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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Jacqueline Freeman: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees
Jacqueline Freeman is a biodynamic farmer and natural beekeeper who speaks internationally on organic beekeeping, women in agriculture, and cultivating a more holistic relationship with nature. With Sounds True, she has published the book Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Jacqueline discuss the unique unity consciousness of bees and how understanding their perspective opens up profound new views of existence. They talk about the challenges facing bees in the modern world and why thriving beehives are essential for a healthy ecosystem. Finally, Jacqueline describes her ability to communicate with bees, the messages she has received from them, and the purpose of a bee's life—from the bee's perspective. (70 minutes)
Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge.. Today my guest is Jacqueline Freeman. Jacqueline Freeman is a biodynamic farmer and natural beekeeper who appeared in the award-winning documentary Queen of the Sun. She speaks internationally on organic beekeeping, women in agriculture, permaculture, and building an expansive relationship with nature. With Sounds True, Jacqueline has written a new book called Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World, in which she illuminates the unity consciousness that guides every action in the colony, and how this profound awareness can influence the way we see both the natural world and ourselves.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Jacqueline and I spoke about her ability to communicate with the bees, and some of the messages she's received. We also talked about the challenges bees face in our world today, and the importance of healthy bees for a healthy ecosystem. We also talked about what it means to be "bee-centric" instead of "human-centric" in our approach to relating with bees, particularly when it comes to harvesting honey or making bee-based products. And finally, we talked about the purpose of a bees' life from the bees' perspective. Here's my conversation with Jacqueline Freeman:
Jacqueline, to begin with, I'd love to know how you first became a beekeeper—how your relationship with the bees first evolved.
Jacqueline Freeman: That's how I became enamored of bees. [Laughs.] Well, my husband and I bought a farm in the north Pacific Northwest about 15 years ago. We weren't farmers; we're both from small towns in New England. We just wanted to live in a rural place with a lot of land around us because that's what we were used to, that's what we grew up in. We are the second owners of this farm that's 100 years old, so that was kind of nice. I didn't really start out thinking I was going to have anything to do with farming other than having my own backyard garden. That was about it.
Then, in that first year we were here, my neighbor down the street who grows heirloom hens—chickens—she came up one time and she said, "You know, you guys have a farm. You really ought to have chickens!" So she gifted us with a half-dozen hens, and wow, that was kind of nice. I liked that too. Then a little bit later, one of my other girlfriends who lived down in Portland in town, said a friend was selling her land or was buying some land—I'm not quite sure on the details on that. A friend was doing something with some land, and there were bees that had lived out in the woods for a long time, and the new owners didn't want the bees there. So, she asked if I would like to take them. Actually, it was kind of a big invitation; she said, "You have a farm. You should have bees!" I thought, "Yes, she's right, just like with the chickens. I should have bees too!"
So, we took a beehive in, and that was my very first hive. I knew absolutely nothing about them. My brother had kept bees for a few years a few years earlier, but I didn't live anywhere near him. Once, I went to his house and saw his bees, but that wasn't any big deal for me; I didn't know anything.
TS: And then, how did your relationship with the bees develop from that point?
JF: Well, I started out being kind of afraid of them. You know? I didn't know anything about them. I thought they were like the cartoon pictures of big cyclones of bees coming to sting. Of course, having seen things in the media about how scary bees could be, I kind of thought that was how they were.
So I got a bee suit—you know, one of those ones that look like you're in a hazmat suit—and got all taped up, dressed up, wore my knee-high boots with my pants tucked in, with duct tape around the top of them just in case a bee got in there, and the big bee hat and the gloves. Really, I looked like I was ready to go to Mars. I marched out to see the bees, and when I went down to sit with them, it was really interesting. They had no interest in me whatsoever. [Laughs.] I had a chair and I would sit up right next to the beehive—[at] a distance at first, but then I got braver [and] braver, and got up close to them and started watching them.
I noticed they were very docile; they were very sweet, they were very friendly—and I don't mean like all-over-me friendly, I mean just in this acceptance way. They just seemed to say, "There she is. And here we are." And it was just the sweetest feeling. I noticed [that] the more and more and more that I would go—I went down every day for a few hours a day—every time I did that, I felt closer to them, and I noticed that my thinking changed. It was like going into this deep meditation where I wasn't thinking about anything else. I wasn't thinking about going to an appointment or calling somebody or getting the mail, or anything other than being present with the bees. That wasn't by intention; that was just the effect that they had on me.
Eventually, I kind of—piece by piece—got rid of my big old bee suit, and eventually over a long period of time, I got to the part where I don't even wear a bee suit or protective equipment. I rarely wear it. The bees became very, very welcoming to me. I noticed the first time that I was down there—by this time I didn't have gloves on anymore and things like that—I put my hand out to just see if a bee would climb up on my finger, and this little bee climbed up and she just looked straight at me. Her little tiny face—I could see her eyes looking straight at me. That just changed everything. It was amazing. I felt like, "I'm now a part of bee life." It was [a] wonderful, wonderful feeling; it's like my heart opened up to these little beings.
TS: Now, it's interesting that your breakthrough was through "bee-ing." You must hear a lot of bee puns, and I'm wondering if that drives you crazy—all the bee puns?
JF: I think it's a deliberate part of the language. Sometimes when I've read—I write, so sometimes I go look up archaic words, and when I spoke with the bees, sometimes they would use archaic words. I'd have to go look them up to see what the fullness of the meaning was. And so many times I find with words, there's some core construct in the middle of that word that has allowed it to evolve into this much bigger presence. So, yes. I think the words "being" and "bees" [laughs] they're kind of primary to our entire perception of consciousness.
TS: You said something interesting: when you talk with the bees. So I know from your book, Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees [For Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World], that you listen and talk—you're a bee communicator, if you will.
