How we fell in love with bees
“What Bees Want” is the culmination of many, many years of bee learning and dreaming. Susan Knilans and I worked closely together to develop the tenets and style of bee keeping we evolved into – and it has been an evolution! What Bees Want morphed out of long conversations at my farm. Susan and I sat over steaming mugs of herb tea and questioned everything we thought we knew about bees.
My bee story began in 1983. I attended classes (in an unrelated field) for a few months in rural northern California. Each day I ate lunch near the retreat center’s swimming pool. On the first day I noticed a honeybee who had fallen into the water. I found a stick and scooped her up and placed her on the grass. I saw another and did the same. And another, and another. One by one, I rescued every little bee in the water. And I felt pretty good about it, too. The next day I did it again.
When I say I repeated the bee-saving, you’d imagine I mean about ten times, right? I rescued a thousand bees that spring, scooping wet bees out of the water until every bee was okay.
I had zero experience with bees, but this was a powerfully driven call I could not ignore and it became a daily task I needed to complete. Until I began keeping bees 20 years later, that was my only connection with them, but geez it was strong. I still check bodies of water anywhere I go to be sure all the bees are safe.
Drawn To Preservation Work
My work as a guardian is about helping bees live lives free of worry, surrounded by love. My first hive arrived when a friend asked if I would take home an abandoned hive that had been left for years in an overgrown backyard. My second hive came when I was asked to remove bees from an old one-room schoolhouse where they’d lived for 80 years. Word got around and I started getting calls from nervous people asking me to get swarms out of their yards. Fearful people kill bees, and that compelled me to start educating people. I told them about honeybees’ magic and inherent value. I’ve gathered hundreds of colonies from walls of buildings and places humans didn’t want bees to be. Each time I moved a colony, I knew those rescues prevented bees from being harmed.
All through my bee life, I’ve felt a deep connection with them. I started keeping bees before they came into fashion, so there were very few places to learn how to care for bees the way I felt they needed to be cared for, always respecting how wild bees live. With no one to teach me, I asked the bees to tell me how they wanted to be cared for. Initially, I had a bunch of wondering questions, musing about what bees desired from a bee-human relationship. I asked many earnest questions for years without expecting real answers. And then one morning I woke up “knowing” something about bees that I hadn’t the day before.
Taught By Bees
That continued for the next few years. I believe I was being educated by the bees and I took detailed notes each morning as they explained the nature of bees and how they live in our shared world. My book, “Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World,” evolved out of that.
I am blessed by living on the beautiful farm my husband and I own and care for. We are organic, biodynamic, and quite rural so overall my bees are fairly safe here, though we have had three times when someone sprayed poison within my bees’ foraging range and those hives died horrible deaths. This really disturbed me because we are not even close to big agriculture or urban areas, yet still, the bees suffered from chemical exposure. It’s heartbreaking.
I wrote my book with the hope that thousands of people will take up the call to protect all of Nature, and that these ideas spread to millions of people who will do whatever it takes to keep our environment clean and natural. To that end I write, speak, teach and pray that all life is honored and respected, and I try to get that out as many ways as I can.
Let me tell you about Susan
My bee partner Susan Knilans took my “Sacred Beekeeping” class years ago and from that first day, she was hooked. She became my best-ever bee friend. I could call her up any daylight hour and invite her to do something bee-ish and she’d dash right over. Early on I watched her relocating a had-to-be-moved hive from a church, a hive who did not want to be moved. She got a dozen stings on her hands and yet she barely flinched because she was so committed to helping a hive that would have otherwise been destroyed. She shared my bee peculiarity. I knew we were destined to do good things for the bee kingdom.
Eventually Susan took over teaching the beginner beekeeping classes I’d been teaching for a decade, now adding her own enthusiasm and the ever increasing depth of experience and knowledge she brings to everything she does. The classes are stellar. Far more than a simple “how-to,” Susan explains what bees most desire, giving her students a thorough understanding of bee logic from the bees’ point of view.
And more: Susan has taken up the mantle of straw skep weaving, creating beautiful handmade bee homes that are made the way they were centuries ago. In the United States, she is re-introducing skep making as an art, blessing each skep home throughout with love and tender care. Skep-making classes and videos are coming soon.
Susan and I created a bee club and website based on principles of good stewardship and heartfelt relationship. The Preservation Beekeeping Council became for a time a nonprofit organization, with a small staff of volunteers. But running a nonprofit is a lot like running a business and it was just too cumbersome with organizational paperwork and reporting requirements and fundraising. It was hard to keep up. In a moment of clarity, we realized we really don’t need to raise money to teach about bees.
The club is on hiatus during the pandemic. In the meantime, we continue teaching what we know about about bees through our writing, videos, and guest lectures. We don’t tend our bees with an expectation of the bees paying us with their honey. Instead we provide healthy bee environments that don’t require human interference.
Every Bee Is Important
As I write this, it’s winter here on the farm. A few days ago I was up in the garden checking on the bees and, as is normal, found a few dead-looking bees at the front entrance. I checked each one and noted most had their tongues hanging out, but I found a bee who still had her tongue in her mouth. Just in case she might still be alive but chilled, I took off my glove and carried her in my closed hand, thinking I’d warm her up when I got back to the house. But as is usual for me, I did a few other quick tasks here and there and ended up in the cow barn. I’d become so used to carrying the frozen bee in my closed hand that I’d forgotten she was there and was surprised to feel a little tickle on my palm. Yes! She was alive and even though my hands were cold, my body heat was warm enough to rouse her. A short walk back to her hive and I placed her at the entrance. With a perky saunter, she scooted back into the hive.
I’m a self-professed member of the “every bee alive” group. I know most beekeepers would question why I put so much effort into one little bee when a hive has tens of thousands. To most people that little frozen bee wouldn’t be worth the effort. Nonetheless, I try my best to treat every bee as if she’s a unique and special bee, each worthy of care, protection, and love. These individual bees were my first teachers and even now, decades later, I feel a heartfelt affinity that they each get their moment in the sun.