The Importance of Bees

I have always been fascinated by bees. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting inside a Forsythia bush (like Lilacs in colder climates, Forsythia hollow out as they grow making little ‘houses’) watching the bees carrying purses of pollen on their legs. Once I stood in front of a butterfly bush catching bees in my hand, holding them for a moment, and then letting them go.

It was quite a while before one finally stung me. As enchanting as they are to a child— the fuzziness, the cartoon roundness, the mysterious sense of purpose— the more you learn about them as an adult the more wondrous they become.

Biologically, they are one of the pivotal beings of the Earth; without them pollinating, the wasteland awaits. And, for humans (particularly Northern humans), they are agriculturally vital as a source of sweetness. Tree sap (Maple and Birch predominately) and honey are the only sugar sources in the cold North and, although sugar has been demonized by post-moderns, back when we were hunter/gatherers and early agriculturists sweetness was hard to come by and prized.

Bees are also one of those Magical, untouched species (like most cats) that co-exist with us but unlike actual domesticated beings (dogs and dairy cows) have not been twisted away from their wild beings.

They are meaningful to the feminist as well, exemplifying the imagined workings of an all-female egalitarian society. Well, yes, there are drones and a queen but their rôle is limited. Drones appear to some human observers to have an idyllic life; they laze around sipping nectar, do no work, and then mate. But Nature is a stern Mother; drones are created by parthenogenesis only when they are necessary, the act of mating kills them, and if there are any left at the end of the Summer they are the first to be kicked out of the hive in preparation for the cold season.

The queen when anthropomorphized seems to be an absolute ruler with a crowd of sycophants filling her every need, but actually she is trapped and kept from moving about by the ladies-in-waiting around her. She only flies once in her life, gathering up all the sperm she will need from the ‘successful’ drones (who then die). She then spends all the rest of her time laying eggs— if production falters through sickness or age the workers will create a new queen and kill the old one. It’s the workers with their heads full of instinctive behaviour that actually run the hive and make honey; and they are all, like Maoists in blue pyjamas, visually identical sisters.

Bees also have great religious significance to me. Bees and Ravens are the two kinds of messengers from the Other World that also live a real life in our world. Ravens, when not living in the deep woods, eating carrion, and getting grumpy with others, carry messages from the Gods to our world. But, just as the raven becomes a ‘real’ bird when ze crosses the boundary, the message becomes an unusual occurrence, a ‘coincidence’ and can be ignored or mis-interpreted. Bees, on the other hand, do not change there to here and bring back intangible good things in the pollen sacs on their legs— contentment, good health, healings. As one of the Ogham, they associate with Ur/Heather and are an omen of good fortune.

Judith Bee 5A number of years ago the Goddess to Whom I am dedicated instructed me to interact with people more. Something I find difficult since I am paralyzingly shy and don’t really like doing things for the first time ever. My son winkled me onto the Internet to chat, argue, and make friends but that, as it turned out, was not enough for Her.

“Go out into the real world and interact with people face to face in religious endeavour.” She admonished.

Since I am an Irish Descendant I picked Druidry and attended the only ‘Druid Grove’ then extant in my city. It, like many North American Groves, is affiliated with Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF)

ADF is like and unlike my personal religion, of course, but is largely about praxis and does not demand many actual beliefs: fairly comprehensive polytheism, absence of religious circles and watchtowers, non-emphasis on the dualtheistic binary, and Indo-European pantheons. Add to this a heavy emphasis on lore, and I’m mostly satisfied. ADF does, however, use a strict framework of steps, actions, and sequence that all public (all Holy Days are mandated public) rituals must follow. Again, nothing too startling: we prepare ourselves for ritual, we address Mother Earth, we prepare and open a gate to the Other World, we invite the Kindreds and Deities to cross, give offerings, receive an omen, are given blessings, thank Everyone, and close the gate. It makes a nice sameness— when I attend some other Grove’s ritual I can easily follow and feel comfortable knowing what will come next.

