Unveiled: Interview with Anna from Girls to the Front Bees Co.

Bees, pollen and Rock and roll? Ya, you heard us correctly. We got the chance to interview the self proclaimed Rock and Roll beekeeping team at Girls to the Front Bee Co. It took some serious willpower to keep it together while talking bees with these California-based superstars. In this Unveiled interview, Anna of Girls to the Front Bee Co. talks therapeutic apiaries and the transformative experience its had for her clients, beekeeping as a meditative practice and how it’s changed her perspective on many other aspects of her life and world. She even uses old orange peels in her smoker! Get comfy because things are about to get good.

How long have you been beekeepers? What inspired you to start beekeeping?

"Professionally, we've been beekeeping for one year now. It sprouted organically out of years of rooftop beekeeping, which I discovered back in New York City. I wanted to have a “mindful practice” but I didn’t know what that looked like to me, and through a series of serendipitous events I found beekeeping...or the bees found me. They instantly connected to me and what I was searching for (via meditation practices with different teachers, retreats, etc) lay right there within them and their super organism."

You both have a very unique philosophy, tell us about how that developed and how the two of you found inspiration, met and started your company.

"We met at our first job - at the local mall surf and skate shop - as teenagers! We stayed in touch all these years and now are in our early 30s. Being artists, all aspects of the business appeal to us. Josh is a musician who finds great joy in building hive boxes and utilizing colors for the boxes, taking inspiration from old Fender 1960’s guitars, whereas, I love using my voice to educate folks on the importance of pollinators and how to integrate “apiculture education” and get it into the hands of everyday citizens. “Girls to the Front” is an old saying that singer Kathleen Hanna used to shout from the stage at her Bikini Kill shows. I felt that was an appropriate title for this species of insect, who happen to be mostly female."
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What was your greatest fear about starting to keep bees or the biggest barrier to entry?

"Startup costs can set you back initially…it took awhile to save up the funds to fully splurge for two people on all the gear. Also, underestimating the importance of mentorship or allies within the community can be a major mistake. I always advise new beekeepers to first accept that they “do not and will not know everything” about beekeeping. Our biggest barrier thus far has been the (rare, but occasional) questioning from clients as to “why we are paid” for being beekeepers. I believe as a proper service, which takes time, skill, mileage, strength, and acquired knowledge are not free - and no beekeeper should ever hand everything out for free. Most understand, but I have come across a few clients who are puzzled that we “charge” for services (such as live removals/cut-outs, hive installation, etc)."

We love your mindful approach to working with the bees, tell us more about what informs your unique perspective and how mindfulness applies to the bees.

"When I was first searching for a meditation practice to incorporate into my life, I was having difficulty quieting my mind and just “being present”. With live, often feral honey bees - it demands that we MUST be present, fully aware, and mindful of all of our actions. They demand of us this skill. It’s immediate. It’s a wonderful physical “activity” to mellow your mind and solely concentrate on the matter at hand. The bees demand that, they really do. Picturing your actions (and purpose) prior to making movement is important, and in a nutshell is the practice of mindfulness. The bees teach that lesson to me, my clients, and students time and time again… and if I ever become lazy, careless, or I do not approach them with absolute mindful intentions - they have a way of letting you know!"

Tell us three lessons that you have learned from the bees.

"First: The importance of the connection to Mother Nature, the weather/seasons, and the immediate environment. They bridge the gaps between all three of these elemental ideas and constantly force me to remain aware of my surroundings. An excellent beekeeper must understand nectar flows and droughts, the weather and the seasons. Second: Respect the honeybee, and their food source - honey. Seeing a beekeeper swap out natural honey frames for syrup water is a horrible thing and can have dire consequences on the colony. Third: Most importantly, realizing that beekeeping is an art form - learned and earned over an entire life. Not a couple of years."

You guys consider yourselves an alternative team. In what ways do you consider yourselves to be breaking the mold of traditional beekeepers and what have you learned from doing things differently?

"We think of ourselves as rock and roll beekeepers! We try to have fun and buzz our passion for pollinators everywhere we go. We are completely treatment free, natural and organic beekeepers. This means no treatment (with the exception of Integrated Pest Management of course), no robbing honey early from our hives, and no large scale commercial pollination services offered at this time. The neonic threat is too devastating to allow exposure in that environment. Being treatment free can be tough. I can’t tell you how many traditional beekeepers look down on our practice of natural beekeeping, almost as a form of “child neglect” or something. But I have never been able to wrap my head around treating insects with insecticide. Period. Learning and using Integrated Pest Management methods makes the colony loss low as well."
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What does natural living and sustainable beekeeping mean to you? How is this reflected in your everyday life?

