Propolis of the Heart

Bees make or store almost everything they need themselves. From the comb to the honey, the royal jelly that feeds the queen to the pollen they collect, bees are industrious little makers. One of the most fascinating substances they create is propolis. Propolis is made from a mixture of wax, bee saliva, and saps, nectars, or the like. This often means it has a pine-like smell, since there is little more frustratingly sticky in nature in the Northeast than bloody pine sap. The smell of an active hive, for what it’s worth, is a thing to behold (for the non-allergy prone, I would imagine). It is at once floral and evergreen, clean and warm, sweet, and offers an otherworldly sense of soothing. It’s almost a miracle more living creatures aren’t attracted to hives simply for the sensory joys they bring, but then, that is why a bee stings in the first place.

Propolis is known as “bee glue” and it is fantastically effective at its job. It is malleable and sticky as all hell in warmth, and hard, strong, though brittle, in the cold.Propolis is often a deep amber, sometimes brown, depending on source. Apparently, beekeepers used to believe the propolis was used to seal cracks and holes in the hive to prevent drafts. In reality, bees needs a well ventilated hive as much as any living creature needs good ventilation; to put it simply, moving fresh air is one of the principles of a well-kept house. The bees will use it to glue hive boxes together, and in my case, glue down the inner canvas to the tops of the hive bars. They will seal small holes with it, but mostly, they use it for stability. The use of propolis is believed to reduce vibrations of the hive (such as in winds or when I”m in there poking about), strengthen the hive as a whole, close off potential (and unintended) alternate entrances, and limit fungal and bacterial growth (did you know that pine sap is a natural anti-fungal? It’s why I can’t grow mushrooms outdoors in our old Christmas tree stand).

Propolis also has an odder, yet very effective use. Most debris that enters a hive will be cleaned and removed by the bees. However, there are occasions where the bees have a problem large enough that they cannot remove it. For instance, an intrepid (and stupid) mouse ay find its way indoors, only to be killed by the hive. Unable to remove its corpse, the bees will carefully construct propolis around the body, forcing it to mummify in place, keeping rot and bacteria at bay by sealing the mouse in a clean, amber shellack. The mouse becomes a part of the hive – a nuisance, for sure, handled temporarily until the hive moves on to new digs or a beekeeper does her due diligence.

Two full hive boxes, ready to be added to lest my girls swarm off for better accommodations.
Today as I did my hive checks, realizing quite quickly my healthier hive was running out of room and that I needed to give them an in-law suite right quick (it’s called nadiring the hive, which is to add a box under the two existing boxes), I was struck by the solid nature of the propolis. Rather than lift one hive box at a time, the propolis so strongly held them together that it was considerably easier to lift them at once than pull them apart and fight the bees’ own ingenuity. Beyond that, I try very hard to practice non-interference in my beekeeping, checking on their welfare, for sure, but trying to treat nature’s engineers with the deference I think they deserve. What’s more is that they will never be domesticated livestock, not like my two lovely little pygora kids who arrived last week (Olivia and Viola are a post for another day), even if the bees may “get used” to my invasions, I’d rather they create strong hives of their own accord than watch them struggle against my thieving and poking.

I wonder if bees fascinate me, and others, so much because of their steadfast industriousness, commitment to their sisters, and brilliant natural efficiencies. Beyond creating what I believe to be among the best foods in the world, they’re as inspirational as I find them both terrifying and soothing at once. In some ancient cultures, it was believed the soul was carried to the afterlife by a bee, while others saw the bee as a symbol of the soul itself. Today, watching the bees, over whom I compulsively worry, and seeing them actually thriving gave me the first sense of optimistic calm I’ve had for months.

For two months ago (was it? It feels like a lifetime), my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My father, who has been both a friend and a mentor for my whole life, has been delivered a violent psychological and physical blow that has shaken our family to the very heart of who we are. He is without a doubt one of the most entertaining, eccentric, and generous people I have had the privilege to know and love, and most importantly befriend. The relationships between parents and children are always unique, and I have one of the best friendships of my life with my hilarious, marginally insane, and deeply loving father. I write this not for sympathy and kind words (he deserves that, not I, though there’s a really good shot he’d reject overtures of pity out of hand), but because despite my longstanding comprehension of the natural order of things, the slowly seeping grief of the cancer diagnosis of a loved one can take over your mind and heart like a fungus.

But fungus or no, life goes on, as it relentlessly will. I am making ever-more time for my family, though demands of adulthood tend to challenge that. Adam and I have also made more space for my dreams, and indeed, building a farm is one of the most optimistic acts once can perform. But to carry on daily, to share strength among a small family who have been brittle before, we all pocket our sadness and fear and longing. Energies are low, even if spirits are buoyed by my niece and nephew, Adam’s heart-filling cooking, and my father’s indefatigable sense of the absurd and inappropriately timed humor. And so we tend to propolize our grief on the daily, taking moments to create a hardening and sticky shell around it, keeping it with us always, but apart. Mummified within our hearts because this propolis contains the seep, if only for a while.

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