Back in the early fall, I had to the unique opportunity to follow Angela Roell, founder and operator of YardBirds Bees, into their active apiary. Surrounded by buzzing, swarming insects, I squirmed inside my protective suit and tried my best to keep the camera steady. Over two days of honey extraction and comb cutting, we talked about the importance of honeybees and social, racial, and economic equality in our food system. Can humans can learn better communication, organization, and collaboration through honeybee hives?
Introduce yourself! Tell me your name, your business, and what you do.
My name is Angela Roell, and I run an apiary called YardBirds Bees. YardBirds Bees is an educational apiary, and we produce nucleus colonies, queens, honey that is raw as well as uncut comb honey, and beeswax.
Tell me about your process. What’s it like to be a beekeeper?
Being a beekeeper is pretty magical. It’s magical in the sense that you get to have a relationship with a super organism of insects that most people are terrified of. To understand the ebbs and flows of when you can work with them and when you can’t, and understand that stinging insects don’t necessarily mean that they will fly out of the hive and start stinging you. You have this reciprocal relationship with them, they’re incredibly collaborative: allowing you inside of their hive to work with them and learn from them. It’s also incredibly complex; it’s a complex biological system that’s in sort of an endangered space in our current agricultural landscape. And so there’s a lot to know, there’s a lot to learn, and there’s a constant state of learning that you have to be in, and a state of not knowing, and trying to learn more, and understand what the research is, what the most sound practices for where you are and what you’re trying to achieve as a beekeeper, and who you can go to for a resource. Yea, so one part magic and one part science.
How did you get into beekeeping? Was it something that your friends or family did, or did you stumble into by yourself?
I grew up in an apartment in Queens, so I had zero interfacing with honeybees as I was growing up. I think I stepped on a wasp once when I was nine, that was it for me. So I have this practice in my life where if I am scared of or intimidated by something in my life I try to take it on, and honeybees were one of those things where I was scared but also sort of captivated by them, and interested in them, so I started reading a couple of books. I started working in an educational apiary in Mattapan at the Boston Nature Center, and then I also had a couple of my own hives in collaboration with a friend. And then we started something called the Tour de Hives, which was a bicycle-powered tour of different apiaries, or bee yards, in and around Boston and Cambridge. I just had a fear I wanted to overcome, I found a group of people, we started working and collaborating together, and it sort of manifested from there, and just got bigger and bigger and bigger every year.
Why are honeybees important, and how do honeybees fit into the New England food system?
Back in the time of colonizers, honeybees were brought over to the United States, to New England, and they were used to pollinate food. They were also used by missionaries as a way of interfacing with indigenous folks. There are actually these stories from indigenous communities that they knew the colonizers were coming because the honeybees would come a year before. They would swarm and start setting up hives in the woods, and they noticed those, and then the colonizers would come and the missionaries would start preaching to them. It was sort of like a warning shot of colonizers coming, which is interesting. So they were used as a teaching tool, and as a way of interfacing with indigenous communities, and they were meant to show that colonizers knew how to manage farming systems and a way to share a farming system that they were knowledgeable of with the indigenous folks.
New England was actually the epicenter of queen breeding for a long time because we were the epicenter of milk production. We had a lot of cows and a lot of grass, and bees and the older pasturing system for cows go really well together because the cows chewed down the grasses, and then the grasses flowered and the bees then pollinated them. So that management system created both milk and honey. Vermont was known as the land of milk and honey for that reason, and there are certain parts of Vermont still today that are managed in that way, that are epicenters of honey production in the Northeast. So they’re not indigenous to the U.S. And how they impact the New England food system now is that they are pollinators, and in New England in particular they pollinate apples, blueberries, cranberries, several different types of squash and melons. They also produce different types of floral honey. And in addition to that, New England relies on honeybees for other veggie pollination on a smaller scale, and with the rise of the local food and sustainable and regenerative food movement, the honeybees have sort of gone hand-in-hand with that. A lot of farms are also interested in having bees. And very often where that starts is that a farmer is like ‘oh, we’re going to have a couple of beehives,’ and they realize it’s a completely different biological system that’s just as complex as soil, and they’re like ‘oh we’re going to collaborate with a beekeeper,’ so they have the additional benefits of the fruits and veggies, and the beekeeper and the farmer get to have a reciprocal relationship with each other.
