Small-Scale, Organic Practices Beekeeper
For more than twenty-five years, I have been keeping colonies of honeybees, mainly in top bar hives. My approach to beekeeping is small-scale and based in “bee-centric” organic practices. The top bar hive is well suited to this kind of approach. That’s because it is a simple, appropriate technology that allows the bees to “bee” who they are: they build their own wax combs from scratch on the top bars. Honeybees have been building their own combs for millions of years, but we humans have been beekeeping for only a few thousand years, at most. We are still learning about who they are.
Because I am a small-scale beekeeper, I have never been responsible for helping to take care of more than fifteen or twenty colonies at a time. My busy schedule (I teach full-time at Northern Arizona University) won’t allow it. Being responsible for fifteen or twenty colonies is about all that I can handle. Although I don’t keep bees in order to earn a living, I do sell local, raw, handcrafted honey, mainly direct to the public, and occasionally at local venues like the Flagstaff Community Market. Most of our customers are regulars, and they use the bees’ honey as both food and medicine.
We sell a few thousand dollars worth of honey each year. The weather plays a major role in whether the bees produce a surplus honey crop, or not. But we don’t see honey production as an end in itself. We see the honey that we harvest from the bees as a gift, as something pure and special that is our reward for treating the bees with love, understanding, and respect. Along with some income from honey sales, I also derive some income from a handful of beekeeping workshops that I teach each year, along with a few public lectures. (See honeybeeteacher.com for more information).
For me, becoming and “beeing” a beekeeper began with a love and passion for honey. When I was five years old, I saw a bottle of “cut comb” honey in the display window of my great-grandfather’s jewelry and clock/watch repair store in a small town in east Texas. In that moment, I fell in love with honey, and with honeybees, although it would be another 25 years before I would become a beekeeper myself. (That jar of cut comb honey on display was produced by colonies under the care of my grandfather’s brother, Rob Pynes, a professional house painter who was also a “sideliner” beekeeper).
Of course, as the title of a recent documentary about honeybees asserts, the bees are important to us for much “More Than Honey.” Honey is only one of their many gifts to the human species. Another of their gifts is the act of pollination itself. Along with several other endangered pollinators like monarch butterflies, bumblebees, and many solitary native bee species, honeybees (who are non-native social insect/animals) are vital to the continuation of life on Earth.
As someone who loves honey, and who eats honey every day, I appreciate Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha and the people who are involved in its creation and production. Before I tried this refreshing drink, I always felt as if honey-based drinks (like mead, for example) were not worth the “waste” of honey. Why eat honey in any other form than liquid or crystallized honey itself? Somehow raw honey seemed diminished and corrupted by the other products that it was used to create.
Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha is truly different. While it’s true that Jun Kombucha is not honey itself, this drink does express the beautiful, ethereal, yet Earth-bound essence of honey. The beauty of the honeybee and of honey are alive in this slightly fermented product. It is the “next best thing” to enjoying raw local honey itself. This drink is a creative human expression of what honey can “bee” in another, enjoyable form.
As an organic practices beekeeper, I also appreciate the fact that Wild Tonic’s Jun Kombucha is made with USDA certified organic honey. That label helps to ensure that the bees who made this honey were treated with respect. It means that they were not treated with miticides and other agricultural chemicals that ultimately harm the bees more than they help them.
Being responsible for helping take care of the bees so that they can take good care of themselves: that to me is the essence of successful beekeeping. Beekeeping means being in dynamic relationship with the bees, listening to them, learning from them, and learning from our mistakes and successes as beekeeping “practitioners.” My understanding is that the honeybee is the “fourth sister.” Her other three sisters are corn, squash, and beans. As such, as responsible organic beekeepers, we are “our sister’s keeper.”
The honeybee is a living, sentient, intelligent being, and she is an expression of the sacred feminine. In my interactions and conversations with Holly Lyman and other folks at Wild Tonic, I can tell that they understand what these words mean. They know and continue to remember from whom the essence of Jun Kombucha ultimately comes: from our beloved honeybees. They also know that if we are going to take something special from the bees, then we have a responsibility to give something back.
Viva las Abejas.
Patrick Pynes, Ph.D.
CEO, Honeybeeteacher LLC
President, Northern Arizona Organic Beekeepers Association