To my left, Jackson Brinkley has just paused a reverent soliloquy on “the queen” to hand me a jar full of what looks like Turkish delight. For a moment, it feels like I might be in Narnia, not standing next to a beehive in a balmy Watt-Hillandale backyard.
It’s not uncommon to get a sense of otherworldliness when you’re around a beehive, according to beekeepers Brinkley and Alfredo Salkeld.
“People have been watching bees since ancient times,” Brinkley says. “It’s very magical, the way they all work together.”
Brinkley and Salkeld make up two-thirds of the team behind Buddha Bee Apiary, a company with a “Host-a-Hive” program that allows people with no beekeeping experience to house beehives in their backyards. Founded in 2019 by Justin Maness, Buddha Bee aims to show folks the value of beekeeping without forcing them to commit to the rigorous, complex care that the hobby usually requires.
For a monthly fee of $150, the Buddha Bee crew will install a hive, care for the bees, and harvest the honey while using the hive as a living laboratory to educate hosts on sustainability and beekeeping tactics during their triweekly inspections.
And while Maness is currently away doing remote management—he’s traveling cross-country with his family in a school bus that he renovated into a mobile home—he’s found devoted co-workers in Brinkley and Salkeld, who do the day-to-day management.
Before starting at Buddha Bee, Salkeld didn’t have his own hives, but he was so interested in beekeeping that “anytime I was traveling, like visiting friends in New York, I would look up #beekeeping on Instagram and message random people like, ‘This is weird but can I come see your hives?’”
Brinkley, meanwhile, has been beekeeping on his own for five years, and has 12 hives in his backyard. He asked his friend to make custom beekeeping pants that have a holster for his hive tool and elastic near the ankles to keep the bees from crawling up his legs.
Today, I’m accompanying Brinkley and Salkeld on one of the 90 inspections they’ll perform in the Triangle this month.
At this time of year, Brinkley tells me, hive inspections primarily involve monitoring for parasites called varroa mites, which transmit 30 different diseases among bees. If left untreated, the mites can wipe out an entire hive in a week.
I peer through the grated lid of the jar I’m holding. It’s not full of candy; rather, bees wriggle, covered in powdered sugar. Brinkley explains that this is part of the “mite test.”
“We take a scoop of about 300 bees and put some sugar on them, which makes them clean each other, which makes the mites fall off,” he says.
The mites fit through the holes in the lid, but the bees don’t, he continues, so he can shake the jar, count how many mites fall out, and use that number to deduce the number of mites in the whole hive. If the mites look to be overly pervasive, he’ll treat them with an insecticide.
“Mites are one of the main reasons we’re losing a very large percentage of our bees today,” Maness says. “We’re replenishing the populations when resources are abundant, but making more bees in preparation for these losses isn’t necessarily a long-term solution.”
Beekeepers have yet to figure out a sustainable remedy to the mite problem, he says, but raising colonies locally instead of purchasing them from out of state—something that Buddha Bee is on track to accomplish by next year—is a step in the right direction.
“Varroa mites spread so quickly because we’re constantly shipping bees around the country,” Maness says. “Raising your own bees combats that problem, and it makes for a stronger, healthier honeybee, because they’re more acclimated to your area.”
Educating hosts on the challenges that honeybees face is part of the Buddha Bee team’s mission during inspections.
“Beekeeping is a gateway drug to caring about the environment,” Salkeld says. “I’ve seen people spraying mosquito spray all over their yard; that just kills butterflies and everything else. But then they get a beehive and suddenly they’re like ‘wait, I’m invested in not killing the things around me,’ and they switch to more natural alternatives.”
And, as Brinkley adds, fostering a sustainable environment for pollinators can have an “actual quantifiable effect.”
“We have a host who runs a garden for a Catholic church,” Brinkley says. “The year before they had a hive, I believe it was 20,000 pounds of produce that they gave away. The year after getting a hive, it was 45,000 pounds.”
Durham resident Robin Kirk, who hosts the hive that I observed in person, says the bees helped to spark inspiration for the second book in her fantasy trilogy, The Hive Queen, which came out in September 2020.
“I didn’t realize at first that honeybees are actually not native; they’re cultivated,” Kirk says. “So as someone who also writes science fiction, that’s really cool. We’ve engineered nature in so many ways, even in so-called wild places, which almost makes climate change feel more addressable, because if we’ve created nature then maybe we continue to think about it creatively so we don’t kill ourselves.”
Kirk splits the monthly fee with three of her neighbors. The hive benefits all of them, from a pollination and educational standpoint, she says, and they all get a cut of the honey.
“My neighbor actually uses the honey for baking. I mainly use it for hot toddies,” Kirk says. “It’s a nice little benefit, but as we have said to each other, it’s the most expensive honey in the world, so that’s not why we do it. We do it because it’s a way of keeping in touch with the world around us.”
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