JF: [Laughs.] And I find that every bit as funny as probably you do! When I first started with bees, first of all I went off to bee school—because how else do you learn about bees? You go to bee school. I went to a conventional bee school and they were doing things where I was thinking right off the bat, "Oh no, I can't do that. Oh no, I'll never do that. Oh no, that's not for me." And I knew nothing about bees, but I knew that I wasn't going to do a lot of the things we were being taught.
What I ended up doing is I'd come home and I'd say, "Look, I want to take really good care of all of you, but there are no books"—this was 14 years ago, I think? There were no books on this kind of care for bees that I wanted to do. There was very little, actually. It was a lot of how you manage bees, but that was never my intention. Every day, when I would go and see my bees or do something with my bees, I would say this little thing to them. I would say, "I am willing to do just about anything to provide you with the best life that you can possibly have. I just don't know what to do. So it'd be really nice if you could share some wisdom with me."
And it's funny, in the quiet way—I mean, I don't think I actually put that into a verbal sentence, but it was certainly a sentence in my head, and it was something I said in earnest for probably six years. Then one morning, they answered! I was laying in bed and I had this habit of—I guess you could call it a practice, although it seems so small—I would wake up and I'd lay in bed and I'd be in that place where you're not quite fully awake but you're no longer asleep, and I would just do a small meditation—just really clearing my mind and opening my heart and blessing everyone who was on the land. That was my little ritual of the morning.
Then one morning, I just got this information. It kind of poured in, and I grabbed my pen and paper next to the bed and started writing down what they said. And it was information about the bees that I had never heard anywhere before. And yet when I was listening to it and reading it, I was thinking, "This really—it's true! What they're saying—it has this ring of truth to it." And the more I wrote, the more I learned. It happened a few mornings later, and a few mornings later, and eventually I had enough to write a book—I could tell I had enough to share with people. It went on for years—it still does, less so now because I've written the book and now it's sort of more if I have a particular thing I want to know something about, I'll put it out there to them. They're brilliant little beings. So much of the information that I learned from them, it really stretched my mind. I sometimes had to go look things up!
TS: I want to go into this a little bit, because here you could say some kind of automatic writing opened up in you. How did you know this is the bees talking and not, "This is just my imagination?" How did you trust what you were receiving?
JF: There were solutions to issues and problems in bee management that are ongoing ones. The bees are—overall, hardly anybody doesn't know that bees are having a hard time now. So, that's a big discussion. At the time I became a beekeeper, that wasn't such a big discussion; that sort of evolved really quickly after that. But in there, there were answers to questions that I didn't know, and they were so accurate. Since then, I've even—a few of the things that are in the book—even in the past year—there's been about three times when they've come out with a study that proved something that the bees told me. I thought, "How curious! How amazingly funny and insightful of them."
They speak in a language, too, that's a bit different than how I think or talk, and I found that quite interesting. And they know words that I didn't know; there's even a part where I talk about quantum physics. Now, Tami, I was not big on this topic. [Laughs.] So I really did have to go Google a few phrases to even see what in the world they [are] telling me here. I wrote all that stuff down and looked it up and went, "Hmm, yes, you know what, that really works."
TS: So is your understanding that this breakthrough occurred—your bee communication breakthrough—because of your sincerity, because of the connection? How do you attribute it? A lot of people, I think, want to have communication with other species, et cetera, and they never get a breakthrough. How did this happen for you? What's your view of that?
JF: I'm so glad you asked me that, because people don't really ask me that very often. They just sort of assume that's what I do and that's it. But I have as many questions about it as anyone. I think that it's actually two things. One of them is that I was earnest in my question, and I asked it repeatedly. The second part is I wasn't attached to anything happening out of it. So I didn't have, "And someday the bees will tell me this, and I'll know the answer." That was never part of my thoughts. It was just, "Tell me how I can help you."
TS: Yes. Yes, that makes sense to me—your sincerity, your heartfulness, really—your openheartedness. Now, you mentioned that many people are aware now that bees are having a difficult time in our world today. I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that, for people who are not educated on the challenges that bees face today. Then also, what you learned from the bees about how to cope with the challenges and changes in agricultural processes—that kind of thing.
JF: That's a great big question. OK. I'll jump right in.
Well, the first thing is—and it's so obvious—when did it start being OK to put poisons on our food? That's just the silliest idea in the world. Anybody who even just looks at that one sentence, "When did it become OK to put poisons on our food?"—why would that ever be a correct action in the world?
So, the poisons in the environment are certainly the first step. I have lost hives because somebody sprayed a fruit tree a mile away from me and my bees were on it that day because the blossoms were out. So many of the poisons that are used in our environment—they're out there—they're deadly poison to all kinds of lives and life matter. Those things are allowed out there because they put directions on the side that tell you how to use it properly.
I remember reading something somewhere that said 96 percent of the people who buy something that has directions on the side of it never read them. If they had, they would know that this deadly poison to bees should never be sprayed when the flowers are out; it's supposed to be sprayed during the bud time. I mean, I think the whole concept is silly because it's poison, but if you spray poison on your flowers and they're in bloom, then certainly bees are going to be attracted to them and they're going to carry home the poison.
What happens is, you can take a hive that's got—let's say a typical hive is about 50,000 bees. If 100 bees get into that poison, they'll bring it home and then the poison—it's itchy, it hurts, it burns. They actually communicate over to the bee next to them—they'll land on the landing board and go, "Aaaah, I've got something on me. Help me!" And the next bee will come and help, and then she's got it on her, and the next bee will come and help. They said if 100 bees in your hive of 50,000 come home with something toxic on them, within 24 hours every single bee will have touched another bee and the whole hive goes down. That's exactly been my experience: three times I've lost hives to someone putting out something toxic that my bees got into. Since bees fly and forage up to two miles away from where their hive is, I haven't even got a clue what neighbor did that. Who in my two-mile radius sprayed something Saturday morning?
