Smith: On Zen and beekeeping |

Smith: On Zen and beekeeping

Barry Smith

Barry Smith
Jordan Curet | The Aspen Times

I took an intermediate beekeeping workshop last weekend. The description said that it would be a very hands-on class and that everyone should bring their bee suit.

Ha! Bee “suit”? No way. Too formal. I prefer to sport the bee casual wear. And when my fellow beekeepers get a load of my homemade bee protective gear, they’ll be kicking themselves for all the money they wasted on their expensive getups.

Let me start at the beginning:

Like most people from the Deep South, I was raised to fear all creatures that bite, sting, scratch or otherwise make your skin hurt.

And there are plenty such critters down there. Wasps, bees, hornets, mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, an assortment of snakes of the “kill you quickly” variety, snapping turtles, catfish, squirrels, mean dogs and Uncle Satch. During my childhood, all of the above were lined up right outside my back door, just waiting to draw blood, inject poison or at least raise a welt. Yes, I’ve included squirrels in that list. Squirrels’ll mess you up, as will Uncle Satch if he gets a mind to.

So to find myself with a box of bees in my backyard is proof that childhood trauma can be overcome. No longer do I run away screaming while flapping my arms when stinging insects are present. Nope. I’m a beekeeper now.

I got my first bee swarm a year ago, right after taking a beginning bee class. Ten thousand bees arrived in a cardboard box, and I had to transfer them into my newly constructed beehive. It was a traumatic experience for everyone involved. The bees, disturbed from their peaceful slumber, registered their disappointment by stinging me repeatedly in the face.

I was working without a beekeeper suit because I was convinced that if I was Zen enough — if I exuded enough calm, centered energy — the bees would pick up on this and would be totally cool with me relocating them from their old home to their new home despite the fact that doing so involves slamming old home against new. It’s a method that’s not that different from removing stuck bits of garbage from the bottom of the can by flipping it over and banging it against the sidewalk. Also, bee suits are expensive.

My Zen clearly wasn’t up to snuff, as the multiple face-stingings were meant to show me. There’s a famous Zen teaching about the student who gets stung in the face, but now that I think about it, it’s really more of a teaching meant to point out the stupidity of the guy being stung rather than any real Zen sort of thing. Point taken, lesson learned, and, if I may add, ouch.

A month later, it was time to transfer bees into my second hive, and for this I was willing to embrace protective clothing but convinced that I could create my own. I grabbed an old straw hat, a torn T-shirt and some scraps from a screen door and pieced them together using duct tape and a stapler.

The result was an amusingly DIY protective veil. If Mother Earth News magazine were in the habit of running humorous pictures, this ghetto bee hat would be worthy of a centerfold. But hey, it worked. Well, it “worked” because for some reason the second round of bees went calmly into their new home, so no bees even so much as flew near my bee hat. Next stop — false sense of security. All aboard!

“Nice bee suit.” When I arrive at the class, that’s what each and every one of my fellow beekeeping-class students says upon seeing my masterpiece. They each try hard not to laugh — you can see this on someone’s face. It was like I’d shown up to race in NASCAR with a Sears go-cart. Whatever. I’ll show them. I don’t need the approval of others to feel good about myself. I just need to not get stung in the face.

We all suit up and open a hive for inspection. Soon the air is thick with bees, and they’re walking all over my protective face screen, with me safe inside. I’m feeling pretty smug. Then I notice one of the bees crawling on the screen looks different from the others. Slightly bigger, less obscured by screen. Also, I can see the top of it rather than the underside.

Hmmmm, this means that it’s on the inside! Oh, and there are several more right next to it!

OK, so rather than protect me, my hat actually traps bees close to my face. I think it’s fair to call this a design flaw.

I do what any child of the South would have done. I snatch the hat off and start running. And screaming. And flapping my arms.

The skills you learn in childhood never leave you.

Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. More at

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