Thoughts on beekeeping and mental health

“You are all mad!”, one of our apiary visitors declared, shaking his head in wonder. He had just listened to John and Andy talking about how to painstakingly prepare honey entries for the National Honey Show, including the best ways to air-dry jars so that no pesky water marks remain.

Plenty of non-beekeepers probably think the same thing, but for a different reason – the famous bee sting. Who knows what they would make of the Ealing member who is highly allergic to stings, yet continues beekeeping due to her love of the bees. Or the sight of Ealing members gathered outside at the apiary to drink tea and talk bees with drifts of snow around us.

Beekeepersinthesnow

But I am going to make a different argument – that beekeeping and similar hobbies could actually be good for your mental and physical health.

This Christmas I was able to do some reading and one of the books I found in my local library was ‘Crow Country‘ by Mark Cocker (2008). It’s all about his love of corvids and rooks in particular, which thrive around his home near Norwich.

Towards the end of the book, Mark talks about how birders and others with a single obsession are often viewed as ‘sad’ by the general public.

“why is it that people who are absorbed by something are seen as sad? I can’t explain it. But for me it reverses the true state of affairs. To be engaged is to be a part, to be absorbed and fulfilled. To be cool, to be detached from things and to have no passionate feeling is the real sadness. At the heart of depression, that quintessentially modern malaise, is a deep sense of separation from the rest of life.

At its fullest, studying the life of another living creature is a way of engaging all of your faculties. In short, it’s a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so. At the same way it is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.”
(Mark Cocker, Crow Country, p.186-187).

As Mark puts it, “enquiring becomes a way of loving”. So I shall continue loving my bees by watching them, talking about them, reading about them and learning more about life through them.

Beekeeping, or indeed any other hobby or obsession, is a chance to become connected to others and the world around us. I have met so many fascinating people both at the apiary and online through the bees. And there is something physically satisfying about being outside with the bees, taking in rain, wind, sunshine and fresh air, being surrounded by nature.

Beekeeping can inspire creativity too, perhaps in the form of a beautiful piece of carpentry, a delicious honey cake, melliferous mead, or stunning wax creations like those made by Judy Earl. These acts of creation can bring us a sense of achievement, of having made something real and tangible, that can often be shared with others to bring them joy also. That can only be good for our mental wellbeing.

We are truly lucky to have access to so many wonderful products produced by the bees and so many potential crafts and skills that naturally spin off from beekeeping. Skep making, microscopy, photography, baking, cosmetics, candle making….the list is long and vibrant. To paraphrase a comment I made in an earlier post, we need the bees much more than they need us.

What do you think – is beekeeping good for your health? Even when you’re sweating buckets in your beesuit and hopping around in pain after the bees found some particularly delicate spots? I hope so!

Bee sponge cake

Display by Judy Earl

 

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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37 Responses to Thoughts on beekeeping and mental health

  1. I just bought a copy of Crow Country on Monday! As well as his latest book, Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet. Coincidence, hmmm….? I’ve been thinking about dragging my husband and a few friends out to Buckenham Carrs. Love the cake, by the way.

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  2. Well bees are certainly creative creatures, we’ve seen plenty of ‘bee art’ at the apiary to prove that 🙂

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  3. disperser says:

    Pretty much anything that sparks interest and enthusiasm is good for one’s health. If not always physical health (Mixed Martial Arts competitions come to mind), certainly mental health.

    Part of outsider’s ‘shaking of the head’ no doubt comes from the fact they only see a snapshot of any particular interest or obsession. Most people get into things gradually, and integrate those things into their lives over a period of time. From the outside, it often looks like a giant step into a new world.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Good point. Once you immerse yourself into a new hobby, practices that may have seemed eccentric or silly beforehand come to seem perfectly normal. Which is probably how people get sucked into barmy religions.

