The Art of Warré: A Beekeeper's Journey

My three Warré hives, newly built with the help of my father.

My three Warré hives, newly built with the help of my father.

I came out last Sunday…to my neighbors.

That is, I revealed that my backyard is now a bee yard, home to two beehives and the possibility of a third. This was big news to those at our annual summer picnic. We are a small neighborhood of twelve homes on a private drive, and there isn’t usually much that occurs without someone noticing something at least some of the time. We window monitors.

But I managed to buy 200 pieces of Western red cedar board ends, unload and stack them on the driveway, store them for a couple of weeks, reload about half of them to take to my father's workshop, and return a few weeks later with the components for three Warré hives, store them on my porch, treat them with ECO Wash in the front yard, install them in the backyard, and finally introduce two packages of bees to their new homes without so much as a “Whatcha doin’ there neighbor?” So much for all those Crime Stoppers stickers in our windows.

Oh, and I had even paraded around in my bonnet, pants, and long white goatskin gloves that make me feel like a cross-dressing Jackie O or Audrey H impersonator. Maybe this says more about what my neighbors expect from me than I realized.

And, that do-it-yourself cloaking device kit wasn’t a waste of money after all, honey.

So when, between bites of fried chicken and seven layer dip, I happened to mention something about “my bees,” well….let’s just say, heads did turn. I watched as this conclave of homeowners, which demographically skews more Downton Abbey than How I Met Your Mother, began an impromptu game of telephone as the news of my bees worked along the line of lawn chairs. I was surprised that by the time it reached the end someone hadn't blurted “What? He watches Glee?”

But the news made it intact. And, as I have come to expect, the first question is almost always “Why did you get into beekeeping?” or “What made you get into beekeeping.” Fair questions both, but, as with so many things bee-wise, it elicits something unique because no one ever asks, “Why did you get a dog?” or “What made you get into cats?”

No, beekeeping is its own brand of endeavor and people react correspondingly. Though most people are wary of an encounter with a bee or bees, they nonetheless overwhelmingly have a positive curiosity about them. And news accounts in recent years about their potentially imminent demise brings forth their protective instinct that is more save-the-baby-seal than get-off-my-lawn. Bees are like Sally Fields, people really, really like them.

In the hypothetical sense, anyway, because the people who congratulate my beekeeping endeavors are often the same ones who also say that bees freak them out with thoughts of anaphylactic shock, stingers, and B-movie swarms of killer bees (not with the fondness of those old Saturday Night Live skits).

The Newly Built Snob Hill Warré Hives

The Newly Built Snob Hill Warré Hives

For this reason and a few others, including my latent orneriness, I did not take the proactive approach promulgated by the fine folks in my beekeeping club and leaders of the beginning beekeeping course I attended. No, I did not “reach out,” nor soften the opposition, nor build an approval rating. Instead, I extended to my beekeeping the same bug-off attitude that I have carefully nurtured during my twenty years in this neighborhood known as Snob Hill. I’m actively seeking a Beware of Bees sign to post on my gate. I do not recommend my approach for everyone.

I was prepared for whatever backward backlash that my neighbors might launch. I even memorizing the number of the city ordinances allowing for bees, but they surprised me. They were pleasant and supportive. They told me about neighbors from years ago who raised bees. They wanted to know how long I’d been a beek. They wanted a tour of the hives. They wanted to know, of course, when they could expect some honey.

My beekeeping journey has just begun. Out of all us world citizens, those of us who also serve as bee stewards are a special sort of minority. And among those of us who are in that minority, I have down-selected myself into an even smaller minority. That is, I have chosen the Warre approach to beekeeping. It's philosophy appeals to me. More on that decision in my next posting.

Stay tuned. Don’t worry. Bee happy.

The Art of Warré: Of Bees and Buckaroo Banzai

A Swarm Is Born

A Swarm Is Born

Yesterday, standing on top of a 10-foot ladder in full beekeeping gear in 90+ degree weather and corralling a swarm of bees that had formed at the entrance gate at a local global aircraft manufacturer (rather appropriate, in a way), I reached a small but significant epiphany. I was in the middle of a bee maelstrom and my jacket was liberally peppered with my winged lady friends. Like Kevin toward the end of Home Alone, I wanted to shout, “I’m not afraid, anymore!”

Why is this significant? Well, I am by nature an anxious person. I am also by nature someone who regularly – and passionately and genuinely – pursues new experiences. When I find myself at the confluence of these feelings, I tremble and shake with panic, fear and enthusiasm. What an odd thing to put myself through.

This has happened with experiences that others find mundane or ubiquitous. But the anxious among us understand. Several years ago, when I began expanding my photography skills, I began to shoot 4x5 sheet film. I ordered a box of the film, a size I had never used before, being a 35mm and 120 format shooter. I ordered some sheet film holders off the Bay. I watched some videos online on loading the film. The next several times, I was literally shaking with fear and excitement as I put the film into the holders.

Really? That seems silly now. It is routine and non-threatening, but I had to push through the fear to achieve this normal feeling. I am fond of the line by Robert Frost in his poem “Servant of Servants,” which goes, “He says the best way out is always through.” Nine Inch Nails also has a song that uses that phrase.

When I began my beekeeping journey four years ago, I did so with that tremble-inducing reaction. As I picked up my packages of bees and introduced them into my newly built (with my Dad’s help) Warré hives, my heart raced, my knees threatened to give way, and I suspect I exuded a bodily odor of Eau l' Terreur. I believe that like dogs and used car salesmen, they sensed my fearfulness.

The Bee 52’s and  Their Warré Home on Snob Hill

The Bee 52’s and Their Warré Home on Snob Hill

This was the first year that I had the opportunity to rescue a swarm, which is another beekeeping milestone. I was envious of the cavalier way that some in my local beekeeping association spoke of capturing swarms, like it was nothing more than a trip to the grocery. I wanted that experience while also fearing it could happen. I volunteered my name and number for inclusion on the association’s online swarm list. I kept my gear in the trunk of the car. I answered calls from numbers I didn’t recognize. I was rewarded with not one but two swarms. I raced to the location, the fear rising. I met new people – another fear-inducing activity. I had to pretend that I knew what I was doing for these people freaked out by the swarm on their property.

Day by day, month by month, hive by hive, things have changed. But yesterday, even though I was overheated with knees wobbly from standing high on a ladder that wasn’t on level ground, I wasn’t afraid. I was present in the moment. Without getting all woo-woo about it, I was at peace. The way here had indeed to push through my anxiety. At this realization, I had a Buckaroo Banzai moment. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

That line may come from Confucius or even a Zen book by Jon Kabut-Zinn, but it was this pop culture reference that I clung to, like the honeybees crawling around my jacket. I know I am anthropomorphizing, but they seemed to be asking for me to take them home, which is where they are now.

I have a small tradition of giving each hive a name that reflects the origin of the bees. My first swarm is named the West End Girls because they came from a town near me called West Alton. The new hive is named the Bee 52’s.

Henceforth, I believe I will fear not as I engage in this beautiful, strange and humbling act of beekeeping.