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In 1999, Marina Marchese fell in love with bees during a tour of a neighbor’s honeybee hives. She quit her job, acquired her own bees, built her own hives, harvested honey, earned a certificate in apitherapy, studied wine tasting in order to transfer those skills to honey tasting, and eventually opened her own honey business. Today, Red BeeÂ® Honey sells artisanal honey and honey-related products to shops and restaurants all over the country.
More than an inspiring story of one woman’s transformative relationship with honeybees (some of nature’s most fascinating creatures), Honeybee is also bursting with information about all aspects of bees, beekeeping, and honey? Including life inside the hive; the role of the queen, workers, and drones; pollination and its importance to sustaining all life; the culinary pleasures of honey; hiving and keeping honeybees; the ancient practice of apitherapy, or healing with honey, pollen, and bee venom; and much more.
Recipes for food and personal care products appear throughout. Also included is an excellent, one-of-a-kind appendix that lists 75 different honey varietals, with information on provenance, tasting notes, and food-and-wine pairings.
Gratitude, praise, and recognition to the following people I have been lucky to learn from and work with on this personal journey:
My agent, Coleen O’Shea, and her business partner, Marilyn Allen, both of whom were bee-lievers in this project from the beginning. I am indebted to author Claire Garcia, for her enthusiasm and generous introductions, and to Connie Pappas, for sparking my motivation.
Becky Koh, editor extraordinaire, who fearlessly accompanied me into the hive and also extracted 20 pounds of sticky honey. Her brilliant guidance, editing, and vision shaped my concept into perfection. Thank you!
J.P. Leventhal, who embraced my passion for the honeybee, and everyone at Black Dog & Leventhal who contributed to making this project a success, including Liz Hartman, director of marketing and publicity; Judy Courtade, sales director; and True Sims, production manager. As well as Susi Oberhelman, for her lovely book design, and Elara Tanguy, for her charming illustrations.
Howland Blackiston, who introduced me to the magical world of honeybees. Your mentoring and creative spirit were the inspiration for this work. Grazie mille!
The community of amazing beekeepers I have met on my journeys at home and around the world, who have opened up their own hives and graciously shared their honeybee wisdom. The Back Yard Beekeepers Association and its members, for allowing me into their hive and enriching my journey. The Apitherapy Society, for introducing me to how the honeybee heals. Kim Flottum at Bee Culture magazine, who gave me the confidence to write. Master beekeeper, Ann Harmon, and Alan Lorenzo, bee venom therapist, who read and advised. Honey judges Robert Brewer and Michael Young, both of whom inspired my reverence for honey. Bill and Royal Draper, for answering all my bee questions. Giovanni and Francesco at Bottega della Api, Siete molto gentili. Joe at Puglia Wine Imports.
Vic, who patiently read, forfeited vacations, and put up with my deadlines, yet has not swarmed and continues to keep honeybees. My sister Nicole, for reading. My sister Andrea, for bottling honey. Mom, for her honey recipes, and Dad, who is now a true honey lover. Sarah, my tall, clear glass of water. And, Brave! to all the worker bees at Red Bee Honey who kept the hive buzzing so I could write.
Special beekeepers, chefs, and loyal honey lovers who gave their generous support along the way. Thank you, Nick, Taylor, and Amy at Murray’s Cheese; Erin at Artisanal Premium Cheese Center; Julian and Lisa Niccolini at The Four Seasons; and Marty Vaz at Speak Easy Cocktails.
My Sweet Encounter with the Honeybee
Although I’ve been a beekeeper for a long time, I will never forget my very first taste of fresh honey straight out of the beehive. Almost ten years ago a neighbor, Mr. B, invited me to his apiary to meet his honeybees. I was apprehensive about the offer. I thought to myself, “Sure, I like honey, but I’m not so sure I like honeybees.” Suddenly I imagined myself surrounded by a swarm of hundreds of buzzing bees. The idea scared me, as I think it would most people. But I was ready for a new adventure, so I accepted Mr. B’s invitation.
