“Many of the challenges in this world stem from our disconnect with nature — both within us and outside of us. When we steward bees in a bee-centric rather than business-centric way, there is an opportunity to learn about the interconnectedness we share with all life.”
When you first meet Debra Roberts there are two words that you’re likely to hear right away: bees, and Appalachia. Debra is a natural (treatment-free) beekeeper and international honeybee educator, speaker, mentor, advocate, artist, and writer. She stewards her bee sanctuary in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina, outside Asheville, where she lives with her husband Joe, cat Habla, and millions of honeybees.
Debra says, “I am totally bee-sotted. I am not commercial and rarely harvest any honey. My bee sanctuary, right next to our house, is a place that is holy to me. … My path is to explore sacred relationship with the bees, to learn from them, and to inspire and support others in doing the same, and it is also to provide a safe place for bees to flourish in the world….”
For Debra the “sacred path of bee” begins as soon as she enters her bee yard, which she calls her sanctuary.
“When you enter the space of bees as a beekeeper, they teach you over the years that if you’re calm, you’re focused, you’re present, you’re free of anger, you’re respectful, you’re grateful – all of these things contribute to a much more successful and real relationship with bees.
“I’m in my bee yard day in, day out, month in, month out, year in, year out. One day I realized, it was a practice! What if I could bring more consciousness to that? Not just calmness, but also consciousness. This practice was changing me, and they were changing me. From that point, the sacredness of the relationship welled up and out. Feelings of reverence, benevolence, and all of those lovely things were there. Then I realized that this practice is no different from any spiritual tradition that also values these same things.”
Debra is founder of Holy Bee Press,
Vice President of The Center for Honeybee Research
, Founder of The Honeybee Project, a bee mentor for Hamaatsa
(an indigenous learning center in New Mexico), editor of a series of ongoing articles
about honeybees and natural beekeeping, on the Steering Committee of Bee City USA
, and received her Master Beekeeping certification in 2010. She is founder faculty of The College of the Melissae: Center for Sacred Beekeeping
in Ashland, Oregon and was chosen as one of the Heroes of Asheville
in 2014. She also created the online series, The Sacred Path of Bee
for bee appreciators worldwide.
For Debra the Sacred Path of Bee is about even more than personal spiritual practice – it has become a life mission. This has intensified since 2006 when bees everywhere suffered a “colony collapse disorder” – for reasons which are still not fully understood but which are placing our whole food system at risk. “As a result,” she says, “more women have stepped forward into beekeeping than in the whole history of humans and bees.”
The key to what Debra practices – and teaches and supports around the world – is what she calls “bee-centric” beekeeping, as opposed to commercial beekeeping. “There is now a flood of women worldwide stepping toward bees, like myself, not having it be a plan. The impulse is compassionate. It has nothing to do with commerce. It has nothing to do with bees as livestock. It is about beings who need to be well and have the right to be well. So this impulse is starting to change the face of beekeeping, which changes the face of life itself.”
Debra came to beekeeping after spending years as a documentary film maker. She was burned out and decided to take a six-month sabbatical.
During that time she went to Hopi territory to visit the family of Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi leader who had been chosen to reveal Hopi traditional wisdom and teachings, including prophecies for the future. Debra had met him and later heard he had passed, so she felt a calling to visit his family and pay her respects.
“I wanted to bring them a gift. I lived near a man who had honey, and I had all these jars of honey. So I took some with me, got in the car, drove for three days, found my way to the door of his son, knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m Debra Roberts from North Carolina. I have infinite respect for your father.’ I offered my jars of honey to him and his wife. And she said, ‘Wow – I was just about to go to the store because we ran out of honey!’
“That’s the moment when I felt that bees sort of went under my radar and into the heart of my life. Then a couple of months later I saw a sign for bee school in Ashville. This was something I never planned to do but when I did, it was like falling in love. It was like – millions of beings had just kind of colonized my heart! It changed my path forever. I let go of everything else and just … went to the bees.”
Five Questions with Debra Roberts
What Makes You Come Alive?
What makes me come alive? Bees and every way I can devote myself to them, love them, support them, celebrate them, and be awake and aware around them. I am a free-range honeybee lover, educator, advocate and celebrant claimed by the bees, body and soul. I spend time in the bee sanctuary every day that I am home a fragrant, tranquil mecca where I recalibrate and recollect myself, inspired by a congregation of thousands who have long been celebrating High Bee Communion together. Across the years, my time with these beloved winged ones has evolved into a mindfulness practice. When I am positive, present, respectful, appreciative, grateful, curious, observant, listening, reverent and loving, my relationship with them flowers. A sacred mutual kinship with the bees has revealed itself on its own terms grounded in bee time and not governed by human agenda. To be around them and move amongst them in a deeply harmonious way is a core presence practice.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
Joe and I had gone one evening to listen to one of our favorite musicians in the world, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, whose singing, to me, is pure devotion. We came home from that concert with our hearts blown wide open. It was late but I was wide awake. So I went to the bee yard. On that beautiful full moon night, I heard the most extraordinary sounds coming from the heart of the bee colony. It was haunting, compelling and not the least bit frightening. That sound, for me, was completely life changing. The sound is called Queen Piping, sometimes made by virgin queen bees before they are born. To me it is one of the great sacred sounds in bee life and in my life. I have heard it many times since; whenever I do, I feel like I am privileged to be in the presence of some kind of epic holy-rolling Moment in the life of a hive. I call this sound the Song of the Unborn Virgins; it seems to emerge from the heart of creation like a sort of om, but differently primal and femininely mysterious.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
Last year, when I was teaching bee in Turkey, we lost our house to fire. A neighbor, who we hardly knew, immediately called us. He is a builder and offered us a new home at his cost, which is how we could afford to create a new nest. His generosity still brings us to tears. And the blessings that have poured like a libation into our lives from all over the world since that epic event and offering have kept us on our knees with gratitude.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
To go to Iran (Persia), stay at a caravanserei on the old Silk Road, lay down in the desert at night, and look up at the stars.
One-line Message for the World?
Love is the ultimate activism.