Ask the Wild Bee What the Druid Knows
By Karl Schlotterbeck
Beekeeper and mead maker
There is, I’m told, an old English saying: “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.” Maybe it’s just a quaint folk saying but, even if it were, we’d need to ask why they said it in this way. Indeed, what where they saying? Of course, we do know of the Celts’ fondness for mead, the drink made from fermented honey. In most of the world, it was known that most any liquid with sugars might ferment because of naturally occurring yeasts. [These naturally occurring yeasts, however, (known as “wild yeasts”) made a relatively weaker wine than we are used to today because our modern vintners have bred stronger yeasts able to tolerate a higher level of alcohol before it kills them.] Mead, then, is a product of flower, bee sugar and yeast. Mead is an intoxicating, sweet drink named after a queen – sometimes referred to as a queen of Ireland, and sometimes as queen of the Otherworld.
Our quote suggests that Druids know something not known by others, but could be known by bees. Why would bees be the ones to ask if we want to know about the Druid’s knowledge, if they did not have something to do with it themselves? They are, after all, the source of honey. It may be the mead itself – product of land, water, flower, and invisible forces that provide intoxication. Or might it be something about the life of the bee and its hive?
Perhaps we might change the question to ask the Wild Druid what the Bee knows. Indeed, what is it that bees know? An English woman recently told me that her gramps told the members of his family that they should always tell the bees their family news. (Curiously, she hadn’t heard of the saying “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.”) Apparently, bees are expected to hold knowledge – maybe even disseminate it as they make their journeys from flower to flower. Perhaps that’s one clue – like traveling Druids open to sources of knowledge that, in their search, also sparks new life in others. I refer here to the honeybee, which is only one kind of bee, but is my favorite.
And then there is the mead. Bees are the source of the basic element of this particular intoxication or inspiration of mead - an alteration of consciousness that can, if used carefully, prompt inspiration, courage, poetry, creative art, love and lust; opening our senses to the world, to possibility and to a freedom that we seldom have in our sober world. That would seem to be enough, but I think there’s more.
What does the Wild Druid know about the Bee? Bees are a highly organized matriarchal culture. They may travel miles to collect their riches (pollen and nectar), which are shared with the entire hive; and they recognize no human boundaries. They collect pollen from whatever is available: tree, flower or grasses. They are organized into non-rigid castes or jobs that support the colony: those that attend to the nursery, or attend the queen. There are scout bees that search for sources of food and return to communicate what they’ve found to others through dance-like movements. There are guard bees that prevent “robber bees” from other colonies from invading their food stores. And all of these workers are female.
A healthy colony has few (male) drones that hang around waiting for a queen’s one virgin flight. After impregnating the queen, they are of no further use to the colony. Individual bees live only a few weeks during the summer (except for the queen) and so the survival of the colony depends on the contributions of all members – each one responsible for a fraction of a teaspoon of honey. The health of the queen is paramount and her condition is broadcast to the entire hive through pheromones. If anything in the hive becomes unsatisfactory – like crowding or an ailing queen – the workers feed some larvae “royal jelly” to make a few new queens. The first queen out of her cell finds and kills the others, and then leaves with half the hive to establish her own colony. Watching a swarming hive is an awesome sight as tens of thousands of bees take to the air, circling around an invisible center making a noise like no other. I’ve seen them move slowly away like a cloud of hums. And I’ve seen them cluster on the branch of a tree where, if I’m careful, I can bring them to an empty hive where they make their new home.
We see some parallels here with old Celtic society, where the health and uprightness of the ruler meant a good relationship with the Goddess of the Land which, in turn, brought prosperity to the tribe. Not only men, but also women were rulers, warriors and workers, and the male ruler’s authority derived from the Goddess of the Land. An unfit ruler who lost her or his connection to the fertility of the land could be dethroned and a new one selected. Rulers were, above all, servants to the relationship between the people and the Spirit of the Land.
For bees, there seems little significance given to individual survival as the bee can make only one strike (sting) – and then she dies. Thus, their champions go out to meet the invader and are ready to sacrifice their lives to attack or drive them off. There is an immediate cost to aggression.
We know that bees are responsible for a tremendous amount of pollination and thereby our food. In this way, they are truly intermediaries in the fertility of the land as they go about their work. And they are willing to die for the sweetness they produce.
Modern times have seen “Colony Collapse Disorder” where whole hives disappear. Theories abound, but it seems caused by a combination of factors including the stress of moving colonies for pollination of fruit fields, diseases, and insecticide. This sounds like our life today: accosted by stresses that weaken the immune system, diseases becoming resistant to our treatments, and environmental toxicity. Our needs are so similar to those of the bee: safe food, clean water and air, community and a balance of contribution and benefit.
In short, the state of the bees and that of the land (and, therefore, us) are inextricably entwined; the fate of the bees and human food sources are interdependent. It’s true: what we do to the land we do to the bees and to ourselves. Disruption of the colony’s organized tasks in which all contribute and receive benefit, as well as any cult to an individual, are threats to the survival of the tribe.
That said, we do not have one ruler these days, but rather a collective of people who are charged with making our land prosperous and safe. It’s now difficult to see how our “rulers” (legislators, senators, warriors, presidents, oligarchs and mega-corporations, etc.) gain their right to rule from their fitness in the eyes of the Goddess of the Land. These days it seems to be about the amount of money one can accrue – power for its own sake. And I hear the sounds of discontent, a swarming of people in city after city, objecting to how the benefits of American society are apportioned, perhaps looking for the new queen or champion who will take up their cause and make their lives-in-community worth living again.
It appears that bees do know what it takes to make a working tribe, and they show us what endangers it. So maybe we’d be wise to, indeed, ask the Wild Bee what the Druid should know.
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