SOFT & SENSUAL
To make sense,
is to arouse the senses.
Autumn is coming,
say our bodies.
Music for the bathtub ↴
Sticky, connected, honeyed, smoked, sensitive.
A micro-essay, on the sensuality of beekeeping.
[Feel it] ↴
Why Beekeeping Is A Lesson In Sensual Literacy
Words and photos by Nic Dowse,
the founder of the creative beekeeping collective Honey Fingers.
When people come beekeeping they often ask: how many others have come out beekeeping as part of the Honey Fingers project? The truth is we lost track years ago. 100? 150? Before 2020, people often joined hive inspections and a rooftop or forest picnic. This wasn’t planned, it just happened. If people were curious about bees, we went beekeeping.
From there many real and enduring friendships, creative collaborations, exhibitions, international adventures, research trips and essays–the things that now define Honey Fingers–were hatched. It is impossible to imagine this beekeeping practice without the human community that helps care for the bees. Honeybees are wonderful nodes in urban ecologies, food webs and social networks. Some people feel a very strong desire to be guardians of bees, and the simple act of beekeeping brings this community of like-minded people together.
The second thing many say, when they step into the truck, is that it smells beautiful: smoke (from the bee smoker), honey, wax, the cinnamon notes of propolis. It is a good segue into discussing how beekeeping is less about instruction manuals after a while, and more about a kind of sensual literacy beekeepers develop.
If you do it right, beekeeping is about using all the senses: before we open a hive we watch the entrance for a few minutes. The activity at the entrance reveals so much about what is going on inside and in the field.
We listen carefully for the mood of the hive: the louder the roar of the hive becomes during an inspection the more anxious the bees are (this is the cue to close the hive). We use smell to gauge the health of the hive (some hive diseases smell bad, a healthy hive just smells…. good). In the gentle hives we beekeep without gloves: not as a sign of machismo, but because skin contact–touch–makes us more sensitive. Our skin is vulnerable, so we take a particular, meditative care. And taste: beekeeping is not just about honey, but it’s a delicious perk in good seasons when the hive produces more than they need for winter.
After a while it is the intuitive sensory responses to the honeybee organism, and the surrounding ecology, that guide bee guardianship. When we rob a little honeycomb and taste it, usually a few metres away from the hive, we become connected to an urban food web that links us in a meaningful way to the geckos that hide under hive lids and snack on stray bees; the red wattlebirds that lurk around the hive all day, stealing nectar and pollen-enriched returning foragers; the many invertebrates that are attracted to the food sources and warmth of a hive; and an invisible (to our eyes) microbiome of friendly yeasts and bacteria that also live in our bodies. When we rob fresh honeycomb and eat it immediately it is about the temperature of our own blood (about 35℃ in summer). It is warm and soft and sticky. It reminds us of the beauty of what we do, our connections to the more-than-human world around us and how fortunate we are to be guardians of these fascinating creatures.