Beekeeper Rokas Armonas discovered the beauty of a natural life in America: keeping the bees and fostering hospitality

January 4, 2018

Rokas Armonas cultivates beehives and produces honey in California, although he says he misses Lithuania quite a lot and would have wanted to live in the Lithuanian countryside. Jurgis Didžiulis caught up with Rokas while visiting California with the ToBeLT team

ROKAS: My name is Rokas Armonas. For eight years now, I live in America, in San Francisco where I am a beekeeper. I miss Lithuania terribly. When I hear someone speak Lithuanian, my heart relaxes. My parents, brother – they  are all in Lithuania.

JURGIS: You’re a beekeeper? That’s a very Lithuanian profession so far away from Lithuania.

ROKAS: Certainly so. Very far from Lithuania indeed. But here, beekeeping is a year-round activity, whereas in Lithuania it’s only half a year activity, as Lithuania’s winters are very cold.

JURGIS: So how  did you decide to go to San Francisco?

ROKAS: I was born in the city, I am from Vilnius, but I always wanted to live in the countryside. When I wanted to move,  it was quite odd and unacceptable in our country, at least at the time. I am not sure how it is right now, but at the time, I did not find any like-minded folks. Also, the people who lived in the countryside were mostly struggling and were hit with hardship, at least at the time, I am not sure what the situation is like today. I wanted it to be my source of income, not just a hobby. I didn’t want to compete with the countryfolk, and perhaps I wasn’t ready to, since i was from the city.

JURGIS: So why San Francisco then? You could have taken up the beekeeping anywhere in California or South America.

ROKAS: This story has a certain pre-history. I am quite an avid traveller and I’ve been to quite a few places, never returninging to the same place – I lived in India for 5 months, half-a year in Scotland, 3 years in England, almost half a year in Spain, but I’d never return to the same place twice. But when I arrived in America in the 2000, I met a restaurant owner Vaidas (a Lithuanian). He invited me to come to San Francisco Bay Area where I stayed one year. At that time I couldn’t get any job, as I had a serious head injury, I had three bone fractures in my skull, so perhaps I didn’t look very trustworthy, well at least so I thought at the time. So given the circumstances I began to think what else could I do. I found a phone number for a bee farm in the phonebook in phone booth, and so I got a seasonal job. After 8 years, I decided to return to that exact place – it was the first time it ever happened during my travels.

JURGIS:  And now you make your own honey. Why is it special?

ROKAS: It’s honey from that specific San Francisco Bay Area flower nectar. Since there are many allergy sufferers in the United States and the source of the allergy is often the pollen from the flowers, there is a belief that the honey from the same flowers can heal the allergies. Besides, it’s the Bay Area – people really value locally made stuff.

When I started this business, I didn’t have these bottles, stickers. My idea was to keep bees where people need honey  and that they’d buy it locally. And truly, there are a few places- one of them being Alameda, where people can buy the honey from me directly. I don’t have to cut it, package it, and that’s the biggest source of enjoyment for me. But it’s hardly ever possible to accommodate this way of distribution.

I began my business with my wife, an American, approximately in 2010. We worked together for 7 years, but after 7 years it was becoming hard to breathe. I began to pray for something to happen. And it did. Three months ago, two business partners appeared, who bought out my wife’s portion of the business. Now I can manage the business  differently .

JURGIS: Earlier, before you arrived here to live, you said that you travelled a lot. Do you think that travel is coded in Lithuanian genes?

ROKAS: I’ve heard tales from emigrants, that Lithuanians are like lonely wolves. I heard stories, well, they’re not pretty stories, but I heard them from my father. He recalled stories from the army days – that if you’d accidentally touched an uzbek, kirgiz, right away a ‘wall’ of his countrymen would stand to his defence, where as Lithuanians would always be alone, defending himself. Perhaps that’s where my understanding about the lonely wolf comes from.

JURGIS: A wolf is a wondering being, like the symbol of Lithuania – the coat of arms – Vytis.

ROKAS: Yes – in Lithuania too, I felt lonesomeness, the lack of Lithuanian solidarity, I could feel the absence of a community. The cookie cutter mentality was also bothering me.  I am a person who is easily influenced. I didn’t have enough strength to impact my environment, quite the opposite, I constantly felt influenced by the established order and I felt there wasn’t enough room for me.

JURGIS: You mentioned that you miss Lithuanians terribly. Do you think that maintaining a relationship with members of Lithuanian diaspora is enough and returning to Lithuania is unnecessary?

ROKAS: In fact I only keep contact with very few Lithuanians, such as Valdas. But I hope to communicate with more Lithuanians in the near future.

JURGIS: Do you return to Lithuania often?

ROKAS: I was there three- four years ago, so not too often. Perhaps I will go again next year.

JURGIS: Vaidas is your buddy? Did you know him from before?

ROKAS: Getting to know Vaidas is a very interesting story. And with your permission, I will try to tell it briefly. The prehistory is that Vaidas arrived in New York in 2000 with a car to celebrate the New Year with local Lithuanians. I also attended that new year’s Lithuanian holiday party. That’s where we first met, although we did not know each other before. Later, while riding a bike, I got into that horrid accident where I split my head open. Soon after, Vaidas invited me to visit San Francisco. “Come here, there’s a Lithuanian community,” he said. I didn’t know these people too well, but I just took up his offer and went out to see him. . We lived with Vaidas in one apartment.

I got a job, sometimes we’d travel together but we weren’t as close as we are now. Eventually I went to India. As I learned later on, Vaidas had also traveled to those parts of the world. But we weren’t keeping tabs on each other and didn’t know about each others plans and our paths did not intersect.

And then when I was in Alameda taking care of the beehives and my acquaintances told me that a Lithuanian restaurant opened up in the same town. Of course, it took me by complete surprise, so upon return home that very evening I went online to learn more. I learned that the owner is Vaidas Šukys. Without delay I decided to visit this restaurant. I opened the door and I began to discern whether this was the same Valdas that I know, I didn’t want to be mistaken. But Valdas shouts out my name instead, and hugs me in a brotherly bear hug.  And that’s our story.

JURGIS: When in America you get to know different people, not Lithuanians, how do you get them interested? Of course, it can be said that honey is a product of the Lithuanian tradition, but what else do you share with pride?

ROKAS: Here I get to know people who are interested in esoteric matters.
I’m always interested in talking to them because most of my life I have been on a quest to learn more myself. Also, with honey comes the sense of enormous hospitality. People are happily bartering the vegetables and fruits they’ve grown with my honey, they allow me to set up my hives on their land and put me up overnight. Even in the nature reserve, which is near where I live has allowed me to make use the reserve territory – all due to beekeeping. I’m allowed to camp there, I can even invite friends, everyone can gather there. Over there I feel like I’m at home, where I can organize and show the most wonderful nature.

JURGIS: Do people know Lithuanians here?

ROKAS: They do, I’d say more than 50% do. Many people who live here have ancestors from Lithuania. I’d say at least every 10th person I meet claims that. Unfortunately, they don’t speak Lithuanian as they are mostly second or third generation Lithuanians. Perhaps they’ve forgotten. Most of those who are interested in knowing more about their roots, follow Lithuanian basketball players. My area of expertise here is bees, gardens, so I’m not an expert on knowing everything either.