Since colony collapse came about and started getting more press, there’s been a lot more honeybee education and awareness happening across the U.S., and New England has several different honeybee education initiatives. Massachusetts is working really hard to pass a pollinator protection act, and there are several other states in New England that have a pollinator protection act in place around what can be sprayed, and when and how, to bolster pollinator protection.
Aside from beekeeping, you’re involved in a lot of other areas of the food system. Why is that important to you? What are the many different ways you’re working in the food system and how does that impact your life?
Food for me has always been really important. I come from a family of really young parents, teen parents, and so I had the privilege of knowing, for a long time in my life, my great grandparents, on both sides of my family, and my grandparents. I got to be rooted in the traditions of where all of the people that I am of come from, and so I have a strong understanding of Ukrainian heritage, Portuguese heritage, French heritage and German heritage from either side of my family. And how that manifested down the line was cooking and eating together, and practicing traditional food preparation together. [Those traditions] came through the women predominantly, through cooking and sharing meals. My maternal grandmother was an incredible cook and loved to prepare foods for people and teach about foods, and I spent a lot of time with her in her kitchen, which is part of how food became a really important thing for me. And then I went on to get a higher education and a masters degree and within that I became really rooted in the socio-political landscape of the United States. Food in community became a way of communicating, bringing people together, collaborating, you know, potlucks or events that you went to always rotate so heavily around food and the sharing of food, and so I saw this marriage of something that I had grown up with and something that I had started doing as a personal and professional practice. And I saw the link between those two things as food, and I had an opportunity to share the foods that came from my family and learn about the foods that came from other families.
When I think about food, and I think about all the other social or political issues that we have in this country, it all sort of starts with food, right? If you don’t have a good meal, you can’t go to school and learn things because you can’t sit down and focus, right? And if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re more concerned with that than higher level thinking about your family or about your creative pursuits or about your political actions, so it all really starts with this idea that you need to be well fed and nourished in order to be the most vibrant version of yourself.
For me, beekeeping has been an incredibly healing and meditative experience. To have that practice and that exchange with the natural world or with another organism that isn’t human is really grounding. And humbling. And it just takes your ego right out of the situation. I think for all of those reasons it’s been so important to me for my whole life, and it continues to be important to me now, and it becomes this thread that ties so much of what I do together, and how I interface with people. And so in my teaching, in my evaluation and community organizing work, a lot of what I do ends up being rooted in the food system because I see the value of food as the first point before we can start thinking about these broader issues of political action or social movement building. It’s like, okay first we need to be well-fed and feel okay enough to sit in this room and have a conversation with each other.
You’ve told me before that your work is about “systemic change making that takes cues from pollinators and the ecology at large.” What does all that mean, and why is it important?
I have been working with bees for eight years, and I have been thinking about the things that we can learn from honeybees around how they organize, how they do the work that needs to be done in the hive, and also simultaneously, fluidly communicate with each other constantly through all of these different modes of expression. They hold the change making work that needs to be done in order to continue manifesting, and the communication with each other in such a beautiful way, and they embody both of those things simultaneously as a collective, and I think that there’s a lot that we can learn as organizers, as people in organizations or institutions, from the way that honeybees collaborate with each other. I see this really nice connection between honeybees and philosophical perspectives. We as humans, we see pollinators as this charismatic, micro-fauna. Like, ‘oh, they’re so cute and fuzzy… and do this little wiggly dance to communicate.’ And so we have this sort of attraction to them because of this charismatic element, and then we also have this practice of using them for our own agricultural pursuits. And I think that my challenge is how do we step out of over-inflating their charisma and think about what it is that they have to teach us in a really practical way as a super organism, right? These are thousands of individual creatures with brains that are as complex as ours, working together, communicating through dance and movement and scent, about what needs to be done, making decisions through consensus, and voting, and we think of them as a queen bee and worker bees, and we think that because of our own hierarchical systems that the queen is in charge, but actually, the workers in the hive make all of the decisions. And they run the hive. And so what would it look like for us to decentralize leadership in that way, and start thinking about what it would be like if the workers were in charge.
