Thanks for reading, if you’ve landed here, you may be wondering…
“What is this book?”
This book is a collection of stories from the field and resources for new and intermediate beekeepers interwoven with my own experience as a beekeeper over the last decade. For context, I think it’s helpful to begin by introducing myself.
My name is Ang Roell, and I run They Keep Bees, a queen rearing, honey bee research and education project based in Great Falls, Massachusetts and Southern Florida.
Why am I uniquely qualified to put together “Radicalize the Hive”?
I have been beekeeping for a decade. It started as a hobby that helped me break up my time as a graduate student and urban farmer in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts in 2010. After long days in the classrooms and garden, escaping into the hives was my greatest pleasure and deepest meditation. In 2015 I began to shift bees from a hobby to a “side-hustle.” When you take something that you do for fun and do it for business, it morphs. Your joy shifts, your perspective changes. Suddenly things you did for free because they were fun become things you do to grow your business and livelihood. It becomes less okay to do things for a discounted rate, a deal or [dreaded] “for promotion.” You have to renegotiate your boundaries, and hold firm to the new ones as they take root.
At the same time you GET to do what you love…and figuring out how to move the pieces of that slowly over time so I get to do what I want to do with what I love in a way that aligns with my values has had immeasurable impact on my physical, psychological and spiritual health.
Through a slow “side hustle” process & LOTS of collaboration, I created a business built on relationships, values, chosen family and living an uncharted life my grandmother would be proud of.
From the work that overlays my decade in social justice and education to my decade of beekeeping in the urban and rural landscape in the sub-tropics and the northern tundra is born this little text, guidebook and gathering of stories.
I’m committed to a lot of things:
- My own growth and learning
- My life partnership & chosen family
- My friends & community
- My collaborator(s)
- Building resilient relationships in the Anthropocene across the eastern seaboard
- Anti-racism, anti-oppression and the restructuring of an abolitionist society
Many of the things I am committed to are in this manuscript, others are just touched upon and need deeper discovery to be made whole, fleshed out, developed into the robust stories they deserve to be. All in good time. This is only my first book after all.
What makes my beekeeping practice unique?
I don’t know if I can call what I do “natural beekeeping” or “treatment free beekeeping.” Wild honey bees are at their best without our intervention so the idea of natural practice is complicated at best. For a while I referred to myself as a “bee witch”, but this too is complex. I can say I practice and plan my work according to the moon cycle, the hive’s natural systems of reproduction, expansion and contraction. I have been running bees for 10 years, and doing a mix of other land and food based work as well – including off-site food systems education at the Franklin County jail, courses in building equitable local food systems in local colleges, on-site bee camps, wholesale green growing for restaurants, honey production and qualitative analysis of food systems projects working toward a more equitable food system and life on land.
In 2018 I began the process of expanding my apiary business and made it the central practice in my work life. Straddling two parts of the farm/food system world as an educator/consultant and beekeeper was leaving me depleted and feeling as if my attention and capacity were fractured. In November, in a movement towards disruption, I hauled half of my hives to South Florida (SFL). I came of age there, and have a strong network and community in SFL, plus SFL is a melliferous forest, full of nectar sources 9 out of 12 months a year, creating an excellent location for expanding my relationship with everybody’s favorite charismatic microfauna – the honey bee. This trip to Florida has been an incredible journey that’s completely reshaped my work landscape.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t ignite a love affair with place by saying “yes.” Nine years ago, I ran screaming from this swamp as fast as my hexagon-shaped van would carry me (approximately 63 mph to be exact). Fast forward to 2019 and never have I fallen for an ecosystem harder. I am now cultivating a plan to run a Northeast (Massachusetts/Vermont) and Southeast (SFL) apiary that would straddle rural and urban beekeeping, host Queer and Trans bee camps/skill shares and build climate resilient connection between the Northeast and Southeast as I travel the East Coast in a big red van.
I’m building into this dream now and it looks like traveling back and forth between my apiaries in the North and South for queen rearing. It looks like rebuilding connection in Florida, fostering connection with farmers, food systems folks, urban growers and pollinator activists. It looks like doing experimental mycelium trials in the Northeast with my collaborators at Fungi Ally. It looks like crafting experiments with my steadfast friend and mentor Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries to analyze and figure out how to build generative apiaries. It looks like staying up late most nights fretting about how bees are doing in either location, and relying on the kindness of my friends and family to get through. My whole heart is in this beekeeping journey, I’ve felt it for years, and now is the time to actualize that.
