Someone in this photo is not like the others. Yes, this is a yellow jacket, head down in a honeycomb, side-by-side with hundreds of bees. I watched this scenario for a long time yesterday, with my butt planted on the patio dresser that is right in front of Valentine’s colony that lives in my room.
This bee hive is constructed between two studs in my room, and fitted with a double glass panel, so I am able to observe these bees without bothering them all year long. Right now, with all the smoke we’ve had, and the terrible winds before them that destroyed a lot of the flowers and plants in our yard, I am assisting my bees with food—combs of honey I’ve saved from hives that have perished. In this way, the bees who came and went are helping their sisters in this time of havoc…
Normally (whatever that is!), this is the time of year when bees and yellow jackets are fighting. The yellow jackets are fighting to get into the hives and steal the bees, larvae, and honey from the colony to feed their own hungry mouths in their own colonies. Meanwhile, the honey bees are fighting to keep the yellow jackets out, and their colonies safe.
But not this year, and not yesterday or today. This little female yellow jacket was showing no interest in the colony entrance, nor in the bees —which are a great source of protein for the yellow jackets. In autumn, beekeepers find many decapitated bees that the yellow jackets leave behind after killing them and taking the choice bits home.
This little wasp was just desperately hungry and not interested in conflict. And for the most part, the bees let her alone. Now and then, a bee would recognize the enemy in her midst, and nip on her legs until the wasp flew off. But she would return instantly, diving head-first into the comb filled with crystalized ivy honey from last year.
Most years, I sit and pick off the yellow jacket visitors to the hive, either pinching them on the landing boards, or spraying them with a mix of water and dish soap if I find them cruising the ground beneath the hives. The soapy water destroys their ability to breathe and they expire quickly.
But this year, I have seen few yellow jackets in the yard, and none posing any harm to my bee colonies. This year, I have held my pinching fingers and spray bottles at bay. I tell myself, “we are all suffering here. The wasps the leaf hoppers and aphids and all.” I have no taste right now for more conflict and upset, certainly not with the insect world which is quietly dying in front of our eyes. If the bees can make peace with this little hive killer, then I can, too.
I reached out a finger and stroked the wasp’s back as she huddled deeply into the comb. She felt smooth as polished stone. The bees are fuzzy and soft. But the bees and the wasp have so much in common. Not just in life cycles, as both make large nests and their success or failure is both linked to their queens.
I’m talking about the basics: Each need to eat. Each need water and a safe home space. Each want their young to thrive and will lay down their lives to keep them safe. And each know suffering in these times. While insects may not have the emotional investment in suffering that we humans do, the bees and wasps are facing no fewer challenges than we are: poisoned water, air and soil; climate change; loss of safe places to live; natural disasters that come more frequently and with much more fury.
And through this all, I have to admit to you this morning that I have not been nearly so generous as my bees in welcoming the “enemy” to my table. As I deal with the daily assault of smoke, wind, Covid 19, politics, and my own considerable health issues, I am finding myself getting less tolerant of pretty much everything. I have lists in my mind of all the groups and people I conveniently blame for all of this.
Were I a bee in that honeycomb, I am ashamed to say that I would do more than nibble at the legs of that little wasp. I would shriek at her, bite her as hard as I could, and drive her from the yard.
For all the good that would do. When will I learn that blame brings nothing into my life but more misery? When, if not now?
While I remain far too quick to assign blame, I know my body will no longer tolerate me keeping resentments or bearing great anger. Since this spring, I have learned that each foray of mine into rage and anger at the way things are weakens me just a little bit more. It is clear to me that I must transform this caustic fury into something sweeter, or at least more neutral. Because if I don’t, it will kill me.
Worldwide, this fury is something that we must collectively transform because if we don’t, we are—in my humble opinion—toast. The world is on fire because of us. On fire not just with orange flames that devour whole cities, but on fire with bitterness and an anger so fierce it causes us to destroy ourselves and our towns with a rage that burns as deadly as a fire tornado.
I sat on the dresser for a long time yesterday, marveling at the lesson transpiring mere inches from my face. In the hours since, I’ve been jotting down all of the small steps I can take to pour cool water on this hot furnace that has been my heart this past few months. Meditate more. See all my brothers and sisters off all species as simply struggling just like me to find a way through this hell of our human making.
And that thought softens me a bit. Just a bit. So that I can at least breathe. We are all suffering. I bring to mind the faces I “blame” for all of this, and tell myself that they, too, suffer.
I will spend more time today by Valentine, seeing who comes to share in the small bowl of honey. I offer that honey with an utterly open heart full of hope that these daily gifts of food can sustain them through the coming winter of who-knows-what.
And you know, I need to offer myself some form of sweetness each day, as well, because it is easy to despise yourself for your anger and rage. I am my own worst critic, as are most of us. So I need to offer kindness and forgiveness to myself, first, so I will have sustenance to get me through the coming cold season. There will be no goodness for me to give if my heart is loaded with poison. I’m not a person inclined to be kind with myself, but the bees are telling me I’d best get started. I, too, suffer. I, too, need comfort and peace and kindness whether I am deserving in my eyes or not.
Love begins at home in our own hearts, and is grounded there, so that like a ship at sea, we remain the solid deck from where the life preservers are thrown to all the rest of creation. I have lived my adult life to be of service. If my heart is not kind, then the service I have to offer is stunted and of poor effect.
The bees are not making a big thing of leaving some room at their table. Perhaps they trust that I’ll keep bringing the honey so that they will have enough to share. Maybe they just know how dire the state of world affairs is right now and are throwing caution to the wind, and giving, giving, giving.
There is much for me to learn in this, and I am unpacking it small bit by small bit. Now is not the time for me to try huge bites. Small bits are the best I can do. I will go sit by Valentine again today, and see what wisdom is there for me.