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A text by Yannis Politakis, born in Elefsina, amateur beekeeper, accountant, seal maker, former sailor and employee of the Old Oil Factory of Elefsina

Tending an olive grove bequeathed to me by my grandfather opened a window to a world I loved but didn’t have the time to enjoy; due to obligations, family, children and work, I had to be in a different environment for more than 30 years, though without losing touch. So, one morning, while cleaning and trimming the overgrowth (the small branches that sprout from the root of the olive tree), I see several bees circling me and entering the cavity of the tree root. They were choosing a home that the olive tree had generously given them.

Suddenly I began to rejoice as if I had made some serious discovery. Beauty fascinates me in life, in keeping with my personal taste, and one such encounter was enough to make my day. I sat for some time cleaning the whole trunk, which looked like a miniature hive for the bees that kept buzzing around me all that time.

The next few days were filled with regular visits to this particular olive tree, although there was a lot of work to be done, and I had other things to do as well. But the joy of contact was always there, and every day I kept thinking that I should help them, call a beekeeper, get them out of their hole and into a new hive. The idea that I had to destroy the root or do something with smoke and all that didn’t appeal to me, since they had chosen the spot themselves and probably knew better than I did.

I started getting information from books, from the internet, from friends and acquaintances.

Living in Elefsina and watching its mild weather since I was a child, when its sun was not visible through the black smoke of the factories, I was fascinated by the idea of the rebirth of nature together with its faithful worker.

A friend of people and nature in general would help heal the wounds of an industrial area now that at least the big factories have left the city. I wanted a hive with a population large enough for me to study, to see its life in the first place. The information started pouring in, and I learned that, according to the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the legend says that Melissa [bee] was the old nurse of Demophon, son of Keleus, whom Demeter took great liking to and revealed to her all her secrets but made her swear to tell nothing and to no one. This was very hard for the aged bee, as were all the questions from the young ones who wanted to know; they were curious and jealous, things grew wild, and as Melissa did not change her attitude they killed her and cut her to pieces, like wild maenads whose madness begets tragic crimes. The goddess learned of this and immediately went to Eleusis, lamenting the unjust death of her faithful priestess.

From the dismembered Melissa, Demeter created in her own way the swarms of bees: from the head she made the queen and from the rest of the body she made the workers and drones. She told them to conquer the world of nature and be an integral part of it, so that their life would mark its abundance.

Early in the morning, as I had told the beekeeper, I arrived in Kapandriti to buy my first hive. As soon as he saw me, he asked me who had made me sick. I did not understand his question, and seeing my bewilderment, he asked me again. “No one,” I replied, “who would make me sick?”

“Ahh, you’re completely clueless! Who did you go to the beehives with that made you sick?”

“Nobody,” I replied, still not understanding anything. At that moment I thought of the olive hollow and the bees. “A swarm of bees in the hollow of an olive tree in an olive grove I take care of drew me in, and it all started from there.”

He laughed and said that while I was watching them, they were spraying me. “What are you talking about, what were they spraying me with?” His second question, again irrelevant, made me think he was some quaint guy who wanted to make fun of my ignorance.

“How many wives do you have?”

“One,” I replied. “Married a good 30 years.”

He smiled again and said: “Now you’ll have 3,000.” 

When a woman wants a man, her chemistry releases pheromones, so the male, in addition to her other charms, is caught by the nose. Bees do the same thing: “Look, here’s a good person,” they say and shoot pheromone at you to make you want them and love them, and they literally pull you by the nose. Hence the euphoria and joy they gave me when I sought them out, I thought. And from that time, I began to perceive smell as a great sense too, a sense I had not studied much. 

It was spring, and summer soon came. All the while I watched and waited for an offshoot of five frames to grow, multiply and reach ten frames, which would not happen unless I helped with feeding. Since I was an ignoramus, the first time I thought I ought to share some of their honey was so disastrous that someone else would have given up – but not stubborn old me.

With bare hands and only a beekeeper’s hat on, and with enough smoke from the smoker, I opened the lid. My clumsy handling soon spoiled the peace of the hive, as an intruder was attempting to break into their home. The stinging started when I began to pull the middle frames which seemed heavier, carrying more honey. With the first one I pulled up the pain from the stings was so sharp I wanted to give up and run for my life. I picked it up, shook it to drive the population away, closed the lid and quickly left, while receiving many repeated stings.

I ran to my wife, who, hearing my cries, had fetched the hose and was drenching me in terror. My heart was about to break and the pain from the stings was relentless. When it was all over after an hour, my hands were so swollen that they would not close. I put the frame with the honeycomb in a big black bag and cut out some honey from the top that glistened beautifully and turned golden. But I didn’t know that underneath were the capped cells with the larvae.