I want to be able to cultivate bees that can survive, are adaptable to the ever changing climate that we’re experiencing here in Western Massachusetts, on the East Coast and all over the world. I want to support honey bees who can forage effectively during short nectar seasons, and put up an abundance of nectar and pollen so that they’re able to really thrive throughout the year. Parallel to this effort, it’s really important to me to think about how people access beekeeping, how people participate in beekeeping, and who has access to exploring a relationship with honey bees. To get here, I’ve spent the last two years writing my thoughts on paper, and evaluating an evolving “theory.”
A theory? Yeah, for context, we’ll need to step back to 2017. In the midst of a cataclysmic life upheaval, I decided to travel to New Haven, Vermont to study with Kirk Webster, a well respected beekeeper in the Northeast with an intentional practice that centers a balanced and intentional life. Right before my trip, I was writing feverishly. In my passion, I casually mentioned to a sweet-heart that I was going to write a book about bees, and tackle this issue of beekeeping and access. At the time, it was nothing more than a collection of ideas, sketches and record keeping systems from my own practice and rituals in beekeeping and queen rearing. I had the ambitious drive to write something big, but honestly, at that moment I was romancing someone magic and I breathlessly spoke the idea into existence in that way you do when you’re spinning a tale. The tale quickly evolved into a vision. The importance of the human and honey bee relationship and its entangled and complex story kept emerging as a symbol in my life. Why can’t I write a book that touches on this apicultural practice turned “industry” by aspiring capitalists hellbent on “manifest destiny” in this so-called United States?
My heart and mind are sick from listening to the “pollinator protection” and “save the bees” rhetoric of the post Colony Collapse Disorder and Varroa Destructor beekeeping world. It struck me as a white-washed version of a complex and deeply exclusionary industry struggling to survive under the pressure of chemical pesticides, lost habitat and debilitating disease. It others our non-human allies rather than reflecting on how we can return to a sense of symbiosis with pollinators and the planet at large.
In this process, I realized it is important to craft a book that tells the stories of how we got here, what momentum we need to move in a different direction and how we can begin to disentangle, de-industrialize and radicalize the honey bee hive.
I have spent much of my time in the industry on the fringe, observing the social structure of the honey bee industry while I learned about cooperative social structures from the honey bee. I knew I wasn’t the only one thinking this way and feeling the building momentum for change. Once I began reaching out, I quickly realized beekeepers are already out here doing the work, reconnecting to the wildness of the honey bee, disconnecting from the industrialized agricultural movement. Urban and rural beekeepers are doing the work of redefining the human/honey bee relationship, and scientists like Tom Seeley are examining the lessons we can learn from the wild bee and honey bee’s adaptations to change.
It’s time for us to examine how the wild bees’ purpose and our own can move towards a re-alignment. Beneath ideas of “industriousness” and “productivity” imposed by colonizers, wild honey bees are translators of sweetness and light. They are facilitators of pollination – nature’s fluffers humming between stamens and pistils, full up with pleasure and drunk on sunshine.
To move back into a more symbiotic relationship with the honey bee, we have to examine how entangled this sweet bee is with the historical relationship between colonization and industrial agriculture. We have to acknowledge that relationship. We also have to look closer at this system of cooperation we exalt for all of her wisdom. All natural systems have their flaws, and to understand the honey bee as a wild creature, we have to honor and learn from both their beauty and their flaws. I will dig deeper into this work in the Manifesto section of Radicalize the Hive.
Simultaneously, I think it is important to build communities of practice around beekeeping that align with this honoring of the human and honey bee connection.
To this end, I recently launched the inaugural “Queer and Trans Bee Camp Planning Team”, teaming up with our friends at Out in the Open Vermont for a pilot program. Our goal is to offer another bee day in 2020, and the first overnight QT Bee Camp in Summer 2021 so we can talk about “queering bees.” If you’re interested, reach out about how to help. We need you!