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OPINION

Learning how to just be

I felt brittle and worn out and increasingly isolated — rushing constantly from one thing to the next, with never enough time to just sit and be. And then, a gift that changed everything: I was given a colony of bees.

Globe staff/ Adobe

The natural world is good for our health. This makes sense at an intuitive level — we feel different when we step outside, sensing the sun on our skin, listening to birdsong, or standing under the cooling shade of a tree. We spend 87 percent of our time indoors, despite increasing evidence that being exposed to nature improves our immune and cognitive functioning, and alleviates stress, anxiety and depression. Yet it wasn’t until I became a beekeeper that I truly experienced the truth of this statement for myself.

Having just turned 30, I was living in a row house on a busy road leading out of Oxford’s city center. Traffic went by at all hours; my bedroom window used to rattle at intervals of seven minutes with each passage of the double decker bus. I’d moved to Oxford for work, but the new job wasn’t turning out quite as planned — I found myself swamped with unfinished projects, working long hours in an airless office, and arriving home stressed, too exhausted to do much but cook and eat and crawl into bed. Trapped in an unhappy loop, I felt brittle and worn out and increasingly isolated — rushing constantly from one thing to the next, with never enough time to just sit and be.

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And then, a gift that changed everything: I was given a colony of bees.

I have a friend who keeps honeybees in London, and I’d sometimes accompanied him on hive visits, so I knew a little about the strange life of the colony. I knew how it felt to lift the lid as the air filled with thousands of alert and buzzing bodies; I knew how, standing in the midst of them, one gained a sense sometimes of a sentience, an intelligence, beyond the range of human experience.

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The bees arrived in a wooden box — quiet, expectant, throbbing. I opened it up and plunged them into the hive, then hurried back indoors.

That first week I watched them tensely through the window — I hardly dared go outside. The idea of becoming a beekeeper felt strangely loaded. I’d moved around a lot through my 20s, often ambivalent about the idea of settling down; I worried I didn’t have what it takes to keep something — to keep it alive. Eventually I stopped watching from the window and went into the garden, seating myself on a tree stump a few feet from the hive. There I’d sit n the morning and watch the first flights rising from the entrance as the sun lifted over the garden fence.

The bees were busy. In the evenings, arriving home weary and screen-dazed, I’d sit again and watch them arriving back, legs thick with bright yellow pollen balls. Inside the hive, a rim of fresh honeycomb appeared — pale, perfectly formed, almost translucent when I held it to the light. This was the sign I’d needed: they’d accepted this place as home.

Beekeeping is a sensory, whole body experience. Lifting the lid, you have to steady your legs; concentrate on what you’re doing and not their seething; find a way of picking out what’s happening beneath all their constant motion. Like this, smell, touch, sound, and sight come alive.

I was less stressed. Moving around the city, I wasn’t thinking so much about getting from A to B. Instead, I was noticing weeds spilling from riverbanks; wildflowers springing from playground gates; cracks in the pavement; gaps in walls. Honeybee eyesight spans a different part of the color spectrum from ours — they see more blue than we do, and many insect-pollinated flowers have evolved to bloom in blues and purples as a result.

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That summer, it wasn’t just blues and purples that stood out for me — I was also more aware of the connections between things. Buying coffee and oranges at my local grocers, I thought now of the creature life on which our world depends. My attention had moved beyond, outside myself. I wasn’t just feeling better, but feeling better — paying more attention to the world around me, and feeling more in touch with what I sensed and saw. I still funneled into work and back again, but now I was aware of other lives moving through and between my own — the pollinators, joining things up, in all their dazzling multiplicity.

It isn’t always easy, getting to know other creatures. We have to confront difficult truths about ourselves. But isn’t this one definition of good health? In wellness, are we not more open to understanding how we affect others, and are affected by them? Isn’t this kind of knowledge what changes us for the better?

To go out, and find oneself changed. That year, for me, was full of unexpected encounters. I built new relationships. I made bold life choices, finding that I could help myself toward a happier, healthier existence. It’s a curious, perhaps counterintuitive loop — but not an isolated one. I’m reminded here of a quote from John Muir, that famous champion of interconnectedness, and defender of the wild. After a day on which he left the house for a walk and didn’t come back until sundown, he wrote — “going out, I found, was really going in.”

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Helen Jukes is author of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings.”