As you will see if you look at the website, there is lots and lots of information. When it gradually became clear that my injunction from the Goddess required establishing a Grove, I carefully copied out the sequence and headings of the ritual as a part of my preparation for writing a religious service. In the same way that ADF mandates action but not belief, these are immutable steps but how we voice and enact the moment are left up to the organizer. I write formal poetry and so wrote the standard form of our ritual in poetics, and I am a Found-Object Artist (doesn’t that sound fine? I make things out of junk and repurposed stuff) and so made all the ritual objects/props myself.

Partly, I see the entire ritual as an offering and so want it to be a welcome one to the Gods and addressed Beings. Additionally, I see it as a piece of theatre and so want it to have ‘punch’ as well as religious meaning. Finally, since sometimes I slide towards personal belief rather than ADF dogma I want to be as enclosed by the recognizable and ‘correct’ framework as possible.

Our Grove, as well as many Groves, move about— we go inside in the Winter /Dark Half and outside in Summer/the Bright Half and we are sometimes asked to provide ritualization for opening or closing events altogether elsewhere. So, on the one hand, we need meaningful religious objects, on the other hand they must be available and moveable.

The preparation for opening the gate to the Other World is a dramatic and pivotal step and a good example of my varied impulses and criteria; ADF describes this as “re-creating the cosmos” and explains that “Sacred Center is most commonly represented as Fire, Well and Tree”.

So, every Grove needs a well and few have one available in their ritual space nor will it be a movable object. Many Groves use a container of water but dramatically a bucket of water is a chancy and unconvincing prop. I made a ring of many-shaded blue silk waves/ripples/drops that packs into a fresh-water clamshell— the officiant pops open the shell and a big loop of bright blue ‘water’ falls out.

Fire can be problematical as well– sometimes Groves are in public parks where fires are not allowed (I was a part of a ritual where the police came to insure the safety of the park), someone has to specifically be a fire-tender and not wander off, sometimes it’s raining. So we have a staff crowned with a gold plastic fake-mistletoe bunch. The officiant reaches up, pops open the wrapped-around string of Mardi Gras pop-it beads, and a 3′ multilayered pennant in red, orange, and yellow gauze streamers out. After the ritual I have to lay it carefully out on a table and fan-fold the gauze back inside the red brocade wrap and reset the poppers, but at the moment of ritual it is very satisfying.

Judith Bee 4The Tree is the most important of the three symbols. I started with a big stick, original about 8′ tall but (no surprize) it wouldn’t fit in a car that way so I sawed off the bottom to make it more manageable. On the top is a representation of Fionn’s Window.

And inside that a tree made of wire and beads. (The streamers hanging off the bottom are the roots in this world).

When I first saw the bee patches that Alley Valkyrie made, not only was I enchanted by the art, but I saw a way to enact ADF-mandated ritual in a way aesthetically pleasing to myself. The ‘order of ritual’ describes the action as ‘unveiling’ which I wrote as:

Unveil yourself, Sacred Tree,
Grow in all worlds, one in three….

But ADF recommends incense. I don’t personally like incense, it smells like something objectionable burning to me. But, my prejudices aside, lighting incense as a stage action is terrible. Either you have to have an already-going fire at hand (see problems above) or you have to bring out a distinctly non-magical lighter and then everyone waits for the incense to catch. And sometimes it doesn’t and then what!

But I realized that I could get a bee patch by sending a donation to the Wild Hunt (glad to do it, actually I gave and the Grove gave both) and use it and the extra, dark green, leaf-patterned scarf I didn’t need when I made the personification of our Watershed Spirit and make an actual veil!!
Triumph of art and aesthetics (jazz hands here)!

Alley graciously helped by sending me an extra compliment of the right kind of bee patches. As you can see, the bee flying UP towards the Other World has less-fancy passage spirals, while the bee coming down FROM the Other World has extra-glittery trails and sparkling gifts of intangible good things attached to her back legs. I could say that I included my dog as a size comparison (she is a ‘boxer mix’) but actually I just couldn’t resist a good photo-bomb.

