Blind Beekeeper Relies on Sound to Keep Her Hives Happy

28 min
Aerial Gilbert, an avid beekeeper, in Petaluma on July 7, 2016. (Crissy Pascual/Argus-Courier Staff)

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“I can hear how the bees are behaving — if they’re agitated, if there are other bees trying to get in the hive, or if it’s too crowded or too hot or too cold,” said Aerial Gilbert, an avid beekeeper in Petaluma.

What you want to hear, she said, is a calm steady buzz. That indicates that everything in the hive is going smoothly. Gilbert tends to three beehives on her back patio.

When Gilbert went blind in 1988, beekeeping was one of the hobbies she figured she’d have to give up. But in the years since, she has found ways to do the things she used to before losing her sight. And that has meant relying a lot more on the power of sound.

“When I worked with my bees, the information I was paying attention to was visual,” Gilbert said. “Now it’s the other senses.”

The Bees Came in the Mail — With the Hive

Gilbert is in her early 60s, but looks younger. She has a crop of black hair and an athletic frame. She used to be a nurse, and with the decisive yet gentle way she moves her hands, you sense she was good at it.

Aerial Gilbert in Petaluma on July 7, 2016. (Crissy Pascual/Argus-Courier Staff)

Gilbert doesn’t hesitate to open the hives in her backyard and reach down into the humming mass of thousands of bees. Her fingers softly brush against their bodies, and they don’t seem to mind. She calls the bees her “girls.”

When Gilbert was 10, a swarm of bees flew into her backyard looking for a new home. Hundreds of thousands of bees coalesced in a big buzzing ball on a tree. And they stayed, humming in a giant mass.

Gilbert’s grandfather remembered the name of a local beekeeper and gave him a call. He said he’d be happy to have the bees. Gilbert watched the beekeeper walk calmly over to the giant blob of bees and scoop them up with his bare hands. He carried the swarm back to his car and left. Gilbert was mesmerized.

When Gilbert was a junior in high school, her parents finally capitulated to her demand for her own hive. She ordered her first bees from Sears and Roebuck.

“They came in the mail, along with the hive,” she said. “The postman was terrified. He got to the door and my mom was there, and he just shoved them in her face and said, ‘These your bees, lady?’ ”

It took a long time for Gilbert to get used to being around bees.

“When I first started beekeeping I was afraid of them,” Gilbert said.

She would gear up in a white suit with big thick gloves.

“There's so much visual information you get by looking at the honeycomb and the brood nest,” Gilbert said. “I didn't think I could be a good beekeeper without being able to see.”

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Vision Lost in an Instant

Gilbert lost her vision in an instant. After working the night shift at Marin General Hospital in 1988, she stopped at a pharmacy to buy some eye drops. They had been tampered with, filled with drain cleaner.

Aerial Gilbert in Petaluma on July 7, 2016. (Crissy Pascual/Argus-Courier Staff)

“I felt sorry for myself. I was afraid of everything. I kind of closed myself down to ‘you might as well be dead,’ ” she said. “I didn't think I could do anything.”

It was a long process of healing and realizing she wouldn’t get her vision back, not even some of it.

“I ... woke up one day and started projecting out what my life would be like because going in the direction I was going wasn’t working,” Gilbert said. “I had always been very active. Now I was going to have a really boring life if I didn’t do something to change this.”

There isn’t much information about the tampering. Gilbert settled with the company that made the eye drops and, as part of the deal, she isn’t supposed to go into detail about it with the media. The Los Angeles Times ran a short story about the tampering. It says, in part:

The FBI and the federal Food and Drug Administration are probing an incident in which a nurse was blinded by eye drops contaminated with a caustic chemical. “Her left eye looks like it melted and her right eye looks like it’s covered with white glue,” said Richard Critchlow, an attorney for Gilbert Van Zee Miller, 34, of Fairfax in Marin County.

Gilbert said her marriage ended when she lost her sight, and she couldn’t work as a nurse anymore.

The hospital gave her a job developing X-rays. She said that was the only place they were comfortable having a blind person work. Gilbert would sit in a small dark room all day, developing film.

At first, she was in despair. After six months it reached a breaking point.

“I made the decision, no more feeling sorry for myself,” Gilbert said, “No more hiding, no more being afraid because I am allowing whoever this person was to still hurt me.”

She then went to the state school for the blind in Albany, living there for six months and learning braille, how to orient herself and daily living.

“I learned a lot of basically the tricks of being blind.”

You Can Hear the Bees' Waggle Dance

A few years ago, a friend had some hives she needed someone to look after. She asked Gilbert if she could. At first Gilbert hesitated, but she decided to give it a try.

As soon as the hives arrived, Gilbert was relieved. She was ecstatic to have bees back in her life. And she realized that much of the information about the bees she had gathered before with her eyes, she could now gather with her ears.

Whenever Gilbert is out working on the hives, she is listening to them, keeping tabs on how they sound. She also bought some microphones to make recordings inside the hive. Those recordings give her an audio snapshot of the bees’ condition and more specific insight into what’s happening inside the hives. She can hear the waggle dance, which is the movement bees make to tell others where to find pollen.

Not only can Gilbert hear the dance, she has started to notice variations in the sound depending on where the pollen is located.

“The dance, it kind of happens in a little circle,” Gilbert said. “You’ll hear ‘bzzz bzzz bzzz,’ and it’s different patterns depending on how far away the pollen is.”

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Getting back to beekeeping was a triumph for Gilbert, but that’s just one part of her life: She fell in love again and remarried. She has worked at a nonprofit called Guide Dogs for the Blind, was an active volunteer and has traveled extensively. It’s been a full life.

Years ago, Gilbert donated one of her kidneys to a friend. The friend recovered, but the surgery didn’t go well for Gilbert: She suffered a rare complication that caused her remaining kidney to start failing. Gilbert has managed it for years, but now, she needs someone to donate a kidney to her.

Gilbert has had to spend a lot of time at home because of her health, and has been kept from many of the things she loves, like rowing. She has managed to continue taking care of her hives, and after losing bees once in her life, she doesn't want to go without them ever again.

An Entire Democratic Process Unfolding in a Hive

Gilbert is not the first blind person to take an interest in bees.

Swiss entomologist Francois Huber started losing his sight at age 15. In the 18th century, he made major discoveries about the lives of bees. He proved that bees use their antennae to communicate and that queens mate in the air. And he described how male drone bees — worker bees responsible for mating with the queen — were killed at the end of each summer.

And those who are blind aren’t the only one listening to bees.

Researchers like Tom Seeley at Cornell University are recording them to better understand their behavior. Seeley wrote a book called “Honeybee Democracy” that’s about the decision-making process inside a hive.

Seeley said you can listen to an entire democratic process unfolding inside a hive: You can hear the high-pitched buzz of worker bees telling the queen it’s time to fly to a new home. There are short, high-pitched bursts when a bee disagrees with some decision inside a hive and wants to vote against doing it. And you can hear the waggle dance that Gilbert has recorded.

Gilbert’s life is now filled with the beauty and intricacy of all these sounds.

This story comes to us from Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett of "The World According to Sound" podcast. They’re partnering with the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco to help us reimagine California in the rich way blind people experience it every day. The project has additional support from California Humanities.

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