My role there is education. Every time I speak with people I say, "You have to stop using poisons." As a farmer, I can even say something more profound on that: the more important thing is, if you're spraying poisons, it's because the plant itself is weak, and the plant is weak because—this is so logical—there's not enough nutrition in the soil. If you make your soil stronger, your plants won't be as weak and they won't attract pests, they won't get viruses, they won't get infections, they won't be the kind of thing that has problems in the first place. I mean, that's such a simple concept.
TS: And how is the death of the bees something that is a loss for all of us and for the health of our ecosystem? How do we all suffer when the bees are suffering?
JF: Oh my gosh. In so many ways. It seems like—I think one of the things I want to mention first is about people's perception of bees as being servants to human needs. We like honey, so it's the question that so many people ask me. "Oh, you have bees? You must get a lot of honey." Or, "How much honey do you get?" I think I take very little honey from my hives. I take it when there's a superabundance; other than that, I don't take it because I'm not in a relationship where it's—this animal's worth is gauged by how much of something it produces for me. If pollination happens—the bees don't pollinate the tomatoes because they're your tomatoes. Bees pollinate because they're in this beautiful mystery dance with all of the plant life in the world. That's what they're doing; the pollination just happens to make the fruit more abundant, therefore we humans benefit from it. But it isn't that they're workers to make our world better. They're doing that on their own.
TS: Yes. And when bees die from pesticides, what is the cycle that happens—the negative cycle that creates suffering for the health of all of us?
JF: Oh my God. So much. So much. We lose their song, you know? I think that's a bigger thing than all of what we think of for bees. When they—let me read you something that's out of what they've spoken to me.
JF: Is that all right?
TS: Yes, please.
JF: Here's what—when I asked them something about sound, I was actually interested in that sensation I get when I'm around them. When I listen to their song—that "mmmmmmmmmmmmm" that's going on—there's something in me that feels just so fulfilled. I just feel enriched by being immersed in that sound.
So, one morning, they spoke with me about sound. They said—and this is their words—"Our inner landscape is sound. We move between narrow paths and lanes, and know the way by the resonance of sound, as the waves move onto and off of every surface in the hive. Besides the information about the hive's activities moment to moment, the sound itself plays through the hive and describes the curves and contours of the internal shape of the hive. We see inside the hive by the shape of the sound, which is one more aspect of unity.
"In all our activities, we live inside the sound. Sound is integral in our unity. Sound is the emanation of our vibration. Each hive has a unique sound signature that declares its health and vital force. The emanation of the sound reinforces the hive's state of health. It is important as our warmth and our scent to the hive. Each bee individually has a sound declaring its health. In harmony together, we set up a wave of sound that speaks in a song of hive health. The overlapping sounds harmonize on different frequencies that speak to each of the bees' organs. The song can raise or lower the vibration of vitality, enhancing or decreasing hive health. Like a song of rapture, it can raise the spiritual frequency of the hive, or like an observation or complaint of ill health, it can wear down the bees' vibration."
And they go on. They speak much more. But isn't that amazing, that the—just the sound that you hear. And who would think that it has such profound properties? Now, from the books that you put out from Sounds True—I mean, we are certainly in there rooting for that. So many of the authors that you work with have said brilliant things about stuff like that. And this is the bees' contribution to it.
TS: Of course, I can appreciate the beauty of the song, and I love the fact that you call the bees' sounds songs. You call your book Song of Increase; let's just take a moment there and then I'll circle back to my point. Why do you call the book Song of Increase?
JF: The Song of Increase is the time when the bees are so amazingly abundant in everything they do—and that's their words for it. They call everything—the different tones [and] sounds—"songs." When a hive is building up in the spring—they've come out of their winter, the blossoms are just starting—there's a few different things that happen. One of them is, first of all there's more food coming in, and more food means that the queen can start laying more eggs because there's more food available to feed the babies. In that process, there's more nectar being brought in, so there's more food for the bees. Then, the queen is going full-out, laying as many eggs as she possibly can. She's just filling the hive. So you've got this brood chamber, the nursery, with all the babies in it. Then you've got the next layer out, which is this golden sun raised around the nursery that's filled with fermented pollen that they feed the babies. Then all the rest of the combs are the honey—the nectar that becomes honeycomb.
In a hive, there's a point where everything is just rocking, full of abundance. And that's the time when the bees are absolute at their peak happiness. They know that every single thing in their perception is going right in the direction it's supposed to go. That's what they start singing: this incredible sound called the Song of Increase. It's a song of abundance. It's a declaration that every single thing is going toward the fullest expression of their being. It's wonderful. And you can hear it when you're around a hive that's in the midst of this song. It's just—it will make you laugh, it makes you smile. You can just feel like, "Oh, what a wonderful world we live in!" [Laughs.]
TS: So I can understand how someone like you who is a deep—I mean, you're even more than a bee lover, you're devoted to the bees and to the beauty and the wisdom they've brought into your life. [You] would sorely miss the Song of Increase and the songs of the bees. But what I'm imagining is people who are working in the agricultural business and who are using pesticides, and if they say, "You know, the worst thing that's gonna happen is that we're going to lose the songs of the bees, I can live with that. OK, make a recording of the songs of the bees and you can play it and make yourself happy." But it seems to me that there's a lot more we would lose in terms of the ecological balance in the world. That's what I'm wondering if you could touch on as well—that as bees are suffering and dying, what does that mean for our future food production?
JF: Well, one of the statistics is about two-thirds of our food has to be pollinated by somebody, and pollinators are the ones who do it. So on a very practical level, humans would lose about two-thirds of the food that we eat: the fruits and vegetables and herbs and everything else that they're party to.
