Wisdom from the Outyard


Wisdom from the Outyard | by Laith Nichols

The haze rested heavy on the field as evidence of the northern wildfires met with the swirling outpour of a dozen smokers. As many beekeepers clad in heavy white cotton and mesh netting took turns pumping air from their bellows while a growing hum filled the air. At the center of the crowd sat several wooden boxes stacked on pallets. 

Ang Roell, founder of They Keep Bees, removed the ceramic tile atop the first stack and peeled back a sheet of thermal insulation to reveal a bustling world beneath the surface of the hive. With expert precision, Ang worked methodically alongside partner Bi Kline, flipping through each frame in search of the elusive queen bee. 

Within a moment they spotted her scurrying across the comb, her elongated abdomen and hurried shuffle giving away her whereabouts. Not wasting any time, Ang cupped their fingers, scooped the prized insect and finessed her into a small plastic cage, demonstrating how each beekeeper was to follow the same procedure. 

Working in groups of two or three throughout the apiary, we then caged queen after queen, leaving each hive with sufficient food stores and brood from which the remaining worker bees would be able to elect a new matriarch. 

Raising successful walk-away splits was just one of a number of queen rearing techniques we would be practicing at TKB’s Generative Bee School, and the knowledge I would gain from the experience would extend far beyond the outyard. Some of those lessons are as follows:

  • Past events have all culminated in this moment.

There are thirty three distinct honey bee species presently distributed across all of Africa, Western Asia and the Middle East, and Europe[1] , however the origin of Apis mellifera, apis meaning “bee” and mellifera “honey-bearing,” is still debated. While commonly believed that A. mellifera originated in Asia and expanded into Europe and Africa, some researchers argue there is data to support an out-of-Africa expansion[2]

Although there is no longer any species of honeybee native to North America, recently uncovered fossilized evidence reveals the presence of a native honeybee species, A. nearctica, in a one hundred million year old shale deposit in what is presently referred to as Nevada[3][4]. This native American bee went extinct and left no living descendants, leaving the continent void of honeybees until European settlers introduced the western honeybee, A. mellifera, in the early 1600s. This particular subspecies of honeybee did quite well in the forest clearings of the early settlements, making use of the abundant nectar and pollen available from the trees and shrubs native to the eastern so-called United States. As people sought ought new territority, they bought honeybees with them, and the western honeybee is now spread across the entire world. 

The evolution of the honeybee is a prime example of the idea that every species that exists on Earth today is here as the result of a similar string of events wherein organisms and their genes are constantly being shifted by environmental conditions. Keith Delaplane writes in the American Bee Journal, “Individuals die; species go extinct. Death applies to all, and the vast majority of species that ever existed in Earth’s history are now extinct… the glory of natural selection is not death, but its participation in the effusive generativity of life. Just as individuals can give birth to new individuals, species can give birth to new species.”

Much like the western honeybee, stars have had to burn out and new ones birthed to allow for all of the events to unfold which brought each of us here to this present moment. We must all hold space for the magic of our existence.

  • You can’t put the queen before the egg.

One must take care not to reverse the order of procedures, both in grafting and in life.

  • When in doubt, let nature run her course.

After all, the bees know best. They know when to raise a new queen and the right age larva to select to feed a consistent diet of royal jelly. They know when to swarm and when to stay put. And they know when to build up their resources in anticipation of periods of constriction and contraction. 

  • The bees will repair and rebuild. So will you.

Honeybees have survived millions of years of evolution to get to this point. To quote a local second-year beekeeper, “the bees can overcome numerous stupid things you will do.”

In the beekeeping community we distinguish between bee killers, who bring harm to bees perhaps out of fear or miseducation, bee havers, who choose to live in close proximity to bees, and beekeepers, who take an active role in stewarding our insect ally. We all strive to become the latter, which requires us to first generate a relationship built on trust and reciprocity–one that is complementary. It’s the difference between working the bees versus working with bees.

Even so, we falter. We make mistakes.

And yet the bees are still here to offer us a lesson in resilience. 

  • Our stewardship in part will determine the future.

During queen-rearing school, Melanie Kirby of Zia Queen Bees shared with us the idea that while “everything in the past has brought us here to this moment, our stewardship will determine what exists into the future.” 

It’s true that honeybees and native pollinators alike are struggling due to a host of pressures caused by human activity including loss of forage and habitat, an increase in pesticide use, and a rise in pest and disease pressure worsened by large-scale pollination events. 

And so it’s our responsibility to take an active role in reversing the damages we have caused, however, that’s not to imply that the bees are wholly reliant upon us to save them.

As Ang writes in their manifesto, Radicalize the Hive, there exists this misconception that nature exists within a vacuum and needs our input to continue to thrive, when in reality it is us that is so interconnected with everything on this planet that we as a species would cease to survive without bees and other key species. It’s ego driving the notion that we are seeking to preserve anything beyond our own sense of being. After all, the bees don’t need us to save them–what they need is for us to step up and save ourselves. 

To begin making conscientious decisions for the longevity of our species requires us to adopt a more ecocentric approach to stewardship–to recognize our interdependency and take steps that will support biodiversity as a whole. And it’s not going to happen with individual change alone, however like bees in a hive, we each play a role in generating systemic change, and our combined actions will determine how the future unfolds.

[Photos by epli photography]

Written by Fox Haven’s Beekeeper, Laith Nichols!

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