Sarah Red-Laird is the founder and Executive Director of the Bee Girl organization, a nonprofit with a mission to inspire and empower communities to conserve bees and their habitat. She is a graduate of the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation with a degree in Resource Conservation, focused on community collaboration and environmental policy. Aside from running the Bee Girl organization’s programs, Sarah is the US Ambassador of the International Bee Research Association's (IBRA) BEEWORLD project, the Kids and Bees Director for the American Beekeeping Federation, a New York Bee Sanctuary Advisory Board member, is an active member of the Northwest Farmers Union, and is a mentor in the Oregon State Master Beekeepers Program, and the Regional Representative for the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association. When she is not tirelessly working with bees, beekeepers, kids, farmers, land managers, and policy makers, Sarah heads for the hills with a camera, large backpack, fishing rod, bike or snowboard, and her best friend, Sophie the Yellow Lab.
When did you become interested in beekeeping and why?
I was born this way! I don’t remember ever having an ah-ha moment where I knew I loved bees and wanted to be a beekeeper, it’s just always been there. My first memorable experience is when I was about three, eating honey that was freshly harvested at my aunt’s farm in Southern Oregon.
Did you learn the art of beekeeping from someone?
Yes, I have a lot of amazing mentors. Scott Debnam and Jerry Bromenshenk, University of Montana, John Jacob, Old Sol Apiary, and Zac Browning, Browning Honey Company.
What is it about bees that drew you to do the work you do?
Their ability to always keep me on my toes. A colony of bees holds so many secrets. Trying to get to know them is fun, challenging, rewarding, heartbreaking, and meditative.
What kind of hives do you use and why?
Langstroth, they are the closest thing I’ve found to the bees’ natural habitat – a tree!
What kind of bees do you keep (Russian? Italian?)? Tell us about them!
My bees are 100% Southern Oregon mélange. My original stock is from Hetkams Honey Bees, Olivarez Honey Bees, and Old Sol Bees. I’ve had some swarms, bred some queens, offed some queens, caught some swarms, so by this point, they are just a great hyperlocal mix of what works best for me and my region. Sweet personalities, great honey, wax, and propolis producers, and mite resistant to a point. Oh, and I think they are the prettiest girls on the block ;-)
Tell us your favorite swarm story!
Definitely in Oakland, California. I was working bees with my crush (which makes everything better), and one of his hives swarms while we were on a short lunch break. We hurried back, to find the swarm hanging in a monkey puzzle tree about 30 feet up. Just as I was trying to talk my crush out of scaling a rickety ladder on a rickety garage roof to get the girls – woosh! They swarmed. We then took to our feet to chase after them. They had disappeared, but not for long… we piled in his car and skimmed the streets of Oakland for the bees. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the familiar, zip! zip! zip! of bee flight on top of a hill. They had landed in the wisteria of an ancient Victorian home. We boxed them up, caught the queen, and set the box out for the rest of the foragers to come home by dusk. Well, thinking we had it “in the bag.” We went to grab a drink and wait till dusk to gather our treasure. The bees had another idea. By the time we got back, they were gonzo. Every last one of them.
So why is this my favorite swarm story? Because even though we lost the bees, while we were catching the swarm, a small group of kids were walking home from school and saw us in action. One yelled, “Awe man! Get out of here! Run, dude!!” But another kid calmly said, “No dude, it’s cool. Those are beekeepers, and that is a swarm of honey bees. Honey bees won’t mess with you, man. They are just looking for the queen to take her to a hive.” Then there was lots of muttering, and they stood and watched in awe as we escorted the bees to the box, clump by clump.
It was obvious that this kid was privy to some of the excellent farm to school education available to kids through the Edible Schoolyard, or some other awesome farm or beekeeping education program in the East Bay. It made me feel great about being able to be part of this trend, and to see it really work in the “field.” Kids teaching other kids to love bees in a seemingly rough neighborhood, doesn’t get much better than that.
What do your bees forage?
Wildflowers! They sit on a hill surrounded by vetch, clover, blackberries, wild rose, willows, and all sorts of other good stuff.
What makes you unique as a beekeeper?
I’m a woman and I’m under 60!
How do bees recognize their hive?
My hives are an arrangement of while, teal, and yellow boxes – with a stenciling project in the works.
What protective gear do you wear? Do you have a favorite protective garment?
Depends what I’m doing, which hives, and what time of year. Sometimes shorts and a tank top with boots, other times the whole get-up, gloves and all. My favorite garment is my customized BB Wear suit, a gift from my dear friend and mentor, Zac Browning.
What's the most painful/hilarious place you've been stung?
Up my nose!! I looked like Cindy Lou Who for three days!
If you were a bee, what caste of bee would you want to be?
Scout bee! They have all the fun!
Give us your craziest bee-related story?
I got squirted in the eyes and mouth with queen bee venom spray once. That was unexpected and unpleasant.
What's your favorite kind of honey?
Montana White Clover
What's your favorite way to use honey?
In cocktails. Here is my favorite recipe:
1 oz Vya Whisper Dry Vermouth
½ oz. Honey Lavender Syrup
Topped with Dry Sparkling Wine
Fresh Lavender Sprig Garnish
What's your favorite bee product besides honey? What do you do with it?
Propolis. Take it in tincture form to keep from getting sick, I also rinse with it to keep my gums healthy.
What part of the hive's operations do you find most fascinating, brutal, and/or beautiful?
I think a colony is all of those things at once. What I think is the most beautiful is the bees’ commitment to the whole of their own small society, and how this altruistically supports whole ecosystems and life systems. For this, I’m going to quote the Dalai Lama on his thoughts on the “Medicine of Altruism.”
“When I consider the lack of cooperation in human society, I can only conclude that it stems from ignorance of our interdependent nature. I am often moved by the example of small insects, such as bees. The laws of nature dictate that bees work together in order to survive. As a result, they possess an instinctive sense of social responsibility. They have no constitution, laws, police, religion or moral training, but because of their nature they labour faithfully together. Occasionally they may fight, but in general the whole colony survives on the basis of cooperation. Human beings, on the other hand, have constitutions, vast legal systems and police forces; we have religion, remarkable intelligence and a heart with great capacity to love. But despite our many extraordinary qualities, in actual practice we lag behind those small insects; in some ways, I feel we are poorer than the bees.”