But I think it's far, far bigger than that. When we lose bees, it's because it's the canary in the coal mine, you know? It's because there's something so much bigger going on, so much of a fuller defeat going on in our whole system. Not just our agricultural system, but the whole system of the world. We as people who care for bees—one of the ways we've gone off in a funny direction is we've taken on managing bees like they're livestock. I mean, look at this throughout all of agriculture: instead of growing fruits and vegetables, we're managing this stuff with tractors run by GPS. No human touches it—that touches the food—it loses something of the relationship that is, I think, primary in this whole world. When we are not in connection with nature around us, it's more than something small that's lost. It's something—we lose something in our hearts and souls. We separate ourselves.
The bees said something one time—there's a habit in human management of bees—conventional management of bees—where you can take honey away and then if you take too much honey, then you feed back sugar water. I'm sure there are people who are listening who are just going, "What?" [Laughs.] "Why would you take away honey and feed sugar?" Well, the bees need to have something, so taking the honey away, you have to give something back. Sugar water, well, it will give them a burst of energy much like a candy bar would, but of course anybody in their sane mind knows that's not really good nutrition.
What happens is that's one way that you can weaken bees—you feed them food that isn't nutritious. When we get into this, that's on a very practical level: feed any animal food that's not nutritious and you'll incite illness; you'll start some kind of degrading process happening in their vitality. But more than that, there's something else. The bees said something about the honey itself. They said that it was—let me see, I think I've got that. Let me see if I can find it in my book here. Maybe, maybe not. Nope!
I guess I'm going to have to remember this from memory. Anyway, the bees were talking about sugar water, and I had actually asked them a question about that, saying, "Well, what's the deal on sugar water?" They said, "Well, it's not good for us, and it makes our tummies hurt. It makes our singing kind of weak and tinny." But they said, "More important than all of that is, sugar isn't food that's made with prayer. Honey is food that's made with prayer." And I felt like, "What a profound statement." You know?
My farm is biodynamic; we work with the vital force of the land. We work with all the spiritual entities that are here and deeply loving of the land and the space that we're on. When we work with the land, there's a connection made. So when I'm planting seeds in the ground, I may sing to them, I may talk with them. I invite them to take root in this land and know that they're loved and cared for, and that there's a deep resonance in that connection between us. I'm the gardener but I'm also the caretaker of all the soil, and I'm doing everything I can to allow all the processes to happen simultaneously so that everybody's happy and healthy. In doing that, I engage with the food. I engage with the things that I eat, and I feel like anything that I eat that comes off my farm that I've been intimately involved with, that just brings health.
TS: So, Jacqueline, you mentioned that you work with all of the spiritual energies that are a part of the land. Tell me what you meant by that.
JF: Well, on our land, my husband and I are both quite sensitive to that. When we first moved here, we felt, "Wow, there's some presence on this land that just makes my heart sing." And we've actually come to learn what that is. [After] 15 years on the land, the land will teach you. So we work with that. If I am walking along—sometimes it's something as simple as I'm walking somewhere on the farm and I just get this sense like, "That part of the garden over there really needs water." Sometimes it's just a simple request. Other times, it's that we put something here.
One time I was walking across the farm and I was walking down below, and I just got this sense every time I walked by there, it felt like I could feel and hear the sound of water spirits. After a few days of it, I said, "You know? We should build a little pond here." And so we did. I got together my interns and apprentices, and we dug out a big hole, and we made a little pond there. Within two or three days, every time I walked by there then, I could practically hear out loud how joyful it made all of the energies that were in that area.
Then, later we found out that underneath there, about 26 feet down, before we'd lived here there had been a well in that area, and that well had been filled in! [Laughs.] When there are water spirits, the water spirits continued to live there even if a hole gets filled in in the water. So I felt like I was hearing that, and then responding to it. "There should be water here." That was what I kept hearing, "There should be water here." And so we put water there, and then, wow, what a surprise! So yes, things like that happen.
TS: Now, I want to circle back, because you were talking about how you're bee-centric, not human-centric, in your relationship with the bees, and how you don't even take honey from your bees unless there's an extra amount being produced. I'm curious what you think about all of the various businesses that have grown up around bees—whether it's beeswax candles or various kinds of face creams, let alone honey production. What do you think is the respectful way—is there a respectful way—to work with bee-made products?
JF: Yes, I do believe that there is, and we have to be aware of how much we [are] taking of things. They are so generous. They do make extra. There are certain hives—sometimes I'll go to look and say, "Is this a hive I can collect some honey from this year?" And I look in and go, "Hmm, no. Doesn't look like there's enough there. There's plenty, but there's not enough extra for me." Another time I won't even get to open the hive; I'll just stand next to it and just go, "Mmm, nope, doesn't feel right either." Then I'll be walking by another one that's going, "Hey, over here! We've got extra." And I open it up, and sure enough, they do! [Laughs.]
But with all of that, when I take out the combs to process them to take the honey out, then there's leftover wax in that. So I try to be respectful, to use every bit of anything that I do take. That would be the stuff—you want to make some lip balm, sure. You can use the wax in that. Any of those things. I don't like to support things like—there's an industry built up around royal jelly, which is the stuff that is given to the queen. Baby queens float in it. It's full of hormones and it can do some amazing things, but I've chosen not to buy things that have royal jelly in them because the process of acquiring that royal jelly means you get a whole bunch of baby queen eggs and then you kill the queens—the little queens—and take the royal jelly that they've been floating in. That just doesn't feel right to me, you know? There's a death process in there, so that just can't be right.
