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The not-so-secret lives of bees

By on June 22, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Kayleigh McNiel and her dad, Michael back in the early 2000s, learning the intricacies of beekeeping. Kayleigh is now 10 and a budding apiculturist in her own right.

Story By Sebastian Moraga

photos by michelle mcniel

Blame it on Mexico.

Back in 1999, during a retreat in a Benedictine abbey in Mexico, East Wenatchee’s Michael McNiel’s duties included tending to the monastery’s bees, and he got stung.

Not literally stung, that would come later, many, many times. Just stung with the idea of raising bees.

He came back home and he did it for about 10 years in his East Wenatchee home alongside his wife, Michelle, starting around 2004. At one point, they had five hives, with about 50,000 bees per hive. They raised bees until about 2012, when their youngest daughter was about 2 years old.

“I was just worn out,” Michael says of why he took a break from the bees. 

Now the 2-year-old is almost 10 and the bees are back, with the 10-year-old as a budding bee-whisperer. 

“Kayleigh has always really enjoyed it,” Michael said. She’s the youngest person in the house, but when it comes to bees, she’s old-school. Sometimes she goes to tend to the hive without a veil or anything. All that’s missing is a cigar dangling from her mouth, to help the smoke keep the bees away like the old-timers do it.

She’s been stung, Michelle said of her youngest, but she remains fearless, which makes Michelle happy, although Michelle herself hasn’t been so lucky. Every sting has hurt worse than the time before. One time she couldn’t tell her knee from her ankle, it was all so swollen. So now she’s happy to remain in the background as the beekeepers’ photographer. 

As members of the Orthodox Church, each one of the McNiels has a patron saint. Kayleigh’s patron saint is Saint Abigail, who is of course the patron saint of beekeepers.

“That was by accident,” Michael said. “We had no idea.”

Living with and raising bees is a leap outside a person’s comfort zone, Michael said. When 250,000 bees surround you, you find out pretty quickly what you’re made of. The first time, that time in Mexico, Michael struggled quite a bit.

Michael McNiel of East Wenatchee working with the bees in his yard. Next to him sits a drawing of St. Abigail he made. In McNiel’s faith, St. Abigail is the patron saint of beekeepers.

“At first, it really is terrifying,” he said. “And that’s part of the attraction, conquering a certain aspect of you that’s completely rational and wanting to get away from it.”

Getting started takes a couple hundred bucks for a starter box and some bees. A normal package of bees is about three pounds’ worth of them, about 10,000 bees, Michael said.

It’s a good idea to spend time with bees and watch someone take care of them before you decide to try it yourself, Michelle said. And it’s not all about the honey.

When raising bees, the honey is a side benefit. The real plus happens in the day-to-day interaction between human and bee. 

Whether it’s when the McNiels’ church’s youth group comes over to harvest honey, or when Michael put marbles on a tarp and then put water on the tarp. The bees would come in, land on the marbles and drink. The tarp would get kind of green after a while, though, so now the sprinklers do the pouring and the bees drink off the grass.

Then, there’s the potty ritual. Bees don’t go potty at all during the winter’s coldest days, choosing instead to hold it in. Then, on the first day they get when the temperature hovers around 55 degrees, it’s like halftime at the Super Bowl.

“They all fly out, take a dump and then fly back,” Michael said, while Michelle chuckled and quipped, “T-M-I!”

“They are really cool to watch, and then there’s that factor of overcoming your own fear,” Michael said of the bees. “Learning to work with them in such a way that it’s kind of a partnership.”

He then added, “I don’t know if they view it as a partnership, but I do.” 

And if you have a garden, well, you’ve just got yourself an army of eager pollinators. Just treat them well. Plant plenty of stuff and give them plenty of water so they don’t have to go wandering around and become nuisances at your neighbors’ birdbaths and swimming pools. 

One of the beehives in Michael McNiel’s East Wenatchee home. Bees, McNiel says, are fascinating creatures with personalities, habits and quirks.

Bees have defined personalities, they require attention and time, they communicate with one another, and they have a notorious caste system among themselves. 

There are queen bees, drones and worker bees. The drones’ job is to, um, get to know the queen bee, and eat honey. The worker bees’ job is to do everything else, and that includes kicking the drones’ freeloading selves out after they have mated with the queen.

Take note, ladies.

Not only do they have personalities, but they have moods, too, Michael said. When you approach a hive and the bees are in a bad mood, it’s best to walk away. 

“Just like with your wife,” Michael said, with Michelle chuckling next to him.

Take note, gentlemen.

Two other gentlemen have grown with the McNiels and their yellow-and-black hobby. Their two older children, Patrick and Calum.

Having three children in a house surrounded by moody, armed bugs is not a challenge if you learn what irritates the bees and refrain from doing that, Michael said. 

Don’t stand in front of the hive, don’t throw things at it, and certainly don’t crash your tricycle in front of it. Patrick McNiel did that and one, single, irritated bee reminded him not to do that the only way it knew how, right between Patrick’s eyes. 

“He could have gotten really stung” by a bunch of irate bees, but it was only one, Michelle remembered. 

Now the kids are so comfortable that they once ate their breakfast cereal on the kitchen table, with a newly-purchased box carrying 10,000 bees or so doubling as a (very) temporary centerpiece.

“They are family, man,” Michael said, later adding, “If you respect them, they will respect you.” 

Ten-year-old Kayleigh McNiel, the youngest of the McNiels’ three children, has shown a remarkable aptitude for beekeeping. Her family refers to her as their “bee whisperer.”

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