As the ritual begins, the scarf is looped over the top of the Sacred Tree (the Irish term for the World Tree is ‘Bile’ pronounced bee-lay, nothing whatever to do with your liver) with the roots tucked inside.

Judith Bee 3The top (in this position) of the scarf has three (the Magical number and what I had around) glass horseshoes attached, filled with embroidered french knots of luck, with five (same) tiny pewter bee buttons trailing french knots of good things weighting it down in the up position because when the Bile is outside we don’t want the veil to blow off prematurely.

When the tree is unveiled, the officiant picks up the top/end and drops it down the front.

Judith Bee 1The Being beside the Bile is the Personification of the Spirit of the Watershed the Grove sits in, whose un-needed scarf is the veil. Ze is largely made of gleanings as well.

I buy some components, of course. I try to buy things from artisans if I have to buy something new. I buy things from thrift stores, and post-season craft store sales, and I trash-pick. But a surprising amount is given to me— I have a big section of free-standing shelves in our crawl-space storage area loaded with carefully sorted junk. Stuff that looked appealing years ago or that I didn’t need for a project, stuff picked up outdoors, other people’s discarded projects or de-stashing, junk that looked appealing to other people so they gave it to me…..

My belief is that everything has the potential to be Magical because the entire World is both real and Magical together. Every scrap the Gods make holy is no longer trash, but also every ritual implement in our Grove’s rites is a voice acknowledging our dedication to trying to do better for the World. We go out in the cold rain to pick trash or slog through the mud to plant seeds— we don’t schedule rain days, we just go when we planned to and Ottawa has not-the-nicest weather. About one in four events is actually pleasant….

When we act we are then re-sacralizing our intention for Right Action so that when the Keeper of Sacred Space holds up a stick with a plastic ornament and cloth tatters on one end or lowers a re-purposed scarf with sequin strings sewed on the Gods will visit, and Imbas will fire in our heads.

And perhaps more people will pick trash, and make things out of other things, and try to fix things when they break. Or not buy someone else’s Magic, but fabricate their own. And listen for the voices of the trash telling them that the Whole World is one system. Does the trash have voices? Only very tiny ones that are easily ignored, but they are a part of the World-Song. How big a part is up to all of us.

It’s like the dating advice that on a fancy, impress-you date the thing you should pay the most attention to is how your date treats the server, particularly if something is less-than-perfect. I could commission an artist to make me a one-off religious bibelot and have, at deservedly great cost, a more beautiful glory-piece than I could ever buy from Pagan-Artifacts-R-Us or even make myself. But that isn’t the meaningful decision; tiny lifestyle choices are also religious acts.

Will I carry my plastics back home or throw them in the trash when there is no recycle bin handy? When I unwrap something outside do I put the wrapper in my pocket? Do I trap unwanted insects in a glass and carry them outside? When my clothing wears out do I cut it up for rags, and does that work because it was natural fiber to start with? When I bought it, did I check the country of origin?

No Nazgûl will swoop down from the sky screaming “How was that fish caught!?!”; I am left alone in the grocery store holding either the cheap or the very expensive can of tuna.

Judith Bee lastJust do one thing. Then another……..


Judith O’Grady

judithJudith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).

Litany of the Meadows

Champ_de_colza_Côte-d'Or_Bourgogne_avril_2014 Wikipedia Commons
Oil-seed Rape, Wikipedia Commons

The 7th of July formed a tide mark in the UK’s environmental policy. A request to use bee-killing neonicotinoids on 5% of oil-seed rape crops put forward by the National Farmers’ Union was approved by the Expert Committee for Pesticides.

This was controversial not only because it could lead to the loss of two-thirds of wild bumblebee queens in the neighbouring areas but because the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture prevented publication of minutes from a meeting in May, where the ECP argued against lifting the ban, until the decision was pushed through. This was to prevent environmental campaigners from lobbying ministers.

