I should not be having any reason to fuss or fret about my bee hive at this time of year. This is the time that my only task ought to be sending prayers to the bee gods that my beloved hive thrives in the harsh truth of winter. But I have been fussing and fretting. And the object of my stress has come in the form of tiny little creatures the size and color of medium-grind black pepper: Ants.
They are moving like the sharp focus of a bright idea, all lined up and streaming in a bright ribbon toward some glowing goal. All of them—all of the ants in the whole world it seems—are moving around my hive, drawn by the sweet smell of honey and the warm cluster slumbering bees…
I’ve heard that ants can drive a bee colony away from its hive if there are enough of them. I don’t know if this is true, but I’m trying hard to make it so that there are NOT enough of them. Yet they are thwarting me at every turn. As a first line of defense against their invasions, I sprinkled cinnamon on their trails and on them, because it is clear they do not like this pungent spice. They run away from it, shouting the ant equivalent of “retreat! retreat!” but as soon as the soft amber powder blows way, as it does quickly in the winter winds, they are back…
I tried oil on the legs of the table that holds the bee hive. They waited until it solidified and soldiered forward. So I tried cinnamon on top of the wet oil, but they were undeterred. At each turn, they found a new, clean route. There was not enough oil or cinnamon in this world to stop them.
Try moats, my friends suggested. Certainly, a water moat would stop them. I knew they were right. I could put an empty cat food can beneath each leg of my metal table, and then there would be no ants. But in winter, the bees have loaded their larders with honey. There is probably no other time of year when the hive is heavier. My vertical hive consists of four stacked wooden boxes and a roof. Each box can hold around 25-30 pounds of honey. Then there is the weight of the bees themselves, a few more pounds. And lastly comes that fancy, ornate, heavy roof.
Still, I armed my husband, Carter, with four empty cat food cans and told him to follow me up to the hive. It was a sunny morning and cold but a few bees were out and about, their fuzzy bodies glinting golden in the low sunlight.
I’ve always had strong shoulders. So I got down on all fours with my head jutting beneath the metal table and the hive. “When I raise this up, slide those cans under the legs, okay?” I instructed Carter, whose own problematic back keeps him from hefting more than 25 pounds—doctors’ orders. He looked doubtful.
“Are you sure about this?” he said.
“Not in the least,” I answered.
Arching my back like A cat with sumo wrestling aspirations, I heaved my shoulders upward. Nothing moved. I strained again, hard. The table legs wobbled and scraped against the stones beneath them. Carter crawled beneath the table, small cans in hand. One, then three. Four. It was done! My shoulders fell with an audible “oomph.” Farther down my spine, I could hear my low back mutter, “You should not have done this. Seriously, Susan, what were you thinking?”
I shuffled over to the water hose and quickly filled up a jar of water. Hobbling back to the hive, I poured it into our four little tin moats. From inside the house, I could swear I heard the heating pad calling my name. But I hunched off to the house filled with a kind of fanatical pride that I had finally thwarted the ants and saved my hive from siege.
That night, I listened to the east wind thunder a hundred horses wild around our house. The next morning I headed up to the hive, my heart light and a song on my lips.
Until I saw them, dancing in an ink-colored conga line across the face of the hive. My song died at my teeth.
How had they ferried across the moats? Putting my glasses on my nose, I inspected the four tin cans that had cost me my back. In one of them, a wind-blown brown leaf had cast a sturdy bridge over the water. Many ants were in the water, drowned, but many more had made it to the shores of paradise and my honey-laden hive. Over my head, and tiny bee looked down at me, her fine antennae waving. “So, now what?” she said before turning around and heading back into the dark interior of the hive.
I pulled out the leaf bridge, swept away the conga line, and walked dejectedly back toward the house. Down, but not defeated, I came back that evening to check the hive. I believe my jaw actually dropped when I saw them again dancing up the face of the hive. This time, they had forged a raft of dead ant bodies across the moat that had held the leaf. Many ants had drowned in the leaf-crossing, so they simply threaded their way from one floating body to the other and to the table leg. My God, but they were determined! Again, I swept them away, washed their bodies out of the moat, and went to bed that night pondering my ant dilemma.
I hoped a clean moat would do the trick, but I approached the hive next morning with trepidation. And, of course, there they were. This time, they had made a long chain from the ground up to the hive’s shed cover, across the sun screen cloth, to the only place where the hive touched the screening. Their journey must have been in ant miles the equivalent to the moon and back. I was impressed. How could I not be? You can’t fault an ant for lack of will and persistence.
So I spent the morning trying to pull the hive away from the screen. This time, my back would not comply.
I felt no shame in being out-smarted by the ants. What shame could there be in being bested by nature? She is far more skilled and resourceful in all things, and if we have any common sense, we should expect her to outdo us at every turn. In this way, she teaches us about ourselves, our limitations, and guides us to greater resourcefulness and creativity. So I did not mind being bested by the smallest-of-the-small in nature. What was so disturbing to me was that I was running out of ideas.
Later that day, my friend Pixie came over to brew pickled beets with me and I told her about the ants. She looked at me and I read her mind, and at the same instant we said out loud, “Feed them.”
“In Bali,” Pixie reminded me, “They put out rice grains around the ant mounds as an offering. It also keeps the ants out of the people’s huts.” I swear I was the one who told her that story, and now she was reminding me of what I had utterly forgotten.
Why I had not thought to feed the ants? Of course, they were drawn by the sweetness in the hive. Especially in winter, aren’t we all in need of a bit of sweetness, a bit of warm sustenance to inspire our very survival?
