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Beekeeping-as-artform. The more you learn the less you know.

‘Never trust an expert.'

This is the motto of my beekeeping mentor, Maurice Lawrence. He worked Leatherwood sites for decades in Tasmania’s South West and knows a thing or two about beekeeping. He tells me he is not an expert and advises against listening to people who claim they are. ‘Experts know nothing’. This is as much as he will give me, so over the years I have had plenty of time to contemplate what he means through my own beekeeping journey.

This is my conclusion, beekeeping is an artform – the more you learn the less you know.

I first opened a beehive in 2002. Alongside Maurice I learnt how to use a hive tool, cracking open the lid, staring into the humming warmth of the hive, bees flying around my head and their sweet unmistakable smell hitting my nostrils - I knew I had found my calling. Like an unexplored landscape a whole new world opened up in front of me and for the next 3 years I immersed myself in an apprenticeship-of-sorts with Maurice and his bees. This was a time before internet and structured beekeeping courses.

Maurice and me 2013

So much of that first year was filled with questions. Maurice was patient and generous in his responses. He knew a lot but not everything and encouraged me to seek information from other beekeepers.

As a new-bee this can be overwhelming and confusing.

Seeking advice from a Master Beekeeper is not the same as seeking advice from other professions - ask 5 beekeepers a question get 10 different answers. Beekeepers are (mostly) self-taught, inventive, resilient, do-ers with an uncanny ability to cut through blowhards. Beekeepers are also hands on and I sometimes wonder whether the bees choose us?

Regardless, there is rarely a ‘right way’ to do anything in beekeeping and the sooner a new-bee embraces this reality, the easier it is to step into the chaos and inevitable mistakes that become a personalised beekeeping-as-artform journey. I also have three other Maurice gems that have become truisms on my personal journey.

‘Bees make you calm.’

Maurice started beekeeping after a rigging accident at the Boyer Mill. Not only did he carry a lasting back injury that forced him out of work, it also left him with a bitterness that he will tell you, had started to eat him alive. He stumbled upon beekeeping when a truckie friend asked for a hand to move some boxes. The boxes were beehives and Maurice quickly learnt there is no point being aggressive around bees! He credits bees with changing his personality for the better, and if you talk to any Master Beekeeper they look for calm, gentle people to work with bees. Bees have their own rhythm and pace. They can’t be forced. At some point everyone gets the opportunity to learn this the hard way. Bees remind us to be present and calm.

‘The bees know best.’

I thought I had killed my bees in my first year as a Beekeeper. After helping Maurice make a split from his apiary, I excitedly brought my bees home. Checking them every morning, I started to wonder whether the position was not quite right and decided to move them 5 metres across my yard. Yep. All the beekeepers reading this know what happens next – the foraging bees returning to the hive went back to the original site and flew around in circles, confusedly landing where the hive was no longer. Meanwhile their hive sat 5 metres away. I thought I had committed mass bee genocide and was sick with worry. Somehow the bees worked it out with minimal casualties and life buzzed along, the bees – and me-surviving that first year to continue a trajectory of mistakes over the past decade.

‘It’s one of them things.’

Maurice tells me this whenever I fill him in on my latest failing. I have also come to say this to myself when working my hives. Some days the bees barely register my presence, and on others they ping my veil, buzz angrily around my head and bury their stingers into my gloves, wrists, legs…anywhere they can get a significant hit. On days like this I close the hive back up, apologise and back away. There could be a million reasons why – freshly washed hair, recently laundered clothing, the weather, the time, my mood….a million reasons that I try to eliminate before entering the apiary but in beekeeping-as-artform, nothing is perfect and everything is learning. It’s one of them things.

Maurice recently had a stroke.

As an octogenarian his recovery is slow and I’ve come full circle helping Maurice with his hives once again. Over the years he has always treated me as an equal, spending large amounts of time sharing his knowledge and skills. In 2002 he told me I would be a better beekeeper than him because ‘you know all the plants.’ He still tells me this and I am using his words of encouragement to help others protect pollinators where they are, as they are.

Not as an expert, but as someone who believes the more you learn the less you know.

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