It has been five months since I brought my bright and beautiful, straw-woven Sun Hive home, and just three months since I escorted a small cast swarm up a wooden ramp and into its dark and enfolding interior. Small the swarm may have been, but the bees took to the woven hive like they had been born to it, building up their comb and their numbers in an explosion of creative energy.
Summer afternoons I would sit beneath the hive where it hung in my covered bee garden. Unlike my other wooden box hives of various sorts, the bees moved around the hive like thousands of honey-colored moons orbiting a planet. The bee activity was never just confined to the entrance, but spiraled about the egg-shaped, dung-plastered womb from morning till dark, even on the cloudiest, coldest days.
Some days, I would lay beneath the hive and look up at this precious, new kind of cosmos, populated with amber, swirling, sun-lit bee stars and the welcoming dark gravity of the suspended mother planet. I knew from the day I had decided to attend the Sun Hive workshop that these woven hives would somehow be a significant part of my journey on the good bee road. I just didn’t know which way the path would lead.
What I did know is that the shape, the scent, the Gestalt of the Sun Hive reached deep inside of me, grabbed a handful of my heart and soul, and pulled me into its mystery. My bees were giving me every indication that they wanted more of these hives, and all of my interest in my top bars and Warre’ hives began receding swiftly to the back burner of beedom.
The problem was, way back in May, I could not conceive of a way to proceed in making more of the hives. Sun Hives are complex to construct and to install in a bee garden. First, one must have the straw with which to weave them. The straw must be in long, long strands, and pliable. Rye straw is traditional. The interior of the hive is a series of wooden, beveled bars, shaped like descending-scale moons and precisely milled. The platform between the upper and lower basket that also holds up the wooden bars is a large piece of imported plywood, and the straw is woven onto two wooden starter disks to begin the baskets. To keep the shape intact, a form or template of some kind—wood or metal—must be constructed, or a beginner could never hope to weave the correct egg shape of the hive.
Once the hive is complete, it must be covered with something—traditionally organic cow dung—to protect it from UV rays that will destroy the straw. And the whole thing must be suspended precisely level to discourage the bees from connecting comb to the sides of the lower, catenary-curved basket. Of course, the hive must never, ever get wet.
Normally, when faced with this many obstacles, I throw up my hands in frustration and turn away. The only reason I was able to get books published is that my first publisher lived literally next door to me. Had I been required to run the gauntlet most writers navigate to get a book in front of a publisher, “Animals as Teachers and Healers” would never have been written and my life would have taken other directions.
But inexplicably, the concept of these woven hive designs utterly captivated me. I found myself spending hours online researching local sources for rye straw, and never found any. I talked to woodworkers and brought them the wooden hive interiors and weaving templates and could not find anyone capable of crafting them for a price I could begin to afford. No weavers from local groups were interested in helping me to learn coiled basket weaving with natural grasses.
Remarkably undeterred, I kept the image of the woven hives active in my mind’s eye. I layed beneath my Sun Hive, which I named “Anahat,” and watched her bees spin and thrive and sing, and I kept dreaming and imagining. Was there I hive I could make that was Sun Hive-like without all the complex inner workings? And what about that two-part basket arrangement, which was so hard to seal around the edges, leaving far too many gaps around the entire “planet?”
In June, I cut long, organic pasture grasses from my bee mentor, Jacqueline Freeman’s farm, brought it home, and stacked it up in five-gallon buckets to dry. Then I found some long grasses growing all along the creeks where I lived (which I later identified as reed canary grass), and cut some buckets of that. Meanwhile, the brief class I had taken in May began to recede further and further away from my fingertips and my brain. How on earth had I woven that hive? Actually, I had only woven one-half of the Sun Hive: The workshop was only two days, just enough for us to weave only one basket. Also, the weaving onto the two starter disks had been started for us because this can be the most difficult and time-consuming part of the project and time was of the essence. I realized that I had no idea how to begin weaving without those two disks, no idea how much straw it took to weave an entire hive, and no idea how to work with the odd and varied grasses I was collecting in our garage.
Which way do you hold the straw? What direction do you circle the coils? How do you keep the coils even?
One of my beginner beekeeping students came to see the Sun Hive and reminded me that her husband was a metalworker. He told me, “I can make those forms in the size you want very easily. And inexpensively.” Suddenly, Angel and I were in business! He made me a weaving form in short order, I ordered oval flat reed for binding the coils from Amazon.com.
Now, the only thing stopping me was my overwhelming ignorance. But up in the bee yard, the Sun Hive was blooming with bees and song, and their call was like a golden ribbon tied around my heart, pulling me forward. One warm afternoon I told my husband I’d be out with the bees, and headed out with all my materials and tools to the bee garden. Beneath the tiny galaxy of the Sun Hive, I layed out my wonky, bent grasses, my bucket of water for soaking my binding cane, Angel’s gorgeous weaving form, scissors, and my beloved fid (a marine tool for rope repair that works great to pierce the straw coils and weave in the cane): I had ordered three of the wrong sizes of that fid before I found one that worked.
