“Should I have worn jeans for this?” I ask. From the waist up, I am armored in a bee suit and a heavy veil, making my unprotected shorts-and-sandals combo look particularly ridiculous.
“Don’t worry. I have an EpiPen,” Abraham E. Rebollo ’20 replies, only half-jokingly. He carries a smoker full of burlap, a brush, and other tools outside onto the Pfoho rooftop where he keeps his hive, and I follow at a respectful distance.
Rebollo handles his bees with a remarkable gentleness: He removes the top box of the hive and waits for the bees to move out of the way before raising a frame full of insects and honey. The queen sits in the middle. Although he doesn’t raise his voice, he points her out with obvious enthusiasm. She’s marked with a white dot, and her size is something I can notice, even from across the roof.
He speaks of the bees with the interest of a forensic scientist, a career he aspires to, yet with a remarkable compassion. As Rebollo recalled a time when a bee flew up to his nose and stung him, he was careful to note that the bee only stung him because bees detect CO2, an evolutionary protection mechanism he forgot about as he exhaled sharply.
Rebollo is new to the world of beekeeping, but his interest in the environment goes far back: He was raised Christian, which to Rebollo means he has “a responsibility to take care of the planet.”
This environmentalism drove him to raise his own beehive. “I became interested last year around springtime, mostly out of the fact that bee populations are in decline in the U.S. and across the world,” Rebollo says. “One of the remedies for that is for regular people to take up beekeeping.”
But Rebollo did not just start on a whim. He spent more than a year doing research before he purchased bees and moved them into a hive in his hometown of Henderson, Texas. “You have to know what you’re doing to take care of the bees properly,” he says.
He certainly does knows what he’s doing. Rebollo waited to buy his bees until after he found out about his Harvard admission to ensure the hive could survive in his new college climate—his Russian breed is particularly well-suited to Cambridge winters.
Rebollo’s trip to Cambridge was more difficult than most: Not only did he and his family drive all the way to Massachusetts, they did so with a live beehive in the back, complete with a weekend rest stop in Tennessee to allow the bees a break. Move-in day was equally complicated, as Rebollo had to go to University Health Services after being stung through the earlobe by one of his own: “The bees had been in the hive for over 24 hours,” he said, always careful never to blame the insects, “so they weren’t too happy about that.”
Recently, Rebollo has developed an allergy to his bees, something he found out on move-in day. He had never had a reaction to stings before, but after his face swelled up with hives, his mom and his new proctor convinced him to see a doctor. He’s disappointed, but mostly because he wanted to do his beekeeping without wearing a suit, like the most experienced beekeepers. However, Rebollo concedes, “if I have the risk of going into anaphylaxis the next time I get stung, do I really want to do that?”
His passion is obvious, despite an uncertain future posed by allergies. He tells me about the work he does to care for his hive—when he performs his check-ups, he keeps an eye out for chalkbrood, hive beetles, varroa mites, and the status of his queen. He’s also beginning to prepare for winter, feeding the hive a special sugar syrup so the bees can store it up over the winter.
Rebollo insists that people have nothing to fear from bees. “They want more than anything to just get their honey and their pollen and the nectar that they’ve collected back to the hive,” he says, “so they’ll very rarely sting you in the wild.”
Yellow jackets, on the other hand: “They’ll fuck you up.”