On the other side of my yard, far away from my bees, I have a feeding station for birds and squirrels, but I also put out a dish each night of dry dog food for the raccoons, opossums, skunks, and lost cats that I know meander thorough our city yard each night. These night creatures are looking to make a meager living off of us—and in spite of us. I give them a nightly meal for several reasons. First and foremost, I want to make an offering, a gesture to these wild ones in humble apology for the once-wild ground my home has usurped. I want to make them and myself aware that they are still welcome and safe on my home ground that was once theirs. I want to be willing to be inconvenienced by—but also deeply appreciative of—these animals we so unjustly label “varmints” or “vermin.”
Isn’t this always what we call creatures who want some of our bounty? And aren’t we too quick to obliterate without a second thought the ant who would come for a drink of water at our kitchen sink, the raccoon who would be so audacious as to steal a scrap of melon rind or a coveted chicken egg?
So I make my offerings as one would bring sacred giveaways to a temple of the mysteries. This simple act of filling a dish of dog food and bowls of water for birds, insects, and other creatures helps to keep me just this side of my outrageous human arrogance. I put out the food and say quietly, “Here you are, sweet ones. Have a safe night.”
Over the years, I have discovered that my oblations seem to have a secondary beneficial effect, one that I had not expected. Wherever I have lived, I have, of course, wished that the creatures who traveled through my property would be generous in their treatment of my ponds, my trash, and my “livestock,” which right now consists of two defenseless ducks. Surprisingly, offering my wildlings access to an easy, nightly meal seems to have dimmed their interest in sorting through my other belongings and treasures in search of a meal.
My neighbor had a koi pond full of expensive fish until the raccoons ate them all to the very last one. Conversely, I have a pond of frogs, goldfish, and plants and the raccoons seem to use it as a drinking station only. Since making offerings, I have never had a chicken taken, a trash can upended, or a water feature ransacked. “Why wrestle a duck?” the opossum opines. “I’ll just have some of this nice kibble instead…” Chaos is averted. Peace reigns. The Nature Gods are honored.
Why had I forgotten the magic of offerings when the ants came calling? Simply, my siege mentality—which had kicked into high gear before I could even think straight—had made my thinking as thin and constricted as the line of ants. The largesse I easily extended to my mammal relatives was, it appeared, absent when it came to ants. I had to admit to myself that as unprejudiced as I believe myself to be where all members of the Creation are concerned, certain ones I still find more unequal than others. Without my awareness, ants had fallen into that category.
These were the words—when I was willing to admit them to myself— I had been holding in mind concerning ants: robbers, invaders, intruders, destroyers. They were, to my mind, beneath the station of the bees. In my own private caste system, the bees were worthy of protection, the ants were not.
It is true: I still unconsciously judge each creature on some sort of greater-than, lesser-than scale of my own making. And I must admit I do this with people I meet, too. Are they more than me? Less than me? Smarter? Better? Less sensitive? Jerks?
I think most of us rank others in an innate biological drive to establish to ourselves in the pecking order of things. I think this is natural, I honestly do. The danger comes if I do this with no awareness and no heart. For at each meeting with the sacred Other—be it beast or lover or bug—I want to be able to rise above this pack mentality. That mentality serves wolves, but it does not serve us. We are far too complex and dangerous to play Alpha-Omega wolf games at this time in our evolution.
These pecking-order games that I act out as oblivious as a sleep-walker stop me in my bloody tracks from making offerings to the unequal, the lesser-than. And in a minute, I’ll tell you why I want to be able to make these offerings, over and over again.
In truth, what do I really know of ants and bees and their secret agreements? Perhaps the ants hunt out mites that are hurtful to the bees. Maybe they simply enjoy each other’s company. Perhaps they sing each other familiar songs from their shared history as social insects, superorganisms. So little do I know of anything—most especially, mystery—yet how quick is my own mysterious mind to rank, to rate, and to act on these most flimsy of perceived truths I ofttimes don’t realize I hold to.
But this I know: I’ve received a valuable teaching from those ants.
Back in my right mind, finally, I put out a small covered bowl of sugar at the table leg the ants most frequent. It took them a few days to find it and to appreciate its size—huge and generous in comparison with their tiny bodies. Their children’s bellies will be full for the winter.
In that simple act of setting the bowl down on the wet ground at the rear of the table, I was forced to kneel. Such an appropriate posture, I thought.
Kneeling there with the white sweetness in my cupped hands, it was impossible for me to think of the ants in a negative way. In that moment, I came to see that an offering genuinely bequeathed brings peace and equanimity to the giver. We cannot hold onto the siege mentality when our hands are full of gifts of sweetness. And our reward is peace and an instant—longer if we linger on the act—of true, right-relationship with the receiver of our gift, be they God or insect.
I am not meaning to imply here that there are not times when our protection drives are not warranted, but I do mean to tell you that it sure feels better to come forward in sweetness than it does in defense. And I believe that with just a little bit of discernment, we would discover that there are many, many times when an offering would serve far better than a metaphorical sword or an actual can of Raid held in a raised hand.
Make your sacred offerings this season. Extend in your hands this warming gift of winter sweetness, this gift we all seek. In this moment, put down the burden of your pack mentality: You are no wolf. Not a one of us will never have Wolf’s nobility. But we may have our most powerful moment of humanness when we kneel down on the wet ground and offer our oblation to the sacred Other.