In the many weeks between hanging my Sun Hive and finally sitting beneath it to weave, my brain had been afire with possible innovations I could make to the hive to make it affordable and even better for my bees and for me. I live in a county that does not require hobby beekeepers to maintain removable combs for inspection. So I dispensed with my search for master woodworkers: I would simply not use the wooden bars, allowing my bees to attach their combs directly to the inside of the straw basket. How would I medicate my bees in such a hive? Also simple: I am a treatment-free beekeeper, so medicating my hives is not part of my “beeing.”
What about suspending the hive? The weight of such a hive full of bees, honey, and comb is significant. The straw alone would not support its suspension. Again, a simple solution that took me weeks of mental machinations to unearth: I would put a simple round, beveled disk in the top of the hive to which I would screw—from the outside—eyebolts. Voila! A hanging hive where my bees could express their deeply aboreal nature.
The Sun Hive allows the beekeeper to remove the top and/or bottom baskets for inspections. I am a low-intervention beekeeper with no need or desire to go in and mess about with my bees. I need only to see how the colony is progressing. Removing the baskets is something I never plan to do with my Sun Hive, but I do like to take a peek inside now and then, so rather than the egg-shaped bottom basket, I decided I would weave what would look more like a traditional step, with a domed top and straight sides. The bees (and I!) would not have to deal with the imperfect junction of the two baskets and would be free to affix their comb in any configuration.
To the bottom of the basket, I would attach a round woven, lipped tray that I could attach with pegs to the bottom of the hive. The tray would have the traditional “flower” entrance of the Sun Hive, and I could remove the bottom with little disturbance to the bees. I could easily place feed bowls on the tray inside if I needed to feed my bees. The hive would look like a large, hanging bell.
But what about honey, you might ask? I’m not into bees because of honey. I am into bees because they have captivated me. They do amazing things for my yard, making an Eden out of my humble, talentless gardening efforts. But even that is a far distant second to why I keep bees. The sound of them, the scent of them, the sight of them dipping and gliding like leaves on the wind entrances me and it heals me in ways that words cannot capture. They touch me at my innermost core with symbol, motion, and tone. That is the language I call upon to commune with them. That is the only language that works for me. The galaxy and cosmos metaphors are more than metaphors: The bees welcome me into other worlds where only good matters and only love—in its most expansive definition—is expressed. Honey? If I am wanting some honey and if the bees have plenty to spare, I can cut a section of comb from the lower combs of the hive. If a hive perishes, as so many hives do these days, the bees alway leave honey to spare. I have plenty of honey for my family without needing to make honey a factor in how I keep bees.
In the United States, there is very little use of woven hives among beekeepers because—I keep reading—the hive are “terrible for bees.” The more I studied and the more I reflected, I came to the conclusion that woven hives are “terrible” for beekeepers who need to produce and collect a lot of honey. The hives are marvelous for bees, with the insulation value of six or more inches of wood in a much lighter hive. Also, the hives are round, and temperature control in the vertical round is optimal for bees.
As the months have passed, I have watched myself pursue this new calling with a dedication and determination unusual to my nature, and it is because of this continuing inspiration that I know I am indeed on the right path. This spring, I will be ushering all the swarms that come my way into woven hives.
We all have different ways of hearing and interpreting our inner voices, our intuition, our passions. For me, it is not so much a voice, an image, or a rational decision or conscious choice. Rather, I let myself feel and I observe the feelings. If my creative drive kicks in full-force, if my interest remains strong, I move forward and I allow myself to trust the process and be patient as each new step reveals itself. As I move forward in this way, time begins to move more slowly and in a more—how can I say this?—opaque, organic way—like stem cells coming together and morphing into a new kind of whole.
I look back on the process that has brought me here—right now—to my first prototype of what I am calling “The People’s Sun Hive.” I call it this because it is a hive that is affordable, easy-although-time-consuming to craft, and can be made with whatever grasses grow in your part of the world. I think of the Sun Hive in its classic expression as being the aristocrat of woven hives. I’m crafting something for the common people.
As fall winds her way toward the dark moons of winter, I feel as though I am awakening from a hazy dream that has crystalized into physical form and left me sitting with this lovely, bell-like creation in my lap. The ideas and images of months of sitting with the concept of the Sun Hive are coming together like puzzle pieces now, and I know the next steps on my good bee road: The winter will find me weaving, weaving, weaving. The spring will find me welcoming bees into my new creations—each hive made with loving attention and intention in every stitch. Summer will find me teaching classes to others interested beekeepers. In the course of the year, I intend to awaken the beekeeping world to the magic of these ancient and primordial hives where bees live in total integrity to their beeing and we assume our rightful role as guardians and stewards.
Is a woven hive calling to you? Listen!
NOTE TO READERS: If you have questions or or comments please notify me at my bee blog, www.beehavenblog.wordpress.com. KeepingBackyardBees does not notify us contributors when a comment is posted, and we can easily miss them!