GTPulse: The Keeper of Bees

A couple of weeks ago while walking around an orchard for a story a bee stung my head. The well-meaning farmer had wanted to show me a hilltop that overlooked his entire farm and on our walk, we passed a couple of hives he had on the grounds.

I am not a nervous person around insects, so when a bee orbited my head and then quietly landed on top of it, I didn’t freak out. I held steady and locked eyes with the farmer who assuredly told me that it wouldn’t sting me, just as it stung me.

Obscenities were yelled, the recorder was thrown, and both of our hands hurriedly raked through my hair in hopes of removing the dying bee. It was traumatizing for all three of us.

Needless to say, I didn’t think I’d be going out of my way to get up close and personal with bees for a while, but somehow ended up doing exactly that when I met Garth Ward.

“Garth like Brooks, although I don’t sing half as good,” he said with a grin.

Garth owns Rock Ridge Ranch Bee Sanctuary where he rescues and rehomes bees. If you find that a beehive has made a home in your home, Garth is the guy to call.

“Back down in Mount Pleasant in the ‘60s I was around bees out at a farm and I kind of liked them. I helped move some hives and stuff but I wasn’t really into doing it. In 2005 is when I started getting into it. After the accident, I thought, ‘Well this is kind of something I can do. I’m on the ground, I’m in charge, nobody wants to help you.’ Perfect!”

His Michigan roots run strong. Born in Harbor Springs, his mother moved him and his siblings down to Mount Pleasant after his father left. It was there he learned the carpentry skills that would guide his work for the rest of his career.

“Being a builder was something I’d done all my life, even in high school. My first job was helping tear apart a house. This friend of mine, her dad was the mayor and he had some houses he was redoing. I wanted to work with him. I needed knowledge.”

He resumed work being a builder after returning home from fighting in the Vietnam War, and had a passion for his craft, but not always for the inconveniences that came with it.

“I was a contractor for 48 years. I used to go to bed with a ball of barbed wire in my stomach when I was a contractor. You know you meet someone at their house at 10:00 to start putting a new door in. Ok, I get up, the lumber company doesn’t have the right door, I can get the right door over here but it’s a town away, so now I go to this next town and get your door, I come back and then the fasteners don’t work, so by the time I get to your 8:00 appointment it’s 10:30 and you’re wondering where the hell this cheap-ass builder is. If it wasn’t one thing it was the other.”

Life was ready to put Garth on a different path, and by nature, change comes in all kinds of surprising and painful packages.

“I fell two and a half stories, hence ending my building career on a good note. It was a kick-ass building. Kicked my ass,” he said with a laugh.

He had gotten a concussion, broken all but three ribs, dislocated a hip, a shoulder, and punctured two lungs. So, no longer a builder, he returned to the nostalgic farm work from his youth.

“I’ve tried that people thing and they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I’m not a people person anymore. I like insects. You know what to expect. I’ve been pretty reclusive since the accident. I don’t go out too much anymore.”

Maybe not for social engagements, but Garth goes out when he’s called for a hive removal. His bee sanctuary is a collection of hives that he has rescued from the homes of unsuspecting and unhappy homeowners who need a hive removed, usually from a house or garage. His carpentry skills still come in handy.

“I’m not afraid to climb and a lot of these hives are up in the eaves on the second story or something.”

After taking care to keep the hives and bees intact, he brings them to the sanctuary where they’ll live until someone interested in beekeeping reaches out to him. However, he’s not interested in rehoming to folks who have a casual attitude towards it.

“Now more than ever people call and want to keep bees. They think taking a box and throwing some bees in it is being a beekeeper. I always tell people there’s a book, and it’s not for dummies, it’s for people who want to become good beekeepers. It keeps them from asking dummy questions. It’s called Beekeeping For Dummies. It tells you what a super is, a drone is, what a worker is. So, when you come to me you can talk like they don’t just magically live on your front lawn like fairies.”

For those who are interested and willing to learn, Garth brings a hive to their home and helps educate them on upkeep, caretaking and other responsibilities that go into beekeeping maintenance.

But until interested parties express beekeeping interest, he keeps the bees at the sanctuary. He is able to harvest honey from the hives on his property, but he doesn’t exploit and rarely sells it.

“A lot of people would say I’m stupid for not harvesting as much as I can. But, I’m trying to rehome and make the bee comfortable in a new setting. I will get some honey from that and I’ll sell that and use the money to buy new hive stuff. Once in a while, I’ll get a donation from running a class. Kids will come out here and do bee stuff.”

But mostly, he does this work because he finds comfort and solace in it. There’s a zen quality to the hum, mystique and secret life of bees. 

“You run stupid by me I’m going to slap you every time, but I’ll do anything for the bees.”

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Categories: GTPulse