TS: That's helpful. Now, I want to talk with you, Jacqueline, about what may be the most important part of our conversation for me, which is, as a bee communicator, you've learned things about the way bees live that have profoundly affected how you live. I'd be curious to know what the main things are that you've learned from bees about their life that has changed the way you approach living your life.
JF: Oh, I love that question. Well, the first one is the perception of how bees understand themselves. They speak about being a "Unity." Actually, this is how they speak: "We wake up to the understanding that we are all one, all the time. Human beings exist connected each to each, but believe that they are not. Honey bees dwell on the full realization of that connection, and have done so for eons. The Unity we embody is a reflection of the kingdom-wide unity that dwells in us all. This is the gift we bring: complete sacred unity in body and spirit. To be in the presence of spirit, to simply sit and be in such presence, offers the opportunity to be transformed by it. This we offer you. Come sit. Be with us. Drink in the unity as you would fresh rain. We offer our gift with great joy and love."
So, they have this common consciousness which is that every bee is in connection with each other, and they recognize that. There are many times in the stuff that I have in the book where they've told me about the processes wherein you see their connection. For example, when they're in the hive, they communicate all throughout the whole hive, and every bee knows what's going on throughout the hive. There's this vibration, there's this sound, but there's also this inner unity.
One time, a friend of mine, Michael Thiele—and he works with bees in this wonderfully apicentric way—he said, "You know, I've never believed this thing about calling the female bees ‘worker bees.'" They're the ones that do a lot of the work in the hive, and we named them—as humans, we named them workers. He said, "It just doesn't sound right to me. What do the bees call the females in the hive?"
So, I went to them with the question—and quite often I never went with a question; I just would take what information they gave me—but sometimes I would bring a question. The first time I asked the question, "What do you call the female bees?" they didn't explain anything about that; they told me something about sound. I wrote it down and thought, "Well, that was interesting." And the next day, I said again, "What do you call the female bees?" And they told me something else, again, but it wasn't the answer to this question. And I thought to myself, "Well, I guess they're really not interested in telling me what that is. Maybe they don't have a different name for them." And then the third day I went back without asking the question, they told me what they called the bees.
What happened was I needed to understand the first two lessons before I could understand the answer. And the answer was, they spoke to me about the sound of om, and they said [that] as humans, we come out into the world and we think we're individuals and we make the sound of "om" where it's the whole wide world—the "ohhhh" part of the sound. And then, we bring the sound inside of us to come into ourselves, from the outer world to the inner world.
They said the female bees—[they] call them the opposite of the sound of "om," because [they] come into the world as one, and then as the bees grow and mature they go out to forage in the fields and they become individuated, but at the same time they've always got that sound inside of them that's the sound of one, the sound of oneness. So their name is actually an "om" sung in reverse. And they said, "But you can also call them maidens." [Laughs.]
TS: Uh huh. And in terms of understanding this unity and then this movement of the bees that you just described, going from the inside out instead of the outside in, how have these ideas changed the way that you approach your life?
JF: Oh, gosh. Well, everything—I can't help but do that every day: look at it and say, "And how would the bees do that?" [Laughs.] There's certain things I see—these harmonies that go on that are available to us out here in human lives—that if we ask, we can have. For example, when bees build the comb, they build this comb out of wax and they do this really interesting thing where if you opened up a hive when they were building their free comb that just hangs down from a bar, you'd see a whole bunch of bees doing this curious acrobatic thing where one bee is holding onto the leg of the bee above it and then there's a bee below that that's holding onto her leg with her upper arm. It just looks like this funny, acrobatic, strange thing.
What they're actually doing is they're measuring, and they're using their bodies to pick where each cell is going to go. So when they're doing this, it's actually a construction that's taking place in their common mind. So this bee on row three, four spaces in—she's not going to be there when that piece of wax gets laid down to describe that cell that's being built there. She's just the template; she's part of the template that enters into all the bees who will then build that comb. I mean, what an incredible concept that is, anyway! And then, with that, they just simply go and construct the comb as their bodies have laid out the measurement prior to them ever putting a piece of wax down.
So I think of that, and I watch the bees while they put together this length of comb that's maybe 12 inches, 15 inches wide, and then another 10 inches deep, and they build it, and they'll start building it from the outsides to the inside. And when they get to the very middle, Tami, it meets. It just meets perfectly. I mean, I find that baffling and unbelievably amazing.
And I think about my husband and I—we work really well together; we've been together 20-plus years. We do tasks really well together. But if he started building a wall on the left side and I started building on the right side, it probably would not meet precisely in the middle the way that bees can do that.
What it makes me think of is this way that humans work in the world, you know? In my marriage, I think of 50/50; I think [that] if he does dishes half the time, then I'm supposed to do dishes half the time. There's this arrangement that you have, and I always thought that was the best you could possibly get. But I realized when I watched the bees that they act very differently. If a bee lands on the landing board and she's got something itching her, another bee will run right over—just drop what she's doing and run right over and help and handle it and fix it, and then go right back to their task.
I've seen them do things like this—I was in a hive one time and I made a mistake, and I dropped a honeycomb. I made a mess in the bottom of that hive, and I felt terrible about it. But I watched what the bees did: they stopped what they were doing, and they all ran over and they cleaned it up, and they fixed it. They didn't yell at anybody, they didn't make me feel bad. They just fixed it. And I realized that their way of doing things is not 50/50 or one percent of 100. It's 100 percent. At all times, every bee is willing to do exactly what it takes to make things right. That's awesome.
TS: In that sense, being a superorganism, if you will—and I've heard bees referred to in that way in the foreword to your book by Susan Chernak McElroy. She uses that phrase, "superorganism." So, what [might it] be like as humans if we lived more like we were part of a human superorganism—that collaborative, that connected?
