1. Swamp Cache
2. The Bee Master
3. Robbing the Bees
5. The Sting
6. Food, Wine, and Fishing
7. Liquid Currency
9. Medicine Ball
10. Some Honey Recipes, Old and New
A FINAL NOTE
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 o., 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.
“Where a man’s treasure lies, there lies his heart.”
Life is the flower for which love is the honey.
One year during the tupelo harvest Donald Smiley fell asleep while taking off his boots. He awoke slouched and snoring in his office chair, with one muddy boot on his foot and the other cradled in his lap. He’s not to that point yet, he thinks now, in the middle of April, but give it a week. Seated in his swiveling desk chair, he pulls on one of the heavy, dark leather work boots, wincing a little at the effort. The season has barely begun, but already his 48-year-old body feels the strain. The most exhausting and lucrative time of year, the tupelo harvest, is fast approaching, and he’s already tired from too much work and too little sleep. “Sometimes I’m so tired I can’t get to sleep,” he groans. “I stay up thinking about how tired I am and how much work there is to do.” Easing a foot into the other boot, he achily ponders the work ahead.
He stretches and ambles into the adjacent kitchen to pour his third cup of morning coffee into a scarred plastic mug before heading out into the heat of the day. He likes it black, strong, and brewed to opacity. “That’s what it takes to get me started,” he says, drinking deeply as he swings the back door open. At 9:00 A.M. in April in the Florida panhandle, the temperature has already hit the hot, sticky seventies. In his frayed baseball cap, thick blue cotton work pants, undershirt, and long-sleeved denim shirt, Smiley breaks a sweat just by walking from his office to the truck parked next to the house.
Behind his beige-and-green ranch is a forty-foot-long steel Quonset hut as big as his residence. This is the honey house, the arched metal barn for storing his equipment and for processing his crop when it comes in from the fields. His livestock—about forty million bees—lives elsewhere, in twenty-two beeyards scattered around the swamps, fields, and forests of Wewahitchka. At the moment the honey house lies dormant, like a winery days before the grapes are harvested. But very soon the silent hut will be transformed into a bustling, fragrant honey factory.
In the adjacent sandy lot is another dormant structure, the Tyvecked shell of the two-bedroom house he is building for himself and his wife, Paula. His future abode is about 3,400 square feet, three and a half times as big as his current one, with a two-car garage, sunken bathtub, screened-in porch, office, and a separate storage space for honey. Paula, his wife of six years, is eager to move from his old bachelor pad and childhood home to a more spacious place that doesn’t have boxes of honey stacked in the bedroom. She’ll have to wait until the harvest is over. At the rate the contractors and bees are going (slow and fast), the Smileys probably won’t move in until the fall. In the meantime, he has to pay for it. “Time to get to work,” he says, swigging his coffee and eyeing the house. “I need the tupelo money to pay for the tiles.”
He climbs into his gleaming white Ford 4 × 4, blasts the radio and air-conditioning, settles his coffee cup into its holder, and backs out of the driveway. From his house on Bozeman Circle, Smiley turns onto Old Transfer Road, then onto Route 71, the main drag intersecting the small town of Wewahitchka, or “Wewa,” as the locals call it.
Geographically, Wewa is about equidistant from New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. Culturally, Smiley’s hometown is much closer to the old, deep coastal South of Louisiana and Alabama than it is to the sandy resort world of southeastern Florida. Locals often refer to this area as “L.A.” or “Lower Alabama.” Some call it “Southern Alabama,” or “Salabama.” The older houses in Salabama are built of wood, raised on wobbly stilts and roofed with tin. Ancient magnolia trees draped in clouds of Spanish moss dwarf and shade the single-story homes. Some lots have a trailer parked next to a crumbling older house, the local version of an addition. Trucks are parked on packed sandy earth by the side of the house, often sporting a gun rack in the rear and fishing poles poking out of the bed. In front of several homes on Route 71 are signs for boiled peanuts, honey, live shrimp, and crawfish for sale. From deep within shaded front porches, residents watch for customers and tra8c on the road, which extends from the shore twenty miles south to the Alabama border fifty miles north. The difference between north and south Florida is, as Smiley says, that of night and day.
Most of Smiley’s life in Wewa has centered around Route 71. He was born on it, in a house that used to be the doctor’s o8ce and is now Eddie’s Beauty Salon. The elementary and high schools he attended are just down the road, as are his bank and supermarket. Even his mobile office—the truck—is headquartered on Route 71; he spends several hours a day on it as he tends to beeyards throughout the county. With a population of 1,700 people and only one main thoroughfare, Wewa is a town where strangers are noticed and where all the locals know all the locals, at least by sight. Smiley recognizes many of the drivers passing him and lifts his left fingers up from the steering wheel in a subtle, neighborly wave.
Stopped at the one traffic light, Smiley surveys “downtown” Wewa. Clustered near the intersection are Randy’s discount grocery store, the Chevron station, Pitt’s pharmacy, Tony’s Bait and Tackle, JR’s food mart and gas station, and an abandoned gas station turned failed doughnut shop. He can also see a hardware store, an auto parts store, a Subway sandwich outlet, several empty lots, and the Bank Trust of Florida. Farther up the road are the Lake Alice municipal park with its covered pavilion, pond, picnic tables, and a bright plastic jungle gym, and the new town library. As for other small-town entertainments, there is not a bowling alley, arcade, or movie theater in sight or in town. “Wewa used to have a movie theater,” says Smiley, pointing. “Over by the where the courthouse is now, but it burned down before I was old enough to go to it.” In the lifetime that Smiley has been here, lots of businesses have burned down or closed up, and the crossroads has the abandoned feeling of faded charm and better days found in many small southern towns. “We used to have a five-and-dime, and a shoe store and a clothing store, but they all went out of business,” he says. “Had a dry cleaner too, but that closed.” For entertainment, dry cleaning, cheap groceries, and home building supplies, Wewahitchkans drive to the thriving malls and restaurants of Panama City, about half an hour away.
Not counting the Subway, Wewahitchka boasts two restaurants, The Bayou and Swampy’s. The menus are crowded with fried fish, okra, shrimp, and crawfish, with an occasional frog’s legs special. It’s the kind of food Smiley caught and cooked himself when he was a kid, crowded into the two-bedroom house on Bozeman Circle where he still lives. By local standards he’s well off now, but that’s only been in the past few years, since he started in honey. He and his twelve siblings were raised, as he says, “hard and fast and poor, same as most kids in this part of Florida.”
Smiley drives past the high school he attended until eleventh grade, when he dropped out, married his sweetheart, and started work in construction and installing air-conditioning. He and most of his classmates stayed in the area, laboring in the local industries of farming, paper, timber, chemicals, and fishing. After the construction gig, Smiley tried timbering, working grueling shifts on an oil rig, and eventually guarding at a local prison. He preferred shifts in maximum security, because it kept him busy. “Regular duty you just sit on your butt and scratch your head and watch the prisoners,” he says. Donald Smiley likes to be busy.
Early in his marriage, he and his wife and two small children moved thirty miles east to Apalachicola, Florida’s oyster capital, where he worked plumbing the endless sandy shallows of the Gulf of Mexico for the prized shellfish. When a friend introduced him to his beekeeping hobby, it was love at first sight, sound, and taste. He remembers going into a hive, digging his chaffed oysterman’s finger into the laden honeycomb, and tasting the warm waxy sweetness as bees swarmed noisily around him. It seemed an additional miracle that he might actually make money from this liquid. Phasing out of bivalves and into bees for a living, he returned to Wewahitchka and his childhood home in 1987. He bought eight hives from a newspaper advertisement and by the next year had turned them into forty. After years of teetering, his marriage finally tottered apart; for a year before he met Paula, he found himself living alone in his house for the first time in his life with only a couple of million bees to keep him company. Following his divorce, bees were his passion, his livelihood, his friends and family.
Now, after years of perfecting his husbandry, he has seven hundred hives and a new wife, whom he married after a six-month courtship. “I told her I was already married to my bees,” says Smiley now, “but she married me anyway.” Paula doesn’t seem to mind sharing her man with the bees. In a crunch she helps him with sting-free tasks such as bottling, labeling, and shipping. She keeps a respectful distance from his beloved livestock but is clearly proud of his dedication and his growing reputation. In seventeen years, he’s become one of the most respected beekeepers in the area. Other farmers and hobbyists come to him for advice. Customers ask for his honey by name. Smiley’s work is hard, hot, and at times endless. But the rewards are sweet-financial and physical independence, a sense of craftsmanship, a constant education, and the joy of working outdoors, coaxing delectable honey from millions of bees. “I love my job,” he says. “I made more money beekeeping than anything else I ever did and enjoyed it more.” He’s constantly amazed and impressed by the bees.
Easing up to the drive-through window of the Emerald Coast Federal Credit Union, he takes a sheaf of checks from his shirt pocket. These are payments for the honey that he shipped last week.
“Well, good morning,” he says to the intercom, slipping the checks into the open transaction drawer.
“Hey, Mister Smiley, how’s it going?” chirps the teller from behind the glass. “Did the tupelo come yet?”
“Well, we’re fixin’ to find out what’s happening there any day now,” replies Smiley.
The object of this speculation is a tree bud, or, more accurately, millions of tree buds. The tupelo tree, Nyssa ogeche, grows in profusion in and along the Apalachicola and Ochlocknee rivers of the Florida panhandle. A few of these trees are found in southern Alabama and Georgia, but they grow in significant numbers only in Smiley’s little-known corner of Florida, commonly called the “Forgotten Coast.” There are legends about how the tupelo, a native of China, came to be in this forgotten place. The most popular story involves a missionary, a Baptist woman who had just returned from the Far East and was traveling down the Apalachicola River by barge. In her purse she reportedly carried precious seedpods from a Chinese tupelo tree. It’s not clear why she had these curious items in her bag; perhaps she had tasted tupelo honey in Asia (where beekeeping had been established for millennia) and intended to spread the word and some seeds throughout Florida’s watery frontier. When a thief grabbed the lady’s bag and saw nothing of value within, he disgustedly flung her parcel into the river. As it turns out, he did honey lovers a valuable favor. The tupelo thrives in riverine environments, and it flourished and multiplied and now dominates thousands of acres of Florida wetlands. This is how Don Smiley’s hometown came to be one of the few places on the planet where tupelo honey is abundant enough to be produced commercially. There are several beekeeping families in town, including the Laniers and the Rishes, who have been chasing the tupelo bud for generations.