"Keeping bees the natural way has changed my entire life. The way I eat, shop and my general perspective. It’s made me aware of the seasons and the environment. It’s made me aware of what I eat. I see how hard bees work to make honey…for human consumption! So I respect that process completely, I respect it dearly. I used to eat chips and salsa and junk food, now I shop at farmer’s markets and support local vendors and farmers. The work they are doing is so important. Something I NEVER would have truly understood before."

What’s your favorite thing about being a beekeeper?

"How my days are all different. I have a plethora of tasks at hand to attend to daily/weekly and it’s always changing and different. From live removals to rehoming, to hive installs, to hosting hives, breeding survivor stock, building boxes. Painting, sealing. Extracting. Crushing and straining. Beeswax rendering. Famers Markets. Every week looks different. Diversity!"

Tell us about your most memorable experience with your bees.

"Installing my FIRST colony of bees into a top bar hive in my backyard…at LAST I had the space to do so…on my own property. I was so ecstatic. It was thrilling and scary and wonderful and I’ll never forget bringing home a 3 pound package of bees and placing them in their new home. In my yard. 10 feet away from me! Very cool!"

What is the most difficult thing about being a beekeeper?

"Assessing and working with different bee personalities. In our region, we have Africanized bees and feral bees with Africanized traits, which can be challenging. Also, losing colonies is always hard. It does happen - to everyone - and it never gets easy."

You do a lot of work to educate and consult with other beekeepers, what are the most important lessons your students have taught you?

photo-2016-07-28-8-44-55-am-1"My students serve as constant reminders about the initial joys of beekeeping. The first thrill and excitement can sort of dim over the course of years, and of performing the same type of service over and over, but the students are always there to remind us that first and foremost this should be FUN. Not stressful. Not upsetting. Not negative. Not even routine. Every day is a fresh new day. A new day for the honey bees and beekeeper is a good day."

What is your favorite bee product and why?

I love bee propolis tincture! I harvest my own from hives and also buy/support other local natural beekeepers when they sell it as well. It works as a wonderful skin treatment! Truly magical product…“Bee glue”.

What’s the weirdest thing you use a bee product for?

"Same here! I found a recipe for a Honey Rhassoul Clay Facial Mask at some point and use that several times a week. In fact, it’s on my face right now as I type out my answers! I mix backyard honey, rhassoul red clay, and warm water and apply to my face as a full facial for 30 minutes. The after effects are magical. I fully endorse the healing and magical properties of honey!"

For those out there who fear the bees what words of advice do you have to clear up this misconception?

"I myself was afraid of bees, thus why I turned toward them so quickly. I had to face my fears of being stung, of understanding that I know “so little” about this creature. Fear is an excellent driving factor and I always encourage students and clients to face it head on. It can be very rewarding! Also, I tend to point out that most humans are mainly stung by wasps and mistake them for bees. Almost always."

Give us one awesome beekeeping trick that you have learned.

"Using natural elements and household scraps for the smoker, as opposed to other common materials. I tend to recycle and get second use life out of old orange peels, cut and dried out flowers, etc. I love working with the powerful elemental components of fire. The smoker is a valuable skill and a lot of fun when you can let yourself get creative!"

What is one piece of advice you would give your 20-year-old self?

"Oh, that I do not know everything! That I hardly know anything, actually! That patience, mindfulness, and passion are all equally important beekeeping skills. That literature, beekeeping conference attendance, working with peers, and watching videos should never end. Learning never stops. That’s the beauty of an apiary “practice” as I call it. As I mentioned earlier, something I did not understand when I was younger was how beekeeping is truly a life long art form. Absolutely."

What do you have to say to vegans who don't believe in using bee products? We openly believe that supporting ethical and sustainable beekeepers is an important part of helping the bees and generating awareness, how do you respond to people who question the practices of taking and consuming bee products? What sustainable practices do you incorporate into your beekeeping?

"I think that honey made by honeybees who were not treated and who were left with a bounty of their own food source are not being threatened by my practice and minimal intrusion. I keep hive inspections at a minimum to avoid stress, and I simply let bees be “bees”. “Let it Bee”. Like the Beatles song. Humans must intervene if we are to save this species from extinction and CCD, and I believe in focusing energy on cultivating the important and magical relationship between bee and beekeeper. I think there are ethical ways to approach working with bees and I utilize them in my practice."

