The 2019 WAS Conference Happened! What’s Next?

“As the “conference” portion of the weekend wrapped up, Sarah Red-Laird and Katrina Klett spoke about the importance of healthy soil, regenerative bee pastures, and creating bee habitats in our own yards. This is something I clearly have been thinking a lot about since working to create a yard I thought would “bee friendlee” for my honey bees only to be pleasantly surprised by the number of native bees who have showed up. The diversity in my flowers, shrubs, and trees is clearly leading to a diversity in the pollinators. You don’t have to have a hive in your backyard to help the bees. It could be as simple as letting the clover in your lawn grow and if there is no clover in your lawn, throw some seeds out there! We have a long long way to go but @abrelabokeh and I are excited to get to work...I mean continue our work 😜 but now with a clear focus on the 🐝.”

This quote from conference attendee, Laura Lee, sums up all of my hopes and dreams for the 2019 Western Apicultural Society conference in Ashland, Oregon.  Our conference theme was “Hive Mind for the Greater Good.”  My vision was for people to come together in an inclusive space to meet, listen, share, laugh, and be inspired to go home and carry on their good work for bees, with a fresh view as to what that could look like.  The comments that have been rolling in from our post-conference survey, and on social media, have shown that we were able to do just that!    

This conference was no small feat.  I’ve attended (as a speaker or attendee) almost 70 beekeeping and farming conferences over the last decade.  I started dreaming of hosting my own about five years ago, and stepped into the role to do just that two years ago.  I’ve been muddling over every detail, and asking for direction from beekeepers, for quite some time.  I’ve been considering everything from where the food would be produced, to where the tee-shirts would be made (and how the cotton in the tee-shirts is farmed); to how to create the most diverse schedule to include a variety of interests (beekeeping, native bees, research, art, health, policy and pesticide issues, the business of bees, etc.); to the length of time given between keynotes and workshops for networking and processing; to also how to create an experience for conference-goers where they get to take the mic, and tell their stories, too!  If there is one thing that I have learned from all of these years of conference-going, it’s that the attendees are AMAZING PEOPLE!!  If one is going to spend the time and the money to get to a beekeeping conference, they have jumped into the deep end of the bee world, and have some great ideas and experiences to share, too!

The “society” mindset conference activity that really worked was the #beekeeperfail storytelling hour.  Emcee, Ash Shepherd, kicked it off with his own story about the one time he was helping me move bees in the dark. He forgot to peg his pants and stepped on a pile of bees, that then shot up his pant legs!  Beekeeper after beekeeper lined up to share their “fails.” There were tears of laughter, and tears from tugged heartstrings, and it was a bee-utiful night.  Thank you to all who participated!!  I encourage this to become a tradition not only at the WAS conference, but anywhere that it can be squeezed into the agenda at other beekeeper events (and don’t forget to provide free beer first!).            

I’d like to continue to open up the floor, and share a few more remarks from the attendees:    

“This has been quite the bee conference. It's so nice to have met some serious powerhouse beeks that love bees and are working around to clock to make a better home for them and us. Hands down the best conference ever. Thanks @sarahbeegirl and crew for putting on such an intimate/fun weekend with some fabulous folks. 💗”

“I learned how to safely catch, identify, and release different types of native bumblebees today. The scenic meadow was abundant in flowers and all types of little creatures to admire and study. Thanks to Dr. Jaime Strange and his team for this opportunity. I always wanted to frolic in a meadow with a net and catch bees.”

“Queen grafting class with Katrina Klett (Elevated Honey) was awesome! Every beekeeper can raise Queens from best hives and let the best drones fly. Let’s favor the best genetics. 💪🏻 Grafting is a learned skill but there are many ways to raise Queens so get educated and practice, practice!”

“Feeling so inspired for future projects with 🐝 beekeeping, 🌱gardening, crafting 🌻and so much more from the speakers at #wasashland 2019.  It is amazing to see what amazing collaboration occurs when we have a Hive mind for the greater good and work together. I am inspired by all the beeks (bee geeks) who are sharing in this conference.”

“My favorite thing about this conference was the warmth of how welcoming and open EVERYONE was. Extremely comfortable to talk to tons of great people. The speakers were fantastic and relatable.”

“Today as I fly home from the Western Apiculture Society Conference I’ve been processing just how special this gathering was. Not only was it my first #beekeeping conference to attend but also my first invitation to speak and teach at one. However, that isn’t even what was so unique. What was really special is that every👏🏼single👏🏼 expert👏🏼 on stage was a female. We had women scientists and researchers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and activists all gathering around our shared love and passion for raising healthy bees. As far as I know an all female bill at a beekeeping conference is unprecedented and is all due to the hard work and vision of @sarahbeegirl 💪 I’m heading home now with a ton of ideas to implement and a full cup of inspiration and gratitude. ❤️”

While in the planning stages for the WAS Ashland conference, I mentioned to WAS board members, and past presidents, that I would love to highlight female experts.  While I received many encouraging sentiments, there was one comment that rang clear as a bell, “I really don’t think there are enough women in beekeeping and research out there to fill a speaker roster.” 