The crop begins the day the tupelo buds open. Honeybees feed on the nectar of the blossoms, which the plant produces for their delectation. They are attracted to the tupelo over all others and make a straight, determined “beeline” to the buds. At the sweet liquid center of each flower they fill their stomachs drop by drop with nectar. When their bellies are full, they return to the nest, where the contents are converted to honey and stored as food for the entire colony. As human food, tupelo honey is a delicacy prized for its exotic rarity, unique flavor, light color, and refusal to crystallize—as most other honeys do. It’s a specialty honey that Smiley can sell for more per pound than any of his other harvests.
There are as many types of honey as there are flowers. Bees forage on whatever nectar source is closest and most appealing to the hive, and the type of bloom influences the flavor and color of the honey. A colony of bees is like a sponge, soaking up the pools of smell and taste from the flavorful landscape and season in which it is immersed. Hives placed in a grove of blossoming orange trees, for example, will yield a light amber-colored honey with a mild citrus tang and the aroma of oranges. A eucalyptus grove, on the other hand, will offer honey that is darkly aromatic and medicinal tasting. Leatherwood honey from Tasmania, with its exotic, spicy, aftershave-like scent, is my favorite outside of my own backyard product. Honey connoisseurs can detect provenance in the same way that wine aficionados can pinpoint grapes, terroir, and appellation. In my own small apiary, I can savor the difference between my first summer harvest, infused with the sweet clover, dandelion, and forsythia flavors of spring, and the later crops, which are dark and fragrant with fall-flowering goldenrod and sumac. To produce honeys boasting a particular flavor and color, beekeepers induce their bees to forage exclusively on one type or one mixture of nectars. They transport their colonies to the sources, surrounding them with flowers, encouraging their bees to soak up tupelo or citrus or leatherwood, depending on the desired taste and what is in blossom.
In Florida, fewer than ten species of plants contribute the bulk of the state’s honey crop, and only one of them—citrus—is cultivated.
Wild nectar providers include cabbage palm, gallberry, saw palmetto, black mangrove, clover, and, in the panhandle, tupelo. The tupelo season is short and intense, lasting for only two to three weeks a year, usually from mid-April to the first week in May at the latest.
During these weeks, Smiley’s bees must forage exclusively on tupelo nectar in order for him to harvest a pure and lucrative crop. Before and after the tupelo, Smiley moves his hives to clover, gallberry, titi, cotton, and watermelon to secure those less distinctive—and less profitable—drops of nectar. But at this moment, in the second week of April, he’s focused on capturing the tupelo.
At Howard’s Creek Road, Smiley turns onto tarmac bleached and cracked from the sun and cruises past tall pine groves and stumpy fields where the timber has recently been harvested. Where most motorists would see a grassy roadside bordered by generic scrub and shrub, Smiley sees bursts of flavor and income: two kinds of clover, some gallberry, titi bushes, and golden green acres of saw palmetto.
Eventually the road narrows and a canopy of silvery branches and leaves forms overhead. Smiley slows suddenly, as if a blinking neon road sign had demanded his attention. He brakes the truck and gets out, leaving the door open and the air-conditioning blasting as he strides to an overhead branch and pulls the tip of it down to inches from his blue eyes. At the end, surrounded by pointy oval lime-green leaves, is a trio of inch-long stems, each supporting a knobby bud the size and color of a fresh spring pea. Smiley inspects it closely, then lets the branch spring out of his hands. “Three days,” he pronounces. Three days until the buds open to release a flow of tupelo nectar.
The size and color of the buds, today’s heat, yesterday’s rain, and years of experience figure into this prediction. If it is accurate, then in three days that bud will sprout tiny, sweet, white tendrils that will transform the hard ball into the soft fluff that is the tupelo flower. A delicate conspiracy of water and sun bring forth the flu. for just ten to twenty days each year. Smiley and the other commercial honey farmers in Wewa attempt to predict the beginning and duration of the tupelo nectar flow in order to maximize their harvest and their profits.
Smiley climbs back into the truck and continues down the sandy road, nearing the Apalachicola River, where the tupelo trees grow in dense profusion. He makes a left at a country store and eventually pulls up to a blackened wire fence hung with “Stop” and “Keep Out” signs. Vandals, both human and animal, are one of Smiley’s prevailing beekeeping problems. Local kids with not much else to do like to kick over the hives and watch the bees storm out furiously. Bears also enjoy the sport and the sweet proceeds.
Smiley opens the gate at the Howard’s Creek yard and pulls in the truck. He then backs it up so the bed is positioned at the beginning of two long rows of pale-painted wooden hives. The rows are fifteen feet apart, with about sixty boxes on each side, resembling trim, miniature town houses on a broad, grassy avenue. Thick, scratchy brown pine needles and pinecones the size of grapefruits litter the alley between the rows. This quaint village at Howard’s Creek is home to six million bees.
He shuts off the engine and alights from the truck. The only noise in the beeyard now is from the breeze in the towering pines, an occasional cricket song, and the subtle, enveloping hum of millions of bees. Looking down the row of hives, Smiley sees them dipping and diving, turning from brown to reflective silver as they dart from shade to sun. He takes a deep breath to admire and analyze the floral scents in the yard. “It’s a great day to be alive and keeping bees,” he exhales.
Smiley takes a sip of coffee, reaches into the truck bed to find his wide-brimmed white plastic hat, and plops it on his head. On the down-turned gate of the truck, he places his smoker, a metal cylinder about the size of a coffee can with a conical spout on top and a bellows on the side. From the ground he grabs a handful of long brown pine needles, folding a thick sheaf of them in half. With his lighter, he ignites the bottom of this bundle and shoves it into the smoker while pumping the bellows. Sweet piney gray smoke billows out of the can, and Smiley adds a handful of wood chips from the back of the truck. While the fire grows, Smiley pulls the veil of his hat down over his face and anchors it with ties around his chest. In his rear pocket, he holsters a slender, black metal hive tool, a beekeeper’s miniature crowbar. He flips the smoker closed, and smoke streams steadily from the spout.
Thus armed, Smiley saunters over to the first box, which is most often called a deep hive body and is the size and shape of a file box, complete with overhanging lid and incised carrying handles. These are man-made homes for the bees, who, as long as the space is neither too big nor too small for their numbers, keep house just as they would in the wild. Ruled by one fertile queen, each hive is a nest of wax rooms with eggs and brood at the core, surrounded by outer layers and walls of food supplies. Beekeepers in earlier times captured swarms in the wild and tended them in baskets, bottles, and boxes, but contemporary keepers actually breed and raise colonies of bees inside the wooden hives. In modern commercial hives, bees graft their nests onto a series of internal movable frames, which make it as easy for the beekeeper to monitor and manipulate his livestock as if pulling and reading a file from a drawer. Smiley’s goal is briefly to inspect a couple of files or frames from each box to make sure that the establishment is healthy, that the queen is laying eggs, and that the colony is robust enough for the imminent nectar flow. He’s also checking to see that they aren’t too robust, threatening to outgrow and outnumber their space and swarm away in search of more suitable accommodation. Contrary to popular belief, a traveling swarm of bees is not a feral clump of stinging marauders but rather a vulnerable family of homeless bees that has outgrown its living quarters. Smiley is a good landlord, constantly checking to be sure his tenants are comfortable and adequately housed. He lifts the front of the lid about two inches to an emphatic burst of buzzing, greetings from a healthy, active colony. Wafting a few gray pu.s into the opening, he sets the lid down again, giving the smoke a few seconds to sink in.
Various theories attempt to explain what the smoke does to a beehive. The most popular is that it alarms the inhabitants, which suspect a forest fire and then hide in the combs of the hive, bingeing on honey until they become passive with sugar and fear. Some beekeepers say that smoke is a calming bee narcotic. My theory is that the bees simply want to get away from it, as if from bad breath, bad manners, or a bad cigar at a party. When they sense the obnoxious, intrusive fumes, they withdraw politely and quietly into the private back rooms of the hive. Smiley believes the smoke merely disorients them and slows them down for a few minutes, which is all the time he needs. When he takes the lid off moments later, the bees have retreated and the hive is much quieter and calmer, hushed with smoke.
He taps the lid firmly on the hive to shake any wanderers back into the interior. Crawling bees coat the tops of the ten wooden frames that fill the box. “Hoo, boy. Lookee here. Now, there’s a pretty box of bees,” he croons. Lively dialogue with bees is as old as apiaries. In ancient Greece, where it was believed that honey rained down from the heavens above, bees had high status as collectors and distributors of the nectar, and thus as liaisons to the gods. It was important to be on good terms with the bees if you needed anything from the deities. Throughout Europe until recently (and in some places still) bees were considered part of the family, and it was customary to inform them of important events, such as christenings, funerals, and weddings. If you did not tell the bees (and share a piece of wedding cake with them), it is said, they were likely to leave you, and your life would no longer be sweetened with honey.
Superstitions and deities aside, Smiley enjoys talking to his bees. Like farm animals or pets, they respond to the tone, mood, and movements of their master. His relating the events of the day in a soothing voice and calm gestures seems to soothe them as much as it does him. Besides, he has no one else to chat with on the many days he spends alone in the beeyards.
Smiley squats down beside the box, the smoker puffing lazily beside him. With weathered bare hands, he wedges the hive tool in between the first frame and the lip of the box and levers out a segment of the hive. Bringing the 9 × 18 × 1-inch frame close to his veiled face, he peers at the contents like a doctor reading an X-ray. There are approximately 4,000 hexagonal wax cells on each side of the frame. Each six-sided cup is about a quarter inch across and a half inch deep. At the bottom of many of the cells are single white specks the size of poppy seeds: sausage-shaped eggs laid recently by the queen. Smiley is pleased at this sign of a busy, fertile monarch. When the eggs have matured, this frame will yield thousands of new bees, and the more bees he has, the more drops of precious nectar they’ll bring back to the hive. “If you’ve got eggs, you’ve got honey,” proclaims Smiley as he inspects the frame. Every little white speck counts.
On top of the heartiest colonies, those already teeming with bees and brood, he has placed another box called a honey super. It is shallower than the deep hive body but otherwise identical, filled with ten frames of honeycombs that the bees have manufactured using wax secreted from their bodies. Away from the queen and her burgeoning offspring, this is where the bees make and store their food. Between the two levels is a queen excluder, a thin metal wire rack whose bars are close enough together to allow workers access and to prohibit the slightly fatter queen from getting into the food bank and littering it with her relentless egg laying. While the lower level is the actual home and nest of the bees, the upper honey annex is an interchangeable storage area. This is the beekeeper’s harvest.
