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Robbing the Bees

A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World

"Honey has been waiting almost ten million years for a good biography," writes Holley Bishop. Bees have been making this food on Earth for hundreds of millennia, but we humans started recording our fascination with it only in the past few thousand years -- painting bees and hives on cave and temple walls and papyrus scrolls, revering them in poetry and art, even worshipping these amazing little insects as gods. From the temples of the Nile to the hives behind the author's own house, people have had a long, rapturous love affair with the beehive and the seductive, addictive honey it produces. Combining passionate research, rich detail, and fascinating anecdote, Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees is an in-depth, sumptuous look at the oldest, most delectable food in the world.

Part biography, part history, Robbing the Bees is also a celebration, a love letter to bees and their magical produce. Honey has played significant and varied roles in civilization: it is so sweet that bacteria can't survive in it, so it was our first food preservative and all-purpose wound salve. Honey wine, or mead, was the intoxicant of choice long before beer or wine existed. Hindus believe honey leads to a long life; Mohammed looked to honey as a remedy for all illness. Virgil; Aristotle; Pythagoras; Gregor Mendel; Sylvia Plath's father, Otto; and Sir Edmund Hillary are among the famous beekeepers and connoisseurs who have figured in honey's past and shaped its present.

To help navigate the worlds and cultures of honey, Holley Bishop -- beekeeper, writer, and honey aficionado -- apprentices herself to a modern guide and expert, professional beekeeper Donald Smiley, who harvests tupelo honey from hundreds of hives in the remote town of Wewahitchka, Florida. Bishop chronicles Smiley's day-to-day business as he robs his bees in the steamy Florida panhandle and provides an engaging exploration of the lively science, culture, and lore that surround each step of the beekeeping process and each stage of bees' lives.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are the author's lyrical reflections on her own beekeeping experiences, the business and gastronomical world of honey, the myriad varieties of honey (as distinct as the provenance of wine), as well as illustrations, historical quotes, and recipes -- ancient, contemporary, and some of the author's own creations.

Introductions

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
Photo Credit:

Holley Bishop, a beekeeper for six years, has spent thousands of hours observing bees, harvesting honey, and amassing a collection of related books, gadgets, and stories. A graduate of Brown University, she completed a degree at the Columbia University School of Journalism and has worked in book publishing and written for numerous magazines.

"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