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The Teachings of Bees: Harvesting Knowledge & Community in Orange County
  • Words and photos by Tatum Bronte
January 08, 2019

Anna Maria Desipris is a young beekeeper and herbalist based in Laguna Beach, California. Her work serves a broad community, both bee and mammal, across Orange County. On any given day, you may find her rescuing hives, harvesting propolis, or training others to become bee guardians. But her journey to becoming a beekeeping goddess was not always sweet, and it was not the original plan.

They walked on her arms without a single sting.

The first time Anna Maria truly met the bees, they had her surrounded. Hundreds and hundreds swarmed about as they were lowered into a box she gripped tightly with both hands. Protected by only gloves and a veil, she faced the swarm despite her fear. A few hours earlier, she had tried to talk her way out of dealing with the bees entirely, but now, to her surprise, the bees just buzzed. They walked on her arms without a single sting.

"I was hooked," she recounts with a smile.

Anna Maria's intention was to be a doctor. She studied chemistry and biology at the University of Reno, but challenges getting into medical school made her pause to reconsider her path. During that time, she found work at River School Farm, an urban farm in Reno, where she discovered the passionate work of permaculture and seasonal eating. In many ways, she was finding her way back to her maternal and paternal pedigree of caring for the earth - both sides of her family, one Greek and the other Sicilian, were stewards of the land.

Desipris also works as a community educator, farmer, doula, and herbalist.

Facing an inevitable crossroads in her life, it was as if the bees invited Anna Maria into the world of ancient healing instead, a trade rooted in nourishing symbiosis with the natural world. Honey is one of the earliest medicines, a life source with complex properties that benefits both bees and mammals. In order to survive, bee nests are kept at 98 degrees, just like the human body. The power of bees often dances along the line between science and natural magic. That very line is what Anna Maria serves to protect by redefining what it means to be a healer, a beekeeper, and a young person working in "ag" (as she calls it).

In order to survive, bee nests are kept at 98 degrees, just like the human body.

Honey and pollination services are the main income sources for most beekeepers, but to link yourself solely to producing natural commodities is risky and, often times, an audacious overstep in Mother Nature's court. "The bees are adapting and doing what they're doing in harmony with nature," she declares, "I refuse to feed them sugar and pollen supplements. I support genetics that can survive in the environment as it is. Food and fake sugar would be setting them up for failure. That, in turn, means I might not have honey to harvest and I'm ok with that. I am finding other ways, like rescuing hives and educating others, to support this mission financially."

Notes passed on from a former beekeeper on the outside of the hive case.

Impartial awareness and unwavering dedication are the name of the game when you're working to protect the earth and its tinier species. Anna Maria speaks candidly about the reality of building a career out of such work, especially for young people with student loans. For her, it was easy to build a professional network, but to feed herself and pay the bills demanded juggling multiple agricultural jobs, ten hour days, seven days a week. The not-so-distant struggle stirs up a memory of one of her first lessons in the field: while working on the farm in Reno, she observed her employer's dedication to community and tenderness for the bees. "He had [something] like ten hives, [and] took care of them like a small child or lover. It was so strange to me, but from him I first saw community and, in his devotion and care, how it should really be." Soon after, she was offered a job at an orchard in Orange County, where she learned for herself the power of that unusually compassionate approach to work. Worried that she might be under qualified, the new employer summed up the most necessary requirement: someone who is excited and ready to jump in.

Anna Maria blends an herbal kindling to smoke before approaching a hive. The smoke inhibits the bees' pheromone communication, specifically those that signal to attack.

Much like the bees, Anna Maria flows to where the nectar is. Beekeeping has opened the door to many more roles, from mixing oxymels and electuaries to writing youth curriculums about growing orchards and permaculture, and most recently, managing events at the local educational nonprofit, The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano.  Each new task presents a two-part demand: to further educate oneself and to engage with community. It is in this demand that Anna Maria believes the most exciting potential for the future of good food can be found.  "The opportunity to support ourselves is really in helping communities, like go into a neighborhood and engage people to teach them basic skills and show them the importance of community. All of us who are committed to change, we have to help these people remember. Plant a plot of land and get their hands in the soil. It is hugely transformational, especially [for parents] with their children."

Anna Maria and her dog, Jones, enjoy her honey harvest with tea at home.

One of Anna Maria's greatest dreams is to have a piece of land to tend to and share. For now, she is grateful for access to a private edge of earth in the hills of Laguna. It is just big enough for five or six hives, which are sliced vertically and stacked high like a little metropolis.  "Bees do not like this shape," she tells me, pointing to the cubicles they are forced to live and work in. We pause, considering the obvious parallels of hardworking bees and humans; time with bees often opens up this sort of contemplation. Anna Maria calls it transcendent and meditative. "The act of watching them, working on a hive?it induces calm, the opening up of perspective," she muses, "Every bee fills my heart with unconditional love and gratitude for living." I ask her to describe more specifically what it is about the bees that inspires such strong feelings: 'Selflessness,' she replies.

Each bee works endlessly with and for others. They cannot survive without each other. Together, they thrive.

For information on Anna Maria's work in Orange County or to apply for a beekeeping apprenticeship with her, visit  http://www.thehoneybeehub.com/. You can also find her on Instagram @beekeepinggypsy

 

Tatum Brontë is an artist and activist based in Los Angeles. Her written and creative work is dedicated to reconnecting humanity to earth and lost traditions. You can follow her on Instagram @seekingsalt and see more of her work at www.seekingsalt.com.