“Umm…” I replied, “watch me!”

And this is when I decided to not just feature, but fill, the stage with women for the entire conference, who I knew could all knock it out of the park.  And boy, did they!!  I was encouraged to title this a “Women’s Beekeeping Conference.”  But that’s not what it was.  It was the Western Apicultural Society conference, and the speakers just happened to be all women.  Because there are so many fantastic and brilliant women in the fields of the art and science of beekeeping, why shouldn’t we tip the scale to show that? 

The conference was kicked off with a thought provoking welcome (video streamed) from Dr. Marla Spivak on the theme of what does it really mean to “Save the Bees,” and are we, as beekeepers, doing the best we can?   Next was a keynote by Katrina Klett who took us on a journey through the mountains of southwestern China where her work with beekeepers and “thousand flower honey” has become extraordinarily personal.  More than half the audience felt compelled to quit everything, and move to China to help Katrina in her heroic (not an over-statement) efforts.  Hilary Kearney’s keynote ended the day, and her talk on the importance of human connection and storytelling was a perfect segue into the #beekeeperfail storytelling hour.

Saturday began with a compelling keynote by Dr. Megan Milbrath addressing “treatment free beekeeping.”  She took a survey of the room that showed that 99% of beekeepers do not want to put pesticides in their hives.  But how can we get there when we are in the middle of an epidemic?  Everyone was on the edge of their seats listening to her break down the social and scientific short- and long-term strategies for the Varroa mite epidemic.  In short, bees are animals, treat them with care and respect.  Also, in order to successfully beat an epidemic, we need to decouple breeding from management.  This means all beekeepers have a job (to keep their bees alive – the short term solution), and honey bee breeders have a job (to work on a long term solution informed by research and strategy). 

The day continued with the “speed swarm” where attendees got to sit down with conference speakers and have intimate, small group discussions.  After a farm-to-table lunch Dr. Judy Wu-Smart gave a keynote breaking down the current bee research and its relevance to beekeepers.  We then transitioned into a difference array of on-site workshops for the rest of the day.    

The evening was capped off by a delicious farm-to-table banquet, where I emotionally made my way through the evening’s agenda (I promised myself I would cry… but… damn).  We had a remembrance for Dr. Robbin Thorp, given by Dr. Jamie Strange, a recognition of our first ever James Smith Memorial Scholarship winners, we had a drawing for a Flow Hive, and other top-of-the line beekeeping swag, and I was honored to give three awards. 

The first was to Del and Myrna Barber.  They received the “Outstanding Service to Beekeepers Award” for their years of service through educating thousands of kids, and also their stand-up leadership in policy work this year on Nevada Senate Bill 389, which would have severely limited the rights of beekeepers in their state.  The first “Presidents Award” went to Sherry Olsen-Frank, our WAS Treasurer who spend countless hours behind the scenes pulling the conference together, and working on the organization itself.  In the last five years in my involvement in WAS, Sherry has been a consistent and responsive leader, even during tax season!!  Which says a lot, as she is a CPA.  The second “Presidents Award” went to Phylicia Chandler, WAS 1st Vice President.  Phylicia does everything she puts her mind to with conviction, perfection, thought, grace, and integrity.  Her work on the WAS conference was no exception.  She worked around the clock, and mastered every detail while I kept my focus on the big vision, and she did it with a genuine smile. 

On Sunday, we headed for the hills!  The conference wrapped up with an early morning business meeting, and a closing co-keynote from myself and Katrina Klett on bees, soil, and habitat.  Then attendees headed out for a variety of activities in Southern Oregon.  WAS hosted two hands-on beekeeping workshops at the Bee Girl Center for Research and Education at the Sampson Creek Preserve; a bumble bee workshop on Mount Ashland, and a Kids and Bees, Flow Hive, and bee habitat workshop at the Farm at Southern Oregon University.  Other attendees spend the day checking out local farms and ranches hosting activities at part of the Rogue Valley Farm Tour.  As attendees and speakers made their ways to the airport and up and down the freeway, a large group stayed behind for the last activity of the day, a bee habitat and vineyard tour, and wine tasting, at Irvine & Roberts Vineyards.  A splendid and delicious end to the 2019 Western Apicultural Society Conference.        

For a full list of the speakers, their bios, and their abstracts, click here.       

