Choose Your Words Wisely–and Kindly

Susan here: It is during winter preparation in the bee garden that I realize just how far off the conventional center my beeing has wandered. Winter prep in my bee garden is a slow, sweet time. By late autumn, I’ve tilted all my skeps up just a bit and found them heavy with bees and honey. Soon, I’ll be plugging upper entrances on the hives and leaving their lower openings clear. And that—blessedly—is the whole of my winter prep.

Meanwhile, in the many forums I visit, beekeepers are having discussions about which chemicals to put in the hives, what ventilation to provide for the winter months, how to keep the bees warm enough, and whether it is too late for a split. Beekeepers who have lost hives in late autumn are sharing their grief stories, and most are admonished, “It was mites…”

I don’t participate in many of these discussions because my own methods of tending bees would be seen as antithetical to the marching orders that define conventional beekeeping. When I do post to share the goings on along my good bee road, I am almost always met with alarm:

“Your hives are illegal”
“You have to kill bees to get the honey”
“No treatments? Your bees will all be dead in two years.”
“You are broadcasting mite bombs!”

Recently, I posted on a treatment-free forum that our city had voted in a new beekeeping code that—among other innovations—requires bees be sourced locally, and that prohibits the introduction of commercial package bees.

I expected this would be good news to alternative beekeepers, but the bulk of the replies had to do with how the code “limits freedoms” of the keepers, and that such a code was “nothing to be proud of.”

I used to feel as though I were being hit with sticks when these sorts comments would come. But nowadays, I see them as fertile fields for planting new ideas. You need to understand that this mindset does not come naturally to me and I have to constantly bite my sharp tongue to keep from responding with sarcasm and frustration.

It is good training. It is forcing me to become more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more positive in my words and in my life. And as I consider the criticisms volleyed my way, it also helps me to better define and clarify my own way of beeing to myself and to others. For example, I’m certain many of you have been called “cruel” because you do not treat your bees, or perhaps because you choose to let weak hives perish. I’ve been—we’ve all been—called neglectful because “Certainly, you would not treat your child (or your “livestock) this way!”

Well, that is true, but bees are neither children nor livestock. If I respond to this criticism with my own— “Well, I’m betting you don’t keep your children in a box and that you don’t barbecue your bees.” —the dialogue spirals downhill from there. I am forced to ask myself this question, again and again and again: “What are you trying to accomplish?”

My better self is trying to forge a conversation, not an argument. My better self would like to offer a new perspective to the discussion on how to best care for bees. My snarky retorts end any possibility of opening doors to a new way of beeing. But, oh boy, am I tempted!

We in the west are all reared to kneel before the altar of Competition. We compete for the best grades, the best scores, our parents’ love, our partners’ respect. We compete to be a “better” beekeeper than the guy down the street. We compete with ourselves to have more hives overwinter than the year before. And we compete to win. Because in competition, there are only winners and losers, and we certainly never want to be losers.

As an author and editor, I’ve competed with words all my life. I use them to cajole, to enlighten, and to smash. A few well-placed words can knock the heart-breath out of someone, and I’ve been good at this ever since I could put a pencil to paper.

I keep my ear tuned for good, neutral phrases when the conversations between natural beekeepers and conventional keepers becomes strained. Tom Seeley shared a good one recently at a lecture, and I’m betting he didn’t even realize it. “This is how it is with my bees,” he said. “It may be different in your part of the country, and with your bees. Do you see this also?”

There is nothing to argue with here. There is only reflection: “Hmmm, how IS it with my bees here?” Tom’s statement also reminds me of how different each bee yard and keeper are: what works for me may not work for you at all, and this idea helps keepers to feel much less defensive, and perhaps even willing to consider the novel approaches of other beekeepers.

I also find that increasing my willingness to be vulnerable and to share my failings seems to open a path to support instead of competition and the need to be right at all costs. This, too, does not come naturally to me. This week, as a forum of women was sharing about their chemical bee-treatment methods, I wrote that I was going into the winter with my heart in my throat. I shared that spring would usher in my fourth year of treatment free keeping with these particular hives, and that I was aware that (conventionally speaking) the deadliest years for treatment free hives was year three.

My comments garnered nothing less than full support and much curiosity. All the women are eager to hear how my bees fare in the months ahead: “Send us pictures!!” “Good luck to you and your bees!” My fervent hope is that this curiosity may turn to interest and acceptance in the months and years ahead.

I am learning how to soften my language. Instead of saying, “That idea sucks,” I more often say, “Wow, that hasn’t been my personal experience. Has it been yours?”

Instead of saying “Treating bees is useless and all is does is make for stronger mites,” I say, “Sheesh, I could not keep all that chemical stuff straight. Aren’t you afraid it will hurt your bees? I’m using a management style to treat my bees, and I’m pretty happy with it. There are so many good ways to bee.”

The Learning from the Bees conference, in bringing so many like-hearted beekeepers together, helped me realize how important our words are in moving forward. And just how fundamentally different our way of beeing is from the standard norm.

Conventional keepers have been, I believe, right in some of their assertions: our naturally-kept bees may indeed be spreading mites to their colonies through the process of drift and hive-collapse. Our feral drones may not be passing desired qualities like extreme gentleness or low propolis production on to their artificially-bred queens.

And the reverse is certainly true: When a new conventional honey-production keeper moves in nearby, hobby keepers can find their hives overrun with robbers, and who wants those package drones breeding with our swarm queens?

We are blessed that much of the recent research into wild bees and wild hives proves the efficacy of our beeing. Because neither we nor our conventional counterparts can succeed living side by side under the current paradigm. We tend to cancel each other out. I have great faith that science combined with an ecological ethos will lead us through this current upheaval the beekeeping world. Meanwhile, we cannot allow ourselves to sling poison. The stakes are too great.

Nothing stays the same. Everything is in flux, all the time. And beekeeping is changing even as I write these words.

Our contribution to that change will be made manifest in our words and in the ways we keep our bees: can we each and all learn to speak inclusively and with kindness? Can we learn to identify our common ground as beekeepers and trust that this is true: We all love our bees. Stepping forward with words that demonstrate that we really believe this is true of ALL beekeepers will help us move the bee-conversation forward to that new paradigm we all speak about so passionately.

Beekeeping, as with all else in life, is not undertaken in a vacuum. I sense the same venom and divisiveness across all lived landscapes these days, be it politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, or team sports. We have become adept slingers of insults and slurs, zealots and fanatics for whatever cause we deem important.

Let’s please not go there. Let’s indeed Learn from the Bees that there is goodness in working together, to lending a hand, to caring for each other. I have learned that the language of the hive is kindness and care. Were it not, 50,000 insect could not live side-by-side creating a life of stunning abundance, mind-boggling efficiency, and humbling decency.

In bringing a softer tongue to my beekeeping conversations, I am building skill in every other arena of my life. Kindness and compassion—and a healthy dose of patience—work miracles. And I thank the bees for teaching me this in these very confounding times.