2021-02SFC  Edible Austin Leaderboard

The Bee Philosopher

Ask local author and bee expert Jack Bresette-Mills about beekeeping, and it soon becomes obvious that the act of tending bees is not a mere hobby for him, but rather something akin to a spiritual path. This afternoon, Bresette-Mills sits on the sun-dappled patio of OPA! Coffee & Wine Bar, presumably ready to discuss beekeeping. But the chat quickly turns out to be about much more. Well-spoken yet unassuming, Bresette-Mills philosophizes on a wide range of topics, from public health care (“Doctors shouldn’t get paid more when we are sick…that is backwards”), to not spending your life trying to accumulate piles of money (“There’s a high cost to having lots of money”), to the news (“Why does the news have to be entertainment? Why can’t it just be news?”). These aren’t platitudes that Bresette-Mills is spouting, though. These are the guiding principles by which he lives his own life in order to maintain a calmer—and, arguably, saner—way of living. He even refuses to charge money for his honey. “It’s too much work to charge what it would be worth,” he says. “So when I give it away, it’s priceless.”

Bresette-Mills is a concert piano technician by trade—a career that leaves him plenty of free time to pursue other interests, such as writing, carpentry and of course, beekeeping. “I like jobs that don’t require regular hours,” he says. Originally from Michigan, Bresette-Mills grew up playing in the sand dunes around Lake Michigan. Even though his older brothers kept bees, he didn’t learn much about beekeeping until after college, where he had studied physics and engineering. Shortly after graduating, he began voraciously reading literature—including Sherlock Holmes novels—and was charmed and intrigued to learn that the fictional character of Holmes “was going to keep bees when he retired.” He began reading every book he could find on beekeeping, but he wouldn’t have his first hive until many years later when he moved with his wife, Beverly, to their home outside of Austin in 1996. The 3-acre piece of land where the couple still lives is located between Austin and Dripping Springs, close to the Belterra subdivision. When asked about the sprawling development near his house, Bresette-Mills says, “It’s a good thing for the bees, because people have ornamental flowers and things bloom all year long so the bees can go into this neighborhood and have a good time. But people use so many pesticides that can lead to colony collapse disorder, which is like a mental illness where the bees go out to work but can’t remember how to get home. In Europe, they make products where they have to prove their safety first, but not here.”

In 2016, Bresette-Mills wrote “Sensitive Beekeeping: Practicing Vulnerability and Nonviolence with Your Backyard Beehive.” The highly approachable, succinct book is broken into two parts: an introduction to his no-gloves, no-veil approach to tending bees, followed by the practical aspects of backyard beekeeping. “When I started this book, I had this idea of nonviolence,” he says. “You are in charge of controlling a mass amount of a population. How do you approach that? How do you keep the bees from hurting themselves or one another?” And according to Bresette-Mills, wearing a protective veil and gloves is like a policeman going to a protest in riot gear. “The police have a different mentality and behave differently in riot gear,” he says. “With gloves, you bumble around more and will most likely accidentally kill a bee and the other bees will know it. Bees have communication through smell—they can smell anger, danger or death. You have to have a respect for the power of the bees. When we are overprotected, we don’t care.” 

Bresette-Mills’ approach of opening the hives without veil or gloves requires vulnerability. “You have to learn how to not be afraid,” he says. “If you jerk your hand, the bees will know there’s an enemy here.” He also believes that we are much better off when our partner is treated as an equal, and approaching the bees in this manner has positive effects on our own well-being in return. “My book is not exhaustive; there are many books on beekeeping,” he says. “But it’s an open door…beekeeping as a path of initiation.” 

“Bees are visible partners in our own education,” he continues. “To go into the hive, you have to be strong enough to face the bees. You have to gain control of yourself. They show you where you are with yourself. The bees become your teacher.”

By May K. Cobb