It was later revealed the pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Synerga, whose produce will be used on the oil-seed rape, were the only external representatives present at the meeting on July the 7th. This decision was clearly made with capital at the forefront and demonstrates our Tory government’s acquiescence with major companies at the expense of truth and democratic processes as well as their refusal to acknowledge scientific evidence.

The tides have turned. The hard work of scientists investigating the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder and of environmental campaigners has been reversed. This decision will lead to the deaths of innumerable wild bees and will have a harmful impact on flowering crops and wild flowers in the vicinity of the pesticide treated oil-seed rape. It also opens the door to similar treatment of crops across the UK.

As a Friends group leader who has been working hard to cultivate a wildflower meadow in my local valley to provide a food source for bees I was furious when I found out. I have signed petitions from 38 Degrees but know this is not enough to turn the tides back upon this cataclysmic decision.

For now as a poet and awenydd I share these poems which give voice to the intrinsic value of meadows and bees, their worth to the gods, and to the threat of their extinction. I imagine a time when those responsible ‘hear the litany of the meadows with wonderment and fear’.


Unsung Meadow

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
wild carrot, buttercup and nettle
time is slowing down.

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
plantain, clover and yellow rattle
world is slowing down.

In my summer eiderdown
time and world are slowing down
sleep easy, sleep easy, sleep easy
unsung meadow sings.


Litany of the Meadows

The meadows have been shorn
in a rain of grass heads and sedges
tinted with sorrel, brown-white plantain
and shredded folds of yellow rattle
that never had the chance to seed,
now cut in twain, discarded.

I want to repeat a litany
for every spider, ant and beetle
that lost its home, or legs,
for the dead and empty carapaces,
for the orange tip, cabbage white, and fritillary,
for all the bees returning to dried and empty flowers.

Now I know why we no longer
hear the voice of grasshopper or cricket.
There is no place for the froghopper
to leave a gauze of cuckoo spit.
All her nymphs have been
trampled to froth.

I wonder how long
this thoughtlessness can go on
before they rise in strands and stalks,
marching through dream with the hum and buzz of insects
and we finally hear the litany of the meadows
with wonderment and fear.


Take Wing My Queen

We are the bees of the invisible.
We wildly collect the honey of the visible,
to store in the great golden hive of the invisible.’

Let us depart my queen,
sisters kiss farewell to the flowers.
Sink your long tongues
into the obituaries of stamens,
one last taste, forsake the namelessness
of this world ruled by drones.

She who builds creatively
finds no nourishment in nectar grown
on the ramparts of technology,
in the cracks of mechanical arms
snatching endlessly
at the noctilucent hive of the unknown.

Hives empty, baskets heavy,
bearing honey on furred bodies
to a sanctuary of wax and comb,
invisible wisdom to hum
until meadow flowers
recall sweet songs again,
take wing my queen, let us be gone.


I was not dead when you took me

from a wild uncultivated land
where I swayed in leaves,
walked naked amongst meadow flowers.

Now they are spraying the fields with poison,
green-fly drop like itching stars
on my searing skin.
Writhing worms haunt pink bodies into my dreams.

When cabbage stem flea beetles depart in a fleeing sheet
and worker bees deadened of appetite
lament their dying queen,

when I collect their poor parched bodies
from the dusty ground like rain
will you take them in?

When I wither and faint wilted unable to seed,
skirts ripped from me like precious petals,
when I lie empty and barren
at the end of the earth,
when I am dead will you return for me?

*Words spoken by Creiddylad (a Brythonic goddess of flowers and fertility) to Gwyn ap Nudd (a Brythonic god of the underworld).

Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

I’ve been finding this series difficult to write in a way I hadn’t expected. Finding information to write about is fairly easy. Being excited about it is also easy. But I have to restrain myself from writing it up and adding “but” statements to it all. The thoughts come up: “Here is this awesome thing BUT isn’t it awful how we came to a state where this needs to be done” or “here is this thing which is great BUT so much still needs to be done” and/or “BUT here are ways in which these aspects of it could go wrong.”

