A Buddhist Monk's Mysterious Dreams Lead to a Divine Calling: Beekeeping

Michael Joshin Thiele is now a leader in creating honeybee sanctuaries to help save the bees. 

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- Posted on Nov 25, 2019

A black and white photo of a beekeeper's hands handling a hive of bees.

Hummmmmm…

Michael Joshin Thiele found himself on a forest path. Before him was a buzzing swarm of honeybees. They moved toward him as if part of one being. He watched them, entranced. The swarm came closer and a warm sensation permeated Michael’s soul, as if the swarm were embracing him. He felt a love for the bees—and for life itself. It was like a light, filling him with a sense of possibility and amazement. The buzzing intensified until…

Michael opened his eyes. He was lying in his bed, the morning light filtering through the windows. Was that a dream? he wondered. He could still sense the warmth from the swarm. He could still hear the humming and see the bees moving rhythmically in one gentle mass. He’d never witnessed anything like it. The feeling the bees gave him, though—that intense reverence for life—was familiar.

It was the same feeling Michael had gotten four years earlier, after losing his 31-year-old wife, Karin, to colon cancer. Michael had expected to spend the rest of his life with his beloved Karin, but their time together was cut tragically short. When they discovered her cancer, the couple was living in their native Germany. Eventually they couldn’t manage on their own. Michael quit his job in Berlin, and they moved to her parents’ house in the countryside. Michael was with her every moment for those last few months. He was by her side when she passed.

Karin’s death left Michael completely untethered. Things he used to consider important no longer seemed to matter. Things that used to take priority—a stable job, promotions, a 20-year life plan—now seemed meaningless to him.

If life can be gone so quickly, what is the point of chasing material security? he wondered. He felt spiritually restless.

All he had was his immense grief and the vague feeling that he was being called to do something other, something more. He heard about a monastery in San Francisco that held a spiritual retreat. It felt like the right way to heal his aching soul and begin living a more purposeful existence. Michael packed his bags, ready to begin anew.

He journeyed to another continent, and San Francisco became his new home. He stayed at the monastery and became a Buddhist monk. A few years passed. The grief that had consumed his life lifted, like a fog that yields to the sun. He fell in love again and married Leslie. They lived on the monastery’s farm with their baby boy. Michael’s days were spent meditating, praying, gardening and spending time with his family. He felt as if he was finally living the life he’d been called to. He felt like he was in a great place both spiritually and emotionally.

Then came the dreams.

For months, all Michael dreamed about were bees. Swarms appearing in front of him and touching him at the core of his being. Bees landing lightly on tree branches while he stood beneath them and watched. Honeycombs, vibrating with a deep hum. In all of them, he felt that same sense of awe, of benediction. The buzzing resonated within him. Why me? He wondered. I know nothing about bees!

Yet he couldn’t ignore the message, even if he didn’t know what it meant. All he could think to do was try his hand at beekeeping. So he borrowed some old equipment from a nearby farm. He set it down outside his house, intending to figure things out in his downtime.

READ MORE: The Spiritual Significance of Bees

The next morning, he was at work in the garden when he heard someone call his name. He rounded the corner and caught his breath. Thousands of bees hummed through the air, congregating around the equipment he’d left out, trying to find a way into the bee box. No person wanted to get anywhere near them.  But Michael felt drawn to the bees. Cautiously, he approached them. Hummmmm. The familiar sound filled the air. He edged the bee box open, and the bees started to crawl inside. Not one of them stung him. He felt at home among the swarm.

Michael devoted himself to the bees. He reintroduced bees to the monastery’s farm and became its official beekeeper. Beekeeping was pleasant. It brought him great peace. Michael still wondered why he’d been called to this task. Why not another monk? he thought.

One day, Michael discovered a large swarm clustered on a tree elsewhere in the monastery’s farmland. He knew its significance: This bee colony was homeless and looking for a new hive. Michael needed to get them into a bee box. But the bees were in the center of the tree trunk. He couldn’t just break off a branch and move it into one of his empty boxes. He’d have to try something different.

He thought about what he had seen in his dream and his sense of connection with the swarm. The warmth and awareness he had experienced. He summoned the image, felt it in his mind. He moved toward them. Though honeybees are generally less aggressive while in a swarm, none of the bee books recommended this course of action. Michael hadn’t seen anyone moving bee colonies without protective clothing. 

And yet, somehow, he knew this was right. Using his dreams to guide him, he scooped up the swarm with his bare hands. None of the bees stung him. The swarm was warm and filled with life, just as it had been in his dreams. It moved through his fingers and along his palms, as if sharing a collective consciousness. Like a hand, grasping his in communion. Moving slowly, he placed the bees into the box.

Michael stepped back from the swarm and looked down at his hands with awe. Moving the bees without gloves had required a patience and a humility similar to sitting in meditation. He’d devoted his life to spirituality. But this moment was the closest he’d ever felt to the divine.

That day marked a turning point for Michael. Eighteen years later, he’s figured out the most successful methods for reintroducing bees to the wild. He’s helped rehabilitate California’s endangered bees. Without these tiny creatures, humanity wouldn’t have crops or trees to filter the air. To feel the most connected to the bees, to gain their trust, Michael still handles them without gloves. It’s an act of faith. Kind of like prayer. Kind of like following a divine calling, even when you don’t know where it will lead.  

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