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.