Lifting one of these heavy frames from a super, Smiley sees it is thick with glistening honey. Made from the nectar of tiny white gallberry flowers, its dark amber color earns it the nickname “red” from local farmers. As a rule, the darker a honey is, the stronger its flavor. Smiley scrapes some red from the comb with his index finger and lifts it beneath the veil and into his mouth, taking the powerful floral explosion onto his tongue. He ponders the flavor like a sommelier, tasting a hint of black titi, maybe some clover and honeysuckle, lots of gallberry. The latter he senses as a hint of bitterness at the back of his throat. This is the taste of end-of-the-flow gallberry.
Because most plants flower for only a few weeks at most, and in different locales, honey farming is a surprisingly physical and migratory endeavor. Like shepherds guiding their flocks from bare, trampled fields to succulent green meadows, beekeepers must also follow the forage, moving the hives from one emerging source of nectar to the next. Smiley moves his at least two or three times a season—typically from gallberry to tupelo to cotton and watermelon—chasing liquid abundance, capturing different nectars, absorbing a medley of flavors.
Red honey is produced in March and April, when gallberry is flowering throughout the panhandle. Usually, just as those blossoms fade midmonth, the tupelo flowers open, releasing their flow of distinctive nectar. When that onslaught comes, the real artistry and work begin. In the business of specialty honey, there can be no nectar overlap, no mixing to dilute the purity and profitability of the crop. Tupelo honey must be pure tupelo honey. In the next three days, Smiley has to remove each of the current supers and extract the contents, cleaning out every last taste of the red. Then, in the very early mornings or cool evenings, when the bees are all calmly inside their hives, he’ll load the colonies onto his truck and move them to the tupelo yards. There, he’ll place the freshly emptied supers atop each hive and wait for the bees to bring in the new harvest. While the trees flower, the bees will make tupelo honey, which is as distinctively light and mild as the red is strong and dark. When the tupelo blossoms wither, Smiley repeats the whole exhausting process, immediately extracting the tupelo honey, then moving all of the hives to new yards and new sources, adding yet another set of empty supers to tap those nectar flows.
From another deep box, he pulls out a frame full of pu.y beige brood cells containing eggs that have hatched and thickened into pupae. As Smiley watches, the papery cap of one of the brood cells is pierced from the inside. Antennae appear, and seconds later two dark bulging eyes emerge. An adult-size newborn bee crawls out of the cell to join the busy traffic on the frame. The slightly paler fur on her thorax is the only clue of her recent birth. The newborn instinctively begins to work and soon blends in with her thousands of siblings. “That sure is a beautiful thing,” Smiley says to the frame as he replaces it in the hive and refits the lid over the colony.
He repeats the inspection process down the line of hives. Pu. the smoke, tap the lid, applaud the bees, admire the honey, scrutinize a frame or two. It’s a quiet, meditative process carried out in a haze of heat and smoke, punctuated by occasional whoops and exhortations. On one frame he spots the golden queen, with her distinctive long, tapered abdomen, making her way from cell to cell, determinedly laying eggs. An entourage of helpers follows the monarch, feeding her, cleaning her, ushering her across the comb. Smiley waves them on, “Good job there, girly, you just keep up the good work.”
In another hive, he spots another queen and whistles at the abundance of red honey her colony has stored. Bees are instinctive hoarders. As long as nectar is flowing, they will compulsively stock their pantry supers with honey. Their intent is to store food for the winter months, when supplies are scarce. When nectar is abundant, the inhabitants of a colony will collectively fly 55,000 miles and gather from more than two million flowers to make a pound of honey, with each bee contributing in total just a twelfth of a teaspoon to the communal coffer in her lifetime. Although one hive can make as much as 150 pounds of honey in a summer season, it takes about a third of that to sustain a hive through the winter months, depending on the length and depth of the cold. From the time of the earliest apiaries, the arrangement between beekeepers and their bees has been for the keepers to harvest or “rob” the surplus summer honey, leaving enough in the hive for fall and winter sustenance. Smiley’s workers need very little surplus to get them through the short, mild winters, so almost all of their instinctive excess is for his benefit. In Connecticut, however, my bees require about sixty pounds of honey per colony to sustain them during the long cold nectarless winters. I gratefully leave them this allowance, after stealing nearly twice that much from their pantry.
Smiley moves slowly down the line, smoking, tapping, and inspecting, taking the pulse and flavor of each colony. Eventually he returns to the truck, stows his hat and smoker in back, wipes his sweaty forehead, and unbuttons his clinging wet shirt. It is just before eleven in the morning. Smiley climbs into the truck, takes a gulp of cold coffee, blasts the AC, and turns on the radio just in time for the weather report. Afternoon showers, a regular panhandle occurrence, are expected. He doesn’t mind getting wet, but the bees don’t like to be rained on, it makes them awkward and irritable, so he’ll have to take it into consideration. Gazing up through the windshield, he notes the cloudless blue sky, checks the dashboard clock, reviews a mental map of his yards, and pinpoints the next stop. The smoker in the back of the truck pu.s a steady gray banner as he pulls back out onto the road and heads to the next inspection.
The scent of the smoke lingers in the Howard’s Creek yard after the truck has faded from view. Calmer rhythms return as the bees shake off the smoke and resume darting into neighboring woods, fields, and swamps in search of nectar for the colony. In the twenty minutes it takes Smiley to drive to his next yard, hundreds of dramas will unfold in each hive at Howard’s Creek.
Female worker bees will travel up to two miles from the nest in search of nectar, pollen, and water supplies for the hive. That’s more than 8,000 acres of perusal at the disposal of each colony. In carefully situated beeyards like Smiley’s, food sources are much closer and the bees don’t have to travel very far to get to work. When a bee spots and smells a likely flower, she lands on the blossom or any part of the nearby plant that will support her forty-milligram body weight. She unfurls her flexible proboscis from beneath her chin; like a tiny elephant’s trunk, it searches out the nectar pools, then sucks until all of the liquid within its reach is taken up. Draining up to 1,500 nectaries in this way, a bee fills her stomach or “honey sac,” collecting up to half her weight in nectar before returning heavily to the hive. If nectar is abundant, achieving a full load can take as little as fifteen minutes. She might also be in search of pollen, the plant protein that bees feed their young, which she collects in saddlebags on her rear legs, packs into pellets, and transports back to the colony. Or she may go in search of a drop or two of the five gallons of water it takes to hydrate and cool the colony each year. These various hive duties add up to five hundred miles of flight in the lifetime of an average bee, a round trip from Wewa-hitchka to Orlando as the insect flies.
Arriving back at the yard with her foraging spoils, the bee recognizes her own home by the unique pheromonal scent of her queen, an aromatic chemical coat of arms that is relayed from bee to bee and tracked around the hive. Each bee carries a bit of this scent with her, a perfumed security pass that the guards at the entrance identify before waving her through the door. Wrong-smelling trespassing robber bees are turned away, discouraged from pilfering honey that isn’t theirs. At the threshold, a returning forager empties her stomach and relays her load of nectar to waiting young “house” bees, who dutifully move off to process the nectar, extending their long tongues to offer the droplet to the warm drying air of the hive. Soon, they offer the nectar to other worker bees, who deposit it in storage cells and fan their wings to dry it further. When the honey is fully cured, reduced from 80 percent to less than 17 percent water, or from the consistency of sugar water to that of molasses, the bees cap it with wax for storage. There are different sizes of super frames. A full seven-inch-deep one is a tasty seven-pound liquid slab of stored honey veneered in wax.
The bee that delivered the nectar will take a short break, perhaps snacking on honey, then head back out to forage again, making up to thirty such trips a day. If she has found a particularly good nectar source and needs reinforcements, she will dance. Bees perform precisely choreographed dances to communicate fear, alarm, joy, and the locations of food and water. In the joy dance, the forager places her front legs on the back of another available bee and shakes her abdomen in a kind of bee conga. The interior of the hive is dark and crowded, so the dance is more of a jubilant mosh pit, with participants communicating through touch, movement, smell, and sound. Other bees will mimic the mosh movements before flying out to the reported loot.
Honeybees live for about six weeks on this diet of nectar and hard physical labor. Throughout this lifetime, their contributions to the community are dictated by their age. From the moment they are hatched, young bees go to work as custodians, cleaning up their own larval debris from the brood cells. In their first twenty-one days, they remain within the hive, working as carpenters, guards, and nurses. They help feed and clean the queen, build new comb, nurse the larvae, cure honey, and take sentry shifts protecting the entryway. Some work on the air-conditioning system of the colony by fanning their wings at the entrance or distributing water to the warmer realms of the hive. Finally, young bees take brief orientation flights outside to familiarize themselves with the local landmarks and plant nectaries. At the ripe middle age of three weeks, the bees leave the nest to forage, and from then on their lives can be measured in distance. Five hundred miles of toil and flight take a heavy toll. With torn and tattered wings and exhausted bodies, they wear out and die after about twenty days outside. Always gracious, economical, and neat, worker bees usually take a final flight and expire away from the hive.
Hundreds of bees die on any given day, but just as many or more are born to continue the endless work of the family. In the height of summer, up to 60,000 adult bees live in a single colony. About half of these are older foraging bees laboring in fields and flowers, while the other half are newer bees working inside the hive, tending to 35,000 young in various stages of development. Although the lives of the worker bees are fleeting and expendable, the queen lives for up to several years and is the beekeeper’s (and the hive’s) most important investment. She is often a mail-order bride, arriving in an overnight envelope stamped “livestock” on the front from a queen wholesaler. Within the envelope is a screened wooden cage containing the queen, a food supply, and an entourage of five or six helpers. Many honey farmers replace their royalty each or every other year, ordering fresh young queens by the case to ensure youthfully robust fertility.
The alternative to the mail-order method is for the colony to create its own queen. If her attendants sense that they need a new leader—because the old one is dead, unwell, or not laying in a proper royal manner—they can grow a replacement. To do this, they construct special wax cells around seven or eight existing fertilized eggs, creating oblong armored incubators that resemble small peanuts. The female eggs and larvae in these cells are slathered almost continuously with royal jelly, a vitamin-rich hormonal goo secreted by the worker bees. After about two weeks of this spa treatment, a new monarch emerges from one of the queen cells and goes directly to the other peanut cells to sting and kill her erstwhile competitors, who may have been only minutes behind her in the race to hatch and claim the crown. Then, as one of her first royal duties, the new queen often unceremoniously murders her poor ailing mother. Sometimes she lets the queen mum stay, stripped of her crown and relegated to a neglected corner of the hive.
The victorious queen enjoys her new status, virginally, for about six days. Then she embarks on her only adventure outside of the hive. Leaving the nest, she soars high into the air to mate. Male bees have been waiting for this opportunity, and as many as ten will have the aerial pleasure of ejaculating a total of three to eight million spermatozoa into the royal oviducts. Her daylong honeymoon complete, the queen then returns to the hive. As the only fertilized female, she will spend the rest of her life confined to the nest laying up to 1,500 eggs a day. Royalty’s is not always a life of ease.
