Beekeeper Ali Pinion of Starkville, with a net over her face, stands in front of a swarm of bees on a tree. Pinion has found her calling, carrying out bee removals and rescues. Photo by: Courtesy photo
A close photograph shows an entrance to the bee colony in Sonny and Patsy Stuart's cedar tree. Pinion estimates the colony may contain 10,000 to 60,000 bees.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
One of Ali Pinion's current projects is extracting a long-term colony of honey bees from a cedar tree at the home of Sonny and Patsy Stuart in Starkville. She has installed a box containing a starter hive outside the tree nest in a process known as a take-out.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
August 22, 2020 6:23:45 PM
For Ali Pinion, beekeeper, there really is no such thing as a "typical day at the office." Work may send her off to extract bees from an attic, or make tinctures and candles from products of the hive, or even climb 12 feet up a tree convincing thousands of honey bees to change their permanent address.
Pinion, of Starkville, is a dedicated bee guardian, passionate about providing a safe place for these crucial pollinators to live and thrive.
Are most people surprised to meet a female beekeeper?
"Oh, yeah," Pinion laughed. "And they always ask me, do you get a lot of stings?"
Stings come with the territory, but Pinion takes that in stride as she tends the 20 to 25 hives currently under her care. The Indianola native spends 20 to 30 hours per week on bees and also helps her husband with his professional tree service. Pinion has established a chemical treatment-free apiary named Dreaming the Bee. She is an experienced hand at bee colony extractions and removals.
"Swarm and bee rescue are very important to us, and we are ready at a moment's notice to help save a swarm," she said.
Pinion has always felt close to the land. She earned a degree in landscape architecture from Mississippi State University, as well as a graduate degree in health promotion. In grad school, she began ecological regenerative farming. Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm. She and her husband raised pastured pork, turkey and chickens. It so happened someone maintained a hive on the land the couple had livestock on. It piqued Pinion's interest. She began a study of bees, learning how critical they are in pollinating not only flowering plants but also much of the world's food.
"If bees were not existent, we would not be eating the food we are eating right now," she remarked.
But that wasn't the only appeal.
"What actually got me to become a beekeeper myself was reading about bees and spirituality -- how people, in particular monks and different religions throughout history, had worked with bees as a grounding practice, as a way to connect with something greater than themselves, connecting with nature and connecting with God."
Understanding bees has helped this keeper become more mindful.
"It could be dangerous if you're not in full presence," Pinion said. "When working with bees it teaches us to work very slowly and carefully. We have to think about something before we do it."
Moving slowly to avoid being stung has been almost meditative.
"Bees can sense if you're nervous or afraid. ... We don't have many experiences now where we just have to listen fully to our bodies and really cultivate presence, to listen to what's going on with our bodies. We are so disconnected from our feelings, from looking at our phones or watching TV."
And then, there is the rush.
"I'm not gonna lie, I'm kind of an adrenaline junkie in a way, so I like the idea that it's kind of dangerous, too," she said.
Patsy and Sonny Stuart first noticed bees around a towering cedar tree in their Starkville yard a couple of years ago. The colony has since grown -- and the tree now needs trimming.
"It has some branches that need to be removed, but we can't ask anybody to work on it with the bees in it," explained Patsy Stuart. As conservation chair for the Mississippi State Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Stuart promotes the DAR's efforts on recycling, clean water and other conservation measures -- including an emphasis on the importance of pollinator gardens.
"I wanted to save the bees. We need them," she said.
Stuart searched for alternatives to exterminating the colony but was running out of options until she heard about Dreaming the Bee.
While many smaller removals may take a day, Pinion's solution to the Stuarts' dilemma is known as a trap-out. It requires patience: the process may take six to eight weeks. After studying the space where the colony estimated at 10,000 to 60,000 honey bees live, Pinion has installed a one-way cone that allows bees to leave the nest but prevents them from returning. Nearby, she put up a box with a small starter hive of bees. The returning foragers that are unable to re-enter their tree will typically take up residence with the new hive.
"(A trap-out) takes so much effort and a lot of going back and forth, so a lot of beekeepers don't do this," Pinion said.
This particular job requires a lot of high-ladder work. Does that unnerve Pinion? Early on in her bee career, it did.
"But I am a very lucky woman because my husband is a tree climber," she said. "He sets me up with all the gear. My husband has also taught me a lot of ways of thinking and being as safe as possible."
Stuart remarked, "We are so impressed with Ali. She's so sharp. We've got to keep the bees safe and help them because they help us."
While monitoring the cedar tree colony, when Pinion feels there are no more bees leaving the original nest, she'll complete the trap-out process.
"Then I'll close the hole in the tree and take the new colony out to the farm and let it live a happy life," she said.
Education is key to Pinion's mission. She believes the more others understand the role of bees, the more likely they are to value and protect them. A highlight of her own study was a bee camp in Nebraska with acclaimed keeper Michael Bush.
"From there I started teaching workshops and started teaching kids about beekeeping," Pinion said. "That developed into doing hive tours, where people get to wear a bee suit and experience what it's like to be around bees."
She has also developed Host-a-Hive and Sponsor-a-Hive programs. With Host-a-Hive, for a monthly fee, Pinion will set up bees on client property with her hives and equipment.
"You have a passive role and let them pollinate your garden, your trees and flowers," she explained. "Or, you can be mentored by me, and I can teach you how to start beekeeping." Details, as well as products of the hive, are available on the website dreamingthebee.com.
For Pinion, the role of bee guardian is an organic calling.
"Bees show us that we are all connected," she said. "They are a super organism, and no one bee can live alone. Bees depend on their community to survive, just as humans do. We all share one planet. We must take care of our planet and each other in order to take care of ourselves."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.