Images by Lea Bradovich
Did you know that bees dance? It happens all the time. Watch a hive in summer, and you’ll see them building up to it. Look at that one: see how she comes in low and fast? She’s probably a scout. She’s heading back home to report on new sources of food that she’s discovered. When she gets inside the hive, do you know what she’ll do? She’ll dance, of course!
She’ll dance on the surface of the honeycomb with other bees packed closely in around her. They’ll be watching her very carefully. She’ll dance, and as she dances, she’ll release the scent of the flower she’s found so that the other bees can learn to identify the source. If the food source is nearby, she’ll dance the round dance: the simplest of all dances, in a circle. If the food’s a little further away, she’ll do the sickle dance, which is in a pattern shaped like the crescent moon. Bigger distances require a more complicated dance, and so then she’ll do the waggle dance. She’ll waggle her body from side to side, buzzing away as she does so. The richer the food source, the longer and more vigorous the dance. And after the dance has ended, a group of flying bees will follow her back to the source.
So many ways to dance.
Bees are masters of pattern and connection, so easily constructing the mental maps from which they dance out their geography. Waggles for distance; turns for direction. It’s different for humans: there are no maps for us. We can’t see the course of individual paths, let alone grasp the entirety of the terrain. But a bee – if you permit it, if you watch closely and do not blink at the critical moment, if you take the scent from its back and a tiny taste of the nectar that it carries – a bee will dance you to the source of all nourishment.
Like most countries, bees have their own rich folklore in the Irish tradition. They’re said to have been brought to Ireland from Wales in the 5th century, by a saint named Modomnóc, who is said to be a native of Fermoy in Cork. His story begins in Wales, where he was appointed caretaker of the bees in a Welsh monastery. When he was ordered to return to his kin in Ireland, Modomnóc was followed to the port by his bees. And so the swarm came with him to Wexford, where they settled, and then spread throughout the rest of the country.
Bees have their own patron saint, too: St Gobnait, who built a monastery in Ballyvourney, Co Cork. One story tells that she single-handedly defeated a band of enemies with the participation of her bees: a band of English soldiers arrived in Ballyvourney and took away stock, but when they were heading back out along the east road, St Gobnait released her bees from their hive. They began to sting the soldiers ‘until they were left without an eye or a nose’, and they were forced to leave what they had taken behind them.
In our back garden, nicely arrayed so we can see them from the kitchen and eating area, there are three hives of honeybees. There’s also a wild swarm behind the fascia board at the front of the house; it was here when we arrived, and we took it as a sign of good luck. We are natural beekeepers, so we don’t mess with them. We don’t kill off their queens, or prevent them from swarming, or take their honey and leave them hungry. We just like to take care of bees. They’re safe with us.
At this time of year, they’re normally all in the hive, densely packed into a big ball that’s known as the ‘winter cluster’. They gather together around the queen, fluttering their wings and shivering to keep her (and themselves) warm. Even when they’re resting, the bees still find a way to dance. And it’s a tight sisterhood they’re creating there, for sure; the bees know the value of community.
But they’re still capable of being active if the conditions are right, and every time the temperature rises to around 10 degrees, and the rain and wind ease off, out they come. A spot of housekeeping, maybe a spot of foraging on the ever-flowering gorse bushes. It’s always a joyful thing, to see our bees alive and active in winter, as it’s a time when so many colonies die. Grab each and every day: that’s another thing that the bees know.
Here they come, one by one, practicing their steps for spring.
Things to consider
What is your dance in the heart of midwinter stillness?