Who Keeps Bees?

Who keeps honeybees?

The number of beekeepers globally is statistically elusive, but there are something like 30 million hives worldwide, tended by a few million beekeepers. Some manage a single colony while the largest commercial beekeeping operation runs about 70,000 hives. There also are an inestimable number of semi-managed hives kept in logs in the less developed world, and wild nests from which honey is removed regularly by families who often have cultivated the same feral nest sites for many generations.

What’s notable about who keeps bees is the range of characteristics that are exhibited by beekeepers. A recent set of profiles in BeeScene, the quarterly journal of the British Columbia Honey Producers Association, provided some insights into who keeps bees and why in B.C.

There’s a good mix of males, females and couples in the B.C. beekeeper community, with quite a range of personal and professional backgrounds. Some are retired, some still working, with current or past professions ranging through police officer, physician, designer/manufacture of electronic systems, printer, forester, chef and medical office administrator.

There are a number of traits commonly found in this otherwise diverse group. For one thing, most experienced beekeeping at a young age, or got the idea to keep bees during childhood. Many had grandparents or parents who kept bees, or an eccentric neighbor who let them observe while they went through colonies.

Most began beekeeping in middle age or upon retirement, when the pressures of starting a family and growing a profession abated. At that point memories from childhood served as a reminder of their delayed passion for beekeeping, and they began looking around to buy some bees.

It’s also common for serendipity to step in. One of B.C.’s beekeepers began keeping bees when he was offered two hives in trade for sheep fleeces produced on his hobby farm. Others connected with the bee world through an interest in gardening that brought up the necessity of pollination. A casual conversation with a local beekeeper at a coffee shop often winds up with a new hive in the garden.

The role of a mentor is another frequent theme for beginning beekeepers. Local bee clubs invariably have an old-timer who looks after the newbies, taking them out and passing on the wisdom of the beekeeping ages, then looking in on the new beekeepers to provide advice as their colonies grow and management becomes more complex.

Hobby farming or intensive gardening is another quality shared by many beekeepers, for whom adding bees to the mix is a relatively small jump in time and commitment. Backyard gardening has been a route into bee management for many, especially in recent years as urban agriculture has experienced a boom across North America.

The BeeScene survey also was interesting in asking personal preferences for the two devices that beekeepers invariably use: a hive tool to separate and lift frames for inspection, and the type of fuel they burn in their smoker, used to pacify bees before opening the hive and during an inspection.

Hive tools come in many varieties, each with a subtle variation. Beekeepers ardently defend their chosen tool; the possibilities mentioned in the survey included J-shaped tool (also referred to as “the hooked one”), a serrated bread knife, pocketknives, screwdrivers, pry bars, a welder’s wire brush, and the “old standard” sold at Canadian Tire, with a flat scraper at one end and a curved blade at the other.

Preferred smoker fuel showed a similar creativity and range, including wood shavings, dried grasses, burlap, pinecones, grass clippings, cardboard and dried cow patties.

Another characteristic that beekeepers hold in common, and one that is perhaps their most endearing trait, is an essential quirkiness. It’s an odd hobby to take up, and a difficult path to follow commercially. It takes individuals who notice the nature around them with an unusual attentiveness, and have that peculiar affinity for honeybees that overcomes the hard fact that bees sting.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling globally and meeting beekeepers from the jungles of South America to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the outback in Australia to Arab villages in Palestine. Invariably, beekeepers are willing to set aside the too-common things that divide us: race, religion, politics, national origin and economic class, to just talk bees.

Perhaps there is a larger message to be learned from beekeepers, the potential for collaboration and collegiality when otherwise distant segments of society come together in fellowship united by common interest. It’s not world peace, but it’s a start.

Experience Shining its Light on Reason

I am an inveterate collector of quotations from books and newspaper/magazine articles, accumulated in two quite thick journals I’ve been keeping for the past 15 or so years.

The quotes I pull from my readings are not always the author’s best writing, but rather what jumps out at me in the moment, usually influenced by something related that I’m thinking about.

Thus a few lines from Mathew Thomas’s fine 2014 novel “We Are Not Ourselves” made it into the quotation journal hall of fame. One of the main characters is a teenage boy thinking about graduating high school and going on to college, hoping that higher education will provide insights into his own confused behavior that weren’t clarifying at home. Thomas writes:

He was having another of those inchoate ideas that he couldn’t entirely articulate to himself. He knew that these cloudy moments would come into sharper focus when he was away at college, where he would divest himself of the stultifying habits of personality and the false conclusions of biography and shine the light of pure reason on experience.”

Thomas’s character is thinking along the lines most of us consider higher education: a place where reason shines and intellect thrives. It’s an accurate reflection of how his character would think, but it may not represent the best way to teach and learn.

I wish the last phrase had been transposed to: “shine the light of pure experience on reason.” My own early postsecondary experience at the overly cerebral University of Chicago convinced me that reason unfiltered through experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The U. of C. described its undergraduate education as the “life of the mind,” confusing because getting out of their heads and into experiencing life is what students are seeking at that age. We hoped that through university we could learn what we felt about the world around us, be inspired to find a useful role for ourselves in the world, discover what love and friendship were all about and sort through emotions generated by the political, social, economic and cultural inconsistencies in the society around us.

It wasn’t facts or logic we needed to apply to experience, but rather trusting our intuition as a reliable guide to interpret our intellectual education. It’s not that reason is a bad thing, but reason untempered by learned experience is education in the shallows rather than the depths.

The confusion experienced by youth is caused primarily by a lack of experience. Learning from what we experience is a better antidote for confusion than reason, yet university education emphasizes academic learning over lived experience.

It wasn’t until I experienced scientific research that I learned the value of reason. My first years of university were a grade wasteland, peppered by C’s and D’s induced by a divide between the organized information I was presented with in class and my lack of experience to place course material in any context I could relate to.

But two research jobs changed that, the first studying brain evolution in 50 million year-old carnivore fossils and the second focused on the evolution of complex single-celled protists, events in organismal history that transpired about two billion years ago.

These were emotional experiences; as I travelled far, far back in time with the organisms I was studying, I began to feel the splendor revealed through applying science to unraveling the great mystery of where we came from. My courses began to make more sense with these visceral insights generated by doing rather than reading about research, and my grades improved.

Decades later, this template for learning through experience found a structural home in our SFU Semester in Dialogue program, with its brand “Experience your Education.”

But experience is not enough; we debrief and reflect on what the students have lived through, probing whether those experiences have shifted the way they reason about the world around them.

It’s experience shining it’s light on reason, diving into the depths where the deepest learning emerges.