It was a perfect early spring day when I showed up at Mr. B’s home to meet his honeybees. In his backyard stood three tall boxes that looked like painted white file cabinets; these were his beehives. As Mr. B greeted me, he handed me a beekeeper’s veil to put over my head for protection. Then he donned his own veil and walked toward the hives. As I followed him, heart pounding in my ears, he explained that honeybees, although quite docile, were also curious creatures. They liked to crawl into nooks and crannies and into our clothing. The veils should stop them from stinging our faces. “Stinging our faces?” I wondered what I was getting myself into. By the time we arrived at the hives, I was trembling. Mr. B lit his bee smoker, a small tin container that looked a little like a coffee can, and blew a few puffs of smoke into the front entrance of the first beehive. Then he lifted the cover to direct the smoke at the bees inside. He explained that the smoke calmed the bees and distracted them from our presence.
He then gently removed the cover completely from the hive and placed it on the grass. I craned my neck to peer inside, still trying not to get too close. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of honeybees crawled across the top of the ten perfectly positioned wooden frames that sat vertically inside the box. I was utterly surprised and relieved to see that the bees were indeed quite calm. With his bare hands, Mr. B. slowly removed a single wooden frame covered with bees. I watched with amazement as the bees walked across his fingers, then his hands, and onto his sleeve. But Mr. B took no notice. “These are Italian honeybees,” he said. I had to smile. Since I am of Italian ancestry, I liked the idea of Italian honeybees. Out of nowhere came thoughts of telling my friends, “I raise Italian honeybees.”
Mr. B inspected the frame and pointed out the different kinds of bees: the female worker bees that gathered the nectar and made the honey, and the male drone bees whose primary job was to mate with the queen. He told me that there was one queen bee in every hive and that all hive activities revolved around her egg-laying schedule. The female ruled the hive—I liked the way that sounded.
When Mr. B announced that it was my turn to hold the frame, I shrank back. But his gentle handling of the bees and his calm demeanor somehow gave me the courage to accept the frame from him with my own bare hands. Bees were everywhere—dozens of them crawling on my fingers and making their way onto my sleeves. I took a deep breath and held the frame firmly so as not to make any sudden movements and upset them. “I can do this bee thing,” I said to myself. “I am fearless.”
As I held the frame, Mr. B pointed out the perfectly formed honeycomb, made of beeswax, that filled the center of the frame. The honeycomb was where the queen laid her eggs and the worker bees stored their pollen and honey. When I held the frame up to the sunlight, the honeycomb looked like a beautiful stained-glass window. Mr. B. poked his finger into the hexagon-shaped cells. Sparkling amber liquid oozed out of the cells and drizzled down the frame. Mr. B stuck his fingers under his veil and carefully licked off the precious honey. He invited me to do the same. Careful not to disturb a single bee, I poked my finger into a new cell to expose more of the pristine honey. As I excitedly drew my finger up to my mouth, I forgot about my protective veil and smeared it with the honey. Mr. B chuckled. I captured another dollop of honey, this time managing to bring my finger underneath my veil. It tasted glorious and exquisite, heavenly and perfect. It was like nothing I had ever savored. At that moment, I knew I wanted to keep Italian honeybees that made this divine treasure called honey.
I took home a bottle of Mr. B’s pure honey, and I proudly put it on my kitchen windowsill. Each morning after that, I woke to see the sun shining through the amber bottle, beckoning me. I began to use the honey instead of sugar in my espresso, and it also soon became a decadent spread for toast. I mixed that honey into my salad dressings at lunch and marinades for chicken at dinner, and I swirled it on my ice cream with walnuts for dessert. Over the course of a week, using the honey became a hedonistic ritual, and the windowsill was the honey’s altar. I guarded that treasured bottle and offered nibbles only to those who were worthy of its sensuousness. Crazy for this thing called honey, I became obsessed with the countless ways to enjoy it. A favorite became bergamot iced tea flavored with mint from my garden and a few heaping spoonfuls of honey.
At one point during the week, a crazy thought occurred to me: Is it safe to eat honey right out of the beehive? Is a beehive clean?
Mr. B and I had just opened up the hive and stuck our fingers in there. Didn’t the honey have to be processed or pasteurized? A few days later, when I spoke to Mr. B again, he assured me that raw honey cannot carry bacteria because of its low pH. I could not think of any other food with that quality. He also told me that the bees always keep their hive pristine. He described how he extracted honey from those luscious honeycombed frames, separated it from the wax by straining it through a cheesecloth or pair of women’s nylon pantyhose, and then simply poured it into bottles. I thought, “Hmm, honey, straight from the hive and into the bottle—no boiling, no sterilizing, no refrigeration, no nothing. Could making and bottling honey be that easy?”