And I want to focus on just the positive aspects of what some people are doing to make the world a better place. It is really hard. Due to a combination of learned social behavior, my own critical tendencies, and a desire to present a full picture of a situation, it is really hard to JUST be happy about things instead of downplaying them; it is hard to focus on just the potential in them and recognize them as indications that things can be even better than they are. Finding the not-so-great among the good is really tiring. I can prevent myself from writing the critical statements; I wish I could convince my mental habits to let it go, too.

Well. With that out of the way (this kind of hope is hard), here are this month’s examples of positive trends in the world.

Fastest animal in the world making a comeback – in cities, no less

Early last week, during a lunchtime walk, I heard some rapid, high-pitched chirping sounds, begging sounds, and trying to locate the bird, saw what I hoped might be a falcon. It was too far off for me to be quite certain, but . . . it could be. The flight pattern didn’t match other birds I know I’ve seen here. There were two of them, near the big bridge carrying the interstate across the river. Could it be a peregrine falcon youngster and a parent? Oh, I hoped! Peregrines have nested on the bridges here in Portland since the 1990s; I’ve known this for a while, but (frustratingly) never sighted any.

The next day, I again saw a bird shaped much like those, flying much closer – smaller than I expected, but with the right shape to be a falcon; it headed off towards the bridge and seemed to fly under it and then slightly upwards. After that sighting, I felt more confident believing I had finally seen one of the inhabitants of the local bridges.

Peregrines  – which are relatively small, about the size of a crow – can reach 200 mph when they dive on prey, making them the fastest animal in the world. Like many other predatory birds, their populations were devastated by DDT – which lingers in the environment, and still causes eggshell thinning and other problems. By the 1970s, they were all but gone in the United States.

The banning of DDT and captive breeding programs, to boost the wild populations, started to pay off in the 1980s, when wild pairs were seen nesting successfully in Oregon. They ignored nest boxes, however, but in the 1990s, they started rearing young on bridges in Portland. They’ve been quite successful – on average, more successful than parents out in the wild: “Portland’s nests appear to be more productive than average nests statewide and nationwide, with an average of 2.3 chicks a season. Elsewhere, nests produce 1.6 to 1.8 chicks on average. ” (Read the source of the quote for more great Portland peregrine facts.)

They do face hazards that birds outside the city do not: falls from a bridge nest can land a juvenile in the river, or on a busy street, or onto railroad tracks, or in front of a bicyclist. Human activity of various kinds can also upset nesting parents enough that they’ll abandon a nest. Audubon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Portland Peregrine Watch Program. Members of the program not only monitored the nest activity, but helped keep people from disturbing the nesting falcons (which might cause them to abandon it), protected just fledged young when they are on the ground learning to fly, and provided rescues for birds in need. Many fledglings have ended up needing medical care and rehabilitation, before being released. (For more, see Audubon’s pages on Portland peregrines.)

Look at that face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge - Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)
Look at that cute face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge – Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)

Since 1999, the peregrines are no longer on the Federal endangered species list in 1999; they were removed from the State of Oregon’s list in 2007. Last week, officials in Illinois announced they had removed the birds from their state list, too. In Chicago, peregrines have found success nesting on high-rises and bridges, and dining on the ample supply of pigeons.

Aid for butterflies and bees

Another winged creature that was thought gone for good in Portland is the monarch butterfly. With little to no source of their larval food, milkweed, there have been few if any sightings for long enough that the common wisdom was that you shouldn’t even bother planting it, since the butterflies won’t come.

Last month, I found an article that disproves that common wisdom: Monarchs reappear in Portland, reinforce need for milkweed

Experts say Portlanders shouldn’t bother planting milkweed – the monarch butterflies won’t come. But one woman found 30 eggs on her two plants this month, and she’s urging others: “If you plant it, they will come.”

. . .

Patti Farris, 58, incorporated milkweeds in front of her house three years ago. She hoped monarchs would appear, but didn’t exactly expect it.

On June 4, she noticed a butterfly circling her plants. Generally a monarch will lay one or two eggs per plant. This one laid 30 between two.

