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From China to Mexico with the bees

If you recall, Maggie S was a student at the University of Puget Sound who spent a semester abroad with beekeepers in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and China. Since her return from China, she has been busier than ever. Just recently she relocated to Chiapas, Mexico, where she will spend the next nine months on a Fulbright grant, working with beekeepers to document the organic beekeeping movement as it occurs.

So here is the last installment of Maggie’s adventures in China . . . with any luck, we will get a dispatch from Mexico as well. Good luck, Maggie, and thank you!

Beehive painting activity

The beehive painting activity starts at 2 pm. It lasts until 4 pm, and we spend the next hour cleaning the floors. Acrylic paint is waterproof—that’s why I chose it—and the front porch will never be the same.

“Don’t worry,” Rate says, scratching at a patch of yellow paint with an Exacto knife. “We cannot avoid this situation.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s sure nice to hear. All the volunteers at the Heritage Center are outside cleaning up. We’re on our hands and knees scrubbing with senseless determination. I love teamwork everywhere, and especially in China. I have picked up some Chinese in the past couple weeks; I can navigate the market and the bus system, but there is so much to say about bees, and my vocabulary is limited. The other volunteers have been invaluable as translators and teachers.

“Can anyone guess how many bees live in a beehive like this one?”


“No . . . ”



“60,000,” we say. They can hardly handle that.

Our activity consists of painting hive boxes to help bees recognize their homes. The lesson involves honey bee biology in simple English and elementary Chinese, and we share it with the Environmental Champions Club, a group of kids that meets weekly at the Heritage Center. We start with a bi-lingual list of bee words, like pollen and honey and wax.

After a quick lesson in the small library, we unleash the Environmental Champions into the courtyard to decorate. At first they are unsure of what to paint, so we brainstorm things that bees like. Lots of flowers, some houses, a yak. A few of the kids ask me to paint bees on their boxes. I produce a lumpy yellow butterfly. It feels like an autograph.

Soon, we have a dozen brightly-painted bee boxes, a colorful porch, and twenty painty kids. Environmental Champions if ever I saw them.


I’ll be honest. I’m twenty-one years old. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood where installing a basketball hoop requires a special permit and keeping bees is not up for debate.

I started working with bees during my first year at the University of Puget Sound. After summer work at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab and a few weeks migratory beekeeping in Australia and New Zealand, I was a more capable and comfortable beekeeper. But I had yet to experience running my own colonies, and I had never been the resident expert.

It has been six months since I returned from my beekeeping adventures abroad. When people ask me about my favorite part of the trip, I usually draw a blank (“Trip? What trip?”) or else I talk about the motorcycle taxis in Thailand. This is what I should say:

My favorite part of the whole dang thing was working bees in China, having the colonies all to myself, being responsible, and resourceful and creative. I had time to practice techniques others have taught me, and the opportunity to experiment on my own.

The Tibetan Highlands are harsh, the lifestyle is challenging, and I missed having English in my ears. But despite these inconveniences, I had everything I needed: a mountain to hike in the mornings, my own bees to learn from and look after, a language to learn, and a few friends to laugh with.

Shangri-la was my Shangri-la.

Small World


The Environmental Champions Club joins in the hive-painting activity.


Another sunny inspection.


Painting on the porch.


“If you were a bee, what would you want your home to look like?”


Bilingual beekeeping.


Ami approves the final product.

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