My first visit to Mr. B’s apiary would change the course of my life. In time, I would become immersed in beekeeping and honey. I would discover that there were bee meetings all over the country and even the world. It wasn’t long before I would comb gourmet food shops in search of unique honeys, and each purchase would symbolize a completely different culture and culinary experience. Beekeeping would give me a new perspective on food and my interaction with nature. I would begin introducing honey into my daily diet, using it to replace processed sugar and artificial sweeteners. My general health would improve markedly. Honey even helped me beat colds and then alleviate my allergies. The notion of the queen ruling her hive and female worker bees gathering nectar and making honey appealed to my own sense of industry and spurred me to launch my own honey business. There has been no end to the wisdom the honeybees have given me. These tiny creatures are symbols of craftsmanship, dedication, and perfection, and for all of their lessons I am eternally grateful.
My Life as a Worker Bee
The Monday after my first visit with the honeybees, I was back commuting from my home in Connecticut to my office in New York City. I was creative director for a small giftware company, developing gifts and home-accessory products to be manufactured overseas, then brought back to the United States to be sold at trade shows and at our retail shop in Greenwich Village. The best part of my job was researching and shopping for new ideas. I was given considerable creative freedom and the luxury to travel to China, which is how I survived the more mundane aspects of my day-to-day work. Still, many times the owners of the company shot down my best concepts because they thought the ideas were too outlandish or would not lead to enough sales to make it worth the manufacturing efforts. Products always followed trends and it was my job to adhere to them, but not too closely. Frequently my designs needed to be watered down and made palatable for the general public. Our biggest challenge as a small company was competing with the larger stores that could make more products faster and cheaper. It could be an exhausting process—one that could quickly and easily dull the creative spirit. And I’d been feeling very weary of it.
As I stood on the platform in the early morning sunshine, waiting for my train, I realized that where I really wanted to be was back in the bee-yard. The exhilarating experience of communing with those bees was still fresh in my mind. Suddenly, I craved the country life, to be in the garden, toiling under the sun, caring for my very own Italian honeybees. “What was really standing in my way?” I wondered. Of course, the obligation of my work often took me away from home for several weeks at a time. Who would care for my bees while I was gone? Would they starve, or miss me? Did they need special attention? Clearly, I needed to learn more.
That morning, the train was late, so I wandered inside the station house. This particular station house had no seats, but did have a free, communal book rack where commuters could take and leave books as they passed through the station. The books gave the station a cozy feeling. I perused the rack as I waited, and a red book with the word “beekeeper” on the cover caught my eye. To my utter delight, I saw it was titled The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I plucked the old, tattered paperback off the shelf to examine it. It turned out to be a mystery about Sherlock Holmes, who, I was elated to find, kept honeybees. The book was just the remedy I needed, a small distraction from the workday that lay ahead.
Once I got onto the train, I dove right into that book. A huge Sherlock Holmes fan, I was fascinated and charmed by the story, in which Holmes meets a young intellectual woman studying bee behavior. They partner together for adventures in sleuthing and beekeeping. Life was imitating art: I was like the young apprentice to my own Holmes, Mr. B. Was this story a sign of what my future held? My destiny was calling, and I was beginning to feel I had to respond.
• • •
FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL WEEKS, I continued my regular commute back and forth to the city, working on new product designs and selling them at the store until it was time for one of my regular trips to China. At this point I had been to China twice a year for almost six years to source out and oversee manufacturing of our company’s giftware designs. I was working at a factory in a small, remote city outside of Huangzhou, approving the final details of some new products. It was a sweltering day in China; the humidity was sky-high, and the air dense. My associate Mr. Wang offered to take me to his favorite noodle house for lunch. On the way, I noticed a few ragged handmade tents alongside the dirt road. In front of one tent stood a dozen beehives. The streets of China are always full of unexpected surprises, and if I had not still had bees on the brain, I might have walked right by without giving them a second thought. Instead, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared as though I had discovered the eighth wonder of the world.
“Mr. Wang, those are honeybees hives!”
