When Julia Mahood opens her honeybee hive within sight of Roswell Road, she feels a surgeon’s burden. The insects’ home is an intricate, interconnected universe. One wrong move can upset or even destroy all of it.
She knows they could live more freely in a tree hollow, a la Winnie the Pooh, but trees and bees are going away — a warning sign that the environment is in peril. So each month Mahood uses these hives, at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve in north Buckhead, to teach new beekeepers. Bees connect her to the earth, to others and herself. They’ve taught her to let go of her childhood fear of being stung.
She’s learned harder lessons, too.
Once she shuts the hive top to protect the bees, their only exit is from the bottom of the hive.
A year ago, when the waters around Atlanta suddenly rose, that sole exit doomed her swarm. The loss — and subsequent replacement — of thousands of bees made her see, as only sacrifice can, what life requires.
A ‘horrifying’ flood
Mahood, an artist and mother to two boys now 13 and 11, was at home in Sandy Springs when her phone rang. After overnight storms, fellow beekeeper Linda Tillman wanted to know if the Blue Heron hives were OK. Like so many metro Atlantans, Mahood never expected rains to so quickly roil into historic flooding.
She drove the two miles down Roswell Road, expecting to see the stacked, house-like hives perched in the meadow. But Nancy Creek had jumped its banks, flooding the meadow by 4 feet, drowning the 25-acre preserve’s community garden, with a torrent so strong that a Dumpster floated by.
Nearly 300,000 bees were gone.
“Even if there was an escape, they can’t fly in a downpour,” she said. “I felt like they were my babies.”
“We both cried buckets,” said Tillman, whose blog, http://beekeeperlinda.com, devoted 700 posts to the tragedy. “The helplessness just killed us. It was horrifying.”
Learning from bees
Mahood, 47, had always wanted a living creature to nurture, but severe allergies made dogs and cats forbidden. Her sons begged her for a pet. She said no to this and other things out of fear.
“I grew up with three sisters, all of us a bunch of sissies,” she said. “We couldn’t sleep if there was a spider in the house.”
Then she read the Sue Monk Kidd novel “The Secret Life of Bees” (2003) and attended the John C. Campbell Folk School’s beekeeping course in western North Carolina. “We can live in the city and do something for the earth,” she told her husband.
Bees also could be something that her oldest, Noah Macey, could do with her. Something she could say yes to.
Her joy came through the bright colors she used to paint the hives. She even planted a sting on the sole of her foot, to cure her painful plantar fasciitis.
“Bees took the fear out of my life and put in fascination and appreciation,” she said.
In late summer 2007, Mahood was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. “I came face to face with the cycle of life and mortality,” she said.
As she focused on recovery, she no longer, as folklore suggested, talked to her bees. But they got by just fine, teaching her this time, “I can say no and the world won’t come crashing to an end.”
She concentrates on what is most important: family and bees.
In 2008, when the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association asked for volunteers to operate hives in warm weather months at Blue Heron, a convenient outdoor classroom for Northside residents, Mahood jumped right in.
“Bees are a great way to illustrate how interconnected everything is,” said board director Kevin McCauley, a farmer and beekeeper. “Bees are about the larger group, not individual efforts. You can take a lot of lessons from how the bees operate back to your own life.”
Starting all over
As in a hive, Mahood’s community got busy in the torrent’s wake.
Her closest friends, Gina Gentilozzi and Julie Rothstein — fellow moms whose children attend the Galloway School — spotted Mahood’s artwork on pieces of hives floating downstream.
They combed the North Fulton Golf Course, tracking down sludgy, warped and waterlogged hive parts to help Mahood start over.
“Those were the bees to help teach the community, so what she was losing was a teachable moment,” said Gentilozzi, one of those Mahood educated.
“I never considered the importance of pollination. Bees were just nuisances. Now I understand what they do for us with food crops and why nothing grew in my vegetable garden.”
“Even when things stink, Julia keeps moving forward,” Rothstein said. “That’s what she did with the breast cancer, and when the bees floated away.”
The loss of the seven Blue Heron hives was estimated at $2,500, a cost shared by Mahood and four other hive owners. Two discouraged beekeepers quit.
Mahood thought, naturally, of what a bee would do. In a lifetime of roughly a month, it completes a series of tasks — building the comb, pollinating, foraging — to ensure the hive’s survival.
“There’s wasn’t really a question of if to rebuild,” Mahood’s son, Noah Macey, 13, said. “It was where we were going to get the bees.” Replacements came from an Athens entomologist.
“Bees are very dogged little creatures,” Tillman said. “If a queen dies or is injured, they make a new one. They hang around a hive that is failing because it’s the only one they know. They are not willing to leave. It’s their world. The system is not about them, it’s about keeping going.”
So it was with Mahood.
“I had to let it go,” Mahood said. “[Bad news] happens, but you can move forward. ... We moved the [new] bees to higher ground and forged ahead.”
‘Life goes on’
From Roswell Road, trees obscure the four replacement hives. Pointing the way is a wooden sign made from a flood-salvaged piece of hive, cheerily painted by Mahood. “A little memorial,” she calls it.
Alongside her, son Noah has built on her teaching. He harvested and creamed a batch of honey that won first place in a recent local contest. At home he has built a different type of hive, called a top bar, which enables the keeper to disturb the bees less.
The short Blue Heron trail led them to the hives’ elevated new home. The first year of a new hive isn’t expected to be as productive. More shade there, along with a severe winter and scorching summer heat, also means the nectar isn’t flowing like before.
“Better shady than washed down Nancy Creek,” Mahood said as she looked inside one hive.
She painted a second hive with her lessons from the flood, from life, to share with new beekeepers.
Like a honeycomb, life’s dare to endure is both simple and complex.
“New bees in old boxes,” Mahood said. “Life goes on.”
Where to see bees
- Blue Heron Nature Preserve
- 4055 Roswell Road, Atlanta
- 404-814-8228; www.bhnp.org
- Beehive inspection classes are held monthly during season at Blue Heron and other Atlanta locations. The next class at Blue Heron will be spring 2011. Zoo Atlanta will host one Oct. 9.
- To register: www.metroatlantabeekeepers.org and click on “hive inspections.”
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