So what are the practical applications of using apiaries as a community building and leaning tool?
So every year I host one to two interns from both the local farming community and the local university community. I try to uplift and mentor folks who wouldn’t traditionally have the opportunity to work in a traditional apiary, so I try to center the people I select as femme or female identifying in some way. I prioritize people of color, I prioritize queer people for my positions, because I want them to be able to experience honeybees and learn from them, and not be feeling like this field isn’t a place for them. So traditional beekeeping is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly men over 65, and so the way that those folks teach and express… and they’re predominantly men who spend a lot of time alone with insects, so the way that they teach and interface and socialize is very hierarchical, very top down, very knowledge dump-oriented, and it can be really hard if you already feel like your identity is marginalized to figure out a way to interface with those folks. And so my priority as a beekeeper and as an educator is to create points of access to enter into this field, and not have their first point of entry be how to interface with someone that feels abrasive to their personality from the jump.
This year we gave a couple of hive bodies to an organization called Gardening the Community in Springfield. It’s a youth-led organization that runs farms and a CSA delivery model that is all run by youth. And predominantly youth of color in the Springfield area. And a few of those youth came to my beekeeping workshop this winter. They were like, ‘we’re really into this idea, we want to make this happen,’ so we did some site mapping meetings, and then we exchanged some materials so that they could have the opportunity to prep hives, and basically we have a standing offer with them that when they’re ready to have bees I’ll give them bees. So I really try, to the best of my ability and within the framework of my business, to prioritize those relationships and make sure that people who wouldn’t normally have access to honeybees. And so I’m working on figuring out ‘ok, like, you wanna do this? What are the barriers to access? Let’s get those out of the way so that you can have a relationship with these creatures,’ because that’s what important to me.
You’re doing a lot of teaching! One of the classes you’re teaching is Reclaiming People’s Food Ways. What does that mean, and how does that fit into your work?
I work in the Franklin County House of Corrections, and I teach a course that’s through Greenfield Community College. It’s a for-credit college course and it’s a part of a program that’s called the Jail-to-Farm-to-College employment program, so it’s like a job training program as well as an opportunity for folks who are incarcerated to earn credits on the inside. So when they come out they can go back to school and earn an Associate’s or go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree. And so in that work, I go inside and we learn several different traditional food preservation techniques. So we learn about lacto-fermentation, we learn about jun, which is a type of fermented tea and kombucha. We learn about making traditional vinegars and what that looks like. We talk about the health or medicinal benefits of all those foods, we learn how to dry herbs, we learn how to salt herbs, we learn how to salt meats and other fruits and other things for preservation. We learn how to make jams and jellies, and we learn how to make those with no pectin, low pectin, or just refrigeration. And we learn how to source foods for preservation in a way where we’re maximizing the cost benefit.
And what has happened in doing that work is a lot of folks who are incarcerated come to my classes with their own traditions and practices around food preservation and so I really try to create a plane of equity in my classes where if you are of Puerto Rican descent and you want to teach us about sofrito, then you get a 20 minute demo in class where we learn about that and we make it. And then the last class we all sit together and try all the preserves from peoples’ different traditions as well as the preserves we’ve collaborated on and made in the class. And we have a conversation about the different food ways that we came to the class with and the different food ways that we are leaving the class with. Usually every year we also make a recipe and reflection zine; we do a lot of recipe recreation or modification in the class, and as part of that, we’ll put all of those into a little booklet and publish that, and print it and copies will go to the Greenfield Community College zine library as well as the folks who are incarcerated so they’ll have something to take with them when they leave that class.