The next morning started with a hum coming from the black bag. “It can’t be, there were no bees inside.” And yet, the bag was warm, they had completed their days. They came out of their cells, unsealing them and buzzing loudly. I dressed immediately, put on my uniform and gloves (as best I could, for my hands could hardly close from my previous encounter with them). Nothing was the same, they received me as an enemy, an evil invader, and while I was trying to put in the frame with their spawn, they were pulling them out and killing them. I was thinking that I got myself into something that I didn’t know, something hard that takes a lot of toil and study.

Persistence and a great thirst for learning about subjects that capture my interest made me respect bees and slowly understand their society. It would take entire books to dissect their lives, as well as their tiny brains for the information it can garner − in addition to nectar, pollen and royal jelly. It’s a miracle of the microcosm worth watching.

In Elefsina I brought hives on my balcony. I noticed that the bees lived better, grew fast and produced very satisfactory quantities of honey.

In the houses there were flowers, various trees and ample water – the ideal conditions for them to winter over. I would point out to my children from inside the house the composition of the hive, the queen, the workers, the drones, the honey, the spawn, the pollen, and they would watch from behind the glass as if I was showing them something magical.

The bees respected me, and so did I. They never entered the house, as the smell of humans rather repels them, while their own home smelled ethereal, like the candles of my childhood, and exuded a peace and tranquility as if you were in a ritual with holy creatures. Strangely enough, all this can change: one wrong move, one threat can bring about a reversal. The fluttering changes frequency and goes from a gentle hum to a fierce buzz. The alarm brings out the entire guard. Never before have I seen such heroism. From this little insect springs a force of justice capable of dealing with any target, no matter how strong and large.

So, when a bee gets to the point of biting a human, its death is predestined (its venom cures), but of greater importance is the sacrifice for the common good, the love for the swarm, for the queen.

Early April, Elefsina, balcony.

Two hives full of a very large population, all of them outside, bees everywhere; “what’s going on, what a party!” Suddenly the daily calm has been shattered, not in an aggressive or wild way but somehow like a dance, like a great celebration. The soul bidding farewell to the body, as one separates from the other, swarming, the new life continuing elsewhere, wherever it chooses freely, without restrictions, despite the care, the labour and the love it had been given. 

Human intervention: “I don’t want to lose you, I want you to stay with me.” With two sticks of identical size I beat out a rhythm, while the swarm (bees) heads towards the apartment building next door. All of a sudden, the repetitive sound does its job and the bees, all together, move rhythmically down and towards the place where the sound is coming from. “It’s working,” I thought. I’d read it somewhere, couldn’t remember where, but I’d never done it. The bees sat on the wall of the property, on the border with my house.

Dressed in my uniform and carrying my smoker, I went down and tried to see where the queen was. The hive, clean and brand new, awaited its population. I took a good handful of bees and the queen, which I had spotted, and shook the hive.

Before long the whole population, like loyal soldiers, moved in line to the entrance of the hive, following the typical smell of the great mother without whom life does not exist. I was moved to have participated in the whole thing, changing their destination with my actions, and since they had found a new home quite easily, they decided to stay. 

How angelically and harmoniously we can live with them, as they show us the way with their wondrous works, creating, bringing beauty. This thought has often brought me out of the caves and darknesses of my own mind.

I began to think that everything was changing within me, and my perception of life was falling into a void as deep as my black thoughts. An old book that fell into my hands years ago, written by an old military man, said that the natives in Africa had found a way to punish and rehabilitate delinquent individuals whose minds kept leading them to violence, murder, rape and all sorts of bad acts towards their fellow men. So once the decision was made they would take the wrongdoers away, open pits (graves) and bury them alive, their hands and feet bound, and put a reed in their mouths to breathe − that was their only contact with life. Then they would declare the bastards dead and leave to go about their business. 

After three days and nights they would go to the graves, dig them up and cry out that their brothers had been resurrected and were now different people – that is, that evil was gone from them and they could go on with their lives. I don’t know whether it was effective enough, but since people in Africa resorted to this it must have been. 

All our actions emanate from our soul and our mind, they reflect what we have inside. Throw away the weeds and the overgrowth from the root of your soul and worship the beauty of life, our power to do good, to create callos [beauty], as our ancestors would say, and not the “calluses” of the mind that keep us anchored to routine, melancholy and ugliness, internally as well as externally. 

TS, TS!…

(Tsakos – Tsingos)

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