An original Carol

The BeeHolder, Winter 2013

I had read that long ago beekeepers decked their hives with holly on Christmas Eve. Then late at night, they’d slink into the apiary and wait. They did that, they said, because the bees serenaded them each year by quietly humming Christmas carols at the stroke of midnight.

To be honest, there was never a moment I believed the bees would hum carols, but I liked the idea of the ceremony, the tradition of honouring insect friends by being with them at a special time on a significant night. I admit also that I was curious about how a story like that got started. Is it possible that random beehive sounds “upon a midnight clear” could really sound like a glorious song of old? As when our brain tries to hear words and patterns from radio static or crowd noises? Perhaps, random buzzing, filtered through a mix of holiday spirituality and strong spirits, could sound something like “Adeste Fideles”. I wanted to find that out too.

I suspected that maybe the story was just a beekeepers hoax, a way to reserve a quiet place away from others to think, drink, or meditate upon the season, but whatever the case, I intended to find out myself.

I stop a couple of yards away from the hives and notice how quiet everything is. On summer night, you can hear the buzz of a hive at any hour, like a miniature factory running 24/7, as the bees ceaselessly clean, form wax combs, tend the larvae, cool the hive, and dry the nectar into thick honey. On December 24th, though, because the bees have no reason to cool the hive and no nectar to dry, the hives sound more like the ghost factories of south Wales, not just silent but freakishly so.

I step forward and squat down next to the hive. Still no sound. It’s almost midnight on Christmas Eve, and I don’t want to have to wait another year to try again. So I gently brush my finger tips across the top of the hive, clearing off some dew and dirt, and gingerly lower my head, ear first, to the cold roof of the hive. And I do, I do hear something through the roof!

It’s a different sound from the daytime hive, lower and more uniform, a steady, pulsing drone, like the sound of a … what? It’s familiar and soothing, but I cannot figure out what it sounds like.

Do the bees make any sound that could be interpreted as a Christmas Carol? I listen, the drone sounds on like a pulsing monotone, never changing rhythm or pitch, the bees flexing their wing muscles to generate heat. This doesn’t sound anything like carols. I reluctantly have to admit that Catholic Monks singing a Gregorian Chant – even Buddhist monks droning “Om” - are more musical than a beehive on a Christmas midnight. Even if nursing half a gallon of mead, there’s no way an honest beekeeper could claim to hear a Christmas carol from that.

I sigh, frankly surprised that I am disappointed. It’s cold. I’m tired. My quest for knowing is over. I should go back inside. Yet I stay and listen to the sound. Then it strikes me. A beehive on a cold winter night, settled in for warmth, sounds like a purring cat. I suddenly realise that this purring existed long before house cats, or even humanity was there to hear it. Sabre toothed tigers and mastodons may have heard this sound. And the dinosaurs, they heard this sound.

The thought comes to me: it came upon a midnight clear, and it is a glorious song of old. In fact, this may be the oldest living sound I’ll ever hear. So who needs Carols?

Adapted by Tony Shaw from a story by Jack Mingo

This reminds me of the motto on our web site : “Montybees, we do it for the buzz”. Ed