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  4. Jonathan Harding says:

    As a self employed businessman (now retired), tending my bees in their natural rhythm has always helped me cope with stress–at least the hive seems to know what it is meant to be doing!
    I have also noticed with satisfaction that somehow while I am happy in a cloud of bees no one ever seems to interrupt me.—–‘He’s doing his bees’ is sufficient for someone to call back’!
    Also it seems, that when you open a beehive properly, you sign in to a forgotten timeless pace of nature which cannot be hurried (for some business deadline), without painful consequences for you or the bees. It is a rare opportunity to synchronise with the Creator’s clock to reassess life’s priorities.
    Those round about me do not always appreciate these finer philosophical points………………
    Someone once even called me ‘bee minded’ in a moment of exasperation.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Ah, so doing the bees is a get-out-of-jail card to be left well alone! Good point.

      I love that someone called you ‘bee minded’! Did they mean because you keep talking about bees, or because you have a logical and well ordered mind like a bee colony?

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  5. I have not read Crow Country, although it is on my list and I like his Guardian Country Diary pieces. Over the holiday break I read Otter Country by Miriam Darlington which I can recommend. It has been likened to Crow Country and the author’s obsession with otters can be seen either as slightly barmy or, as I see it, a wonderful absorption that leads her to new insights.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks for the recommendation Philip, I’ve added Otter Country to my Amazon wish list. I will try to be more tolerant and open to understanding other people’s obsessions in the future, even if it is hard to imagine that any other hobby could be as engrossing as beekeeping.

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  6. cecilia says:

    I love that your bee keeping is such a group affair.. I love the idea of drinking tea and eating cake in the snow and look at those delightful old codgers.. true about that mental health too.. focus is the key i think.. c

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    • Emily Scott says:

      The great thing about the apiary in the winter is that a delightful collection of hats are exhibited! I think our old codgers are generally in good shape. Moving hive equipment about makes for good light exercise and top bar hives are a handy solution for those whose back no longer bends so well. Focus is a good word… time spent focusing on the bees means less time focusing on sadnesses or worries.

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  7. I often liken beekeeping to meditation as, when you have an open hive before you, everything else leaves your mind and you can focus on them alone as you can’t do with things the rest of the time. The day I open a beehive without learning something is the day I give up beekeeping!
    The only health issue (apart from those who have poor sting reactions) is ‘beekeeper’s back’ for which Langstroth is to blame! As you say, Emily, the top bar hive is an answer.
    I may have another as I am in the process of converting my greenhouse into a beehouse. It’s still at the design stage but the idea is to have 4 hives in the 6′ x 8′ house, which is on stilts so the base is knee high. The boxes will be almost 2′ wide and so will hold more frames than a standard National. I will be able to open a cupboard door to reveal a clear plastic inner door to enable a view without disturbance. If desired the inner door will be opened and the frames, which will have their ‘top’ bars vertically facing me, can be withdrawn singly without too much stretching or bending.
    The design was inspired by bee houses I saw on a bee-tour of Slovenia, some pictures of which are in my (co-authored with Dave MacFawn of S.Carolina) book: Getting the Best from Your Bees. If you’re interested, the cheapest way to get a copy is to download an e-version. If you like paper books, Jerry of Northern Bee Books still has a few copies or you could try Amazon.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      It’s true, once you have an open colony in front of you thoughts of everything else melt away and you concentrate on the moment.

      Interesting about the greenhouse. Some members at the Ealing association keep bees in a shed within a local wood and they seem to do very well. There was a bit of an issue with inspecting as the bees fly up in the air and hit the windows, but they have a gap at the top of the windows which they eventually find to make their way out.

      I actually have a hard copy of your book already 🙂

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  8. P&B says:

    Beekeeping is definitely good for my mental health except when I have nightmares about skunks raiding my hives, the rascals.

    How do you air-dry a jar without leaving water marks, anyway?

