Live and Learn with the Bees
Bob Bailey means to set the Roaring Fork Valley abuzz with a message: The bees need our help. Thanks to his zeal, spots all around Carbondale—from the rooftops at the Marble Distillery and Town Restaurant to gardens at Delaney Park and Ross Montessori School—will soon become homes for hives.
For the last seven years, Bailey’s life has revolved around a creature smaller than his pinky fingernail—the honeybee. This sweet affinity is touching. After Roaring Fork Lifestyle Magazine got wind of Bailey’s beehive rescues and his placing of community hives, we wanted to know more and connected over coffee.
Well over six feet tall, Robert Bailey is broad shouldered, long limbed; his presence takes up a lot of space. His hands are large, calloused and clean. In a plaid shirt and a ball cap, he looks like a sun-baked farm kid. He’s a builder who creates with both his mind and his hands. A breadth of life experiences, stories and thoughts roll out of him like the earth murmuring, deep and slow.
Bailey considers himself a bee guardian rather than a beekeeper because he recognizes that the survival of humans and bees is interconnected. “I don’t keep bees because of the honey; the bees are keeping me,” he explains. “If the bees go, we go. One third of what we put in our mouths is directly a result of them.”
The bees need more people like Bailey.
After seven years, Bailey has become intimate with the social machinations of the hive. “I’m into them just for who they are and what they do,” he states. Bee colonies function in a framework of mutual support. When every bee does its job, the community thrives. This amazes Bailey—each individual giving and contributing, and no one acting in greed or malice.
Listening to Bailey wax on, it’s easy to believe that hives are nirvana. He does admit, however, that in “doing their part” queens kill queens, dispatch worker bees and boot obsolete drones out of the nest. It’s for the good of all though, versus the self-interest of few.
Bailey’s grandfather made it clear to him: “I take care of myself first and then you. If I don’t take care of myself first, I can’t take care of you.” Bailey chuckles as he confesses, “That was a hard lesson. As a young kid, I struggled with that.”
With our world in turmoil, Bailey feels that we could learn from the bees and reap a huge reward in doing so. Saving the world, pretty much.
While backpacking Thailand and Malaysia last year, Bailey sought out local beekeepers. Observing them work wild hives in the forests and mountains, he saw an attitude and behavior similar to his own. “You had to meet [the bees] where they were at. If the guardian bees were all up in your face, you knew, ‘Okay. I’ll come back later.’” Neither Bailey nor the Asian beekeepers he met wore the white armor and netting ubiquitous to western beekeeping. They simply operate on presence, awareness and respect.
In cooperation with Ginger and Robb Janssen, of Basalt Mountain Gardens, Bailey relocates honeybees that have moved into people’s homes, rather than destroying them. He encourages people who discover problem honeybees on their property to find his Google-plus page and call him. “I’ll have hives anywhere people will let me have them,” he declares, noting that he requires hosts who adopt relocated hives to make a commitment to care for them.
Agribusinesses are taking a global toll on bees, starving them by displacing plant diversity and pollen sources. They also use pesticides that gets tracked back into the hive where the bees feed their young.
“I’ve never believed in pesticides,” Bailey declares. “ I’ve always cared about the environment and gardening at an organic level. Even if you spray when the bees aren’t active, the chemicals are on the pollen. The bees carry this toxic pollen back to the hive where they feed it to the young.”
Knowing that the average worker bee may live for a just few weeks over the summer, flying more than 500 miles in that short lifespan, Bailey tends the bees to save them, not to take from them. He wants to make sure that keepers leave enough honey in the hive to allow the bees to survive the winter, and he wants the hives—each one holding 20,000 to 60,000 hungry bees—to live on. That means making sure that our local bees have enough to eat and safe places to live.
“If I see a lawn with no dandelions, it’s not good, ”Bailey proclaims. “At least leave your dandelions until they go to seed. It’s the first thing to come on in the spring. Pollen is protein. The bees need it after a six-month winter.”
Simple things like that can be mean the difference between destruction and harmony, between warfare and community, between a bee dying or living.
Downtown areas offer a diversity of pollen, ranging from street trees to area gardens. To Bailey, city rooftops seem to offer a wide-open opportunity—a safe haven for bees. Connie Baker, the master distiller at the Marble Brewery, recently told Bailey that her husband had given her a hive for her birthday. “The words barely left my mouth about rooftop bees when she said ‘I’m in!’” Bailey reported. Mark Fischer of Town restaurant welcomes hives too.
Carbondale Town Trustee Allyn Harvey connected Bailey to Town Manager Jay Harrington who gave Bailey the go-ahead at Delaney Nature Park. The new fruit orchard and berry patch there will get receive the cross-pollination needed for fruit set thanks to Bailey’s bees.
Bailey is also building hives for Ross Montessori School’s new educational vegetable garden. Children will paint the new hives and bees will go on the curriculum. The outdoor classroom will be wrapped in a huge pollinator garden and Bailey is specifying a seed mix that will enable the kids to grow pollen- and nectar-rich species. Noting that children are the future, Bailey comments, “From kindergarten to fourth or fifth grade, they’re really passionate about it!”
Bailey’s pollinator hives are a gift to the valley—and they carry a message. “From this conversation, the word goes out to the school and rooftops. From there it goes on somewhere else.” he muses. “We, right here, are a small community out of almost eight billion people. We have to keep trying.”
“Why don’t humans try to support each other in the same way bees do?” With a wry smile, he laments “I could go off the deep end on this one. We spend so much on defense rather than giving… If we could act more like bees, what a great world this would be.”