Sunday, May 22, 2011

In My Care

Have you wondered where I've been in the last two weeks? The answer is: Here.
Here, is an apple orchard on the land of one very generous, amazing woman, who's not only letting me keep bees on her land, but giving me free access to the land, her old equipment, telling me to do whatever I need to. It is a beautiful place, perhaps one of the most beautiful on this Island where most everywhere is breath-taking.
I love going out there, watching the bees make their way to the orchard where the blooms are just opening, slowly, slowly. It has been the coldest, rainiest May and April here since record-keeping began in the 1890s. We all seem to have our faces turned to the sun the moment it appears, like desperate blooms, blinking in wonder, shedding winter skin. And then, just like that its gone again and the cold wind brings yet more rain from the mountains. It has been a pretty tough year so far.
No matter. It's what you've got that counts, right? And what we've got is a really awesome salmonberry year. And 30 000 or so bees. Those of you who've known me for a while may know that I have a long-standing obsession with honeybees. I can't really explain it, but I've always felt a special affinity to them and never been fearful of them.
A few years ago, driven by the urge to know more, to make real the idea that perhaps I could do it, became an apiarist, I took a beekeeping class in a very traditional (meaning the last 50 or so years of beekeeping) setting and immediately and instinctively felt in discord with it.

Though most of the books that I had read during my years of obsessing about Apis Mellifera also dealt in the same kind of beekeeping mentality: lots of interference and control, medicating, the smoke, the robbing of honey and then feeding trough the winter with an inferior food source (something that never sat right with me), essentially treating bees as livestock, seeing it in action really made me feel like something was amiss. I enjoyed the class, for the closeness to bees, the hands-on learning of basics, but at the same time felt very conflicted by some of what I was taught and having no concrete information to back-up my guttural instinct, all but gave up on the idea of keeping bees.
This was in 2006. Around that time Colony Collapse Disorder was sweeping the US and the topic of beekeeping suddenly in the limelight. The more I read the more obvious it became, even to a someone who knew very little of the actual science: if you treat these gentle, magical creatures poorly, they will abscond. Abscond in the most metaphysical sense of dying quietly from unknown causes.
From early on Colony Collapse Disorder felt to me like a combination of the many things we humans do to beekind. Be it from pesticides, breeding, monoculture, constant transportation, changing climates, drugs and pests growing resistant to those drugs, or the popular hippie explanation of cell phone towers being to blame; in my entirely layman's mind there is no one reason for CCD. Like most of our ills it is not simply one thing or another, but the tipping point of all the things that we have doing wrong.
One of the most shocking aspects of modern "beekeeping" to me, is that bees are routinely trucked on the interstate for hundreds of miles to pollinate one monocrop after another. The idea of a creature that plots it's course as far four miles from the hive through what is essentially a series of photographs in its mind being transported to a new orchard every few weeks, actually makes me cry. After all, this is an animal which, as E. Readicker-Henderson so perfectly put it in his book A Short History of The Honeybee, transforms landscape into taste.

Bees, like people, make their home in the place their hive is. The home is just not the hive, but everything that surrounds it. They get to know each nook and cranny of the land intimately travelling high in the treetops and low in the buttercups. There are places where drones have been known to gather for generations, and the worker bees (from here on out I'm going to start calling them the female bees as per this beautiful post) can fly miles to find and feed an another that's flown too far and is low on energy.
If for some reason you desire to move your beehive after you have introduced the colony to it you must either move it five miles (I've heard other, lower estimates, but several miles is the consensus.) or five inches a day, until it is in its desired location. Otherwise they will not recognize the hive, and will instead flock to the empty space where it used to be.
Once I moved to the country, I decided to take another look at the possibility of becoming a beekeeper and was delighted to find that there is indeed a growing alternative beekeeping movement. (There seems to be a burgeoning alternative movement in everything. These are the worst of days and the best.) Like most alternative movements there is a variety of opinion on how alternative you need to get.

All along as I planned how to furbish my hives it was clear to me that I would try to tread the invisible and blurry line of letting nature run its course, while giving the bees in my care as much as help as I could in this adverse climate. Most beekeepers out here discover quickly that it's very easy to let your hive perish from malnourishment in the first few seasons you have them. The advice of more seasoned beekeepers is certainly golden because most books will for instance tell you not to feed your bees except in dire emergencies. Well, the forage season here is sweet and short and does not always extend to times when its warm enough for the bees to fly, so you do need to feed them. Hopefully in the next few weeks they'll be able to fully feed themselves. They've certainly been eating less feed with each passing week.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, bees prefer sugar syrup to honey in the spring, since honey is their emergency food. So don't ask me how much I've spent on organic suger in the last few weeks. The odd thing too is that it needs to be as refined as possible, for the bees to be able to digest it. Counter-intuitive indeed.
I also went for the traditional Langsroth Hives, for no other reason than that they were available to me and I did not have time or the expertise to figure out how to build a topbar hive. Next season, if my husband is still into this, I think we'll add one. In the meantime, I'm excited to read about this lovely lady's adventures in topbar hives and very natural beekeeping.