Mr. Wang was puzzled by my excitement. As we drew closer, I could hear the low hum of bees at work. I asked Mr. Wang if it was okay for me to watch for a few minutes. The wooden beehives were similar to the ones in Mr. B’s backyard. Tools and equipment of all kinds were piled up beside the hives. I recognized a few smokers, but for the most part the items were foreign to my untrained eyes. A family of beekeepers was tending the hives. Two of the men began smoking and opening up one of the hives. Although dozens of bees were flying around them, they did not wear protective clothing or veils. One held a frame similar to the one I had held at Mr. B’s apiary, except this one was perfectly clean, not covered in honey or bees. The other removed a single bee-covered frame from the hive and held it up to the sun. Shimmering in the sunlight, the frame was obviously full of luscious honey. The other beekeeper slipped his clean frame into the slot where the honey-covered frame had been. Before they closed up the hive, they brushed all the bees off the honey-filled frame and back into the top of the hive. Then they carried off the frame of honey with just a few stubborn honeybees following behind. They wrapped it with newspaper, placed it in a wooden box, and sealed up the box. A woman standing next to the tent accepted the box of honey and paid for it with cash. Mr. Wang told me that this is how many Chinese people get their honey—directly from beekeepers.
“Honey is an ancient tradition here, used for its health benefits. And honeybees are respected,” he said.
Before continuing to the restaurant, I took some photographs to remember what I’d seen—and, of course, to show Mr. B.
Now that I knew there were honeybees in China, I made it my mission to purchase some local honey. Mr. Wang said there was a honey shop not too far away from the factory, and after lunch we set out for it. He told me stores that sold only honey and honey products were common in China, and his wife regularly purchased honey for their family, especially when one of the children had a cold.
Turning down a side street, we arrived at a small shop with a distinct honeybee logo on its door. The interior of the shop was decorated like a beehive. There were shelves quite cleverly designed in the familiar hexagonal shape of a honeycomb, and each displaying a single jar of honey. The honeys were different shades of amber and gold. We also found real honeybees on display inside a framed glass box; this chamber of wonders allowed viewers to peek into the inner sanctum of a real beehive. A slight hum pulsed from the framed glass box as thousands of busy honeybees crawled across the honeycomb. Mr. Wang and I could feel the heat of their little bodies permeating through the glass and smell the unmistakable aroma of honey and beeswax as they went about their business.
The clerk behind the counter was busy filling a huge glass jar with honey from a stainless steel tank. A customer watched her intently, as though his honey purchase were a ceremonious undertaking. Mindful not to spill a single drop, the clerk scooped up the honey with a primitive-looking ladle and drizzled it into the container. When the jar was full, the clerk twisted the cap tightly, wiped down the jar with a rag, and brought it to the register. After a brief conversation, the customer paid and was on his way.
Waiting my turn, I peered into the glass display counter exhibiting fine specimens of various honeys, all with beautiful labels that enticed my artistic eye. Not understanding Chinese, I relied on Mr. Wang to translate for me. There was loquat honey, million-flower honey, rose honey, and many others that he was not able to translate into English. He also pointed out jars that contained a chunk of honeycomb straight from the beehive and other jars of thick, creamy honey. I had no idea there were so many types. Could any of these types of Chinese honey taste much different from the honey back home? I needed to know so I opted for a single jar of the million-flower honey, which later I learned is more commonly called wildflower. Mr. Wang motioned the clerk over to tell her which bottle we wanted. She wrapped my honey and placed it in a bag decorated with bees.
When we arrived back at the factory, the perpetual teapot was boiling. I could not resist having a cup of the locally grown green tea and drizzling it with my newly purchased honey. It was golden amber with a slight orange tinge, and it fell off the spoon in a thick spin. The flavor was as scrumptious as Mr. B’s honey, but in a different way. It carried different tasting notes that I did not yet have the vocabulary to explain. In my amateur opinion, it was exquisite and a treasure to be savored. Million-flower honey was my second jar of “pure” honey. I had officially begun my quest of collecting and hoarding honeys. I also learned something else in China: I learned that I was ready to become a beekeeper.
Becoming a Beekeeper
The decision to start my own beehives was an unbelievably liberating moment. With the taste of Chinese honey still on my tongue, I felt courageous and empowered to be embarking on a new hobby as offbeat as beekeeping. Friends and family would certainly think I had lost my mind, and my neighbors would think I was joking. But I didn’t care. I had tasted the divine honey, and I was hooked. My little red cottage on the outskirts of Weston craved a romantic-style garden where my honeybees would thrive. My garden would be a banquet of nectar and pollen, and my own honeybees would visit the fauvist flower beds to pollinate my flowers and vegetables. I relished the idea of working outside with the bees, having dirt under my fingernails, and bonding with nature. The seductive smell of beeswax would always scent the yard. And, of course, there would be honey everywhere, every day.