Where food is sourced from and what food is made from, and what kinds of food people have access to is very limited [in prison]. A lot of food is sourced through industrial, agricultural companies. There are not a lot of fresh vegetables or fruits. And the nutritional value of the food is quite low. And so this class is really an opportunity to reconnect with ingredients; a part of the bigger program is that there is a small garden/farm that folks are growing food in. One of the challenges of the growing practice is that people inside don’t always have access to that food. Like if they’re not in the class, it’s not that the food is necessarily going into the kitchen, there’s not always enough of it to feed the whole facility. So in my class we get to interface a lot more with the food that we’re growing. We get to do something called ingredient observation, which is kind of like a mindfulness exercise, where we look at all the ingredients that we’re going to work with that day. We look at them, we touch them, we smell them, we talk about them, and then we use them to cook something and we eat them. So it’s this opportunity to really slow down and reconnect to food in an environment where your connection to food is really minimal, and is really not nutritionally or emotionally enriching in the way that I think about food. Or that I think about my connection to food or folks’ traditional food ways connection, so that’s just a few ways that we’re bridging a reconnection to food and mindfulness around the food that we eat.
In all of your work you try really hard to include, and specifically work, with people in minority groups. What do you see as the importance of racial justice and social equality in the food system? Why is that so important to you and how do you think it affects our food system?
Over the past 50 or 60 years, [the United States of America] has been fine with allowing immigrants to come into the country and work as farm workers and work in deplorable conditions to grow and prep and process our food. And it was only fairly recently that suddenly now, as a country, we want to exclude those people from having access to coming into the country and doing that work. This is a country that has a deep history of extracting labor and resources from people of the global majority. And so I see that as really problematic that our entire country and food system is built on the backs of several different folks, and yet we, as white Americans, don’t give a lot of credit to the work that has been done, or think about how we can actively undo some of that damage as “Modern Americans.”
I think it’s really important for me as a white person to constantly be thinking about the lens through which I look at these things, and realize that the reason why I know what I know is because I had access to a lot of higher education and the opportunity to learn from people of the global majority and people of color, and people who taught me what the different systems of oppression that exist in the United States are. And that it’s a privilege for me to have that experience, it’s white privilege. I didn’t know that growing up but I had to learn that through an academic lens to really understand it, even though I grew up in Queens in a family that was cross-cultural, and cross-racial, I didn’t understand what privilege and access were until I was older and had an opportunity to reflect on that in an academic setting. So that’s a privilege. I got to go through the whole of my childhood not thinking about the fact that I was white at all. I mean I had to think about the fact that I was queer, which was a whole different set of problems, but the white privilege is real, and I feel like justice and equity have always woven through my work and been really important to me. And that’s taught me a deep sense of compassion and understanding and desire to disentangle some of the oppressive structures that we all live underneath in this country.
I think that if we are going to disentangle that system, we need to be looking at it and constantly through daily practice, reflection, learning, collaboration, thinking about how we’re breaking down that system and changing it, and demanding that change, and I think that the generation that I’m a part of, folks who are now in their 30’s, we’re in this interesting space where we’re starting to come into more management and leadership positions, and we hold this practice of social justice and racial justice and equity and inclusion, and we’re interfacing with leadership that’s in their 50’s and 60’s who maybe don’t hold that practice or understand what that means or what that is.
And I think being in this bridge space, these people who are just starting to come into leadership roles, if we are not thinking about this, if we are not reflecting on it, if we are not acting on it and pushing for that change, we’re doing a gross disservice to youth who are young adults and youth who are even younger than that, not pushing for the changes that need to happen in this country, and the things that need to be addressed. If we’re not addressing a food system that is accessible to those of us that have the money and the access to pay for local foods, but not accessible to folks who are living in areas of food apartheid, or food desert, we’re doing a gross disservice to those kids and those communities. You need food to function. It’s like mandatory. We need food, we need a place to sleep, and in order to do any other activism, or action in our lives, or any other work, it sort of just feels like it’s the seed for me. It’s the seed of every other action and activism. I used to think that that was education, but the more I rooted myself in the food system and understanding of what’s going on, the more I realized it’s food. It’s always been food. It’s the impetus for so much more, and to me, it’s this way that we can oppress people or it’s this way that we can co-liberate each other: growing food together, learning about food together, and interfacing with different parts of the food system together, and changing those things. That’s like… that just feels like the seed of revolution, and that’s why it’s important to me, both from like a racial justice and social equity perspective.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist based in Boston, MA. She created The Clean Food Club in 2016, and previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.