The queen determines the sex of her offspring by parceling out the sperm from her maiden flight. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees. Eggs that remain unfertilized become drones. Every colony is different, but in the active season most house between 500 and 1,000 drones and 50,000 to 60,000 workers, making the average hive about 99 percent female. This female population performs all of the work of the hive. Males, or drones, can’t fly well, and they don’t gather food, clean, sting, secrete wax, or care for the young. When not gorging on pilfered honey in the nest, the males occasionally make sorties to locations known as drone-congregating areas. If they detect the pheromones of a virgin queen, they pursue her. A few succeed in mating with her, but those lucky few die soon afterward, their barbed genitals having broken off during copulation.
Except for the (dead) stud drones, males are useless to the hive, especially in commercial apiaries, where queens arrive already fertilized. With a fertile monarch in residence, the female worker bees persecute the drones by withholding food and sometimes gnawing off their wings and legs in an effort to evict them. Most go willingly and die outside in a few days’ time. Reluctant adult males and drone larvae are often dragged to the entrance of the hive and dramatically pushed out. By the fall, when nectar resources are scarce, no male freeloaders are left in the colony. The queen, abundantly fertile and dutifully laying her eggs, does not seem to care.
Drawings of the queen, drone, and worker from the 1889 edition of Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee.
Figure seven (from a 1748 book) depicts a queen cell.
While Smiley drives to his second yard of the day, queens in the Howard’s Creek hives will lay hundreds of eggs. A thousand sips of nectar will be converted to honey on tiny extended tongues. Bright orange and yellow loaves of pollen will be delivered to storage cells. Pupae will hatch, adult workers will die, and drones will be dragged to the door. Young bees will make their first flights from the hives, and older workers will do a dance and follow them out into the world.
Smiley’s jaunt ends at an isolated beeyard situated fifteen feet from the brownish green water of the river. As he watches, bees exit the hives in the shady yard and travel into the swamp—no doubt, like him, checking to see if the tupelo nectar has arrived. For them it is an annual succulent feast; for him, a small fortune in honey.
For as long as beekeepers have understood that honey comes from flowering plants, they have devised ways to get as close to the source as possible. Ancient Egyptians, like Wewahitchkans, were accomplished beekeepers and built floating apiaries to collect nectar from up and down the river Nile. Centuries later, in 1740, the French traveler Benoist de Maillet noted that in October the beekeepers of Lower Egypt sent their hives on barges up the Nile to where it was warmer and the seasons changed sooner. As the procession floated downriver, bees were released from their hives to collect the nectar nearby. When the flowers in those pastures were exhausted, the barges were moved a few miles farther south, keeping up with the nectar flow. By the time the rafts arrived back in Cairo in the beginning of February, they had boatloads of honey for sale in the urban market.
Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman scholar and author of the massive Natural History, observed similar practices in northern Italy and Spain:
Hostilia is a village on the River Padus. When their food supply fails in this region, the local people put the hives on boats and carry them 5 miles upriver by night. At dawn the bees come out, feed, and return every day to the boats, whose position alters until such time as they have settled low in the water, under the very weight of the honey-an indication that the hives are full. They are then taken back to Hostilia and the honey is extracted. In Spain the locals transport the hives about on mules for a similar reason.
At about the same time, the Greeks were becoming connoisseurs of the nectar of the gods. They observed that the taste of honey varied depending on the source from which it predominantly came. One aficionado wrote: “Thyme yields honey with the best flavor: the next best are Greek savory, wild thyme and marjoram. In the third class, but still of high quality, are rosemary and Italian savory. Tamarisk and the jujube tree have only a mediocre flavor.”
Most Greeks particularly liked the flavor of the honey from the thyme-covered slopes of Mount Hymettus, near Athens. Attic thyme honey was thought to be the most desirable in ancient Greece, and beekeepers competed for the right to maintain hives on the mountain. There are said to have been twenty thousand stocks of bees there at the time of Pericles—about 400 B.C. The mountain was so crowded with hives and itinerant beekeepers that Solon, the great Athenian legislator, passed a law mandating a distance of 300 feet between one set of hives and the next. Plato bemoaned the deterioration of the land by excessive beekeeping, referring to “mountains in Attica which can now support nothing but bees.”
From Attica to Wewahitchka, specialty honeys have been produced through savvy, strategic placement of hives. On the Apalachicola until about twenty years ago, barges and permanent hive platforms were frequently used to gain access to the abundance within the swamp. When the tupelo flow started, beekeepers loaded hives onto boats and took them deep into the swamp or ferried them out to wooden river platforms on stilts that could hold hundreds of colonies. From these movable hive cities, the bees gorged on the tupelo forest. In 1878, a Chicago honey dealer built a barge to reap the nectar up and down the Mississippi River. The American Bee Journal described the floating bee metropolis:
The hives stand in four walls, five hives one above the other, nearly the whole length of the boat, about 250 hives in each line. The walls of colonies on the right side and the left side have openings for the bees to come out on the water front; a space of two feet between the hives and the guards answers for a gallery and for the bee man to walk on in front of the hives. In the middle of the boat there are two walls of colonies, 250 hives in each, facing an inner court six feet in width. The bees from these colonies reach the open air through the sky line opening in the roof above the court. Between the first and second rows of hives from the outside there is an aisle three feet in width, for the convenience of handling the hives and the honey. The distance from the barge deck to the roof over the colonies is fifteen feet. The space below the deck is ten feet in width and about seven feet high, and is to be used for sleeping apartments, making and repairing hives, handling and extracting honey and putting it in marketable shape. The dining room and cooking will be on the steamer that tows the bee fleet.
In Britain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, flowering heather was a preferred honey source. Records show that those who lived “within perambulation” of the heather were allowed to keep hives there. In 1786, T. Wildman wrote in his book On Shifting the Abodes of Bees, “If there is heath at a convenient distance, the hives being carried thither would considerably lengthen the season of collecting this honey.” Hives at that time would have been transported on mules, carts, specially adapted wheelbarrows, or the beekeeper’s back. Cars and trucks have made the modern migration considerably easier.
A riverboat headed south to Florida in the 1920s. Its load of beehives can be seen stacked at the end of the ramp.
Maps from Wildman’s day indicate several “bee gardens,” or encampments of hives, near water, sun, heather, and other choice flowers and trees. These gardens were often in large estates or royal hunting preserves, where the building of walls and enclosures was strictly forbidden, so, like prospectors staking a valuable claim, beekeepers frequently camped out next to their hives to secure the location and the nectar flow and protect it from competitors and predators. In Austria in 1760, the Empress Maria Theresa, a fan of all things bee-related, enacted a law forbidding any molestation of “temporary apiaries” or of the beekeepers camped nearby.
Honey enthusiasts did not always have to chase, barge to, or camp out by the nectar. Often they brought bees and sources closer to home, placing hives in domestic gardens and orchards, where the plantings could be varied in order to please their bees and their own palates. The Roman author Varro wrote of two brothers whose father had left them “only a small villa and a bit of land…. They had built an apiary entirely around the villa, and kept a garden.” Varro then lists the flowering plants that the brothers raised in the garden in order to produce honey to their taste. In his 1618 book A New Orchard and Garden, William Lawson of London suggested placing hives next to lavender plants in the garden so as to produce “a most-fine lavender-flavored honey.”
Honeybees, like the tupelo of which they are so fond, are not native to North America. They were introduced to the colonies by Lawson’s countrymen and by Spanish missionaries early in the seventeenth century. There were probably bees on the Mayflower when it arrived, although there is no record of it, but a year later, in 1621, the Council of Virginia Company in London wrote to the governor of Virginia of another vessel: “We have by this ship … sent you divers sorte of seed and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, connies (rabbits), Peacocks and beehives, as you shall by the invoice perceive: the preservation and encrease whereof we recommend to you.” Native North Americans at that time had never seen bees or honey and had no words for them. John Elliot, the New England Puritan pastor who was translating the Bible into native dialects for the Algonquin and Cherokee tribes (in hopes of converting them), is credited with giving them some, describing bees as “white man’s flies.” Whether the Indians converted to Christianity or not, they soon became devotees of the white man’s flies and the delicious liquid they produced. To the south, in Central America and Mexico, natives had been enjoying honey from a local species of stingless bee for centuries, but that weaponless wonder had stayed in the comfort of the tropics, leaving the colder, uncomfortable North to be populated by the European man’s flies. Colonies of these bees migrated gradually south along with the settlers, and by 1763, William Bar-tram reported that bees had been imported to Pensacola (about an hour from Wewahitchka) by the English, who took possession of Florida from the Spanish that year.
In Europe and later in North America, large landowners did not rob the bees themselves but allowed others to do it on payment of certain amounts of honey and wax. Like these beekeepers before him, Smiley leases his yards and o.ers honey as payment. Most of Smiley’s lessors are grateful for the honey and the valuable cross-pollination that comes with the arrangement. Raw local honey is excellent currency, whatever the transaction. When a repairman came to fix my garage door so that I could get to my beekeeping equipment, he suggested a reduced fee in cash combined with a bottle of honey as payment in full. Smiley secures some of his locations with additional cash payments, guaranteeing that he gets his preferred sites every year. Yards that are secluded yet accessible, close to the tupelo trees, and reasonably close to town are at a premium. Local beekeepers know where the best locations are, who owns them, and who leases them. They swap stories and statistics about the yards as if they were discussing athletes and batting averages. Smiley is standing in his star player, his best and most expensive yard, which he leases for $600 and a gallon of tupelo a year. On this 600-square-foot patch of prime waterfront real estate, his bees camp and forage in the midst of thousands of tupelo trees. From the sixty-four hives placed here for three weeks of a good flow, he could harvest about eight barrels, or eight to nine thousand dollars’ worth, of tupelo honey.
As he surveys the yard, calmly obsessing about his bees, he is calculating tupelo buds, hive yields, transportation times, and, as always, the weather. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, his harvest could be halved. “Too much rain can end a tupelo flow in just a few minutes,” Smiley observes, pulling pensively on his thin mustache.
Too little rain can have the same effect. It has been a very dry spring so far, and as a result fewer flowers have blossomed, and have blossomed later, reducing the forage for his workers. Drier conditions also mean less sugar in the nectar and a less flavorful honey. When it’s very hot, as it has been, the bees lounge around the hive, rallying to work only in the cool mornings and late afternoons. “When it’s too hot, those bees don’t hardly work at all,” says Smiley with a shrug. “And they eat what they take.” After two years of perfect conditions and bumper tupelo crops, this one doesn’t look promising. The next few days will tell. He never knows for sure until the blossoms open and the bees bring home their first sweet report.