Before I dove into my new hobby completely, Mr. B urged me to attend a few bee meetings of a local beekeepers club to learn more. “Bee clubs?” I thought. “Is there really such a thing?” Indeed, there is. It turns out that beekeepers, like the bees they keep, are extremely social creatures. The Back Yard Beekeepers Association is one of many hobbyist beekeeping clubs in the state of Connecticut. There are more than 350 members in the BYBA (as it is known locally), all of whom keep and love honeybees and, of course, honey. Club members are dedicated to volunteering their time and expertise to promote this ancient craft by offering many outstanding educational opportunities for those who want to begin keeping honeybees or just wish learn more about these fascinating creatures. I felt the club members’ warmth and electrifying enthusiasm the minute I walked into the church hall where the meeting was held.
I was greeted at the door by an adorable beekeeping couple selling tickets for their monthly bee raffle. They were both wearing bee T-shirts; the gentleman wore a cap adorned with dozens of bee pins, and bee earrings dangled from the woman’s ears. Welcoming their newest attendee, they offered me flyers about the evening’s events and invited me to purchase a raffle ticket. The humble table beside them held the prize: an odd piece of bee equipment. Although I had no idea what it was or how it worked, I paid for a chance to win it. With my lucky ticket in hand, I entered into the hall.
Inside, the hall was buzzing with beekeepers. Along one side of the room was a table with food, and another table was set up with the official beekeeping library and book sale. There were books, movies, and pamphlets, and a librarian was signing out these materials to interested borrowers. I walked the length of the table, gazing at the many books—new and old, serious and lighthearted. The titles included How to Plant a Bee Garden, Beekeeping for Fun and Profit, and Biology of Honeybees, and the topics ranged from bee rearing to bee gardening to cooking with honey. I was beginning to realize that the topic of beekeeping stretched far and wide. I was especially attracted to the older books with artistic etchings of bees and historic photographs of primitive beehives.
I spied a beginner’s book for beekeepers; it seemed accessible and uncomplicated, and deciding I would need all the help I could get, I grabbed it. After checking out my new book, I headed over to the snack table to sample the homemade snacks, all of which were made with local honey. Biscotti cookies, barbecue chips, nuts—it was a sticky spread noble enough for any queen and regally displayed upon a bee-embroidered tablecloth. I indulged in a few honey-laced cookies.
Meanwhile, I overheard authentic beekeeping chitchat.
“How are your bees doing, Tom?” asked one woman.
“Two of my colonies are doing fine. They wintered over nicely. And the other swarmed last weekend, and I never did see where they settled down.”
“Yes, it’s swarm season, and we lost a couple of hives as well. Now I am looking for a new queen for one of my hives.”
A voice came over a loudspeaker, announcing the meeting was about to begin. A gentleman on the makeshift stage introduced himself as the president of the club. The crowd mellowed to a quiet hum as each beekeeper found a seat. I grabbed another honey cookie and sat in the back row with some handouts and my new book. As I looked around, I noticed the audience was a real mix of people from all walks of life. Whenever I had heard the word “beekeeper,” I imagined an elderly man with big hands, wearing a straw hat and coveralls; Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold immediately came to mind. But this group was full of men and women, gardeners and farmers, professionals and business types, artists and other creative souls.
The president announced the upcoming hive inspections and the many other bee-related educational opportunities that were open to club members. All these events and more were listed on the group’s Web site. Someone in the back of the room reminded the group there would be a honey swap that evening after the speaker. Honey swapping! That was something I definitely wanted to see.
Finally, the guest speaker was introduced. He was a well-respected entomologist and researcher who spoke about honeybees and the vital role they play in the pollination of our food. I listened with rapt attention throughout his entire lecture. There was so much new and interesting information to take in.
POLLINATION: WHY WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT IT
Before plants can grow, they need to be pollinated. Pollination is the first necessary step in the fertilization of all plants through the transfer of pollen, the sticky, yellowish dust produced by a plant’s flower. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating more than 100 agricultural crops in the United States, including fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes, and sixteen types of flowers species.
Honeybees make at least twelve foraging trips in a single day, visiting several thousand flowers. Tempted by brilliant colors and pleasing scents of nectar, the honeybees are rewarded with pollen. The process of pollination begins with the tiny grains of pollen produced by the male reproductive part of a flower, which is called the anther. When this pollen is moved to the female part of a flower, called its stigma
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- Mar 2, 2011
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- Black Dog & Leventhal