Books: Robbing the Bees

Books: Robbing the Bees

“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 his soil, and the tang of the goldenrod and wildflowers blooming around his 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.” – Holley Bishop

“Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, the Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World” by Holley Bishop (2005)

beekeepers in Northern Europe
“Northern Beekeepers at Work”

Robbing the Bees is a delightful and informative history of honey and humanity’s long, complex, and important relationship with bees. The book follows the author’s own beekeeping journey intertwined with the history of beekeeping and her time spent with master Florida beekeeper and tupelo honey specialist Donald Smiley.  The book starts when Holley Bishop buys a country home to get out of New York City on the weekends, hoping as so many do to become a part time self-sufficient homesteader. She realizes that it is impossible to have livestock  and other things necessary for a small farm when she is only there on the weekends; however, she can have something better: tens of thousands of bees.

Robbing the Bees is interesting and helpful for people with all levels of beekeeping knowledge and experience. The clearest impression it leaves is the extreme importance that bee products have had to humans throughout our history. Not only was honey for a long time the only available sweetener, but wax was the original plastic, and bee products were in most medicines that were used from ancient times to the 19th century. For most of history, across cultures, bees and honey have been viewed as a gift from the gods. In medieval England honey and wax could be used to pay taxes, bee hives were catapulted over walls as a weapon, and landed estates often came with a beekeeper. [This was a particularly fascinating piece of information: the location of hives in trees was a closely guarded and known only to the beekeeper, and in some areas they would cut doors into the other side of trees so they could open them and periodically take the outer combs where honey is stored.] In Colonial America the average house had ten beehives, producing the precious wax and honey that were crucial for lighting, sealing, healing, and storing.

bees in catapult
Weaponizing the bees.

As Holley learns how to be a beekeeper she is also learning her place in a long line of humans who have worked with bees. She understand her fortune, that a person can actually “keep” bees and harvest honey without killing them these days. Before Lorenzo Langstroth invented the movable comb hive [the most common type of hive that you would imagine when you think of a bee hive] most people who had bees relied on poisoning them every year to harvest the honey. Beyond this, there was no good way to inspect previous hives without destroying them. While the ways of the bees fascinate us, because of the Langstroth hive a person can inspect a bee frame and see what is going on within a hive with minimal disturbance (though in my experience it does piss them off!) While this has made beekeeping more merciful and interesting, it has also made it a more specialized skill- after all, how much knowledge does it take to poison a hive with smoke.

Swarm management methods
Methods of managing a swarm.

In the book the reader sees the author go through the stages of learning to keep bees, with sections titled, “Fear” “Respect” “Arrogance” “Time” and “Gratitude.” I think I have gone through these phases differently, as I started with extreme arrogance. But it is an understandable progression, since the instinct is to fear bees, but you have to understand to not fear them just the right amount. Bees are enigmatic and defensive creatures, but their great benefits are worthy of the danger and challenge. And the benefits are not just the honey and wax, they are beautiful and interesting creatures, and they will change how you see the entire world around you.

While all of Robbing the Bees shows the importance of honey, wax, and pollination, the author’s work with Donald Smiley shows the hard human work that goes into producing the honey most people take for granted. While working as a beekeeper may seem like a quaint, rustic profession, it is actually backbreaking, tiresome work with long hours and low margins. But to the devoted beekeeper it is a thing of great passion and pride. While Bishop was writing the book, Smiley was caring for over 700 hives. These hives need to be checked on a regular bases, moved, harvested, and repaired. It is hot in a bee suit and even the most experienced and immune beekeeper does not want to be in the middle of a ferocious bee yard unprotected. But day after day, year after year, the beekeeper persists, giving us the refined nectar of the bees.

Overall, Robbing the Bees is a wonderful history of honey and beekeeping that will broaden anyone’s appreciation for the crucial role these magnificent insects have played in human history while also providing practical information about the experience of beekeeping.

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