Six years ago, after spending the majority of her life avoiding bees like they were the plague, Susan McElroy-Knilans found herself rooted in front of a bee hive with about 20 other people who had enrolled in a biodynamic beekeeping class.
The teacher, Michael Thiele, a researcher and biodynamic beekeeper, instructed the class to stand very, very still, and to hum.
The students, including McElroy-Knilans, pinched their lips together, vibrated their throats and lifted one long, unified “hum” into the air.
After a moment, the bees began spilling out of the hive.
“They came over us and they moved all around us, in front of our faces, and their wings were fluttering and we could smell them and we could hear the buzz,” McElroy-Knilans recalls. “We were surrounded by these bees, they were walking on our skin, and then, slowly, slowly, it got quiet and the bees swirled and they just ‘zipped’ and went back into the hive.”
When the students opened their eyes, all of them had tears falling from them.
“There was something that we could not even articulate, but it was like we had received a blessing,” McElroy-Knilans says.
She has been hooked on preservation beekeeping ever since that moment.
Over the past six years, McElroy-Knilans has learned how to catch swarms of bees, build her own hives and care for her bees in a way that best serves them.
Now, McElroy-Knilans wants to share her beekeeping knowledge with the community. She will teach a free, two-day workshop on beginner preservation beekeeping from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 17 and Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave., in historic downtown Camas.
Workshop participants will learn the complexities of bees as well as what the pollinators need and how to best work with them. This is is the first time McElroy-Knilans has offered the workshop, which normally costs $100 to $120 per student, at no cost to participants, and the first time she’s taught at the Camas library.
‘Bees do not like to be messed with’
McElroy-Knilans is used to working with beekeeping newbies who want to keep bees in a more sustainable way. She and her beekeeper mentor, Jacqueline Freeman, who has 14 years of experience, are the founders of the Preservation Beekeeping Council, an organization that has evolved from a club for new beekeepers into a nonprofit that advocates for — and teaches — sustainable methods of tending bees.
“We’re the only group that teaches treatment-free, low-intervention beekeeping,” McElroy-Knilans says. “It’s a totally different kind of beekeeping, so some people just take to it like crazy, and other people just want to go the conventional route. But, we’re here for those who are interested in beekeeping in another way.”
McElroy-Knilans says that the two largest threats to bees right now are beekeepers and varroa mites — mites often found in packages of shipped bees that can wipe out an entire hive.
“The way that we kept bees over the last hundred years has been so detrimental for them that we’re on the verge of losing them,” McElroy-Knilans says.
In conventional beekeeping, where one of the main goals is to collect honey, a beekeeper is considered inadequate if they’re not in their hives at least every 10 days, she explains. But this constant interaction with the bees has negative implications.
“Bees do not like to be messed with. They live in the dark. They have an extraordinarily complex lifestyle,” McElroy-Knilans says. “They’re called a super organism because the whole colony acts as one being. So, all the bees share a hive mind, all of the tasks are geared to the whole … and when we get in our hives and mess about, we end up making it so that every time you open a hive and do an inspection, it takes two to four days for the bees to repair the damage that you’ve done by going into the hive.”
Every time the beekeeper moves the honeycombs, the bees have to reset their hive temperature — which needs to be within just one degree of precision for them to raise their baby bees — reseal their hive and rearrange their honey and pollen.
This process takes time away from the bee’s summer season, McElroy-Knilans says.
“And we have a short summer season,” she says. “So beekeepers, in the manipulations that they do in their harvest, (cause) the bees to adjust to an abnormal situation. And that causes tremendous stress.”
The more beekeepers try to help the situation, the more they can hurt it, she adds.
“The more you stress something, the more you destabilize it,” McElroy-Knilans says. “Basically, everything that we’ve come to do in conventional beekeeping is stressful for bees. It’s not what the bees would choose for themselves in any way. They are constantly trying to correct what is completely unnatural to them.”
McElroy-Knilans says she’s observed that the bees in her yard only work with the healthiest plants around by collecting and moving around the best pollen and nectar sources.
“So, what bees move into the the environment is the best of the best,” she says, adding that bees pollinate at least 30 percent of the food we find in grocery stores.
Although researchers have found ways to mechanically pollinate plants, McElroy-Knilans says the mechanically pollinated plants aren’t as plentiful or nutritious as plants pollinated by bees.
“What bees bring to the pollination process is a natural electrical charge from their wings fluttering, and when a bee just lands on a plant they are transferring that static charge that plants have become dependent on,” McElroy-Knilans explains.
Won’t you ‘bee’ my neighbor?
There are four beehives in McElroy-Knilans’ backyard today, but before she took up beekeeping, there were hardly any bees in her neighborhood.
Now, by catching swarms of bees and giving them a home in her yard, McElroy-Knilans, also known as the “Camas Bee Lady,” says that her gardening neighbors say their yard has never been so productive.
One neighbor had an ornamental pear tree in their yard for 15 years, but never had any fruit. After Knilans brought in her “mutt” bees — a blend of different types of bees — the neighbor had pears for the first time.
“Just the bee touching the plant, even if the bee doesn’t move pollen or anything else, keeps the world running and healthy,” McElroy-Knilans says.
The Preservation Beekeeping Council encourages people who find swarms of bees in their neighborhoods to contact them. The Council will send someone to remove the bees and relocate them — either placing their bees in one of their hives, or giving them to another beekeeper in need of new bees.
This is an especially helpful practice for new beekeepers, who are more likely to lose a hive during the winter months.
In Freeman’s first four years as a beekeeper she lost every hive she had in the winter and had to start all over again in the spring, McElroy-Knilans says.
“The first few years of beekeeping are just gathering the right bees (that) thrive in your area and figuring what works and what doesn’t,” she says. “There’s this franticness when you’re learning something new and this anxiety. Then, there comes a time when one spring you go, ‘I know this, I’m not anxious anymore, I know just what I need to do and I know just what my bees are saying to me right now.'”
The members of the beekeeping council say new beekeepers need to devote 1,000 hours of bee observation to help them understand the colonies.
“Sit down and observe, look at the door and you’ll learn just about everything you need to know, but it takes patience,” McElroy-Knilans says, adding that she feels great satisfaction from beekeeping.
“You walk up into your bee yard, you hear a certain sound, you smell the scents, and you know — just from the sound and just from the scents — how your bees are doing, it’s not a question anymore,” she says.
If that’s not enough to convince you that beekeeping has plenty of benefits, McElroy-Knilans points out that bees give the world so much more than just honey.
“Bees are one of the only creatures who take nothing from the environment,” McElroy-Knilans says. “They don’t kill to eat, they take plant nectar — which the plant doesn’t use on its own — so they’re not picking or destroying or chewing. They use caverns that are already built, they don’t knock down trees, they don’t chase other animals off. Everything in their life is completely harmless, and everything they touch they make nutritious and more healthy.”