Friday, November 14, 2008

Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop

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

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

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

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

The author was really friendly sounding, and I took to her writing style right away. What could have been a horrendously boring book was light, fun, and informative.

One of the first lines from the book that really grabbed me and made me know that I'd love this book was the author talking about how she first decided on bees versus other animals (such as chickens) for her home in Connecticut:

"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."

She also mentioned the sheer amount of labor involved to produce honey:

"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."

Wow! I knew the bees had it hard, but that is just crazy!

She also mentioned these statistics:
  • One hive can make up to 150 lbs of honey in a summer (the author's bees in Connecticut need 60 lbs for winter use, so she can harvest about 90 lbs a year!)
  • A full 7 inch deep super (where the excess honey for harvest is stored in the hive) contains 17 lbs of honey
Beekeeping does sound like a fun hobby. Actually the word "apiary" just sounds lovely! But it can be rather pricey:
  • Full hive setup with frames, hive bodies, supers, etc. = $150
  • 3 lb starter package of bees, complete with a queen = $50
  • Miscellaneous tools (smoker, protective wear, etc.) = $50
The book was a joy to read and I read through the entire thing in a matter of a couple days. This one definitely gets a firm 8 stars! That's high praise, since only Michael Pollan and Dean Koontz ever rank that high for me!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆


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