We've been slowly limbing the two lower branches of the tree (C. says he thinks the tree will understand) that shades them, which is unfortunate, but also provides rain cover and wind protection and I think we found another good spot on the property that is out of everyone's way, but big enough for either two more Langsroths or a topbar. But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

We do do some interference, simply to check on the health of the colony. So far we've only opened them once to make sure there was brood and that they were indeed collecting food. We don't smoke our bees as they are absolutely not aggressive (we do have a lavender mister on hand-another handy trick from awesome fellow beekeepers) and plan to do any medicating with natural alternatives. For my next supers I'm hoping to try out partial foundation so as to reduce the amount of interference further. (Organic beeswax foundation is almost impossible to find and regular foundation can contain anything from trace amounts of pesticides to antibiotics and can be produced in ways I consider unethical.)
We are also not looking to harvest any honey anytime soon. (Good thing too, because most beekeepers here don't get much honey at all in the beginning, if ever.) Honey, in fact, was never really part of the plan, or the object of my desire. Since I first had the idea, the inkling that being a apiarist was something I might want to do, that was the end goal. To keep bees. Almost like a calling. Keeping bees to me had this great spiritual aspect, of being part of something larger than oneself, a keeper of a community of women who act as a single entity, many bodies unified in one "mind".
Of great order and symmetry and equal mystery. They are a being who's way of life is almost diametrically opposite to ours, at least the way we live now, in small units, without much higher understanding of togetherness. Without each other a single entity can not exist. There is no bee without a colony.

The bees do everything for the colony. Literally. To contribute less than an eight of a teaspoon of honey to the hive in its life-span the female bee can fly a distance equivalent of to the moon and back.

Like all animals, the bees have an intellect, a mind, a consciousness entirely different from ours, one that is fascinating to observe. They are not tame, they are still wild and unlike most animals they choose to live with you. Or not. They can leave anytime. They are not yours. You are not really their keeper.
They are in your care of their own wild, free will.


  1. Great post!
    Beautiful pictures :)

  2. Ah man, I feel so naive not to have questioned the industry of honey and it's production methods. I had no idea bees were treated so poorly. Are there pesticides and antibiotics in everything?! I guess the answer is yes unless it's organic. I'm thinking that we as people could relearn alot about life from watching bees and their ways.

    "Of great order and symmetry and equal mystery. They are a being who's way of life is almost diametrically opposite to ours, at least the way we live now, in small units, without much higher understanding of togetherness. Without each other a single entity can not exist. There is no bee without a colony." I hope that people will become closer and form stronger communitees, and provide better and healthier for ourselves. I'm glad you can do this, beekeeping, as kindly and gently as possible. It sounds like you are part of an enriching place and people there on your island. And thanks for sharing, I'm going to give this link to an old friend who is venturing into beekeeping.
    Your posts often remind me to look to the sun

  3. I am so jealous! I wanted to learn to keep bees and never got around to it.

  4. Not too long ago, I watched a television show about Colony Collapse Disorder and began to feel a little panicky. But, I got so stuck on all the information the show was presenting (and them throwing up their hands in frustration over the not knowing) that I just didn't see a cause. Your reasoning makes so. much. sense.

    You seem to be going about this the right way, and I'm sure your wee girlfriends will appreciate your enlightened kindness in a kind of nebulous way.

    This was an amazing, heartfelt post. I've become very fond of honey bees since we moved here (lots of apiaries nearby), especially considering how vicious the yellow jackets are. Never been stung by a honey bee, and they land on my bare legs much more often than those turds.

    To be honest, I'm a little in awe of you. You're such a reservoir of knowledge and I really aspire to be as knowledgeable as you some day. Much love, honey-girl.

  5. I agree with Teeny's comment above; I had no idea that honeybees were so awfully treated, or could even be used industrially like plants & livestock! It seems that, when one doesn't know about any certain aspect of the food industry (or any industry, come to think of it), one can depend on it being unsustainable and abusive no matter the specifics. Depressing, really. But if it weren't for people who make the effort to care & educate, whether they be scientists or activists or intrepid bloggers, I and many others would be in the dark, so thank you :)
    I always learn something when I read your posts - even the 'fashion' posts are food for thought!

  6. Hey girl! I was just wondering where you were. What a wonderful and very informative post. I know the basics about our bees, but not enough. I now feel concerned and even more appreciative. Can I be a bee on your island ?
    Take care sister
    Buzz buzz buzzzzz

  7. I really love reading your posts Milla! They are informative, smart, and fun reads! The pictures of the bees on your finger looked so natural and calm (and you're stinkin' adorable!!!). It's cool that you are one with those lil guys and want to help them flourish, and even cooler that it takes differences in all of us to make the world go round and come together in the end :D This is a beautiful post... can't wait to hear more on your new little friends!!!