Overhead, dark clouds gather as Smiley inspects the tupelo branches, spying the same hard green buds he saw on Howard’s Creek Road. The forecast here looks about the same as it did back there: three days. In the next seventy-two hours he has to finish inspecting all the current yards, extract many tons of red honey, move 700 mature colonies to the dozen or so tupelo yards, mend some hives, clean the honey house, and maybe get a few hours of sleep. He’ll probably dream about bees, since during the harvest season, he regularly dreams about bees and honey. Visions of oysters, timber, or criminals from his other jobs never made it into his slumber, but for years now he’s been dreaming about bees as if tending them in his sleep.
He dons his veil and does a quick hive inspection, using the smoke left over from Howard’s Creek. These colonies look right on schedule, ripe with bees and ready for the flow. This is the calm before the tupelo. He takes a moment to enjoy the low lullaby hum of the beeyard before climbing back into the truck. From the budding treetops to the white boxes to the mirrored calm of the swamp, he gives the tableau one final admiring glance, then heads home for lunch. He’s daydreaming about his bees and a magnificent harvest as the first drops of rain splatter against the windshield.
The Bee Master
“The bee master must be first of all a bee lover, or he will never succeed.”
Ticknor Edwardes, The Lore of the Honey Bee
The first time Smiley harvested honey was a disaster. In the summer of 1989 he had forty boxes ready to harvest, but he knew nothing much about bees except, as he says, that “they stung and made honey.” Even so, he was looking forward, somewhat nervously, to his first crop. The first challenge was to get the honey supers away from the bees so he could take their loot elsewhere to extract it. Geared up and sweating in his hot new suit, he put some borrowed fume boards on the first bunch of hives. Treated with a noxious-smelling acid, the boards are intended to persuade the bees to flee the honey supers so their contents can be removed easily. But sometimes the bees need a lot of persuading. When he pulled the lids up a few minutes later, the laden frames within were still crawling with bees, probably, he realizes now, because the day wasn’t hot enough to fully activate the fumes and chase the bees out of the honeyed regions of the hive. Not knowing any better, he loaded the teeming supers onto the bed of his truck, bees and all. Once on board they started stubbornly reclaiming their foodstuffs, and those left in the hives and yard joined in, so that the boxes, his truck, and his body were soon crawling with bees. “You couldn’t even see the box for the bees. They were just boiling out,” he remembers with amused embarrassment. “It seemed like every bee was on the outside of the box, or on me.” By the end of the afternoon he had assembled a giant writhing swarm on the back of his truck. And it was getting dark.
He drove the swarm through town to the ten-by-ten-foot hand-hewn cypress-wood shack that he intended to use as a honey house. The ride was a rough one, dipping over dirt roads, with the hives sliding and shifting ominously in the truck bed. “I nearly killed ’em all on the ride over, I think,” he laughs. By the end of the journey, the bees were furious. When he pulled up at the shack, they were practically growling as he wrestled a ferocious box into the house to begin extracting. Inside were a table, a wax uncapping knife, and the 32-frame extractor he had purchased from his friend Carl for $250. When he turned on the single light over the table, it was immediately covered with a layer of angry insects thick enough to eclipse the light. The lone bulb was a perfect beacon and target for all their displeasure. They flew at the light and the bewildered beekeeper, covering everything in a coat of angry bees. As the harvest progressed, he realized that his honey shack wasn’t exactly bee-proof—bees were crawling through the gaps in the planking and even under the door to get at the man and to reclaim the honey inside. Carl kept a beeyard nearby, and his bees joined the twilit melee. The more Smiley “extracted,” it seemed, the more bees gathered in the house. “There were more bees in the honey house than in the beeyard,” he recalls with a sheepish smile.
Smiley managed to get the frames into and out of the extractor, sweating in his suit and wincing as he heard bees squish and crunch under his clumsy, nervous ministrations. On the bumpy return to the yard he couldn’t see out the back window of the truck, caked as it was in bees. This was not the proud harvest he had imagined. “Looking back at that first year, I can’t believe I’m still in the busi-ness,” he says. “I knew there was probably a better way to do it. I just didn’t know what it was. But I wasn’t about to quit.” He was flustered and confused but completely seduced. For centuries, men have been similarly beguiled, inspired to find a better way into the heart of the hive.
Smiley began by reading the beekeeper’s bible, The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. Twice. Starting with “Abnormal Bees” and progressing to “Wladyslaw Zbikowski,” the book is an alphabet of practical beekeeping questions first published in 1877 by Amos I. Root, who had fallen in love with bees dramatically and irrevocably, as most beekeepers do, a decade before. In August 1865, Root, who was then a jeweler in Ohio, passed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree bough. “My fellow workman in answer to some of my inquiries as to their habits, asked what I would give for them,” he wrote in his journal. “I, not dreaming that he could call them down, offered him a dollar and he started after them. To my astonishment he, in a short time, returned with them hived in a rough wooden box he had hastily picked up, and, at that moment, I commenced my ABC in bee culture.”
Newly smitten, Root spent hours observing his beloved, questioning, interpreting, and watching every move and mannerism of his darling. He conducted exhaustive backyard beehive experiments and shared his findings in Gleanings in Bee Culture, a magazine he started and that is still circulating today, a 135-year-old reference, forum, and fan club. In Illinois, Charles Dadant, an equally enthusiastic bee admirer, started another fan club, the American Bee Journal, which is also still in circulation. Throughout history, beekeepers (and writers) have been similarly seduced, compelled to discover, understand, and share everything they know about bees.
An early advertisement for Bee Culture Magazine and other beekeeping products and services from A. I. Root and company.
Roughly three quarters of a million di.erent types of insects are now known to exist on this planet, and none has been more scrutinized, examined, or celebrated than the bee. Cave paintings, ancient temple walls, and hundreds of tomes and journals record man’s curiosity and reverence for this creature. The obsession started in ancient Egypt, land of the earliest apiarists, who relied heavily on mystery and myth in trying to comprehend the life of the bee and the magical liquid associated with it. Because bees were seen gathering from the blossoms of upturned flowers, the Egyptians assumed they were collecting honey that had rained down from the gods and heavens above. Consequently, they believed that bees were the messengers and incarnations of the gods, who had bestowed honey from on high. A translation of one papyrus reads, “When Ra [a powerful god] weeps again the water which flows from his eyes upon the ground becomes a bee. They work in flowers and trees of every kind and wax and honey come into being from Ra’s tears.” Throughout the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, hieroglyphs of bees were used to signal omniscience, power, and deity.
Sacred writings of ancient India also associate bees and honey with the deities. Madhu means “honey” in Sanskrit, and the word is found frequently in the Rig-Veda, the sacred Hindu scriptures, which date from about 1500 B.C. The Vedas explain that the gods Vishnu, Krishna, and Indra were known to be “Madhava,” meaning “honey-born ones,” and that their symbol and incarnation is a bee. Lines of the Vedas describe Madhu coming from the clouds and the belief that bees were sweet liaisons between heaven and Earth.
The stories from ancient Greece are varied, but it was generally believed that bees were created by the gods of Mount Olympus. In the most common legend about their birth, the powerful god Zeus was in love with a beautiful girl named Melissa and turned her into a bee so that she could serve as nurse and consort to the gods for eternity. Melissa nurtured Zeus with milk and honey, the food of the heavens. Subsequent bees, called Melissae, were thought to live in the clouds and descend to Earth as caretakers, confidantes, and coconspirators of the gods. Working on behalf of the deities, bees were said to lead worthy pilgrims to the Oracle at Delphi. Honey, or melis, also came from the clouds, raining down into outstretched flowers before it was gathered and brokered by the Melissae.
The epics of Homer from the eighth century B.C. are liberally sweetened with references to sacred bees and their blessed manna. In the Odyssey, the hero declares, “Tarry till I bring thee honey-sweet wine, that thou mayest pour libation to Zeus and all the immortals first.” Honey alone and wine sweetened with it were used as tribute and o.ering throughout the ancient world. The Iliad describes bees’ and honey’s divine nature, and makes clear that admirers had already spent a good deal of time observing the creatures at work on Earth. “They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters.”
Aristotle was the first writer to attempt a more scientific, less mythical approach to the cult of bee admiration. Sitting next to a hive almost twenty-five centuries ago, he began the tradition of celebrating, observing, and exploring the secrets of honey and the hive that Smiley inherited. In the olive groves above Athens, Aristotle studied wild and domesticated bees, which at the time were kept in straw baskets, and recorded his observations in Historia Animalium and De Generatione Animalium. He described the bee’s body as having “three parts, more than four legs, also teeth, a trunk, membranous wings and an interior sting at the rear.” He was dead wrong about the teeth and close on the number of legs, but otherwise accurate on trunk, wings, and sting. Performing some of beekeeping’s earliest experiments, Aristotle learned that “Neither wing nor sting will grow again if removed.” And, “If one removes the heads of the grubs before they get their wings, the bees eat them up; if one nips off a drone’s wings and then lets it go, the bees eat off the wings of the remaining drones.” Aristotle attempted to record only what he had seen or discovered himself, but occasionally he was seduced by mythology and conjecture. On the origins of honey, for example, he writes, “The honey is what falls from the air, especially at the risings of the stars, and when the rainbow descends…. The bee makes the comb, then from flowers, as has been said, but honey it does not make; it fetches in what falls from the air.” In his natural histories, Aristotle offered many such sincerely poetic inaccuracies, along with valuable facts and observations on the bee that are respected to this day.
Three hundred years later, Virgil joined the bee fan club. The Georgics picks up recorded apiculture where Aristotle left off. In the bee-filled lemon groves behind his house outside of Rome, Virgil read Aristotle’s teachings and added useful details about hive construction, placement, and swarming. Virgil was less accurate in his reporting than Aristotle, more content to deliver a poetic fusion of fact, fiction, and myth. For the many things he couldn’t observe or understand, such as where the honey or the bees came from, he confidently invented “facts” or blithely repeated what had become common knowledge. On the origins of honey, for example, he stated simply that it was “heaven-borne, the gift of air.”