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Aha! A taker for the water marks tip. If you leave the jars turned upside down initially a drip gathers in the centre of the bottom, which would leave a mark. So you leave the jars on their side and then after waiting a while turn each one upside down. Think that’s what Andy said, anyway!

      I feel grateful to have no skunks or indeed bears locally! Though skunks and bears are pretty cool creatures, just not around my beehives please.

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  9. Yes, “We are all mad.” Ain’t it Great!

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  10. I could never think of anyone with such a wonderful enthusiasm as sad or mad. I think it’s great. I just wish I could find a single obsession for my retirement in a few years’ time, although I think for me it is more likely to be birds than bees.
    Keep on beekeeping – you are all probably saving the world, one hive at a time 🙂

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  11. Julie says:

    I believe beekeeping is 100% good for mental health! It’s so wonderful to go out and watch/study the bees. I remember just sitting a few meters away from a hive and watching them on a warm, summer day. I could have sat there for hours, it was both fascinating and peaceful; I totally agree with you that there is something satisfying being outside with bees and being completely surrounded by nature 🙂 Great post!

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  12. daveloveless says:

    What a wonderful thought. I haven’t talked about this much, but I am recently recovered (recovering?) from a pretty serious bout with depression, and I do credit the bees with a healthy amount of that recovery. There is just nothing like a late summer evening with my back against the hives watching the bees coming in from a long day of foraging. And the work helps, too. It gave me something to look forward to and focus on.

    I love my girls!

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    • Emily Scott says:

      That’s really good to hear that you’re feeling happier. Sitting in the summer sun with the bees coming home must be a wonderful thing. I know at times when I’ve been down, going to see my bees has helped pull me out of it somewhat.

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  13. solarbeez says:

    They say as you age, you should learn a language, travel, or start a new hobby to keep your mind active. Now that I’m semi retired, beekeeping keeps my mind active. In a way, it’s a new language as well as a hobby, because it involves a whole new vocabulary as well as carpentry and building skills if you’re interested in making hives. I am. Yes, I’d say beekeeping is good for your mental health especially in the winter time when people are more apt to suffer seasonal affective disorder because of less sunlight. Yes, the bees are less active now, but in winter we’ve got time to prepare for the swarming season. Last year I had 10 plus swarms from only 3 hives. This year I’ve got 8 hives. I guess I better get busy! 🙂

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I really admire all the beekeeper/carpenters out there, it’s such a productive skill making your own hives. 8 hives now, you are really expanding – perhaps 16 by the end of 2015?! You’ll be a small-scale bee farmer in no time.

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  14. “To be engaged is to be a part, to be absorbed and fulfilled. To be cool, to be detached from things and to have no passionate feeling is the real sadness. At the heart of depression, that quintessentially modern malaise, is a deep sense of separation from the rest of life.”

    I can totally agree with this, Emily, I keep bees and am a birdwatcher, and also I am a crafter, when I feel depressed lethargy sets in, but when it lifts, I can move forward and ‘get busy’ with life again. I feel that this kind of geeky connection runs so deep and actually puts me in the zone that many people talk of x

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  15. Alex Jones says:

    The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explores the idea of taming something, which in his words is creating connections, “wasting time” caring for something, so that the object of care and the individual become tied together in a relationship of need. The book describes the Little Prince coming to a garden of thousands of roses, but rejecting them all, since there is only one rose that is special to him, one that he has tamed.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I haven’t read that, but it’s a classic, isn’t it? Not sure I like the idea of taming another being or creature. I disagree with the Little Prince!

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      • Alex Jones says:

        Here is a quote from the Little Prince:

        “No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean ‘tame’?”

        “It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

        “‘To establish ties’?”

        “Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

        Liked by 1 person

  16. cindy knoke says:

    As a mental health clinician I can attest that passionate hobbies like yours are definitely good for your mental health…..Also good for the planets health and well being!

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  17. The Good Villager says:

    I find working with raw honey absolutely relaxing. The smell, the warmth, and the repetitive movements. Like meditation for me.

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