Alex Lesniak pulls a lawn chair out of the back of her father’s old flatbed pickup truck, parked next to a stack of beehive boxes all various shades of pastels. The 22-year old is wearing a bright green Peace Bees shirt and has a small vile hanging around her neck on a black nylon string. A transparent, gold-tinted liquid shines from inside.
It is one drop of honey.
Lesniak explains that the single drop took 4,000 flowers, 100 flight miles, 45 days and the life of one bee.
“Life is precious,” she says.
We settle into the chairs, the hum of the hive echoing a few feet away, and Alex begins to tell how her fervent passion of protecting bees came to be and how it soon became the family business.
It all started with her grandfather’s best friend. Lesniak recalls going over to his house as a young girl and watching him tend to a beehive in his backyard. When it came time for 4-H posters to be made, Lesniak knew what she wanted to cover.
She started to research honeybees and immediately fell in love. With the help of her father, Steve Lesniak, she was able to set up her own hive boxes at their South Bend home. She was in sixth grade at the time. When she had friends over or they learned of her interest in bees, the response was not always pleasant.
“A lot of people, when I would say, ‘I do beekeeping’ or tell them I have bees at my house, they would just kind of be very standoffish or say ‘Ew, gross, bees,’” Lesniak says. “So then I was on advocate mode.”
She explained to friends how important bees are to the environment, and how they don’t want to sting you. Lesniak took the anti-bee speech personally. She has since taken up arms as a defender of a population that she says is ‘peace loving.’
Lesniak was also active in Girl Scouts. When the time came for presentations and community projects, bees were the obvious choice. Lesniak built a kit for classrooms to teach children the importance of honeybees. Jonelle, Alex’s mother, teaches Kindergarten through eighth grade computer science. The kit was tested at her mother’s school and turned out to be a huge success.
Spreading the buzz
The presentation includes hands-on materials, allowing kids to act out the various jobs of honeybees in a hive — everything from housekeepers who sweep up pollen to collectors who travel around the classroom scooping pom-poms out of fake flowers. Lesniak also makes certain to cover why we need bees at all.
“Imagine going to McDonalds, ordering a hamburger and getting a ketchup sandwich in return,” Lesniak says, reiterating what she would normally say to a classroom of kids. “That is what would happen without bees.”
Bees typically don’t pollinate the tomatoes that go into ketchup but they do pollinate the lettuce and cucumbers that become the pickles on your sandwich. Lesniak explains that they also pollinate much of what cows eat, therefore helping in the production of beef and cheese.
“One out of three meals you eat during the day wouldn’t be there without the bees,” Lesniak says.
Lesniak says that she has never had a problem keeping the kids’ attention. Over the years, the presentations took on new faces. Alex was named the 2007 Indiana Young Beekeeper of the Year. In 2011 she was named the Indiana Honey Princess.
The role required her to appear at the state fair and various engagements around the state. Within that year alone, she visited 33 counties and presented to over 11,000 people.
According to Lesniak, she does the same now, just without the crown or the sexism that went along with it. The role also often consisted of cooking and homemaking demonstrations — something that, according to Lesniak, wasn’t her cup of tea. Teaching is her passion.
Ever since putting together that first hive box, the Lesniak family has been knee-deep in bees. Alex’s father, Steve, now tends to 3 locations of hives around St. Joseph County and Jonelle owns 51 percent of the Peace Bees company — which focuses on teaching and engaging with the community around them.
Steve often teaches classes on how to start your own hive, while Jonelle or Alex will present at schools anytime they can. Alex, a recent Purdue graduate, has found it increasingly hard to travel to each school that requests a presentation, so her materials are now available for teachers to access online.
Keeping the peace
Through the combination of teaching, raising bees and creating sustainable, natural products when they can, the Lesniaks were creating a movement — one that would eventually be called Peace Bees. The group consists of the three Lesniaks, Tim Ives and John Simala.
“It’s the literal meaning of what it looks like,” Alex says. “Bees are peaceful, they don’t want to bother you.”
THe Lesniaks explain that not only are the bees peaceful, but their caretakers have to be as well. Bees use pheromones to differentiate their hive from others. It is also how they tell if a predator is approaching. If someone approaches a hive in a bad mood and emitting the pheromones that coincide, the guard bees are likely to attack.
The notion of ‘being able to smell fear’ is true for these small creatures. Steve says that what he calls a ‘Zen state’ is most desirable when walking up to tend to a hive.
The interaction and approach that the Lesniaks take to beekeeping is peaceful indeed, and their methods are about as natural as it gets.
Building a better hive
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education foundation gave Peace Bees a grant to help the group study an alternative method of beekeeping.
Typically when hives are left alone for the winter, beekeepers have one box hive for the bees to live in and another that is filled with sugar water for them to eat throughout the months when vegetation is frozen. The sugar water is a cheaper way to feed the bees than giving them honey, their natural diet.
The Lesniaks have started giving their bees two boxes of food for the winter instead of the traditional one box. They have also decided to leave honey instead of processed sugar to eat.
“We just go back to nature,” Jonelle says. “In nature, why do bees make honey? Well, to eat of course. Would they rather eat sugar or have their natural honey?”
On average, 25 to 30 percent of a hive’s bees die throughout the winter. With the honey and three-box method, the Lesniaks are seeing only a 7 to 9 percent loss so far.
The Lesniaks’ friend, Tim Ives, has been using the three box/honey-fed method and has been getting a yield of 200 to 400 pounds of honey. Most beekeepers yield between 100 and 200 pounds of honey each year.
“Are we saying that three is the answer? No, but we think it is a key factor in it,” Steve says.
Ives is also running another set of hives for the Lesniaks’ 22-month grant observation, in which he provides only two boxes and feeds the bees sugar water to provide a documented comparison to the three-hive method.
When the Lesniaks discuss their success with the new method with other beekeepers, many bristle at the idea. Jonelle has noticed a lot of people saying that the way they have always kept bees in the winter has worked well for generations.
“Even if they use sugar, it isn’t the same sugar their grandfathers did,” Jonelle says. “Sugar isn’t the same as it was 70 years ago.”
Steve is currently working on a plan to train new beekeepers in this new method, and eventually even bring jobs to the area.
Groups like Peace Bees are reminiscent of a time when self-sustaining existence was not a buzz word, but a standard of life. Every farm had a variety of livestock, crops and a beehive to keep it all going. For the Lesniaks, saving the bees, tuning into the hum and getting a bit closer to our roots in nature is what it is all about.