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Beekeeping gives blind Petaluma woman a new focus

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Though Aerial Gilbert lost her sight in 1988, she’s always had a clear picture of the life she wants to lead, and she’s determined not to let her blindness stop her from accomplishing the things that make her happy.

That’s why when the 62-year-old Petaluman had the opportunity to get involved in beekeeping after a 28-year hiatus, she decided to take the leap.

She first became fascinated with beekeeping as a child after learning that the postmaster in her small Marin County hometown had his own hives. After grilling him about the practice, she bought her own equipment from Sears at age 17.

She had hives until she was 34, when she lost her sight after using eye drops that had been tampered with — the bottle from the drugstore contained lye rather than the solution she’d hope would refresh her dry eyes after a long night shift at Marin General Hospital.

“It was a little bit like getting jettisoned to a foreign planet,” she said. “Everything you knew no longer is how you expect it to be. On top of that, I didn’t know why it happened and why someone had done this to me. I was afraid of everything and I couldn’t figure out how to do anything. For a good six months I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything and I didn’t think I could, so I was pretty shut in. I literally woke up one day and projected out what my life would be like if I continued the way I was going. I thought ‘Oh man, I’m going to have one long, boring life if I don’t change this, and I don’t do boring very well.’ ”

She attended the Orientation Center for the Blind in New York, relearning skills ranging from vacuuming to balancing a checkbook, going on to get a guide dog and to meet friends who would inspire her to shirk off any limitations that might be associated with being sight-impaired.

Gilbert took a post with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and started rowing again — a sport that she loved before losing her sight, but was skeptical about returning to. Since then, she’s competed for the U.S. Masters rowing team, snagging gold medals in the World Masters Games, and she still actively rows.

But despite her accomplishments, there was still something missing. When a friend asked if she could keep her hives on Gilbert’s property, Gilbert jumped at the opportunity. The arrangement fell through, but spurred Gilbert to look into the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association, which has a “south cluster” of more than 70 beekeepers in Petaluma and the surroundings areas.

Her water aerobics teacher, Kellie Cox, who’s also involved in beekeeping and is a co-leader of the cluster, got her connected with the group this spring.

“She came (to a workshop) and it was absolutely wonderful — people were a little bit like ‘what is she doing, this is an odd thing,’ but she’s changed our cluster and the way a lot of people look at stuff, and that’s really neat,” Cox said.

Cox and Christine Kurtz, who serves as a regional coordinator for the association and also runs an independent Petaluma-based honey bee consulting business, both donated hive splits to Gilbert, who gladly accepted them, despite the fact she broke her leg just days before receiving the first hive.

“She feels very surprised that we were so accepting with her. People with disabilities are still looked upon as less than, and I don’t think we see her as that at all — we see her as more than,” Kurtz said.

Kurtz says she’s been on hand to mentor Gilbert since March, working with her and the bees about once a week to give advice and help with the hives, which contain up to 20,000 bees.

“Aerial is absolutely amazing,” Kurtz said. “She has a sense of space that is really uncanny. It’s kind of interesting, I’ve become a student of hers as much as she’s been a student of mine. She has to use other senses to work with the bees — a sense of touch and hearing and smell.”

Kurtz stands by to describe what she’s seeing, but since Gilbert has spent nearly three decades adapting to using senses other than sight, she’s able make acute observations of her own, including smelling differences in the wax to indicate heath, hearing if the bees are getting agitated, or feeling the altered weight of the bees in the frame. She interacts with the bees without wearing a glove, so none of her senses are dulled.

“That was the first choice that I made — I’m probably going to get stung working my bees with my hands unprotected, but how I see is through my fingers,” she said, adding that she’s become comfortable with the bees, and they’ve become comfortable with her pace.

Gilbert credits the community of beekeepers, and her mentor with supporting her and allowing her to pursue her passion, admitting that she was a bit anxious about getting back into the practice.

“What kept me from doing it again was kind of my own thinking that if I were to do what I was doing before independently, it wasn’t accomplishable,” she said. “I had to rethink it … it’s been a process of figuring out what works.”

She’s started a blog and hopes to inspire others and “break people’s preconceived ideas” about beekeeping.

“I think that a lot of people are maybe a little hesitant about getting into beekeeping, maybe they’re uncomfortable with bees, and I think that can be overcome. … I’m sort of hoping that people think ‘wow, she not only has bees but she also can’t see them — maybe they’re not as scary and horrible as we think they are,” Gilbert said.

Though she’s busy working with her two hives while learning more about modern beekeeping and ways to keep her hives healthy, Gilbert also likes to take her time to soak in the simple joys of beekeeping.

“Something that I enjoyed before was eating lunch and watching them to see where they were flying and what they were bringing back, and now I love to sit by them and hear where they’re flying and smell the hives,” she said. “It’s very meditative to me. … I have my chair set up there with the bees and I can spend hours just being with them and I am enjoying just being in their presence.”

For Kurtz, working with Gilbert has been a rewarding experience. The two “bee buddies” who share bees and resources, will be moving to a schedule of checking on the hives every two weeks in the summer and every three weeks in the winter, Kurtz said.

“Just seeing her smile and her excitement, that keeps me doing it,” Kurtz said. “It’s wonderful to see a person light up like that.”

Kurtz said Gilbert’s story is inspiring — in the city’s thriving beekeeping community and beyond.

“I’ve come to understand that beekeeping is about creating community and reconnecting with community — whether they have a disability or are fearful about reconnecting with nature,” she said. “It’s great when you have someone like Aerial who is so unafraid of trying something even through you might think it would be impossible… Aerial is surmounting great obstacles.”

Follow Gilbert’s blog at bindbeekeeperblog.tumblr.com.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)