On the origins of the bee, Virgil presented the standard belief of the day, which was that baby bees were harvested from the flowers upon which the adults fed. “They indulge not in conjugal embraces, nor idly unnerve their bodies in love, or bring forth young with travail, but of themselves gather their children in their mouths from leaves and sweet herbs.” Virgil relays another belief, also common, that bees were generated from the rotting body of a bull or lion. As strange as it sounds, this was not a new idea but a creation story accepted since ancient times. In the Old Testament of the Bible, for example, Samson “turned aside to see the carcase of the lion; and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase. He scooped the honey out with his hands and ate it as he went along.” This carcass-borne belief was still going strong in the tenth century, when it was recounted by a Byzantine writer named Florentinus. Although there are dozens of accounts, his is the most colorful and comes complete with instructions for man-made, rather than god-bestowed or flower-produced bees.
The method is this: Let there be a building 10 cubits high, and the same number of cubits in breadth, and of equal dimensions at all sides, and let there be one entrance, and four windows made in it, one window in each wall. Then bring into this building a bullock two and a half years old, fleshy, and very fat. Set to work a number of young men and let them powerfully beat it, and by beating let them kill it with their bludgeons, pervading the bones along with the flesh. But let them take care that they do not make the beast bloody (for the bee is not produced from blood), not falling on it with so much violence with the first blows. And let all the apertures be stopped with clean white cloths dipped in pitch, as the eyes and the mouth, and such as are formed by nature for necessary evacuation. Then having scattered a good quantity of thyme, and having laid the bullock on it, let them immediately go out of the house, and let them cover the door and windows with strong clay, that there may be no entrance or vent to the air nor to the wind.
…Having then opened it on the eleventh day after this period, you will find it full of bees crowded in clusters on each other, and the horns and the bones and the hair and nothing else of the bullock left.
Today, we know that bees absolutely abhor carnage and foul odors. It is unlikely that they would have been attracted to this method. Certainly they were not produced by it. More likely, centuries of dedicated experiment with bludgeoned bulls had produced blackflies or carnivorous wasps, which roughly resembled the dark Egyptian bee. Yet this recipe for bees is striking in the commitment, effort, and delusion it entails. The desire to understand and master the mythical creature was so great that men eagerly persisted in trying to fashion bees from flies and rotting flesh well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1842, a Mr. Carew claimed to have successfully performed the experiment in Cornwall, England.
In The Lore of the Honey Bee, Ticknor Edwardes describes the works of the ancient bee masters as an “ingenious leavening of a great mass of quite obvious fable by a very small modicum of enduring fact.” This was the case from Virgil’s antiquity throughout much of the Middle Ages. In the first century, Pliny the Elder devoted many pages of his Natural History to what was then known or imagined of bees, beekeeping, and honey. The latter, he thought, might be the “saliva of the stars” gathered by the bees. “At early dawn the leaves of trees are found bedewed with honey, and any persons who have been out under morning sky feel their clothes smeared with damp and hair stuck together, whether this is the perspiration of the sky or a sort of saliva of the stars or the moisture of the air purging itself … it brings with it the great pleasure of its heavenly nature.”
Pliny’s descriptions of the life of the hive are a delightful mélange of observed fact, compiled legend, and fanciful extrapolation. He writes, fairly accurately, that “they go out to their works and their labors, and not a single day is lost in idleness when the weather grants permission. First, they build combs and mould wax; in this way they build their new homes and cells.” Next, he marries a morsel of truth to a whimsical invention: “They work within a range of sixty paces, and subsequently when the flowers in the vicinity have been used up they send scouts to further pastures. If overtaken by nightfall on an expedition they camp out, reclining on their backs to protect their wings from dew.” Bees don’t generally camp out on their backs at night unless they are dead, but Pliny—a famously busy man (who is said to have had a servant reading to him while he was carried about town and another recording his voluminous observations and opinions)—does not seem to have lingered until morning to find this out. He was charmed by the idea of bees as efficient little soldiers, draining honey from the stars and air. At nightfall, he suggested, bees were hushed by one bee “giving the order to take repose with the same loud buzz with which they were woken, and this in the matter of a military camp; thereupon they all suddenly become quiet.” He adds more fantasy a few lines on: “Working bees catch favorable breezes. If a storm blows up, they balance themselves with the weight of a little pebble gripped by their feet. Some state that the stone is placed on the bees’ shoulders.” Pliny’s understandings and fancies about bees (which borrowed heavily from Aristotle, Virgil, and other early masters) were standard for more than a thousand years; enthusiasts simply accepted and repeated what they heard about these intriguing creatures, often without ever going near a beehive.
Starting in the middle of the fifteenth century, fable and fancy gave way more and more rapidly to fact. Truth and progress in beekeeping were aided by the invention of the printing press in the 1450s. The works of Aristotle, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder were immediately printed, as was Columella’s De re Rustica, a compendium of agricultural and beekeeping knowledge. Although slow by today’s Internet standards, the printing press allowed information, enthusiasm, and exchange to spread like Renaissance wildfire, and the bee’s fan club flourished. All over the beekeeping universe, men (and a very few women) observed, experimented, and swapped ideas as they explored the secrets of the hive. In the farmyard, where the valuable household honey supply was obtained, and in the halls of academe, where bees yielded intriguing scientific clues, the honeybee was of immense interest and subjected to intense scrutiny. In England alone, dozens of substantial books about beekeeping were published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Beekeeping innovations and inventions multiplied competitively as enthusiasts, academics, and businessmen flocked to the new science and frontier of bee husbandry. The British Patent Office opened in the year 1617, and the 108th grant in the land, in 1675, dealt with managing bees and their produce. At about this time, King Charles II appointed the very first Royal Bee Master, Moses Rusden. In 1679 Rusden published A Further Discovery of Bees, which was, for the seventeenth century, a best seller.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, through obsession, observation, experimentation, and aggressive publishing, it was generally acknowledged that the hive had a ruler, presumably a king, who differed in size and behavior from the other bees. The architecture of the hive, and the work schedules and seasonal cycles of the various inhabitants, were roughly understood. The inner workings of a living colony—life spans, biological and reproductive functions, and detailed anatomies of the residents—remained tauntingly mysterious.
Until this time, bee enthusiasts were forced to learn about the hive, more or less, from the entrance, like paparazzi or like morticians performing autopsies on dead, destroyed nests. Innovative snoops began to put walls of glass onto common hives, and by the end of the seventeenth century, peepholes into the life of the colony had been fashioned. Samuel Pepys wrote in his journal in 1665 that “after dinner to Mr. Evelyn’s; he being abroad we walked in his garden, and a lovely noble ground he hath indeed. And among other rarities, a hive of bees, so as being hived in glass, you may see the bees making their honey and combs mighty pleasantly.”
Mr. Evelyn had most likely affixed a small sheet of glass or a bell jar to the top or side of a wooden box hive, allowing viewers a murky glimpse of a few outer combs of honey and some worker bees. With such innovations, enthusiasts progressed from the transom of the hive, as it were, to the foyer. The boudoir, the nursery, and other private regions of the domicile were still cloaked in mystery. Obviously, the biggest bee, the king, was thought to possess the keys that would unlock these domains, and the ruler was watched and tampered with obsessively.
Pepys’s countryman, Charles Butler, got or imagined a glimpse into the royal nursery in 1609, when he asserted that he had seen the biggest bee laying eggs. At about the same time, the Spaniard Luis Méndez de Torres observed the same thing. Butler’s and Mendez’s claims about the sex of the queen seem to have been largely ignored until Jan Swammerdam, a Dutchman, used a microscope to verify them. As the only insect so sweetly exploited by man, and as popular and voguish as they were in the seventeenth century, bees went under the microscope soon after it was invented in 1608. Just sixty years later, Swammerdam dissected and inspected the biggest bee and its entourage under a powerful lens, presenting undeniable ovarian proof that the king was in fact a queen. In his Historia Insectum Generalis, he produced woodcuts and engravings that are to this day excellent illustrations of the anatomy of the three classes of inhabitants of the hive. A biography of Swammerdam from the time describes his dedication to research, a hallmark of those devoted to the bee. “This treatise on bees proved so fatiguing a performance, that Swammerdam never afterwards recovered even the appearance of his former health and vigor. He was most constantly engaged by day making observations, and as constantly by night in recording them by drawings and suitable explanations.” This fatiguing performance cost the great Dutch explorer his health, but it yielded, at last, proof of the queen’s sex. The question of who or what fertilized the eggs in the imperial ovaries, however, went unanswered by Swammerdam and his immediate successors.
Almost a century later, the renowned Swiss naturalist François Huber was still struggling to understand the royal methods of reproduction. Ironically, Huber, one of the great observers of bee culture, was blind. Born in Geneva in 1750, he lost his sight in adolescence from an illness. By adulthood, he had been seduced by bees, and he and his faithful (and seeing) servant François Burnens devoted their lives to studying them. With the help of family money, time, and teamwork, they made enormous contributions to the body of bee knowledge. Huber continually suggested experiments, and Burnens tirelessly carried them out.
One of this team’s great contributions was the development of a hive that allowed more access to the inner workings of the colony than ever before. Many different configurations for study had been by scientists all over the world, but the Huber duo developed a revelatory observation hive, in which internal frames were hinged together on one long side as if they were leaves in a book. Experienced beekeepers could browse through a colony by prying apart and turning the honeycombed pages. In his journal, Huber (or Burnens) wrote of the leaf hive: “Opening the different divisions one by one, we daily inspected both surfaces of every comb; there was not a single cell where we could not see distinctly whatever passed at all times, nor a single bee, I would say, with which we were not particularly acquainted.”
Observation hives allowed scientists and bee voyeurs greater access to the inner workings of the hive. They were also a source of entertainment for an avid, admiring public. An engraving from a French beekeeping manual published in 1740 shows elegantly dressed ladies and gentleman standing in an outdoor apiary, peering intently into the eye-level windows of tall hive structures as if they were periscopes onto another world. Eva Crane, in The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, describes an exhibition in England in 1812 that offered “six beautiful glass beehives, with their appendages, containing a complete swarm in each hive … so arranged that the spectator can at one view fully comprehend the truly wonderful order, contrivance and harmony that pervades this astonishing community.” Admission cost a shilling each for ladies and gentlemen, and sixpence per child and servant.
Drawing of the Huber leaf hive, from Huber’s 1821 book, New Observations on the Natural History of Bees. The illustration shows the hive open like a book for “reading” the frames or leaves within (which would be filled with honeycomb and bees).
A 1740 book shows a lady and gentleman peering into the observation windows of some hives, while a beekeeper captures a treed swarm in an old-fashioned straw hive, called a skep.
An illustration of a Ukrainian observation hive from the 1840s shows an enraptured family gathered around a glass-walled box flush with bees and comb. From the 1850s in England comes an illustration of a bell-shaped jar full of bees placed on a fancy drawing room table. A tube running to the window appears to be connected to a beehive located just outside.