JF: Yes. And not for ourselves all the time. If we could actually give 100 percent. I have a hard time even conceptualizing what that would be like, but I have integrated that into my marriage at times. [Laughs.] I'm not perfect, so I'm not great at it all the time. But I think, "You know, if I washed the dishes six times in a row, my husband will probably do the things that I'm not really keen on doing." I really don't like putting the gas in the car; I don't like the way it makes my hands smell like gas afterwards, so he just takes that thing over. Or he puts out the trash, and I like to cook more than he does, so he'll handle dishes more than I do. It comes to be a thing where there isn't an assignment of tasks; there's just an automatic flowing that says, yes, this is good relationship. This is what you do when you're in good relationship—you do 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
TS: You began by talking to us, Jacqueline, about wearing this astronaut's suit, if you will, so you wouldn't get stung by the bees when you first started, and slowly peeling off all of those clothes and just going in and having your hands and your body exposed, and feeling trusting. Have you ever suffered from a serious amount of bee bites in your experience being a beekeeper?
JF: Yes. [Laughs.] One time—and I learned a lesson from that—I had taken some honey the day before and when I got it back down to the house, I had a few bars, and some of it wasn't capped honey. It was still nectar, which isn't fully processed to being dehydrated nectar, which is honey. It will ferment if you try to keep it. So I thought, "Oh, I'll just go return these two bars to that hive when I go back up." The next morning, I brought it back up and I was with my friend Susan. I said to her, "I'll put it back, no problem." And then I said, "You know, this hive next to them, I've been meaning to look in on them [for] a while, so I think I'll just lift up the lid and have a look in here."
It was so funny, because I said to her, "Now, normally, we don't wear bee equipment," and I said, "It's funny. My intuition just says I should put on my bee hat." So I put on my bee hat—I didn't put on my whole bee suit on or anything, just put the hat on—and I opened up the hive, and woah! Like 80 bees came flying out of there, and I did get about, oh, 14 stings—12 or 14 stings on my hands. I'm so glad I put the hat on.
What you do when bees are stinging like that—they were obviously very upset about something—is you back up really fast. You don't have to run away, but I just back up. And usually, if you get 10 feet away, they're fine. I backed up, and I had a little tree nearby—one of my fruit trees—and you can do what bears do: bears, when they're getting stung by bees, will go underneath the tree and lift their arms up, and they spin around in the branches, and the branches confuse the bees. Then the bear walks out the other side. So I sort of did something like that.
But then I came back and I said, "What in the world caused that?" I've never had that experience before. I've never had it since. Then Susan said, "Do you think it was because of Fourth of July the night before?" [Laughs.] I live in Washington State, where fireworks are legal, and even though I live in a rural area, everybody sets off their fireworks on Fourth of July night.
So what happened was that night, Joseph and I were up in the field doing our cow chores, and I said, "Boy, every time one of those fireworks goes off, you can actually feel the ground shaking from it." And my bees—they're beings of vibration, so all of these fireworks all night long going vroom, vroom, vroom, shaking the hive—and then I come along innocently the next morning and disrupt the hive by taking the lid off. I was the first thing they could point a finger at and say, "Maybe it's her!" [Laughs.] So that was a good lesson. It was, "Note to self: don't open any hives on July fifth!"
TS: Did it change at all your approach the next days? Obviously, your interactions had nothing to do with the Fourth of July, but did you notice that you were wary in any way?
JF: No, not really. I do try to pay attention and notice—before I ever open a hive up, I usually do take a moment to notice how they're doing, and I didn't do that. That's one of my prerequisites before I open a hive up, is take note of how they're doing. There are some times when bees don't want anyone in the hive, and things that maybe some people don't know too—like if the barometric pressure is falling and there's a storm coming on, that's not a good time to open a hive up because the bees are preparing for a storm. They're doing whatever needs to be done inside to be sure that they're ready for this. So if I open a hive then, I know that they're going to come out and say, "This is not a time to be bothering us. Put that lid back on and go away." So I pay attention to it.
TS: Now, what I notice, Jacqueline, in talking with you, is that you obviously have some kind of real sensitivity to the natural world; when you told the story about identifying that there were water spirits, and that this was a place where water wanted to be, and even that you could approach a hive and tune in and know what's needed or not needed. I'm curious what you would say to someone listening right now who is feeling excited about cultivating more sensitivity to the natural world where they live, and whatever landscape that might be—how they might go about that.
JF: Learning to listen—it's the most important skill. And learning to quiet the monkey-mind chatter that goes on. That's probably the biggest tool—I guess you'd call it a tool, but I think it's more a way of being than anything else. I invite people to just listen. That comes from putting in—like for example, if it's going to be bees, then we call it the "thousand hours." [Laughs.] And it—I mean, isn't that the same with meditation too? You don't do it three times and go, "Ah, that didn't work." You do it over and over and over, and you come to understand and know things and feel things that are from the depths inside of us. That's how I feel with the bees and throughout my whole farm.
Sometimes people ask me, "Well, what does my hive say they want you to do or want me to do?" And I think, "That's not what the process is." It isn't about me speaking with your hive; it isn't like that. I can speak with my hives, but it's more speaking with the spirit of who is present with you. If I'm with a particular hive, then all my energy and intention is directed to interacting in a peaceful way with that particular hive. If I want to know more about the bee world in general, then my questions seem to be answered from some larger energy that embodies all of the bee spirit. So, for each of us who have animals that we want to communicate more with, it's just spending time sitting and listening. I don't think it has to take a lot of thought process; it's more being receptive to it.
TS: I notice, as you've mentioned a couple of times opening a hive. I realize I've seen pictures of honeycombs and things like that, but I've never looked inside a hive—I've never had an experience like that. I'm curious to know what that's like—when you look inside a hive, what [do] you see?
JF: Oh my god. You asked a great question! [Laughs.]
