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Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation

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Honey bees—and the qualities associated with them—have quietly influenced American values for four centuries. During every major period in the country's history, bees and beekeepers have represented order and stability in a country without a national religion, political party, or language. Bees in America is an enlightening cultural history of bees and beekeeping in the United States. Tammy Horn, herself a beekeeper, offers a varied social and technological history from the colonial period, when the British first introduced bees to the New World, to the present, when bees are being used by the American military to detect bombs. Early European colonists introduced bees to the New World as part of an agrarian philosophy borrowed from the Greeks and Romans. Their legacy was intended to provide sustenance and a livelihood for immigrants in search of new opportunities, and the honey bee became a sign of colonization, alerting Native Americans to settlers' westward advance. Colonists imagined their own endeavors in terms of bees' hallmark traits of industry and thrift and the image of the busy and growing hive soon shaped American ideals about work, family, community, and leisure. The image of the hive continued to be popular in the eighteenth century, symbolizing a society working together for the common good and reflecting Enlightenment principles of order and balance. Less than a half-century later, Mormons settling Utah (where the bee is the state symbol) adopted the hive as a metaphor for their protected and close-knit culture that revolved around industry, harmony, frugality, and cooperation. In the Great Depression, beehives provided food and bartering goods for many farm families, and during World War II, the War Food Administration urged beekeepers to conserve every ounce of beeswax their bees provided, as more than a million pounds a year were being used in the manufacture of war products ranging from waterproofing products to tape. The bee remains a bellwether in modern America. Like so many other insects and animals, the bee population was decimated by the growing use of chemical pesticides in the 1970s. Nevertheless, beekeeping has experienced a revival as natural products containing honey and beeswax have increased the visibility and desirability of the honey bee. Still a powerful representation of success, the industrious honey bee continues to serve both as a source of income and a metaphor for globalization as America emerges as a leader in the Information Age.

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Editorial Reviews

Beekeeping--as a hobby? Ridiculous though its wardrobe may be, the avocation's advocates swear there's no sweeter pastime.

As this issue of FORBES hits newsstands, America's 100,000 beekeepers are swinging into action. When spring limbers up and the first wildflowers start to bloom, bees get ready to suck up nectar and transform it into honey. Beekeepers, meantime, are shaking out their white cotton coveralls, netted veils and gauntlet-style gloves. They're dust-ing off their smokers and 8-inch wood-handled bee brushes. They're readying black wooden fume boards--hive lids lined in absorbent black felt on which they will drizzle butyric acid, the active ingredient in rancid butter. Clap a fume board on top of a hive and bees flee, making it possible to pilfer their treasure.

These arcana of the beekeeper's art are lyrically described by amateur apiarist Holley Bishop in her new book, Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World (Free Press, $24). Bishop, 39, a former literary agent turned author, keeps a hive or two at her weekend home in Connecticut, two hours north of New York City.

Before acquiring this property six years ago, Bishop never even thought about beekeeping. But then she visited a friend who kept two beehives in a meadow next to his house. "Immediately," writes Bishop, "I was captivated by the idea of low-maintenance farm stock that did the farming for you and didn't need to be walked, milked or brushed."

What sealed her interest was her first taste of locally harvested honey. "In that glistening dollop I could taste the sun and the water in his pond, the metallic minerals of the soil, the tang of thegoldenrod and the wildflowers bloom-ing around the meadow. The present golden-green moment was sweetly and perfectly distilled in my mouth." This is what happens when a literary agent gets carried away by a new hobby.

Bishop's fascination made her part of a tradition stretching back to ancient times. The Egyptians carved bee symbols into royal seals; the Greeks of Ephesus minted coins with images of bees; Napoleon embroidered the mighty bee into his coat of arms.

Two other bee books out this spring explore just such lore. Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee (Harmony Books, $23), by British food writer Hattie Ellis, asks why so many artists and social think-ers--from Frank Lloyd Wright, who incorporated comb-like hexagonals into his architectural designs, to radical Aus-trian "anthroposophist" Rudolf Steiner, who admired bees' collective way of life--have drawn inspiration from these winged insects.

