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Robbing the Bees

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

by Holley Bishop

Pocket Books, 2007, Paperback, 336 pages

Part biography, part history, Robbing the Bees is a celebration of bees and the honey they 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; and Sir Edmund Hillary are among the famous beekeepers and connoisseurs who have figured in honey's past and shaped its present.

Praise for Robbing the Bees

"Interspersed with...stories of professional beekeeping are looks at the history of honey and how various peoples have robbed bees of their produce, as well as the reminiscences of Bishop the novice beekeeper, the mistakes she made, and what these mistakes taught her about bees. Eminently readable." Booklist

Quotes from Robbing the Bees

"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."

Copyright 2005 by Holley Bishop

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