- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HONEYBEE: FROM HIVE TO HOME, LESSONS

FROM AN ACCIDENTAL BEEKEEPER

By C. Marina Marchese

Black Dog & Leventhal, $22.95, 256 pages

Reviewed by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

You probably are not aware that September is National Honey Month — unless you are among the two dozen or more urban and rooftop beekeepers within the city of Washington. But you don’t have to be first beekeeper at the White House or executive chef at Washington’s Fairmont Hotel to know that gardening and beekeeping go hand in hand. With the growing popularity of home gardens, farmer’s markets and appreciation of organic food, people are beginning to take to the idea of tasting their own fresh honey straight out of their own beehive.

Since early times, the bee has been a symbol of industry and regeneration. Ancient Egyptian medical texts describe its nectar’s cures. In the sixth century, its image appeared on coins and postage stamps. Paintings of bees and honey can be seen on the walls in Vatican City.

As long as its nest is not disturbed, a bee will not sting. No other insect repays us quite so well. One-third of food crops require insect pollination, of which honeybees are the most consistent and reliable source. Without the bee, we would not have our fruits or vegetables, our ornamental trees or shrubs. If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, the world would face starvation.

Ten years ago, author Marina Marchese, an award-winning illustrator and designer, fell in love with this amazing insect while touring a neighbor’s hives. As the creative director for a small giftware company in New York, often her best ideas were shot down, dulling her creative spirit. As she stood waiting for her train for the morning commute, she realized that where she really wanted to be was back in the bee yard. She quit her job, acquired her own hive and earned a certificate in apitherapy, studying old world techniques from travels through Italy and China.

Entering beekeeping fueled her fascination with bees, hives and honey, and the role they have played in cultures around the world. In 1999, Ms. Marchese founded Red Bee Honey, a boutique honeybee farm located in Weston, Conn. Her rich, pesticide-free harvest of honey, candles, soaps and skin care goods is sold to hotels, restaurants and shops all across the United States.

Launching so many treasures from the hive required educating her customers. Unlike Europe, where, like wine and olive oil, honey is harvested and respected as much as a food as a medicine, Americans are not accustomed to apitherapy. Undeterred, Ms. Marchese pressed on. Her book fulfills her mission of exposing as many people as possible to the value of the honeybee on our planet.

This reader-friendly book is bursting with practical information. With an affectionate tip of her hat to master guru Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth (his 1852 hive design with removable frames revolutionized beekeeping), she leads us step by step through the entire process.

We are given the anatomy of a honeybee, the foundations of beekeeping, how to order and start your own hive, how to make and harvest your own honey, how to prepare for the winter. The health benefits of honey are also explored.

Bee pollen can decrease symptoms of allergies and hay fever, regulate blood pressure and lower cholesterol. Honey supplies protein, amino acids and B vitamins. It is naturally antiseptic, antifungal, antibacterial — and never spoils. Included is a chapter on the tasting and pairing of honey, along with useful tips on how to bake with it. There is also a glossary, list of resources, and an appendix giving 75 honey varieties from around the world.

Sprinkled here and there are illustrations and recipes for Honey Almond Biscotti, Mom’s Bee-Pollinated Apple Pie with Honey, another for Every Beekeeper’s Simple Lip Balm. There are even goodies you can make for the bees themselves, including one for those occasions when there are limited amounts of nectar (Pollen Patties to give your brood during the spring).

Much in the way children savor chocolate while reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” you probably won’t be able to get halfway through this book without dipping a spoon into the honey jar. Simply put, your mouth will water. The fact that a pound of honey is equal to a colony’s visit to 3 million flowers only adds to the fascination.

Sad to say, the future of the honeybee is uncertain. Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden disappearance of the bees from the hive, has been rapidly increasing worldwide, baffling beekeepers and scientists alike. It now appears that loss of habitat and overuse of chemicals, insecticides and antibiotics has compromised the immune systems of this tiny insect, which is rapidly disappearing. In our mania to spray pesticides in order to eliminate every single mosquito or fly from our garden, we destroy the natural balance (bees and wasps are also natural pest controllers).

Adding to the woe of the honeybee is the fact that our gardens contain little plant variety. Our demand for extricating “weeds” ignores the useful fact that clover adds needed nitrogen to the soil, that dandelion seeds are an important food source for birds, or that their leaves contain medicinal properties that can be added to our salads (even box turtles are known to abandon their daily meal of earthworms in order to munch on a dandelion or two).

In ancient Rome, Ms. Marchese tells us, honey was considered a luxury good, reserved only for emperors and the wealthy. One can only wonder: Will we be able to save the bee, before the last jars of honey become a luxury good? In her passionate devotion to the delicious and healthy, Ms. Marchese has given us a lovely gift. “Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper” is an entertaining and useful primer for the novice and honeybee devotee alike.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” to be released by Blackstone Audio Books.

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