I’ve been feeling quite defeated lately and unsure if or how I wanted to share my story. I waiver between fear of being viewed as sanctimonious or finding no one cares about what I have to say. It hit me though the other day, that I HAVE to share my story, my work with Honeybees specifically, because it affects everyone living. I help no one by piously carrying this story in secret.
When you look at my Instagram @beekeepingypsy or my website “The Honeybee Hub” you see myself, students, friends smiling in bee suits and many images of sweet bee faces that would melt anyone’s heart. Pictures of honey, pollen…nature’s medicine that we’ve been blessed with for thousands of years. Most people send me messages how lucky I am to work with bees, how rewarding that must be, and now I’m being called a Priestess of the bees.
Over the last 5 years of living in California, I have immersed myself in studying bees, working full time managing hives, performing bee removals and rescues and now managing 15 hives of my own. I have saved over 300 hives from extermination, often alone (not to discredit the amazing people that have helped me: Bryan, Carter, Lucian), and have driven thousands of miles moving hives from danger to safety. In the last three years, all of the bee work I have done has been before and after my full time job at a local non profit, and outside of event hours that I manage on evenings and weekends.
What does it look like to be a beekeeper? Well, I wake up at 5 am to move a hive before they wake up in the morning, or wait till dark after they are all tucked into bed. After the office I’m suited up climbing ladders, scaling tall trees and balancing in my steel toe boots with hive tools hanging out of my pockets and sweat dripping down my face. My long hair gets in the way, sometimes covering my eyes and stuck in the zipper of my veil. My gloves give me scaly skin from sweating in the leather and if I wear any pants besides a suit or jeans I could be covered in stingers. I always smell like a campfire, luckily a sweet one if I am burning White Sage or Mugwort in the smoker too. My Prius…well let’s just say I prefer not to drive anyone around anymore…its very likely that the door handle will be sticky with honey, there could be a bee in the seat, the car smells again like campfire, and…well its just generally a mess. Yes, I have moved my hives and rescues in my prius…yes, inside the prius.
My life has morphed into something that I think is normal but maybe isn't? If I’m not in the office or running an event or saving a hive, I’m checking on my own bees. Running between 4 different locations to make sure they are happy, healthy and safe. I carry bags of Diatomaceous Earth with me and jugs of vegetable oil to prevent ants from destroying the hives I’ve worked so hard to save. I’ve lost 5, 6, 7 hives this year alone to ants? It can happen overnight, so damn fast. There are jugs of processed honey scattered between my house and my partner’s…there’s wax to be processed, melted down and filtered. His kitchen is currently over run with sticky pots and jars. Then of course, the “Blessed Bee” Salves I make to support this little enterprise…but then there is more time needed to get those to market.
I spoke to my roommate who was delighting in how amazing the ocean has been, “Like a lake”, she said. She’s been out snorkeling and devouring the beautiful summer days one gets to enjoy living in Laguna Beach. As she was talking, I felt tears well in my eyes…I can’t remember the last time I was really in the water consistently enjoying it like I used to growing up. Instead of laying on the beach, I’ve chosen to spend every spare moment with the bees…and while I wouldn't have it any other way, I’m finding my approach may not be sustainable.
You see, beekeeping is physically demanding. A layer of complexity that prevents you from doing the whole job on your own unless you have the strength and stamina to do so. Sometimes bee boxes can weigh 50 pounds, thats each box. Imagine carrying that box up a hill, in the dark, with a veil on…praying you don’t drop those girls…trying to be as steady as possible to not disturb them. Or moving a box as carefully as you can so you don’t squish and kill a hundred bees at a time…and if you’re out in the field all day working on hives, you better believe you don’t ever need to visit a sauna or spa, because you practically have perspired all moisture out of your body. What happens when you don’t have that strength?
Can you imagine what it’s like to have thousands of hives like some commercial keepers do? Doing this kind of work, day in and day out? I’m realizing though, no matter how many hives you have, all of us have the same thoughts keeping us up at night.
“Did I add enough Diatamaceous Earth around the hives?”
“Did I fill up the oil canisters for ants?”
“Did I close up the lid properly?”
“What about the entrance, did I leave enough ventilation for them?”
“I saw a few mites during inspection today, should I treat?”
“I didn’t see any honey storage, they must be hungry…should I feed them sugar syrup?”
“It’s super windy and rainy out, did I cover them and strap the hives down?”
“It’s going to be over 100 degrees this week, what can I do to give them more shade?”
“I saw some deformed wings, I need to keep an eye on mite loads.”