Kentucky beekeeper and college professor Tammy Horn is the author of Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (University Press of Kentucky, $28). Though the insects aren't native to the Americas, she points out, they've been here since Europeans first arrived. For Mormon church founder Joseph Smith bees offered the ideal symbol for unity, political stability and social cohesion. In Utah to this day, bees and hives are imprinted on side-walks, the state flag and the transoms of bank doors.

Bees' economic impact far exceeds money spent for honey. Bees-for-hire pollinate many of the nation's crops, including alfalfa, apples, almonds, tomatoes and a range of citrus fruits. A 1999 Cornell University study calculated that without such pollination, crop yields would be lower by $15 billion a year. California almond growers import more than a million hives annually to pollinate their $800-million-a-year crop.

How much money can an apiarist make if he turns pro? Bishop answers by depicting the life of Donald Smiley, 46, who tends 700 hives in the Florida panhandle. As one of only 2,000 people in the U.S. who earn their keep as full-time beekeepers, he's part of a select fraternity. Smiley's long hours, multiple bee stings and modest livelihood are typi-cal. In a good year he harvests 115,000 pounds of honey, worth on average $1 a pound wholesale. After labor and other expenses he may make only $52,000.

Keepers who rent their hives for pollination do better. Rental rates per hive range from $35 to $55, which is not bad if you can get your hives onto several crops per season. You'd think that by now scientists would have invented some sort of gizmo or chemical spray that would pollinate more efficiently than bees do, but that's not the case. When you read about a bee's finely tuned anatomy, and how it coordinates perfectly with a flower's innards, you understand why.

Bees collect pollen in order to feed their young. Their bulging, compound, lidless eyes zero in on the exterior signs that point to a flower's interior nectar--spots, dots and stripes. Six limbs, each outfitted with spiny, comblike hair, collect pollen and relay it to saddlebags, called corbiculae. As bees fly, they generate up to 450 volts of static electricity, which causes pollen grains to jump on.

Sturdy and efficient, bees nonetheless fall prey to disease, bad weather and "killer bees." In the mid-1950s Bra-zilian beekeepers looking to increase their yields imported aggressive strains from Africa. What the Brazilians didn't know was that the African bees were sociopathic. After interbreeding, Africanized strains migrated north, reaching Texas in 1990. Since then they have spread into New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

While their venom carries no extra potency, their attacks display extravagant ferocity. In one 1986 incident in Costa Rica a botany student is said to have been killed by 8,000 stings--20 stings per square inch of his body. Neverthe-less, bee sting fatalities remain about as likely as lightning fatalities.

Far more threatening to the bee-driven economy are varroa mites, ticklike parasites that first showed up in the U.S. in 1986. These tiny red devils crawl into bee brood cells, where they feast on larvae. Twenty thousand Florida bee colonies, or 8% of the state's commercial colony population, succumb to mites each year. While researchers are experi-menting with methods to combat varroa, the pest poses a growing danger to commercial beekeeping.

In the meantime, though, the honey flows. Bishop's book ends with recipes, some from the great Roman chef Apicius, author of the world's oldest known cookbook. For dulcia domestica, stuff pitted dates with nuts, roll them in salt and fry them in honey.

Honey was not only the first sweetener, it was also among the first preservatives. Ancient Romans, Indians and Chinese sealed meats, nuts and fruit in it. Its pH is 3.9--the same acidity as mild vinegar. Sugar, which makes up 95% of honey's solids, kills most bacteria by osmosis. Bees also secrete an enzyme that adds a small amount of hydrogen perox-ide.

