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.
When former New York literary agent Bishop bought a Connecticut farmstead, she began keeping bees as a way of savoring her newfound reverence for nature in the edible form of fresh honey, a passion that now yields this engaging study of the history, science and art of beekeeping. She details the biology of the "always gracious, economical and neat" insects; explores the complex, pheromone-besotted hive society that yokes the proverbially busy insects to the tasks of comb building, nectar gathering and larvae nourishing; and eulogizes their stubborn, self-immolating defense of their honey against human pillagers. And she chronicles humanity's millennia-long expropriation of the bee's gifts of honey, beeswax, pollen and venom to provide food and drink (a chapter of honey-themed recipes is included), nutritional supplements, arthritis remedies and even weapons of war. Tying it all together is a profile of salt-of-the-earth commercial beekeeper Donald Smiley, harvester of specialty honey gathered from tupelo tree blossoms in the drowsy hum of the Florida panhandle, and emblem of the fruitful alliance of two legs with six. Bishop's impulse to visit every flower of bee lore sometimes weighs the book down with quotes from bee enthusiasts of the past, but her combination of engrossing natural history and down-home reportage make this a fitting homage to one of nature's most admirable creatures. Photos. Agent, Mary Evans. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Fans of Sue Hubbell and Diane Ackerman will take to this like-well, bees to honey. Six years ago, first-time author Bishop bought a house in Connecticut, just a few hours north of her New York City apartment. While visiting a beekeeping neighbor, she tasted some recently harvested honey and felt as though she'd "really experienced honey for the first time." And there began an obsession. Bishop not only began to read everything she could find about honey, but she began to keep bees herself. She needed a mentor and was happily adopted by Donald Smiley, a beekeeper in Wewahitchka, Florida. Robbing the Bees is the story of her apiary love, part memoir, chronicling Bishop's beekeeping learning-curve, and part reportage-Smiley, with his fraying baseball cap and his cup of coffee, "brewed to opacity," jumps to life early on and makes a very good guide to the world of the beehive. And it's part history lesson. Bees have been the subject of human fascination since Homer (his heroes make honey-wine libations), but modern beekeeping-as a science-didn't come into its own until the 17th century. And, finally, it's a treasure trove of bee lore. England's first Royal Bee Master? A fellow named Moses Rusden, so designated by Charles II, in the 1670s. Bishop reports, among other curiosities, myriad uses for bee wax; it not only makes silky lipstick, but it's a useful agent for removing stains from marble. Who knew? If you want to read up on the invention of Crayolas or the medicinal and aphrodisiacal uses of pollen, this is the book for you. The assorted illustrations-a 16th-century woodcut of two beehouses, a 19th-century magazine drawing of the proper way to handle bees-are, as it were, icing on a verysweet, very scrumptious cake. Not to mention the appendix of recipes: the Robbing the Bees martini is simple, and to die for. As golden as its subject.
From the Publisher
"With this elegant new book, Holley Bishop joins Sue Hubbell and Edwin Way Teale as one of the most engaging ambassadors to bees we've ever had. Written with grace and wit...as seductive as an open jar of tupelo honey."
Robert Michael Pyle, author of Chasing Monarchs
"Bishop's book reads like a novel the narrative unfolding like an escapist yarn or film, with Bishop and her bees as the players and the humid fields of Florida as her stage."
The Salt Lake Tribune
"Holley Bishop's love affair with honeybees combines natural and social history with gastronomy and memoir to produce a delicious reading experience."
Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire
Read an Excerpt
Robbing the Bees A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World
By Holley Bishop
Free Press Copyright © 2006 Holley Bishop
All right reserved.
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
Everyone should have two or three hives of bees.
Bees are easier to keep than a dog or a cat.
They are more interesting than gerbils.
Sue Hubbell, A Book of Bees
Nobody disputes the role of dogs as man's best friend, but a
convincing argument can also be made for the honey bee.