It’s been dry again this summer, drier than last year when we had more rain and moisture during winter. These weather changes drastically affect the health of the hive as they are at the mercy of flowering plants bearing nectar. Which brings the next question for beekeepers, “Should I feed them sugar syrup?” Basically, mixing water and white cane sugar and feeding to hives in times of nectar dearth. I have never fed bees, until a couple weeks ago. You see, I’ve worked for a whole year to establish the hives I have now. A year’s worth of rescues and maintenance to support their growth and “build up” which is this threshold that a colony reaches. After that build up, they are strong, have a lot of honey storage and can fight off ants. Most of my hives are young, still filling their first deep box and are easily susceptible to ants, weather changes and food shortages.
The day came a month ago, during hive inspections I noticed all the hives were dry inside. Dry of nectar and honey. Most of them still had pollen, thank good ness, but no cells glistening with the nectar sweetness and comb left barren and arid. Tears streamed down my face and I sat next to the hives and cried. I looked and looked, panicked and praying it wasn't true. But there was nothing. I also noticed that there were barely any new brood (babies) being laid…Queens won’t lay eggs if there isn’t enough food to go around.
I’ve been committed to a philosophy that I wanted to protect bees, bee a guardian to them. Keep them safe, give them homes to thrive. I also wanted to let them fight on their own. Let their genetics pull through, create strong lineages that could continue to adapt with the changing climate. I never wanted to feed bees sugar and have always taught this way. The thought of giving them sugar felt like giving an IV of sugar to a human, inducing diabetes and addiction.
But, here I am.
When you open a hive, a lot of the bees rush up to the frames and all peer up looking at you. You see hundreds of little faces, gazing, watching, performing facial recognition and I hope saying, “Hello sister”. After you get to know your bees, you can tell when they are happy, when they are sleepy and when they are hungry. When hunger sets in, they buzz around frantically, disorderly and with a sense of panic. You can feel it. For days I cried, feeling overwhelmed by changing climate, dry flowers, and hungry bees. I had visions of piles of dead bees and dying ecosystems. I care for about 450,000 bees in the 15 hives I have….450,000 beings of indescribable intelligence and importance. Could I really let them starve? When you see one bee die, watching her take her last breath, there’s no way you can turn your head.
I cannot knowingly be responsible like that.
There’s a part of me that believes in evolution, Darwinism, and all the principles of genetics I spent so many years studying in college. A part of me believes we deserve what is coming to us…what we have done to the planet so quickly is astounding. Destroying habitat, heating up the planet, using pesticides…we’ve done this. We are just a moment in the history of this planet, universe…we’ve come and surely we will go.
And I’m realizing why working with bees is so challenging; it is because I am looking at humanity square in the face. Here I am, a human who has contributed and participated in the destruction…and its like every time I open the hive I want to beg for forgiveness. Apologize for the state of the planet… Yes there are natural progressions and changes in the environment that affect all organisms in some way or another, but bees are suffering and dying because of what we have done. They are failing for the same reasons we are…their frailty is a direct indicator of where we stand.
I’ve been using the phrase “Bee Guardian” instead of “Beekeeper” to move away from this mentality of possession to protection. In protecting the bees, I must do what I can to keep them alive…with the hope that maybe, just maybe we can turn things around. That someday we can enjoy thriving ecosystems again and our farming practices turn less harmful. That someday, bees and all pollinators can thrive without sugar syrups or antibiotics or supplements. That we as humans do not need the same things to survive…that we can enjoy access to quality nutritious food that ensures healthy and sustainable living.
Maybe I’m being dramatic but it’s hard not to feel so much when you feel responsible for so many. I don’t have children of my own yet, but I can imagine what it feels like. To want to do anything in your power to protect those you love and never be responsible for them living in a way that is nothing short of abundant, vivacious and beautiful.
So, here I am. Anna Maria. A woman who has fallen so deeply for bees that I will continue to miss beach days, sleeping in, visiting with friends, taking long vacations, putting money into hive equipment instead of an IRA and spend every free moment caring for them. I have reached an understanding however, that I will not make the needed impact alone. I can keep a small pocket of population alive…and will do that until the end of my days…but will it all be in vain? Will we ever stop and wake up? Will we ever make the changes necessary to heal our planet? the bees? each other?
I feel like I’ve lost some hope, but I know myself…I know I will bounce back. I will keep doing the work and encourage others to do so. The next time you see #savethebees or someone selling a bracelet whose “proceeds go to bees” challenge them to become a bee guardian. Challenge them to do the actual work. Maybe you’ll find yourself called to this work too?
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