and suppliers of honeybees will only ship to you when the weather is appropriate in your area.
The U.S. postal service is experienced at handling bees, and you will usually find them helpful. Your local mailperson may be inexperienced in this area, so if they are at all uncomfortable, you can pick up your bees at the local post office.
You will need to obtain some protective clothing, the best being an integrated jumpsuit and veil which allows full activity and maximum protection. Gloves are a good idea, though many experienced beekeepers are comfortable with just a veil. Many of them have told me that the occasional sting on the hand helps their arthritis.
Most of the time, honeybees are mild mannered and will not become aggressive until threatened. During rainy or cloudy weather, there may be more bees remaining in the hive, and they may view the beekeepers visits as an intrusion. For obvious reasons, bees respond to a beekeepers efforts to collect honey as a threat to the collective. Under these conditions, some beekeepers recommend using a smoker to create a situation where the bees become stimulated to return to the hive and act in a less aggressive manner. We have found that smoke is more disruptive than necessary and have come to the awareness that with smooth, controlled movement and breath control (bees dont like being breathed upon), the hives can be examined without stirring them up, and we have had no problems collecting honey without smoke.
Sources for Further Study
Fortunately, the advent of the internet has made it possible to obtain technical knowledge resources easily and at little cost. In addition, several books are helpful, but you may wish to check out these webpages first.
http://www.gobeekeeping.com/classes.htm will link you to self-study classes for beginners, intermediate, and advanced levels
http://www.badbeekeeping.com/weblinks.htm is a link page with a variety of entertaining subjects related to honeybees.
http://www.mainebee.com/articles.php is a collection of fascinating articles by George Imirie on the skills needed to successfully maintain your hives.
http://www.dadant.com is one of several reputable sources for beekeeper supplies, books and information. They also publish the American Bee Journal, which can be accessed at their site.
http://www.beesource.com/suppliers/usequip.htm is a page of links to various suppliers of beekeeping information and supplies, as well as honey and bee product sources.
A great deal of information can be obtained over the internet, but these basic books are recommended. Many books on the subject are likely to be available at your local library.
- The A,B,C's and X,Y,Z's of Beekeeping, A.I. Root
- The Hive and the Honey Bee, Dadant
- How to Do It, Richard Taylor, A.I.Root Company
- The Beekeepers Handbook, Sammataro, D. and Avitable, Alphonse, New York, Macmillian, 1986.
In my library is a black bound book, embossed with a golden bee on its cover. It was my Grandfather's. It is the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture by A.I. Root, published in 1940. In 1982, after perusing thru the book, I looked up "Beekeepers" in the Yellow Pages and was encouraged to start a hive by a family of beekeepers. Finding the society of bees fascinating, realizing the value of their efforts and enjoying honey, it seemed beekeeping would be an interesting hobby.
Of course, I had no idea you had to BUILD a beehive until I bought my first kit --- in pieces and parts --- and pounded it all together on the floor of my apartment living room. Since I didn't have any land, I depended upon the generosity of my friends to place my hive in their backyard. After my first season's extraction, I realized this was a hobby that had moments of intense physical labor.
I would suit up in my beekeeping regalia, smoker in hand, brush the bees off their frames, wrap the frames in plastic, put them in the trunk of my car and drive them to my apartment. I rented an extractor ( about the size of a 55 gallon drum ), balanced it on top of a trunk, spun the honey out of the frames, rewrapped the frames, drove them back to the hive and slipped them back in place before sundown. The first harvest was put into square glass bottles and I made labels that were simply golden hexagons. I am fortunate enough to live in a place where I can keep three beehives in my own backyard now.
The frames of the first hive body hold the brood and the pollen. The brood is capped with wax, but the pollen isn't and when you hold the frame up to the sun, it looks like small golden and red jewels have been inserted into the combs. The bees use pollen for protein in their diet and perhaps if you have looked closely at a honeybee in the flowers, you might have seen her collecting pollen and placing it in the "baskets" on her rear legs to carry back to the hive. The bees began to teach me the rhythms of each season and how to manage and support them. The mystery of honey starts to unfold. Not only in how it is made by the bees, but its myriad uses. It is food. It is medicine and it is a cosmetic. It is an offering.
The queen of every hive is a great mother, bearing all the children of the hive, which will collect the honey. The nurse bees sustain that life by feeding the larva. The guard bees protect the hive as ferocious warriors. The sun shows the incredibly beautiful iridescence of their wings as they dance. The nectar of the flowers of the earth is transformed into liquid gold. The fresh water that falls from the sky enriched the soil that bears the plants. Spirit, humanity and nature are woven together.
Over the years, beekeeping in some ways has become easier and in other ways, more complex. Once one is in rhythm with the life of each hive and the weather, their activities and the tasks can flow. There are more devastating diseases for the bees, however. There are medications available, yet using them in a responsible way can be challenging. Beekeeping is an offering to the earth, an education and a contemplation. And so the mystery continues ... the roads of man and nature intersect.