Martin Elkort, The Secret Life of Food
Until six years ago, I had no acquaintance with bees or honey. No childhood memories of painful stings while playing in the yard or climbing a tree, nor neighborhood friends who could boast of such a dramatic experience. There were no eccentric suburban beekeepers to spy on in my early days, no busy oozing tree nests, and never an ounce of honey in the kitchen of the house where I grew up. Preferring the Hardy boys and Nancy Drew to Winnie-the-Pooh, I had not learned to appreciate bees or honey. Bees were a vague, somewhat menacing presence, like malarial mosquitoes or the bogeyman. I had never personally met any and was perfectly happy to keep it that way.
Then, as a harried adult in need of a peaceful getaway, I bought a house in Connecticut two hours north of my cramped rental apartment in New York City. I fell in love with the landscape and solitude of the country, with the shade of giant maples instead of skyscrapers, and with the sounds of woodpeckers and doves waking me in the morning rather than the roar and honk of traffic. The house is over two hundred years old, a quaint brown clapboard colonial, rich in history and nature, which I set out to explore. Soon, I learned that my little haven, with its steep woods, rocky ledges, and spring-fed cattailed pond, had once been a tobacco farm.
Giddy with fresh air and a pioneering do-it-yourself fever, I fantasized about becoming some kind of farmer myself. I toyed with visions of a giant vegetable garden, an orchard, and a produce stand. I thought about acquiring sheep and making cheese and sweaters. Somewhere I read that one acre of grazing land can support one dairy cow and did the math on an unlikely herd of cattle. In the midst of my very improbable farm dreams (this was, after all, a part-time project, and I am essentially lazy), I went to visit my friend Ace, an expert in part-time projects. He introduced me to two white boxes of bees he kept in a meadow near his house. Immediately 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. The amount of gear and gadgets involved also appealed.
Ace handed me a plastic bear full of his most recent harvest, and when I tilted it to my mouth, head back, eyes closed, I really experienced honey for the first time, standing next to its creators. In that glistening dollop, I could taste the sun and the water in his pond, the metallic minerals of the soil, and the tang of the goldenrod and the wildflowers blooming around the meadow. The present golden-green moment was sweetly and perfectly distilled in my mouth. When I opened my eyes, tree branches and blossoms were suddenly swimming and swaying with bees that I had somehow not noticed before. Bees hopped around blooms in a delicate looping minuet. Determined to have sweet drops of honey and nature on my tongue on a more regular basis, I resolved to host bees on my own property. Keeping bees was clearly the most exquisite way to learn about my land, farm it, and taste its liquid fruits. As visions of sheep and cows faded away, I dropped my head back again and opened my mouth for more honey. That is how my love affair with bees and their magical produce began.
Like most love affairs, it quickly got obsessive. I started to see bees and honey everywhere, and everything reminded me of them. Honey suddenly appeared in every aisle of my supermarket and in the bubbles of my bath. The condiment packets at Starbucks were love letters from the hive. In the city, I saw "Busy Bee" courier services, "Bee-Line" moving companies, and bees dancing about the flowers of the medians on Park Avenue. When the initial infatuation had worn off, I did a little background check. Reading everything I could on beekeeping and bees, I became a little more enamored with every detail I uncovered about this humble creature's illustrious past. Most of the books I found on the subject were dated and musty, but their sense of fascination, which I now shared, was fresh and timeless.
* * *
Reverence for the bee is as old as humanity. Bees, in fact, were on this planet long before humanity existed. Ancient civilizations believed that bees were divine messengers of the gods, or deities themselves. Kings and queens of the Nile carved symbols of them into their royal seals, and the Greeks of Ephesus minted coins with their images. Emperor Napoleon embroidered the mighty bee into his coat of arms as an emblem of power, immortality, and resurrection. One day at the New York Public Library, while I was researching bees, one of my subjects blithely and loudly explored the reading room, causing widespread consternation. I felt thrilled by this visitation from the gods.