Well first of all, I spend time outside the hive assessing, "Is this a good time for me to come in and do something?" And it might be to take a bar of honey, or I don't know—there's not a lot of things I go into my hives for because I am a bee-centric beekeeper, which means I ask myself first, "What is this like from the bees' point of view?" Well frankly, the bees don't want us in there a whole lot. I know in conventional beekeeping—I was told in the beginning at bee school if I wasn't in my hives every 7 to 10 days, then I was a lousy beekeeper. I need to be in there checking and assessing their hive health, and do they need this, do they need medication, do they need something cleaned up, do they need things moved around. That isn't what the bees would have you do.
So, I'm more hands-off on that. I find I can learn a tremendous amount about what's happening inside the hive simply by watching outside the hive. If there's pollen coming in, then I know there's babies in there to feed. If there's a lot of activity at the front door where they're chasing off somebody, then I know that there's stress going on somewhere.
But going into the hive—let's say I get all the signals that say, "Yes, yes, come on in!" It's really wonderful. You take the lid off and this smell—this scent that comes up of the propolis and the wax and the warm honey. It's just this sense that it touches some limbic part of my brain that brings me further into this communion with them. I always move really, really slowly. If anybody gets concerned that I'm in there, then I go twice as slow as that. They're really quite friendly when you go in; "Oh, what are you doing here today?" Some of them will come up and just look right up at you, and some might crawl across my fingers. I always try to be really careful if I'm moving anything: if I'm taking a bar out to look at something, that I'm really careful about not squishing any bees in there. That often just comes with going more slowly.
I always tell them first before I do anything what I'm about to do. Sometimes I verbalize it; sometimes I say it right out loud: "I'm coming in to see how you're doing with pollen. Is there plenty of pollen?" I rarely, rarely ever, ever go in the nursery because I believe the nursery is kind of like a uterus, and we just don't have any real reason to be in there other than human curiosity. There's really not much I need to see in there. That's kind of the things that I do. And I'm real slow putting things back together, and real careful to put things back exactly as I found them and then closing it up again.
Oh my goodness, you can tell, too, if there's concern; like if I'm going to pick up a certain bar and the bees change their tone. They're going "hmmmmmm" and then all of a sudden they're going [makes a slightly higher-pitched "hmmmm"], that tells me, oh, someone just got concerned that I might be doing something. They might not want me there, or they need me to go slower. So, it is like this back-and-forth where I'm reading signals from them, they're reading signals from me, and we want it to be like a little dance that we're doing together. I always want them to feel like I'm careful, that I'm going to be cautious around them, they're not going to be harmed by me being there. That's the part they need to know: is there a heartfulness that you come to the hive with? And if so, you feel it come right back at you.
TS: Can you identify the different songs of bees the way somebody might be able to identify birdsongs or things like that? So you can tell what song they're singing? I mean, how many songs do they have going? What's their repertoire?
JF: I never thought of that, but there's sounds where if a hive is being robbed by a strong hive who's coming in to steal all their honey, there's a song of defense. You'll hear the pitch go up, and they'll be like, "Hey, somebody's trying to come in our front door," and, "Get all the guard bees down there, let's go!" It's like a cry to go to battle to save the hive. I have a hard time with robbing because bees will do it to each other. A large hive will go in towards when there's a dearth of forage, which means there's not as many flowers blooming, like [when] you get on into the fall. The larger hives will go, "OK, this hive isn't so strong, so let's go hit it and see if we can steal their honey." It's also part of nature's way, and that's why I've learned to be more hands-off. Larger hives are the ones that are probably going to survive more easily—maybe not larger hives, but hives that have a lot of honey put aside for themselves to get through winter. If they challenge a hive, that hive has to come back and say, "Hey, no way. You're not coming in here. This is our stuff. This is our territory, and you stay out." So there's that defense song that they'll be singing, and you can tell: it's a higher pitch like a [makes high-pitched noise].
I can also hear when a bee has a concern about me. All of the sudden, one of them might kind of bump up against me. They have no sense of scale; a bee will bump me with her forehead on my forehead, and that means "Back up." I mean, I'm a thousand times bigger than she is [but] it doesn't matter; she'll still bump me and say, "Hey, back off." So if I ever have a bee bump me, I back up right away. Usually just before she does that, she'll give me a little verbal warning; she'll say [makes a short, whiny buzzing noise]—you know, that kind of like [makes noise again] instead of [makes a calm, droning buzz and laughs]. I hope these sounds come out on the recording!
TS: Now Jacqueline, you've talked a little bit about life from the bees' point of view. I'm curious to know: do bees, in your communications with them, have a sense that they have a purpose here? And if so, what is the purpose of life from a bee's point of view, for a bee?
JF: Oh yes, indeed they do. Well, one thing they understand is that they protect the land. What they do with this—like on our farm, I feel like our land is protected by bees. It's one of the things that they understand about how they work.
So what they do is they take—every hive, every time a bee flies out, they have an interaction with the sun; the sun comes through these prismatic wings that they have, and it sets like a rainbow of colors on the ground. Part of that is—how do I say this?—each time a bee comes out and goes off to forage and comes back, that particular bee lays a forage line; she lays a light-line out there so the hives become the centers of these protective areas. When they do that, they're actually building like a grid that goes over all of our land and all of the larger land. They can go out two miles away, so areas that have bees in [them], healthy bees in [them], are well protected.
They also understand that their relationship with the plants—they're communicators among the plant families. I'm really amazed by this process they do where when you have—let's say you have a bunch of dandelions in your front yard, like we did when we first moved here. The bees come down and they take the pollen and they're pollinating, but they're going from one dandelion to the next to the next, and each crew that comes out to work with the flowers, they're on a specific mission. That's why pollination works, because they go from that particular—they go from a tomato blossom to a tomato blossom, or an apple blossom to an apple blossom, and the pollens get mingled. They understand that their process when they are doing that is not just pollinating, but also because they're going from one flower to the next, they're communicating between the flowers.
