Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey - The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World
Holley Bishop, the author of this fascinating collection of bee lore, endured pain, swelling and embarrassment while trying to look like she knew how to act around bees.
The sting of the bee always hurts, but with time certain side effects --- swelling and embarrassment being among them --- abate. Beekeepers get less swollen and hardly ever embarrassed. They wear the right clothes and have respect for their captives, the hardworking insects whose arduous labors are rewarded with total exploitation --- giving rise to the title of the book.
In fact, we even have migrant worker bees transported to California to fertilize the almond flowers. Every flower becomes an almond, and no almond grower can keep sufficient numbers of bees to sustain the yields required for commercial growing.
Consider then the humble bee, so beloved of children's drawings and nursery rhymes. Bees are cute, despite their painful sting and angry buzzing when they're bugged. Striped, fuzzy, organized and hardworking --- and oddly motivated to have sex with plants. How did Mother Nature think of that? It seems no more extraordinary than what people used to believe about bees and their best product --- that honey came from the dews of the night, and was merely collected by bees and carried home for storage. That honey, that mysterious elixir, should be given to babies to sweeten their chances for a healthy life, or sipped daily for a month after the wedding, giving rise to the term "honeymoon."
Holley Bishop bought a farm in Connecticut and decided to keep bees in order to celebrate life and have her own honey stash. The subject intrigued her and she spent a year observing the life not just of bees but of beekeepers, particularly one Donald Smiley, whose successful business in the Florida panhandle served as an inspiration.
The story of honey goes much farther, though, than the distance between Connecticut and Smiley's hometown, gloriously named Wewahitchka. Bees are an import to our shores, not natives, and bees, including the aggressive kind, can swarm over entire continents. Our ancestors brought hives from Europe and used honey as a form of currency. It was distilled as a fermented drink. Of course wax had to be stolen wax as well for one of the only early forms of illumination in Colonial homes and frontier cabins --- giving rise to the expression "None of your beeswax."
You'd have to be a sourpuss not to enjoy this sweet treat of a book. A great gift item, too. It even includes recipes, including the ad hoc creation the author dreamed up while living through a New York City blackout --- pasta, spices, and a sauce of honey and cream. Mmmm.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott, author of WITH IT: A Year on the Carnival Trail (Behler Publications, 2004) on January 23, 2011