The New Queen Bee of The Upstate Hive
Alysia Mazzella Self portrait

The New Queen Bee of The Upstate Hive

Alysia Mazzella creates beeswax candles that are not just sources of light but symbols of harmony and remembrance, steeped in regenerative practices and deeply rooted in the ancient wisdom of the sun’s cycles. 

“It’s really about the sun,” Mazzella explained. “I look back to Ancient Egypt a lot. They were sun worship people, and they had a great relationship with the honeybee, which is very well documented,” she continues. “They believed that the honeybee was born from the tears of the sun god, which I think is just the most amazing poetry.”

Mazzella infuses the work she creates with this poetry by bringing a reverence for tradition, warmth, a life force, and a sense of mystery to the entire process.

“Electricity is so new,” she said. “As people, we’ve been in a relationship with fire for longer than anything. I think that’s why a deep remembrance happens when people light a candle.” Compared to the disruptive blue light of modern devices, Mazzella explains that beeswax burns on the same spectrum as the sun. She says, “Because of its golden inherent color and vibrancy, it’s actually luminous, unlike a blue light. So, it has a different effect.”

Mazzella’s journey in beekeeping shifted as her consciousness about the history of the practice grew. She started out buying her beeswax online and when she switched to buying locally from beekeepers in New York State, she quickly noticed a homogeneity in who was providing the product. She shared, “As a person of color, I just noticed that everyone was an older, straight, white man. Like every single one, which makes sense because beekeeping arrived in America through colonizers.”

Until recently, it was commonly believed that the honeybee (genus Apis) did not exist on this continent until 1622 when the colonists brought it over on ships from Europe. In 2009, a single fossil was found in west-central Nevada of a female worker of the extinct honeybee Apis nearactica and dates back 14 million years.

“So humans have always been beekeeping on every continent, but it wasn’t called beekeeping,” Mazzella explained. “It was called hunting because they were wild. The mentality of colonizing is that you keep things, you contain things, and then those things are turned into an economy.”

Mazzella decided that to be in a relationship with the honeybees, she needed to learn to be a beekeeper herself and educate other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). The land she owns in Onadilla, N.Y., called “Backland,” is now entering its third year as an educational apiary whose mission is to establish a new generation of BIPOC beekeepers in New York State. Said Mazzella, “I wanted to be in a relationship with them because I’m taking so much from them. I didn’t feel the relationship was going the other way—what was I offering them? What was I giving them? So I started to study, and I studied for a very long time, which I recommend for anyone who wants to be a beekeeper.” Because of this deepening understanding, Mazzella approaches the bees with healthy reverence. “I was scared at first. It’s intimidating. They’re loud. They’ll headbutt you. But now I can go into the hive totally unprotected, and I feel confident doing it.” Mazzella explained that the bees are more aggressive when they’re missing a queen or if they have more honey to protect, but since the hives she keeps are for educational purposes, she doesn’t harvest the honey. Instead, she mostly leaves it for the bees, a regenerative approach that has kept her production small-scale. “You get about 1 pound of beeswax to 8 pounds of honey,” she explained, “and in one season, if you’re harvesting ethically (which is half for you, half for the bees), you might get 60 pounds of honey.” She estimates that she’d need to keep over 300 hives to harvest the amount of wax she needs for her production. “I am not sure I’ll ever provide my own beeswax,” she continued. “I’d like to scale up and turn [Blackland] into an educational, live/work situation where local people can be employed. I want to grow the education scale.” This conscious consumption and environmental responsibility are at the forefront of her work.

One can tell the care that goes into her creations. Each candle, whether inspired by Japanese tea ceremonies or Mexican prayer rituals, represents a measure of time and can be used for mindfulness. She contrasts her beeswax candles, the longest-burning and cleanest type, with soy candles, critiquing the unsustainable agricultural practices associated with soy cultivation. “Soy is an amazing, beautiful plant, but it’s how it’s grown. The thing is, it’s so nutritious that it sucks everything from the soil. So when you grow it as a mono-crop for like acres and acres, it essentially depletes the soil, which takes away the cover crops, causes soil degradation, and releases CO2. The most major source of CO2 that has happened in the shortest amount of time has been from farming.” In contrast, said Mazzella, beeswax is seasonal and limited, clean burning, and long-lasting. “I think people can really tell the difference.”

“I think it goes back to the sun again,” said Mazzella, “because it’s all about timekeeping, really. Lighting a candle to set a moment.”

Alysia Mazzella’s commitment to sustainability, education, and inclusivity is creating a path for future generations to follow in an ancient, yet ever-relevant craft. She adds this about her relationship with the honeybee:

“I get stung pretty bad in the Spring because at the beginning of the season, I am sloppy and I forget and make mistakes. But when that happens, I think about it as medicine. I just feel like if you put yourself in the ecosystem, you’re going to get the medicine.”

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