Pollinating New Relationships
What does ‘summertime and bees’ say to you? My hostess contemplates before replying, “Long productive days in the sun.”
Regardless of season, long productive days are Cynthia Ouellette’s norm, which might explain her kinship with honeybees. But neither summer nor bees were a thought in the gray when we first met last winter.
My son and I were on a chilly walk in Newmarket when we happened upon a veteran but recently relocated Seacoast business: Cynthia Designs Sewing Studio. Stepping inside, we entered a creative’s parlor. Fashions hung on the walls like art. Quirky memorabilia surrounded cozy seating like old friends. And centered amidst it all were hand-crafted beeswax gifts—salves, balms, candles. Cynthia, it turned out, was an artisan beekeeper.
“Rather than a beekeeper or a honey collector, you’re really just a steward of the bees.” Cynthia’s stewarding vision became the focus of our next meeting. Pouring a small serving of honey into an equally quaint cup, she explained that a teaspoon of honey equals one bee’s life. Then she handed me the sample on a permaculture platter: “When honey becomes more sacred, it will become more pure, and the only way for it to become more pure is to manage less and steward more.”
How do we manage less and steward more? Cynthia is realistic. You don’t have to keep bees to steward. Grow a bee garden. Give bee water. (Cynthia flavors hers with essential oils of mint and lemongrass—the bees like it, and it boosts their immune systems.) But most importantly, she urges, talk with the beekeepers. As we might visit farmers to learn how animals are raised, we have a responsibility to learn how our beekeepers care for our pollinators. In this way, we advocate for selfless stewards who learn to smell and listen to their bees and take only what’s appropriate, which some years, according to a particular hive’s best interests, might mean no honey for humans: “Once you gain a proper empathy for living things, you just know.”
Cynthia’s knowing was innate. When she first met her partner, she opened his chicken pen to let his birds range free. Next, they traded his Langstroth hives for Warre hives. Designed for beekeepers more than bees, rectangular Langstroth hives make honey collection easier by forcing bees to build honeycomb upward on pre-fabricated plastic starter comb. But left alone, bees naturally build their honeycomb down. The square Warre or “people’s hive” allows for this. While Warre beekeepers must lift up hives to add to the bottom when bees need more room, the effort provides a nurturing environment that allows the bees more natural control. Warre hives also encourage less hive inspection, retain more heat, and provide a rough lumber interior, which allows bees to generate propolis coatings, a natural deterrent to the varroa mite and colony collapse disorder.
A consummate maker, Cynthia recently finished a hexagonal Warre-inspired hive made of cedar. The mathematically more compact hexagonal design provides the greatest thermal efficiency while requiring the least bee labor. You can see Cynthia’s amazing hive and learn more about Warre hiving in general by searching “hexagonal beehive” at Instructables.com or by visiting Cynthia at her forthcoming Gypsy Wagon Farm stand. Nestled into permaculture acreage, the destination is still in the works, so send Cynthia a buzz to be in the know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of our honey tasting, Cynthia offered an analogy. The work and worth of natural bee stewarding is like enlightened parenting; neither seeks a manufactured product, whether coerced honey or rote obedience. Rather, both encourage instinctual behavior—guided by trust—that results in the profound effect of self-directed cooperation. Children allowed to take risks discover their self-agency and follow their needs, resulting in more eager, willing collaboration with adults. Likewise, bees allowed to winter without intervention self-select their needed traits—even aggression, and because of their vigor, these pollinators better co-exist with human interaction.
What might we lose if we do not tangle with the trial and error of such natural stewarding techniques? Cynthia sees what we might gain: “The new wave of Seacoast beekeepers and honey users have an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with bees as wild beings.” What a sweet thought.