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Buzz Words

Since 2013, Philadelphia resident Mai Schwartz ’10 has tended bees at Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the U.S. (Fun fact: Philadelphia is also the birthplace of Lorenzo L. Langstroth, widely regarded as the father of American beekeeping.) Here, Schwartz discusses catching the buzz.

When did you get started in beekeeping? What drew you to it?

I had a housemate whose partner had been keeping bees at the same spot at Bartram’s for many years. He wanted to take a step back to focus on his dissertation, and so he taught us the basics and we took over for him. In the beginning, honestly, the main draw was that it was really fun and relaxing to spend a few hours in a beautiful place with people I love, learning something new.

The hives I started working with had already been at Bartram’s for almost a decade under a sort of loose arrangement where we tithed them some honey every year. In the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to get to do other work there through my job. It’s a beautiful, magical place and totally free to the public, so check it out if you get a chance.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in tending the bees?

I discovered that I’m really afraid of them! I had never had a particular fear of bees or other insects so I didn’t expect that. But seeing one honeybee on a flower is cute—being surrounded by flying bees or hearing that ominous change in the tone of the buzzing in the hive that means they’re starting to get agitated is a different story! It’s a very primal fear, and in the beginning, I would totally freeze up. Working through that has been a really powerful experience for me.

What do you love most about it?

This might sound corny but I love that it helps me be in touch with the rhythm of the seasons—seeing what the bees are up to, noticing what’s blooming, what they’re foraging on. When you live in a city, it’s easy to forget that our bodies respond to the seasons changing, and keeping bees helped me learn to pay attention. I like to sit and watch them go about their business. They’re fascinating! I remember reading the famous paper about the waggle dance in college and being really moved and interested by the kind of sustained attention that produced it. There are so many metaphors and clichés about bees that it’s kind of amazing just to watch the actual creatures live their actual lives.

It also provides you with a reliable stream of guaranteed-to-wow gifts! Honey is great for most occasions, and when my friends got married, I made them a batch of mead for the wedding. That was a huge hit.

Any advice for someone who wants to get started in beekeeping?

Go for it! Don’t be afraid to mess up a few times, or a lot, though that’s advice I’d give for trying anything new and that I try to center in my teaching. More specifically, see if you can find someone who’s already doing it who will let you tag along—then you get to learn from their experience and also see how you like it before shelling out for your own materials. Equipment and bees can be pricey, but I’ve had good luck getting things for free or cheap by watching Craigslist and Facebook groups. There are a ton of resources online, at the library, and through your local beekeeper’s guild.

Mai Schwartz ’10 is a poet and former editor at APIARY magazine (bee connection purely coincidental!) and runs Roots to Re-entry, a horticulture and green industry training program for incarcerated people.