Honey was humanity's only sweetener for centuries, and historically seekers had gone to great and painful lengths to obtain their sweet liquid grail. It seemed to me, as I observed our often unnatural world of modern conveniences and sugar substitutes, that bees and honey, like poetry and mystery, had become sadly neglected and unappreciated. I had taken them for granted myself, but no more. I read dozens of journals and books about the bee, enough to realize that I was just beginning to grasp her vast repertoire of marvels. The glob of precious honey that I had poured into my mouth at Ace's was the life's work of hundreds of bees, a unique floral ode collected from thousands of blossoms in a poetic foraging ritual that has not changed in millions of years. Honeybees are mostly female; they communicate by dancing; and collectively they travel thousands of miles to produce a single communal pound of honey. They live for only several weeks and heroically die after delivering their dreaded, venomous sting. Bees shape the very landscape in which we all live by cross-pollinating and changing the plants that nourish them. After decades of living in honeyless ignorance I added these divine insects and their delicious produce to my recommended daily allowance of magic and wonder.
A few years later, having acquired my own bees and harvested their honey, the love affair was still going strong (although it had had its painful moments), and I decided to write a book about it, a tribute to bees and honey that I hoped would convey the magic of the hives and the timelessness and wonder of drizzling a bit of honey onto your tongue. Because I was a hobbyist puttering around just a couple hives and beekeeping is so much more than a hobby, I wanted to find a professional beekeeper to tell part of the story, someone with years of expertise and annual rivers of honey compared to my weekend trickle. The story needed a guide much more experienced than myself.
To find my sage, I went to one of my early research haunts, the Web site of the National Honey Board. It has what it calls a honey locator, a directory by state of commercial beekeepers and the types of honey they produce. Florida and California were my first choices, because they had the largest populations of bees and because I wanted to see how bees behave somewhere different and warm. I e-mailed a bunch of beekeepers in those two states explaining my project and asking if I could come and spend a few days watching their operation. Of the twenty solicited, Donald Smiley was the only one who replied, from a place I'd never heard of: Wewahitchka, Florida. In retrospect, I know this was because beekeepers are extremely busy and hardworking, and writers from New York are generally considered a nuisance. But Smiley alone took the risk and the time and endured my endless questions because he is as eager to celebrate bees and honey as I am. His honey epiphany occurred seventeen years ago and is still driving him with passion and wonder. "Hello, Holley," he wrote the day after my first e-mail. "Yes, I would be interested in helping you with the research for your book. The end of March may not be the best time for me though, the second week of April would probably be better. That is when our tupelo bloom begins, then it is all work and no play. Please give me a call and let's discuss it. The best time to reach me would be early morning between 5 A.M. and 7 A.M." In the first five minutes of our very early inaugural phone conversation he talked about his job with energetic wonder, joy, and pride and said, "I know I'm going to do this for the rest of my life." My thoughts exactly.
Note: There are an estimated sixteen thousand species of bees inhabiting our planet. From the stingless bees of the tropics to the giant honeybees of Southeast Asia, each has a distinct character and a fascinating history. This particular book is concerned with the genus Apis, which currently includes eight species of honeybees, the best known and most widely distributed of which is Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee. Within mellifera are twenty-four distinct races. I have focused mostly on the Italian race, ligustica, because I know it best. I keep ligustica in my own backyard, and Smiley too has long been smitten with it.
Another note: I visited Donald Smiley and his ever-expanding, ever-changing operation many times over the course of three years. Every time I arrived, there were more hives, new equipment, and usually a new assistant or two. When I first met him, Smiley had about six hundred hives; he now has well over a thousand. For clarity, simplicity, and sanity, I picked a number of hives, seven hundred (which is about what he had in the second year I visited), and made that constant throughout the story. Otherwise, I have gathered moments and events from throughout the three years that best illuminate a typical year in the life of Donald Smiley and his apiary.
Copyright © 2005 by Holley Bishop
Excerpted from Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop Copyright © 2006 by Holley Bishop. Excerpted by permission.
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