Observation hives are still used for study and entertainment. In the modern version, a frame, preferably the one on which the queen is holding court, is taken temporarily (for show-and-tell period only) out of the hive and placed in a slim wooden carrying cabinet between two panes of glass. It’s a slice of hive in a clear briefcase, an ant farm with bees, and a perfect way to see them busily at work. Beekeepers often take them to fairs and festivals to attract, educate, and sell more honey to their enchanted customers. Smiley’s beekeeping stories and his tupelo are usually enough to enthrall his clientele, but sometimes he borrows an observation hive for big honey-selling opportunities or when he goes to speak at agricultural fairs. “Kids just love that thing,” he says. “Everybody wants to know about the bees.”
Thomas Wildman expanded the bee’s celebrity (and his own) by strolling around London wearing a beard of bees and inducing his swarms to perform tricks, which delighted the gathered crowds. In 1748 he wrote A Treatise on the Management of Bees, in which he reluctantly revealed his secrets.
My attachment to the queen, and my tender regard for her precious life, makes me most ardently wish that I might here close the detail of this operation, which, I am afraid, when attempted by unskillful hands, will cost many of their lives; but my love of truth forces me to declare, that by practice I am arrived at so much dexterity in management of her, that I can, without hurt to her, tie a thread of silk round her body, and thus confine her to any part in which she might not naturally wish to remain.
In order to walk an entire swarm through town, as Wildman did, he enlisted the cooperation and pheromones of the queen. For a wig or beard made of bees, modern wranglers do the same, placing the queen in a screened box and positioning it on their pate or neck. Experienced beard growers apply sugar water to their chins or bathing-capped heads, plug their nose and ears with cotton, dab some insect repellent around their eyes, then quietly wait for the bees to do what comes naturally, which is flock to their queen. They are content to be near her and crawl gently around, licking up the sticky sugar water, thrilled not to have to travel and work for it. The longest bee beard that I have heard of was over three feet long and in place for twelve minutes. I have not tried this trick yet, but I suspect it takes some patience and tickles quite a bit. The Guinness Book of World Records reveals another (and even stranger) bee-related feat: in 1998, a man kept 109 honeybees in his mouth for ten seconds to achieve the world record for “the most bees in the mouth.” This I do not want to try.
Although the queen had become a public spectacle, Huber and Burnens remained fixated on her personal life. Through endless, sometimes ruthless experiment, they got to know her more intimately than had any previous admirers. The team’s many discoveries were revealed in Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History of Bees, a series of scholarly letters that was published in Geneva between 1792 and 1814. In the opening missive, he reveals his challenge, understanding the queen bee’s reproduction: “Having now come to the particular object of this letter, the fecundation of the queen bee, I will describe the new experiments by which I think I have solved the problem.” He then describes one of the hundreds of studies that he and Burnens were conducting in their bee laboratory outside of Geneva:
At eleven in the forenoon, we placed ourselves opposite to a hive containing an unimpregnated queen five days old…. The males began to leave the hives. Soon after, the young queen came to the entrance; at first she did not fly, but during a little time traversed the board, brushing her belly with her hind legs…. She then flew away, describing horizontal circles twelve or fifteen feet above the earth….we placed ourselves in the center of the circles described in her flight, but she did not remain long in a situation favourable for our observations, and rose out of sight.
The queen returned in exactly twenty-seven minutes. “We now found her in a state very different … the organs distended by a substance, thick and hard, very much resembling the matter in the vessels of the male; completely similar to it indeed in colour and consistence.”
After several repetitions of this experiment, Huber concluded that the queen was “fecundated” with sperm from the male drones. Furthermore, he had proof that this mating event happened outside the hive, just once or twice, before the queen retired indoors for the rest of her life. But how could she reproduce for a lifetime after copulating just that once? How was it that she laid mostly female worker eggs, alternated with a regular percentage of male drones? Huber and Burnens were fascinated, obsessed even, but no matter how many dizzying mating flights they watched, they remained frustrated about many of these intimate royal details.
All over the world, ardent admirers were prying into the queen’s private life. As Huber’s research was ending in France, a German Catholic priest named Johannes Dzierzon began investigating the monarch’s fertility. He too observed the mating flight and, upon dissection of the “fecundated” queen, discovered a small sac filled with sperm, which he called the spermatheca. This bulging reservoir of the “male substance” explained how the queen could mate only once and produce thousands of eggs a day for several years. The royal sperm bank was conveniently located on the busy highway of the queen’s oviduct, so fertilizer could be dropped onto eggs as they slid by.
Dzierzon next turned his attention to the male substance. Developing experiments to “retard” the impregnation of the queen, he made significant discoveries about the use and effect of the sperm. Dzerzion put several queen bees on ice after their mating flight and found that, with the sperm thus incapacitated, they subsequently produced only male bees. A colleague, Berlepsch, tested this theory in a similar experiment. He “refrigerated three queens by placing them thirty six hours in an ice-house, two of which never revived, and the third laid, as before, thousands of eggs, but from all of them only males were evolved. A short exposure of a queen, to pounded ice and salt, answers every purpose. The spermatozoids are in some way rendered inoperative by severe cold.” From this type of chilling experiment, Dzierzon and Berlepsch determined that a spermless or dysfunctional queen would produce only male eggs. A properly fertilized monarch, on the other hand, had a choice. She could lavish sperm onto eggs to produce female workers; she could also withhold it to produce the few hundred males necessary to the colony.
For every renowned Johannes Dzierzon and Amos Root, countless enthusiasts around the world were conducting their own backyard experiments. Anyone with a swarm of bees could participate. By the middle of the nineteenth century, after nearly two thousand years of devotion by scholars and backyard beekeepers alike, many of the most pressing questions of the hive had been answered. The basic anatomy and most of the nuanced functions of each member of the colony were understood. Beekeepers were aware of how the queen reproduced, and of the life cycles and foraging habits of her offspring.
As beekeepers mastered the habits and biology of the hive, their inquiry turned more and more to extracting the precious produce. Since Aristotle, people had had difficulty entering a colony to observe, husband, and harvest without damaging the hive and bees. In a constant quest for structural strength, bees will seal any unused space in the hive with wax and propolis, their sticky household glue made from plant resin. This efficiency essentially solders all of the interior parts of the nest to the walls, making the bees’ home stronger and its food stores more inaccessible. In most hives (natural or man-made) in most centuries, the comb had to be messily cut out to be inspected or harvested, a violence that disrupted and often destroyed the colony. Around the world, beekeepers yearned for a way to steal the honey and spare the hive.
Lorenzo Langstroth, one of the great bee thinkers and tinker-ers, devoted himself to finding a solution to the great honey problem. As a tutor at Yale, and then as a minister of the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts, he also devoted himself to religion. Historically, houses of the spirit also have been incubators of bee-masters. Ancient temples and monasteries typically had apiaries, and both bees and gods seem to attract types devoted to quiet observation, contemplative thought, and a tireless search for answers. During his ministry, Langstroth suffered from what were vaguely called “head troubles,” accompanied by bouts of hysterical muteness that forced him eventually to resign. He moved away from his wife and son and turned his attention to teaching school and studying bees. Like many bee masters, he was eccentric and indefatigable in trying to fathom the secrets of the hive and wrest more honey from it. From his troubled head came one of the culminating discoveries of beekeeping and honey harvesting—bee space.
For many years, various experts had observed that bees were very particular about their space. If there was a small gap in the hive, the bees immediately and effciently sealed it with propolis. A larger opening would inevitably be filled with wax comb. In his hives (for a time he had Huber leaf models), Langstroth observed that the bees left a very exact gap of three eighths of an inch—or the comfortable width of a worker—open between combs for hive traffic and maneuvering. He was not the first student to notice this gap, but he was the first to realize how it could be applied to the beekeeper’s and harvester’s advantage. In his barn in Oxford, Ohio, he devised a hive in which this delicate margin of bee space existed between each frame, and also between the frames and the walls of the hive. Describing the moment of discovery, which occurred on the day of October 31, 1851, he wrote:
Pondering as I had so often done before, how I could get rid of the disagreeable necessity of cutting the attachments of the combs from the walls of the hives … the almost self-evident idea of using the same bee-space as in the shallow chamber came into my mind, and in a moment the suspended movable frames, kept at a suitable distance from each other and the case containing them, came into being. Seeing by intuition, as it were the end from the beginning, I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my ‘Eureka!’ in the open streets.
The Reverend John Thorley, preacher and bee enthusiast, at his desk composing Melissalogia, a study of bees. His subject can be seen on the desk in front of him and in skep hives outside the door.
Langstroth’s epiphany meant that the bees did not solder the combs to the hive interior with glue or wax. It sounds simple now, like Gutenberg’s movable type, but it changed the world of honey. Full frames could be simply lifted out of the hive and inspected, emptied, or manipulated without the making of irreversible, wounding cuts. The beekeeper no longer had to destroy the hive to observe his livestock or harvest his honey. Langstroth’s book, Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee: A Beekeeper’s Manual, published in 1853, was a seminal guide for the first generations of bee-space-savvy beekeepers.
The Langstroth hive put the beekeeper finally and completely in charge of his livelihood, able to manipulate and harvest at will, with minimal mess and death. Langstroth wrote of his invention: “The chief peculiarity in my hive was the facility with which [the frames] could be removed without enraging the bees…. I f I suspected anything was wrong with a hive, I could quickly ascertain its true condition, and apply the proper remedies…. The use of these frames will, I am persuaded, give a new impetus to the easy and profitable management of bees.” He was right. Professor A. J. Cook, the author of a Langstroth-inspired beekeeping manual that came out twenty-five years later, wrote: “It is this hive, the greatest apiarian invention ever made, that has placed American apiculture in advance of all other countries.” With a few intervening refinements, this is the type of hive used today by Don Smiley and most modern beekeepers around the world. My own amiable bees and plentiful harvest are the result of Lorenzo Langstroth’s innovations and head troubles.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, a Belgian dramatist named Maurice Maeterlinck studied the hive and was rewarded with poetry. He wrote The Life of the Bee after years of observing bees as he lived amongst them. His devotion took place in France, surrounded as he was by orchards and vineyards and as he sat at a table upon which, like Aristotle, he had placed little dishes of honey to attract his muse. Using an observation hive and pots of paint, he marked individual bees with bright dots of color and chronicled the life of the colony in lyrical, spiritual detail. Maeterlinck did not contribute scientific advances, but his little book, only 150 pages long, is a marvel of natural history writing, courtesy of the bees. His introduction describes the first apiary he saw and how he fell in love with the bees and became a student of the hive.
Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways converge and divide, that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk…. One came hither, to the school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the indefatigable organization of life, and the lesson of ardent and disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good, that the heroic workers taught there and emphasized, as it were, with the fiery darts of myriad wings, was to appreciate the somewhat vague savor of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of memory as the happiness without alloy.
The Life of the Bee was a best seller when it was published in 1901, becoming the most popular book ever written about bees (or any type of insect; perhaps only the novel The Secret Life of Bees, published in 2002, has supplanted this). Ten years later, Maeter-linck won a Nobel Prize for literature, encouraging book sales and setting off. another wave of enthusiasm for the honeybee. Karl von Frisch caught the rapture in the 1920s, when he started studying bees at the University of Munich. Fifty years later, he won a Nobel Prize for his research in another frontier of study: the language of bees. Twentieth-century science was of course helpful to von Frisch, but really his methods and motivation were not unlike Aristotle’s, Huber’s, or Smiley’s—patient hours of watching, wondering, and admiring. In his Nobel Lecture, he describes all three:
In order that the behavior of foragers could be seen after their return to the hive, a small colony was placed in an observation hive with glass windows, and a feeding bowl was placed next to it. The individual foragers were marked with colored dots, that is, numbered according to a certain system. Now an astonishing picture could be seen in the observation hive: even before the returning bees turned over the contents of their honey sack to other bees, they ran over the comb in circles, alternately to the right and the left. This round dance caused numbered bees moving behind them to undertake a new excursion to the feeding place.
He goes on to explain the specifics of the dances that bees used to communicate.
The tail-wagging dance not only indicates distance but also gives the direction to the goal. In the observation hive, the bees that come from the same feeding place make their tail-wagging runs in the same direction, whereas these runs are oriented differently from bees coming from other directions. However, the direction of the tail-wagging runs of bees coming from one feeding place does not remain constant. As the day advances the direction changes by the same angle as that traversed by the sun in the meantime, but in the opposite rotation. Thus, the recruiting dancer shows the other bees the direction to the goal in relation to the position of the sun.
And what if there were no visible sun? Von Frisch determined that, because of their sensitivity to ultraviolet light, bees can detect the position of the sun even on the cloudiest of days. Conversely, near the equator, when the bright orb is directly overhead, bees are unable to dance and must wait until the sun is degrees away from its zenith before they can resume shimmying in its shadows. Von Frisch cataloged a complex, precise vocabulary of the dances the bees used to convey the location and quality of food sources. A circular dance, for example, indicates food close to the hive, while a figure-eight dance signals resources up to a mile away. The duration, angle, speed, and configuration of their jig can also broadcast fear, alarm, or happiness. Von Frisch’s observation, experimentation, and curiosity answered yet another mystery of the hive, ten thousand years after men had asked the first questions.
Part of an ancient brotherhood that includes Aristotle and von Frisch, Donald Smiley is constantly watching and learning from his bees and devising ways to improve his husbandry and harvest. “There’s not a frame in any hive that hasn’t been in my hand at least once this year,” he says. “That’s how you manage bees, you get to know them. You get to know what’s going on in the life of the colony. I have a pretty good idea, but there’s always more to learn. Not a year goes by that I don’t see something different, learn something different. I never get tired of this.” Reading the writings of Aristotle and Huber, one has the impression they would have said the same thing.
In the years since that first painful harvest, Smiley has learned his bees and his business well. One of the local experts, he even makes house calls on occasion, visiting yards and helping beginners with their hives and equipment, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm. Unlike the first debacle, he can now walk into a bee-yard and know exactly and instantly what to do. He takes a deep breath, listens quietly, watches a flight pattern or two, and calmly goes to work. “You know what I’d rather be doing now?” Smiley asks with a grin as he looks at a healthy frame dripping with bees. “What I’m doing now.”
To obtain my own livestock, I called the dealer who had supplied my friend Ace, and was told to come collect them the first weekend in May, which is typically when trucked shipments of live bees arrive in the Northeast from their nurseries in the South. When I pulled into the dealer’s driveway, where a pyramid of boxed bees loomed in the blue shade of a tarpaulin, I was suddenly full of trepidation and questions. Reading about bees at the library is very different from taking several thousand home to live with you. These were real. These were crawling, stinging, flying, buzzing, fierce-looking bees. Politely and professionally ignoring my visibly shaken nerves, the dealer plunked a package of Italian bees into the back of my car. The screened-in wooden box, about the size of a cinder block or a large shoebox, housed a dark brown, dense, writhing mass of about ten thousand insects vibrating and humming in a way that seemed ominous. Somewhere in the center of this daunting cluster was a queen, caged for her safety during transport and for my supposed ease of handling. A few strays orbited the box and boldly began checking out the interior of my car, at which point I seriously considered having a more hands-off, academic love affair with bees.
To discourage any of those orbiting scouts from coming up to visit me, I drove home too fast with all the windows down, blaring the radio to drown out their frightening whine. For once, I wanted to get stopped by the police so that when they asked why I was speeding I could simply point to the teeming box in back. Arriving home, I left the beast waiting in the shady back of the car while I stalled by making sure my apiary was correctly set up. The bees’ future establishment was about eighty feet from my house on a grassy hillside, obscured from view by the crest of the hill but visible from my upstairs bedroom window in case I wanted to spy on them from there. I had painted the box a buttery white to deflect the heat of the sun, and I had chosen a spot where the bees would get plenty of sun, water, and protection from the northern winds, just as my manual and the ancients had suggested.
My stalling complete, I reread the instructions in my bee manual, Ed Weiss’s The Queen and I, and sprayed the bees repeatedly and overzealously with sticky sugar water, which is supposed to cool and calm them and make it difficult for them to fly with awkwardly sodden wings. Spraying had the effect of immediately turning down their volume, and I noticed that they became preoccupied with licking the sugar off each other in a languorous group snack. I sprayed them again. Weeks before the pickup, in a burst of macho fearlessness and bee love, I had decided I didn’t need a protective white suit. Now I was regretfully bundled up in jeans, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt with my new canvas-and-leather beekeeping gloves pulled tight to the elbow. The veil of my shiny white plastic beekeeper’s hat was tucked into the buttoned-up collar of my cotton shirt, the tails of which were pushed down into my jeans as far as they could go. I was an underdressed rookie alone with thousands of bees who had to be relocated somehow from their traveling case to their new home. Despite the drugged indifference of the bees and the newness of my veil, I was scared, aware of every hole and wrinkle in my armor.
By the time I got back to the hive, carrying the vibrating box of bees, the only thing I could hear was my pulse echoing in my plastic hat. Though I had memorized the instructions, I clutched the sticky manual and rehearsed the plan aloud one more time. Remove caged queen and traveling food supply. Place caged queen in hive. Pour her thousands of subjects in after her. No problem. Taking a deep breath, I pounded the box gently down on the ground, and the bees settled with a roar to the bottom of the box, sedated with sugar water and heat.
Fumbling in my stiff new gloves, which now seemed as graceful as oven mitts, I slid the lid on the box to the side just long enough to extract the food can and the queen cage suspended within. Encouraging myself loudly, I discarded the can on the ground. Pushing two brads into each top side of the little cage, I hung the queen down between two frames in the deep hive body. I felt (and looked) as though I were in New Mexico handling uranium, yet the swarm of bees in the screened box seemed to understand the precious nature of the caged cargo. The shoebox of bees was queenless now and agitated for real, no matter how swamped in sugar water. They had met their ruler only a couple of days earlier, when a dealer in Georgia had inserted her caged entourage into their midst, but already they were devoted, in thrall to her pheromones.
As the queen awaited her clamoring subjects, I considered calling Ace to help me with the next part, in which I was supposed to upend the box and pour the mass of sticky bees into the hive through a round hole as wide as a soup can. Repeating my mantra of instructions and the assertion that bees don’t sting unless provoked, I looked down at the box of provoked, oversprayed, queen-less bees and started considering anaphylactic shock for the first time. I wondered if I would have enough time or function after a sting to drive myself to the hospital.
In one breathlessly clumsy maneuver, I rolled the box over and shook it gently over the hive. The bees plopped and oozed down onto the frames like harmless gravelly mud. They spread over the frames and slipped into the box like mercury, paying no attention to me whatsoever, interested only in reuniting with their queen and getting started on the business of the hive. The first thing they would do was free the monarch from her cage, which was plugged with a tasty paste of confectioners’ sugar and water. By the time they licked her out, in a day or two, her pheromonal spell would be firmly cast, her powers absolute. They seemed to go right to work, licking and liberating. I began to breathe again. There was still a dazed, sodden clump of bees on top of the frames, and gathering my courage, I reached out to smooth and stroke it as if it were a mound of earth in a garden. The clump responded as amicably and docilely as a new puppy and rolled down into its new home, taking all of my fear and anxiety with it.
The installation was complete: a stingless, harmonious piece of cake. With reluctance, I lowered the hive cover into place, following instructions to let the bees recover and get acclimated and acquainted for a week before another meddling disruption. I knew it would be hard to wait that long to visit again with my new guests. As if coasting to the end of a thrilling roller coaster ride, I immediately wanted to go again.
Later that evening, I went and sat next to the hive as the sun was setting and cool breezes were arriving. Bullfrogs began their nightly chorus of barks, and the weeping willow behind me whispered as I watched several bees at the entrance. They had shaken off the trauma of the day and the journey from Georgia, and had already been out investigating their new digs, eager to get started finding food for the colony. They seemed to be humming as they worked, and their pleasing alto murmur entwined with the basso of the bullfrogs, the falsetto of the tree chirpers, and the rustling percussion of the willows. This jazzy ensemble performance was the sound track for my dreams that night.
The next morning, coffee cup in hand, I sleepily sat next to the hive and saw that the bees were already active. As I watched, several returned to the landing area with bright yellow pollen gathered on their rear legs. Entering the hive, they passed sisters intently darting out and off, perhaps going to investigate the dandelions studding the hillside or the fragrant lilies of the valley clustered next to my house. I wondered if all the local treasures had already been discovered, and gossiped and danced about in the hive, for the residents seemed intimately and purposefully acquainted with every tree and flower in the landscape. I could see them plunging into plants everywhere I looked. On the hive stoop, a few bees lingered, cooling themselves before entering their busily hot domain. Next to the entrance, I noticed one bee lounging quietly on the tip of a tall blade of grass, bending it slightly. She seemed to be taking the morning off in her bee hammock, but most of her kin went determinedly about their work as if they had lived in this patch of Connecticut their entire lives. They blithely ignored me. I could have been a pebble, a piece of plastic, or some other nectarless object. It was hard to believe I had ever been afraid of them. It was hard to believe that my house and garden had ever felt complete before the bees arrived.