Doctors now are using honey to treat wounds. Bishop cites a 1998 medical journal that reported honey to be more effective than the silver sulfadiazine hospitals typically apply to burn victims. Ellis echoes Bishop's claims, and both authors point to a pioneering New Zealand doctor, Peter Molan, who is pursuing honey's medicinal utility. Other researchers are studying bee venom's possible effectiveness as a treatment for arthritis.
—Susan Adams

Publishers Weekly
The honeybee isn't native to the U.S., but it's hard to imagine the country without it. Like cattle, another imported species, the honeybee helped transform what European settlers saw as a vast wilderness into a land of milk and honey. First-time author Horn, who learned beekeeping from her grandfather, provides a wealth of worthy material about bees in America, from the use of the hive metaphor to justify colonization in the 1500s and 1600s, to bees' role in pollinating the prairies and orchards that we now take for granted. She discusses the attitudes of native peoples toward the insects; the beekeeping practices of African Americans, women and new immigrants; advances in beekeeping technology; the role of honey and beeswax in the U.S. economy; and the use of bee imagery in the arts. While Horn's affection for her subject is always evident, her efforts to tie beekeeping to every aspect of American life are sometimes strained-as when she writes that "because major social rifts [in the 1950s] were threatening to tear apart the `good life,' this country's arts environment used the honey bee to negotiate difficult power struggles between races, between spouses, between political parties, between generations, [and] between legal rulings." Horn's thesis is better served without such overreaching and unconvincing claims. B&w illus. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A scholarly, but readable, look at the influence of the honey bee throughout America's history." — Kentucky Monthly

"Honey bees and man have traveled a long and perilous journey from their tentative first flights in colonial America to the intensely managed, politically volatile pollination fields of a modern, fertile California. Horn traces the many paths of honey bee and human interaction in America and weaves them together for a colorful, intimate and in-depth tale that grandly encompasses keen inventions, slavery, religion, war, economics, politics, and the global market place, to produce the fabric of our American experience for over 400 years." — Kim Flottum, Editor, BeeCulture

"Horn's social history of bees and beekeeping in the United States reveals how integral bees have been to the settlement and culture of our country." — Lexington Herald-Leader

"Horn brilliantly creates a richly researched and wonderfully written text. Even those who view bees with some degree of horror will be pleasantly surprised." — New York Resident

"Bees in America is a fabulous treatment of how the honey bee shaped social, political, and economic attitudes duringcolonization and beyond in America. The story is still a very important one today." — North Vernon Sun

"The honey bee isn't native to the U.S., but it's hard to imagine the country without it. Horn...provides a wealth of worthy material about bees in America, from the use of the hive metaphor to justify colonization in the 1500s and 1600s, to bees' role in pollinating the prairies and orchards that we now take for granted." — Publishers Weekly

"Filled with piquant anecdotes about bees and their keepers, drawn from a wide range of sources." — Richard Schweid, author of The Cockroach Papers and Consider the Eel

"Builds a social history of the bee in America, beginning with the earliest colonists (honeybees aren't native to North America) and ending with hyper-contemporary electronic hives and the Bee Genome Project.... A heroic book in its scope." —

"An effective blend of humor and serious scholarship.... It merits wide readership." — Southern Historian

"Bee folklore, science, and history recounted in a delightful book full of anecdotes and facts which will spark admiration for this sometimes overlooked part of our nation's agriculture." — Times of Acadiana

"Shows how bees, since their arrival in America, have affected people, like their impact on native peoples and their use by colonists." — Utah Historical Quarterly

"Will most appeal to American history buffs, who may be surprised to learn how bees, honey, and beekeepers figure in events, prominent and obscure, that shaped our nation." — Zoogoer

"Horn is at her sweetest when she works through the relevance of bees in our literature, folklore, and music." — Journal of Appalachian Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813123509
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 4/21/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 0.94 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Bees and new world colonialism 19
Ch. 2 Bees and the revolution 41
Ch. 3 Before bee space, 1801-1860 65
Ch. 4 After bee space, 1860-1900 101
Ch. 5 Early twentieth century : industrialization, 1901-1949 145
Ch. 6 Late twentieth century : globalization, 1950-2000 199
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