Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Caitlyn Mendicino's Instagram page alternates behind-the-scenes performance shots with images of stacked wooden boxes, jars of honey and bees. Lots and lots of bees. Because, in addition to her ballet career, Mendicino has buzzed on over to a new passion: beekeeping. Now the 25-year-old dancer is a parent to tens of thousands of bees, nestled in hives in her parents' yard in New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.
Though she's always had a love of nature and all things outdoors, Mendicino stumbled across her hobby completely by chance. In 2018, she saw the book Beekeeping for Dummies on her parents' coffee table; a beekeeper friend of her dad's had sent it over as something of a gag gift. "I started reading, and I couldn't put it down," says Mendicino. "I was amazed by just how intelligent bees are as a species. They have their own hierarchy system and work in a sort of democracy within their own hive and colony."
The more Mendicino learned, the more she was convinced: She wanted her own hive. Though she had missed prime beekeeping season, she decided to spend the next year in research mode, reading everything she could, and working to convince her family to let her keep the bees on their property. In April of 2019, her first shipment of bees finally arrived.
Tending bees is a year-round job, though a beekeeper's responsibilities fluctuate depending on the season. Mendicino explains that bees are most active in the spring and summer, spending their days flying around and foraging for nectar and pollen, and returning to the hive at night. When the temperature drops, the beekeeper prepares them for winter by insulating their hives with foam and feeding them sugar syrup. "To keep warm, the bees form a big, ball-like cluster, and they vibrate together to generate heat within their colony," says Mendicino. Rather than risk opening their hives and exposing them to the cold, Mendicino checks in on them by listening with a stethoscope.
Coincidentally, the beekeeping calendar lines up perfectly with a ballet season: "It's great timing, because whenever Nutcracker's in full swing, the bees aren't something I have to worry about, but in the summer when we're on layoff, I can work with them every weekend."
The process of learning to keep bees has not been without its highs and lows. The element that took Mendicino the longest to get used to is getting stung. "When my dad and I first started, I don't think we were anticipating having 30,000 stinging insects flying around us at one time," she says. "Even though we had suits on, it was kind of nerve-racking." Mendicino emphasizes that unlike wasps, bees are naturally quite docile, and mainly react when their hives are being opened. But at one point last year, Mendicino got stung too many times in one day, leading her to a trip to the hospital—and developing a new allergy. Though she's now being treated with allergy shots, she has to be especially careful going forward.
But all the hard work was worth it when Mendicino finally harvested her first batch of honey. It takes a full year for the hives to start producing, but last summer Mendicino's bees gave her 180 pounds. "Every beekeeper will tell you that their honey is the best honey they've ever tasted, and it's completely true," she says. Mendicino ordered racks of jars online, and distributed the sweet fruits of her labor to her colleagues at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
This year, Mendicino is hoping to take production to the next level. She's just designed a label for her fledgling business, Ballerina Bees, and hopes to go into the season with 10 hives (up from eight last year), so that she can harvest enough honey to sell at local farmers markets. She's also experimenting with making lip balms and candles from the beeswax by-product.
For Mendicino, beekeeping provides an important antidote to the stress of daily life as a professional dancer. "If I've had a bad week at ballet, it's always nice to go and work with my bees," she says. "It forces you to be calm, because if you go in stressed and anxious, the bees will react with stress and anxiety." And after all, Mendicino has learned that bees aren't all that different from dancers: "As a dance company, you all work together to produce a product to put onstage, and bees do the exact same thing. Only their product is honey, and they do it to survive."