  8. i played your video three times and listened to it with my eyes shut, transported. when i was a little girl, my favorite part of springtime was when our almond trees went into bloom. the grass would be tall and lush, there would be ladybugs, and i would sit under the trees and listen to the deafening hum of all the you could hear as soon as you stepped outside the door. the humming always put me into a trance, and, like with fiddle music, feels like it knits back together the places in my soul that need mending.

    i am so happy you have been keeping bees and choosing to play in your new orchard rather than blog! reading about your connection to bees brought tears to my eyes, and i am uplifted to know of your gentle care. i have always wanted to keep bees too, and it is a huge driving factor for wanting to move.

    last summer, our ecopsychology institute (holos) offered a film night at the hayes valley urban farm showing "the vanishing of the bees" we chose the farm because last spring, some misguided and sick person killed the farms two hives with raid. i see the boxes on the highway, by the orchards when we drive up north, and my heart sinks, just like when i see trucks full of calves on the road. the work you are doing is essential for repairing our relationship with these beautiful creatures. thank you for doing it. much love.

  9. I loved reading this post so much! It feels like standing at the edge, just up to my knees, of an ocean full of beautiful and mysterious knowledge. I know the things you've written about here will be swirling round my head tonight before sleep comes. Thank you.

  10. i would love to keep bees, but i am not sure my neighbors would appreciate it :) instead i plant tons of good bee plants and forgo icky stuff that would not be good for them(and apparently it worked because we recently had a colony take up residence in a large rosemary bush out front).

    i am glad you all are getting a good dose of sunshine. it is good to see your lovely face out in it :)


  11. wow, I just learned a lot and I love the idea that you keep bees not for their honey but just for your curiosity and affinity with them. That feels so right to me.

  12. This is one of my favorite entries of yours. Your way of thinking about bees and tending to them is beautiful and full and rich, and touched me deeply. You are such an inspiring spirit!

  13. you are contributing beautiful things to this world! thank you.

  14. wow millakins, wow. my heart is swollen with beauty and the humming of true kindness and caring. your approach to these wise and lovely creatures is incredibly moving. i agree with all the other commenters, especially jodi and brooke, they put into words my thoughts precisely. it's like a beautiful comforting buzzing in my head now: the desire to know more, to do more, to gather what i love into my heart and treat it with the gentlest of care. like you are here. sweet girl, witch of the woods and forest, you are spreading your honey light for all creatures up there and it feels good to know it.

  15. What a noble keeper you are of our most sweetest friends. Thank you for all you contribute with your very being and for inspiring me ever more.

  16. what an awesome post milla! i so love all the alternative methods your using to keep bees. i feel the same as teeny, never did i think about the honey industry. i buy raw honey. i think i'll look into how they harvest their honey.

    thank you for another super interesting, informative post!

  17. Thats a nice place for adventures... Love your photos too.

  18. Wowww Milla! This explains so much of what I've been wondering about- how you got into this, why you do it, how you do it. Seeing Ari's bees a few weeks ago and getting to hear her perspective was so cool (that first link in this post does not work, btw). It really clicked for me when she was explaining the one-mind consciousness of the hive. Colony insects are fascinating.

    That is CRAZY that a bee can travel that far just to produce such a small amount of honey!

    Rainy, grey, cold weather here too. It's weirding me out. Thanks for bringing the brightness :-)

  19. hi!
    i haven't said hi to you yet, but i check your blog lately, because mary has turned me onto it. so, i just got my first hive going too! we got a swarm. it has been so magical. i posted here.... the class i took, through the most natural beekeepers in the world i think (well, as far as my little world goes here in boulder) i've been told honey is the most natural food to feed the bees. i just thought i'd give you that information. i feel like you may like their site, and the bees may benefit from something you learn on there perhaps?? and it's all such a matter of opinion and experience. but i thought i'd share with you, as a fellow bee lover.

    so here's the site my teachers keep:

    you can apply most techniques to whichever type of hive you keep i think. it's mostly a mindset they are teaching. but they are super into top bars of course. but i have a friend who uses langstroth and she is uber natural, and righteous with her beekeeping. ok. love the bees.

  20. Milla, you are so good. The plethora of goodness and knowledge in your head! Wow. Totally impressed and stoked on your kindness, research, and action about this subject. Thank you for putting that true and sweet energy out there into the world of the bees. Though the economic/corporate world seems so huge in all of it's chemical and nature-altering mistakes, I truly believe that the power of one girl in the North country is far more immense and vast than even she could know, and that you are contributing to the healing of the relationship between the magical creature kingdom and our human one in leaps and bounds. The magic of one good very very strong. I am sure the bees somehow collectively love you with a great mysterious energy (respect) for such.

  21. I'm amazed at those bee photos! One hanging out on a finger, another having a meal on your dress... I think bee-keeping is wonderful.

  22. Your love for and sense of connection to these wee beeings pours forth through your words with such a beautiful energy. It’s so wonderful and inspiring to witness.

    Thank you for teaching me more about my namesake creature! They are truly fascinating and I’m looking forward to following along on your journey :)

  23. I really like this post and it convinced me to give up honey. I've been a raw vegan for 3 years but my one exception has been raw honey. I know it's not even that good for me and most likely unethical, so thank you for writing this.