I cannot express enough gratitude to my co-conference organizers Phylicia Chandler and Sarah Shaw, to our vendor and sponsor organizer, Regina Robuck, to all of our sponsors, to our queen conference gopher, Maggie Aceto, to all of our conference volunteers, to the WAS board, especially Sherry and Cyndi for rocking out the registration table, to the scholarship applicants, waggle dance presenters, and of course, the speakers from traveling from near and far to share your passion.  Thank you to Krista Holland, for getting up before sunrise to teach “beekeeper yoga” every morning at *gasp* 6am!!  Lastly, a huge thank you to our venue, the Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites, and Conference Center, who were generous and professional every step of the way.  Also, we kicked off the conference with a day on the Rogue River, and our guides were so courteous, kind, and super fun!!  Thank you, Momentum River Expeditions, for really kicking the conference off with a stellar vibe.   

The WAS conference will be in Missoula, Montana, in 2020, and I encourage you all to save the date (the second weekend in July) for another opportunity for learning and growing together.

It’s with a heavy heart that I now make my announcement that I will be leaving the Western Apicultural Society as President and Oregon Director.  From hosting the first “Next Generation Beekeeper Breakout Session” in Montana in 2014, to hosting the entire conference in Oregon in 2019, it has been a wild ride!  My involvement in WAS has inspired me to push my boundaries and grow personally and professionally over the last few years, and I’m nothing but appreciative for that. 

After seeing the effervescent passion that Katrina Klett and Dr. Megan Milbrath have for honey bees and beekeepers, I realized that I’m just not there.  I have followed my curiosity for beekeeping down the rabbit hole for just a few months shy of a decade.  But while watching Katie and Meghan (and also Hilary and Judy) stand on the cutting edge of beekeeping, and do it with grace, style, humor, and intelligence, I realized that I’m not really there with them, and my passion has transitioned away from helping beekeepers keep their honey bees (which is an extraordinarily noble position), and toward something else.  In short - soil.      

Since 2015, I have slowly been turning my gaze toward soil, pasture management, bee diversity, community organizing, and agricultural policy.  This began with the combination of learning about “Holistic Management” from Beth and Maurice Robinette at Lazy R Ranch, and beginning a collaboration with the Oregon Department of Transportation to monitor bees, flowers, and their relationship on a large vernal pool habitat restoration project. 

I started my career laser focused on the inside of the hive.  **I literally worked on a project that used lasers to watch bees in Prof. Jerry Bromenshenk’s bee lab!**  I wanted to know everything about how a honey bee hive functioned!  Their dances, their smells, their sounds, their queens, their attitudes, their bodies, their fuzz, their honey, their pests, their diseases.  EVERYTHING!!  I was lucky enough to start off with a team of true bee nerds at the University of Montana.  Every question I had could be brought to a bank of decades of knowledge and experience.  Every question was answered openly and thoroughly.

I talked non-stop about bees at parties.  Then my curiosity and joy led to passion.  I eventually followed that passion on to stages, in front of cameras, into classrooms, convention halls, a former US president’s home, and on to social media.  My goals were to teach beekeepers how to keep their bees alive, to teach kids not to fear bees, and to teach the general public how they could be an advocate for beekeepers and honey bees.          

In the past few years, however, I’ve become more enamored with understanding how I can be part of the solution outside of the hive.  My work on the ODOT Pollinator Project has opened my eyes to the curios lives of solitary bees and bumble bees.  I’ve become enchanted with them and the plants they partner with.  I’ve also become completely obsessed with soil biology and bee nutrition.  I’m fascinated by the potential positive effects that partnering with farmers and ranchers could have to provide better bee habitat by making large, or small, tweaks to pasture management techniques.  I’m also constantly thinking about how to find more support to enable farmers and ranchers to become more holistic through consumer education and policy change. 

So.  I’m not quitting, but I am veering.  I’ll always be a beekeeper. What happens inside a hive still intuitively makes more sense to me than almost anything in my life.  I’ll always fawn over my girls, and make Bee Girl Honey.  But I’m stepping away as a beekeeping instructor and advocate (because after the WAS conference, I can clearly see that beekeepers are in very good hands). 

My days will now be spent:

1.  Thinking about how to tap into my creativity to gather and deliver good data to the regenerative agriculture movement on how to consciously provide the best habitat for bees on our agricultural lands through discoveries in my Regenerative Bee Pasture and ODOT Pollinator projects.             

2.  Working on policies which will help farmers and ranchers to stay on their land, and to support them in adopting practices to increase diversity, reduce the effects of climate change, sequester carbon, build soil, and feed bees and people nutritionally dense food.  

3.  Educating kids and consumers, through strategic partnerships and collaborations, how to support bees and a better agricultural system.

4.  Creating “train-the-trainer” workshops and materials to teach people how to teach kids about bee conservation.  Because we didn’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, it was borrowed from our children, and they need all the help they can get learning how to protect and conserve it.

So.  Thank you, beekeepers and the beekeeping industry, for the support you’ve offered, for the challenges that you have whipped at me, for the friends you’ve provided, the opportunities that have been laid at my feet and the ones I have had to fight tooth and nail for, for all the stings, and for the best decade of my life.  I hope we can still be friends, and I hope you’ll let me come and talk to you about soil, flowers, bee diversity, and kids.