Do you feel that Americans as a whole are fairly conscious of the bees and their importance? We have many wonderful and passionate bee advocates but a large portion of the population is still unaware of all that the bees do for the earth. How is this looked at in your area or country? Do you find that there is a great need to cultivate awareness of the hard work of our buzzing friends?

photo-2016-07-28-8-45-00-am"Oh absolutely! For every enthusiastic person who wants to learn about bees, there are always folks in the community who are the polar opposite. They are terrified, or simply do not understand general honeybee behavior. It’s a lack of awareness and education. That’s all it is. It’s heightened by media and movies (ie. like the shark, depicted in films) and can instill fear into someone who simply doesn’t have the knowledge of these creatures. Spending time around bees, I have found is a very effective solution to that type of person. I have converted a few folks! On the other hand, there are people who are unreachable. The best you can do is stay on your path moving forward within the movement, keep fighting for their habitat and against the treatment of their food sources/monoculture, and pesticides. Some people reply “Are you insane” when I tell them I am a beekeeper, or have bees in peoples’ backyards… I consider that a good “in” to share my spill about the importance of these tiny pollinators."

As a beekeeper, I’m sure that you're aware of Colony Collapse Disorder. In North America we have experienced serious issues with CCD over the last decade. How has CCD affected you or your community?

"I don’t really see CCD on a small scale within backyards. But I have seen it happen overnight to commercial beekeepers - resulting in devastating losses financially for them as well. It’s heartbreaking, and in my opinion all problems trace back to NEONICS. They must be banned. Stickers must be placed on these pesticides and chemicals stating they will “kill bees”. Flat out. Because they will. Unless we want to starve, we should really educate ourselves."

What are some recognized uses for bee products that you feel are unique to you or your country or community?

"The medicinal properties of honey, really. Especially in correlation to helping combat seasonal and local allergies in the region."

Are there any beekeeping related issues or concerns that are specific to your climate?

"Oh yes. Here in coastal Southern California we get droughts. We are in one now. When others say “drought” they may mean a little rain. In THIS region, when we say “drought” we mean literally no rain. 0. Nada. None. No precipitation. We had a huge “rain storm” last winter called El Nino and that’s been carrying us over, but this is still a drought. Very hard on hives. I always, always keep a clean and fresh water source by all my hives. It’s a must."

What is the one thing you want people locally to start doing to help the bees? Internationally? If you could share one message about the bees with the general public what would it be?

"To plant bee friendly flowers and herbs in their gardens. Most of all to STOP treating yards, or spraying chemicals in their yards. To try and get people to see how their immediate actions are part of a much bigger picture. For example, a pollinator from a backyard hive colony visits a yard within a 3 mile radius. This particular yard is plush and blooming, colorful and well attended to. The pollinators visit these flowers - they are attracted to this kind of setting. But what if the yard is treated chemically? That single bee will bring back chemicals and it will be integrated into her colony. Thus weakening the entire system and in many cases, killing them off completely. Every single one of us is part of a much larger frame."

What sort of mindfulness practices do you partake in daily and are there any specific tips or tricks you have taken into your work with the bees?

"I practice mindful meditation through sitting with loose-leaf tea. Awhile back, I joined a global tea community and each month we share hand picked tea leaves processed and mailed out by the center back in Taiwan. Each morning, it is important I start my day carving out the space to sit for 30 minutes over my tea bowl. It’s essentially the same as a sitting meditation practice but with loose-leaf organic tea leaves, handpicked by our tea brothers and sisters who volunteer back at the center. We all connect, on a much larger wavelength. Those lessons I have carried over to my “apiary practice” as well! Quieting the mind, planning your movements, having full intention, patience, and the ability to truly pay attention to what is immediately going on."
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What are some of the most common issues you see your students struggle with when starting out with beekeeping?

"It’s almost always failing to recognize “queenlessness”. Another common mistake (that I made as well) was assessing the full health of the colony based on the activity at the hive entrance. Also, failing to seek out an extra set of hands or eyes for help. In THIS particular region, failing to provide proper feeding techniques for brand new packaged bees.
A huge thanks to Anne Bergstedt and Josh Bodenhamer. Save the bees! www.GirlstotheFrontBeeCo.com Instagram: @girlstothefrontbeeco Twitter: @GTTFBeeCo