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Discover Mid-America — October 2005

A long, fruitful, and history-shaping romance

Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World by Holly Bishop; Free Press (Simon & Schuster): New York (2005); hardcover, 320 pp., 14 b/w illustrations; $24; 0743250214, www.simsonsays.com

Honey has fascinated humans for millennia. In turn, humans have used bees just for the production of their sort of nature’s candy as food, sweetener, antibiotic, spice and therapy for a number of ills. It’s shaped culture and has been the center of life and politics — all because humans are so intrigued by the liquid gold and the animals that make it.

For some, the sight of a jar of honey or a plastic honey bear is arresting. Rotated in the hands in the aisle of the grocery store or before a kitchen window, A jar of honey holds something meaningful in the way the amber transmits light; something engrossing and hypnotic in the way a bubble moves slowly, sleekly from one end of an upturned jar to the other.

And then there’s the flavor — or rather, flavors. Almost everyone has an idea of the way honey tastes. But those who love that ambiguous experience of honey (or memory of honeys tasted over time) look and even save their money up for the particular honeys that speak of the plants the bees have gathered their nectars from, combined with the apiarists’ attention to the honey-making craft.

Like wine aficionados whiffing away at their flower-like glass, honey liebhabers, or enthusiasts, know and can become adept at knowing what flower or flower combinations go into a honey. And sometimes, depending on those species, where the honey comes from. Or, more simply, the way honey flavors a cup of tea or a slice of bread with butter.

Because of the honey’s allure and bees’ usefulness to agriculture, journals, and articles about bees and beekeeping, and even beekeepers form a wide body of literature about bees and honey. But most have a limited appeal to people who may like and believe in honey.

This is why Holly Bishop’s Robbing the Bees is as special as its subject — the product of the only livestock that can be shipped by mail. Bishop raises bees herself, and while her fascination with the animal and its product is a part of the story, it doesn’t overwhelm it or steel their places at the center stage of a play that gone through the duration of the human species.

The book starts with the tupelo honey harvest in Wewahitchka, FL, with Donald Smiley. Out of a long list of contacts, Smiley was the only beekeeper that agreed to let her follow him around. And through Smiley, Bishop introduces honey and honeybees, and the vagaries, romances and sweat that come with them.

Bishop’s approach is travel narrative, sometimes comforting, sometimes harrowing, but always about giving the reader a view of the subject from a specific perspective. Because she needs to write a story outside of her own experience, Smiley becomes a useful device to the unfolding of the story of these animals, their seasons, moods and lives. He develops a relationship with each of he seven hundred colonies he keeps as he moves from hive building to honey harvest. And while Smiley does the heavy lifting, Bishop fills the natural spaces in a day or event that deserve or need explanation. The result is that readers get, in a very comfortable and readable way, the natural history and human history of bees, nutritional complexities of honey and bee venom, lessons in bee anatomy and behavior, the science behind hive and comb making, and the intricacies of beekeeping. Also passages and chapters on medicinal uses and other products made from honey and how they changed commerce and influenced culture keep the book moving into the culinary treat (in other words, brief — not too many, not too few) of recipes in the last chapter.

The structure of the book makes the story even more interesting. Rather than stick to a somewhat or nearly chronological or topographical tale of the traveler, Bishop orders her book into introductions of Smiley and of bees and honey, fear, respect, arrogance, time and gratitude. The structure of the book itself tells a tale of maturation: At first, a person will fear bees, their stings and swarms. (Bees are, after all, insects, and nearly all insects incur some kind of human fear or anger born of fear.) In a sense, humans first learned to bash into beehives, kill the bees, and steal the honey — thus, robbery. But if that person wants that golden nectar, they will learn to respect the bees, keep clear of them so they can get along with the more important work of pollination and honey making — and then steal their honey.

The danger, of course, is that the beekeeper will become complacent, and in becoming complacent, arrogant. The master begins to think he or she is really in control of bee colonies rather than in a cooperative relationship with them. Bees are subject to diseases and parasites that can destroy colonies, molds that can rot honey and comb, and other insects that eat up the harvest, set mold and mildew, and dirty up what is usually a scrupulously clean house.

Once chastised, either by folly, hubris or by the bees themselves (they have moods, they sting, they swarm off), the beekeeper again become patient, knowing that what happens today, in the hive and out, will yield a precious harvest. Then, with the harvest comes gratitude for a number of things learned, lost and loved. And most of all, for the bees.

The book descriptions and settings are vivid; the science and history easy to access but not simplistic or dumbed down. Chapter-opening epigrams are valuable themselves, as well as in relation to the text. The only weakness in Robbing the Bees is perhaps one that comes with obsession. Bishop leans to contrivance from time to time, but at such intervals as can be easily forgiven, because this is a biography — and a history — not only of bees but the humans who depend on them.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


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