Tom Landis, a retired nursery specialist from the U.S. Forest Service, called this unusual.

. . .

Using his knowledge of native plants, the Medford resident said he began growing milkweed and raising monarch caterpillars. He now travels all over the region and gives workshops on caring for the plants and bugs.

Landis said he considered leading a workshop in Portland, but local experts told him it was a lost cause.

Farris found Landis online, and taking Landis’ warning about the low survival rate of eggs to adult (5%), Farris took in the leaves with eggs, raising the caterpillars in an enclosure (and keeping them well-supplied with milkweed) to keep them from becoming dinner for something else. As of the article’s publication, the caterpillars were pupating, possibly to return next year to the milkweed they grew up on.

There have been several other monarch sightings in the northwest recently, which has surprised a number of people, due to general loss of milkweed in the region. But apparently it doesn’t take much to encourage them to show up after all! (Plant more native milkweed! The Xerces Society can help you determine what species is best for your area.)

On the other side of the world, the city of Oslo is taking a city-sized approach to helping out bees, by creating a series of green spaces filled with habitat and food (via Oslo creates world’s first ‘highway’ to protect endangered bees.):

“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, an environmental group supporting urban bees, which is leading the project.

“To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed,” she explained, sitting on a bench in a lush city centre square bursting with early Nordic summer growth.

. . .

Oslo’s “bee highway” aims to give the insects a safe passage through the city, lined with relays providing food and shelter – the first such system in the world, according to the organisers.

Government groups, private companies, and individuals are among the people working to create the bee highway, which includes replacing some areas of grass with flowers, increasing green roofs, as well as adding bee hives in some areas.

The mass destruction of bee populations around the world has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the US some farmers are left with no choice but to rent hives transported cross-country by truck to pollinate crops.

But in Abel’s Garden in Oslo, Agnes Lyche Melvaer says she has faith in the “butterfly effect”.

“If we manage to solve a global problem locally it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”

That about wraps it up for this month, evidence that with some careful thought, and with intentions of care, wecan have cities that are good habitat for other animals, too.

Bonus feature: Biodiversity in cities

This isn’t so much “look at how we’re doing things to make the world better” as “LOOK AT THIS COOL THING,” but it’s also about insects in cities, soooo I’m going to stuff it in here.

Via the awesome BiodiverSeed blog, a quote from Stephen Fry (QI, G-series, Episode 1 “Gardens”):

Now where’s the best place in the world to discover an entirely new species?

Basically, your own garden. You may say, “Ah ha, there won’t be anything in my garden that hasn’t been discovered.” You would be amazed. In 1971, Jennifer Owen, a biologist, did a very long-term study of her ordinary garden in a suburban house in Leicester. She discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp, just that family of parasitic wasp. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain; four of them were completely new to science. In a suburban garden. So, in your garden, if you have a garden, there will be things.

Gilbert White, the naturalist, said that nature is so full and so varied that if you want to find the place with the most variety, it’s the place you most study. It almost doesn’t matter: Just take a piece of land and look at it hard enough.

This one’s much more recent:

In 2013, Brian Brown, the curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told one of the museum’s trustees that he could find a new species of insect practically anywhere he looked. Her cynical response was, “Can you find one in my back yard?” Brown accepted the challenge, setting up a large, tent-like Malaise trap—named not for the emotion on which certain bugs seem to thrive but for the Swede who invented it—in the trustee’s Brentwood garden. After a few weeks, he brought his haul back to the museum, where he began by examining the phorids, a large family of tiny, humpbacked flies that he has spent much of his career studying. The very first one that Brown put under a microscope turned out to be previously unknown to science.

Since then, with a larger and more organized effort, they’ve found another 30 suspected new species of phorids. (That’s what they were focused on – what if they broadened their search??!?!?)

It seems to me like most of the talk about biodiversity talks about remote forests – how much more is out there to discover and get to know? And much closer to what is home for most of us? A lot! And it’s so exciting!

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. –Herman Hesse, from Narcissus and Goldmund