Ask any hobbyist beekeeper, "Why keep bees?" and just about all of them will say, "Because I love honey!", "Because they pollinate my garden!" or "Bees are fascinating!" All of those reasons are true for me, but I wasn't thinking in such a reductive fashion when I decided to venture into apiculture. My motives were intimate: I wanted to keep bees to feel proud about how I spent my time. I needed something other than my own thoughts to fix my mind on. The decision to follow this seemingly insignificant path bubbled up from somewhere deep in the recesses of my heart, long muffled by self-doubt, depression and anxiety. I didn't understand it then, but was intrigued. I kept my mind and eyes open for more signs that this is where I needed to be lead.
I met my first beekeeper when I was 22 years old. I gardened, cooked and loved to drink beer (quite a bit). I wanted to add ale-making to the growing list of self-sufficiency skills I was accumulating. I joined a home brewer's association in Baltimore, my hometown. I came across a fellow home brewer who did triple-duty as a celebrated Mead-maker, Apiarist and beekeeping supply salesman in Maryland. He shared a very fine Tulip Poplar Mead with the group that surprised me with its smooth, sweet, almost berry-like juiciness. I spoke with him at length about his hobby, bombarding him with a barrage of silly questions focused mostly on beekeeping and the habits of his bees. After a half hour of this, he visibly tired of me and suggested I take a short course at the local nature center.
I signed up soon after for the four-session, twelve hour series dedicated to beginner's beekeeping. It was taught by the MD State Apiary Inspector, Jerry, a funny older fellow who at first glance didn't seem like much of an authority, what with his clumsy language and ordinary stature, but in retrospect I realize that the man really knows his bees. The room we were in seated about 50 people. About 15 more folks were left to stand around the perimeter of the room.
Beekeeping has become an increasingly popular way for city-dwellers to eat locally and pollinate community gardens. But it also can help supplement a person's income and allow them commune with nature, which can be difficult in large cities. I had hoped I'd be able to start my first apiary that Spring in the private garden of my Baltimore home, but circumstances forced me to re-evaluate my life there. I left my hometown for good in late 2006, and with it I abandoned any hope of being a beekeeper.
In January of 2009, I had been living in New York for a couple of years. I had found better work and cultivated a new life. The first couple of years were challenging for me. I struggled to meet people that I felt shared my enthusiasm for gardening, self-sufficiency and a sense of home. I quickly learned I was simply looking in the wrong places. While out for lunch one day, I impulsively picked up a copy of a local food magazine and opened to a full-page article about beekeepers breaking the law to keep apiaries in Manhattan. I ran back to my office, excitedly exclaiming to my boss and my co-workers that I had "finally found my people." I emailed Andrew Coté, a fourth generation beekeeper, college professor and founder of the New York Beekeepers Association, and practically begged to be allowed to participate in meet-ups. He quickly obliged, inviting me to join. I attended meetings with other members of NYCBA, many of whom were also new to beekeeping and taking the short course the association offers to "new-bees." On Easter Sunday, shortly after sunrise, I shook my first 3 lb. package of Italian honeybees into a freshly painted Langstroth hive on my rooftop. My landlord was cheering me on. My Polish neighbors shrugged their shoulders in indifference. "As long as they don't get into my air conditioner. We will see," one neighbor stated, nonplussed about the whole odyssey.
I've been a beekeeper for a year now. Each weekend during the Spring and Summer I wake up shortly after the sun. I put on clean denim overalls, sandals, my cotton sunhat and veil and I climb the steep iron ladder with smoker in hand, hive tool and matches in pocket. I sit a few feet from the hive entry and watch the workers bees come and go, lighting strips of burlap and handfuls of pine needles in my smoker, puffing the bellows until an opaque, cool white smoke pours out of the spout and into the entrance of the apiary. I gently pry the outer cover off and then the inner cover. It requires a little unsticking with my hive tool but off that comes as well with a few bees clinging to the underside. I give the open hive a little smoke and take out a frame, examining it closely.
Several workers stand in place, fanning just as they were moments before when the hive was closed, resolutely bound to their task of as if someone had glued their tiny legs into place. A few drones mill about aimlessly, and are occasionally fed by a worker. I feel a little bit of disgust at their comparative uselessness within the hive. I find a dead worker bee. Her head submerged in a cell, depositing her last harvest after 3 weeks of tireless foraging. Soon, another worker will carry her carcass from the hive. No queen is to be found; she doesn't enjoy the sunlight. Still, signs of her are present. There are eggs visible and a tight and impressive brood pattern can be seen on several frames. She will ensure a strong colony. I do not name her as some of my beekeeping friends do. There are also pearly, shrimp-like larvae curled at the bottom of many of the cells. I have to resist the urge to stick a finger in to touch one. That would most assuredly kill it.
I spend about 15 minutes going through as many of the frames as the bees will allow. I do not think of myself for a full 15 minutes. It is harder than one would think under normal circumstances, but in this context it comes naturally. I do not think of my job or of my interactions with other people. I do not dwell on my past or stress about my future. My insecurities fade away to nothing. Beekeeping is my medicine. For me, it effectively alleviates stress, anxiety and depression better than anything that could be prescribed or any homeopathic treatment I've come across. Without it, I would continue to feel rattled by the frenetic energy and competitive nature of living in New York City. Of this I am fairly certain.
At a time when I felt most insecure, anxious and lonely, I was given an opportunity to focus on the betterment of my life in a small but essential way. My bees have been a lesson in patience and presence. It's a hobby that requires you to slow down and simply look. Fine observation skills are required to assess what it is that the colony needs or doesn't need. It is my responsibility to care for them to the fullest of my ability before all else, before taking a prize of honey from their home. In my mind, it's the least I could do for them, the miraculous creatures who unknowingly save me from myself.