So if they're—the flowers like to have certain minerals in the ground, and when a plant has a mass of flowers and it's reaching the end of its mineral range there, the bees are communicating that back to the flowers by going from one flower on the edge to another flower further in. That edge flower is saying, "There's a lot of that wonderful mineral over here." So you'll see over years that the flowers will actually start to move across fields. Now, that could take 20 years or it could take a century for flowers to move. They'll move according to what mineral resources are there. If they start to run out on one end, then the bees will be helping them know that, that the flowers that are over [on] this end don't have as much of that mineral that you like. So they'll taper off on having the flowers growing in that area.
I've seen it in my front yard: dandelions used to be all over that front yard, but as we brought in animals and we had more minerals in the ground and manures and composts and all kinds of things, I don't find the dandelions in my front yard now because the job the dandelions were doing was just bringing up calcium from the deep parts of the soil and nourishing the soil—that's done. That job is done, so the dandelions over 15 years have moved from my front yard to my north yard, where they're quite happy and they're doing a lot of their work.
TS: And then, Jacqueline, what about you? Do you have a sense, somehow, of your purpose—being such an advocate and a translator, if you will, for people to understand bee life? What do you think is the purpose, if you will, that you've been given this particular mantle?
JF: Hmm. That's a good question. I'm not quite sure on the answer of that, because sometimes—well, when I first started out, I really thought it was just for my own personal development. You know, "How do I become a better person?" Well, I've become a better person by paying more attention to the bees, for one, and trying things out.
But I've noticed since I've written the book, so much of the feedback I've gotten from the book has told me that that book is serving a tremendous purpose for other people as well. I get love letters [laughs] from people who say their relationship with nature will never be the same again because now they understand this depthful part of nature where humans are a part of this landscape, but we're not the be-all, end-all bosses of it. We're a part of it and we have so much to learn from all of our surroundings. So I think that's really what the book has been doing—is helping people find a way to step into that place where this is opened up to all of us.
TS: Just one final question, Jacqueline. I can imagine, of course, when people talk about their relationship with let's say, a beloved dog, that it opens their hearts so much. And here, in reading your book Song of Increase, to feel how much your heart has opened up in relationship with bees—I don't think that's intuitively obvious. I mean, I think so many people, of course, when they see a bee, they go in the other direction. It's not, "Oh my God, my heart exploded through a relationship with bees in my backyard." Can you just shed a little bit of light on that, about just the actual heart level of transformation that has happened to you through your relationship with bees?
JF: No one was more surprised than me, first of all. [Laughs.] I didn't know it was going to happen like this. It really didn't have an intention that I would become a bee whisperer. Who would? Who would even think that was something available?
I wonder about that kind of—how did this happen? How did I get changed like this? How did I become—I am really clear on the fact that I am a better person now than I was before I started this work with bees. How they come into me, how they open up my heart—I'm not even sure how that happens exactly, but I know that just going and sitting by the hive, maybe that's my way of meditation. Going and sitting by the hive and being present with them, whether I'm next to the hive or whether I'm in the house and doing something different. That tenderness that I feel towards them, and that they keep exemplifying to me this sweetness, this kindness—the way that they care for each other with no question about, "Oh, is this what I want to be doing right now?" Oh, I find that so amazing.
I had a time when I was working with some bees and I was just going to move a swarm into a new home. My girlfriend brought them over and left them off, and I went to put them into the hive, and it was towards dusk, which is not a great time to move bees. They orient by the sun, so they get nervous in the evening because if a bee falls to the ground and the sun isn't up, they don't know where to go and they could be dead by morning. So I was doing this, and the bees were—I didn't realize it when I started, but they were in a pillowcase inside of the box, so I started to dump them into the hive and then they were tangled up in the pillowcase and by now the sun had set. They were on the inside of the pillowcase and they were on the outside of the pillowcase—it probably seemed like a good idea to put them in a pillowcase at the moment, but trying to get them out, it was a terrible idea. So, bees were everywhere and they were falling out of the hive and then they were crawling on the floor. I'm standing there in my sneakers and jeans and I could feel them crawling up my pants legs [laughs]. They could only get up about as far as my knees and then my jeans were a little snug above that.
I couldn't stop what I was doing, and I remember saying to them, "Little bees, just find a place and wait where you are, and I'll be gentle with you and I'll save you later, but I have to finish this task first." So I did—I got all the bees, as many as I could, inside the hive, and then it's now completely dark. I was walking down to the house really, really slowly and gently and trying not to squish any little bees in there.
I got down to the bathroom and I closed the door, turned on the light so that whatever bees I found would be in the bathroom with me, and I really gently rolled my pants down all the way and one by one found each bee on the inside of my pants legs. I collected them all with a feather and put them in a little jar, and I counted 14 bees when I was doing that. And I was so proud of them—I was like, "You know what, we did this. No bee was harmed." And it was a scary time for them, probably almost as scary—not scary [for me], but I was concerned for them. What a sweet moment—they listened to me telling them, "You stay safe and I'll be real slow, and we'll get you through this." I just felt like—it made me feel so happy because it made me feel like I was telling them, "You too can rely on me, and I will take care of you. I will always be careful of you, and I will be in my heart when I'm with you." I just felt like their agreeing to that and helping me rescue them out of a dangerous situation—it was such a good moment in my life.
TS: I've been talking with Jacqueline Freeman. She's the author of a visionary new book called Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World. Jacqueline, thank you so much. Thank you for being on Insights at the Edge.
JF: Thank you, Tami. A total pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.