Sticky Workers

'The African honeybee is legendary for being completely irascible," says Tammy Horn. Commonly referred to as "killer bees," the African honeybees "have over 100 natural predators, so they have to be more aggressive. But they will pollinate anything, whereas the European honeybees tend to be more selective about what they pollinate." On Friday, May 27, Horn will discuss her new book, Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla. Horn explains that the first honeybees brought to America were cold-weather-resistant German honeybees. Also referred to as the "German black bee," these insects are small and dark and known by their handlers as quick to sting. "In the 19th Century, many people wanted [a honeybee] that was even more passive, so they brought in the Italian honeybee. This is the primary honeybee in California and was referred to as the 'gold bee' in the 19th Century." Italian honeybees are not as inclined to swarm as other types and produce larger amounts of honey.

Between her two farms in Kentucky, Horn maintains 26 Italian honeybee hives. She is a hobbyist beekeeper, collecting only enough honey for herself and friends. Horn spends the rest of her time teaching at Berea College. "I teach college freshmen," she says. "It's easy for me to draw a lot of parallels between a healthy beehive and a freshman classroom. It can sting you or be beneficial if you are able to harness it right."

When asked about the dangers of beekeeping (and teaching), Horn shares that she gets stung about once a summer. "That's not bad, it's just enough to remind me to be careful. I generally get stung because of my own stupidity -- being too quick to put on my outfit, too careless, or taking my veil off too soon." Once, the day before she was to begin teaching a new class, Horn was stung on the end of her nose. "Sure enough, I walk into class and my nose is just huge." Horn quickly eased the students' minds by explaining her hobby.

In a recent interview, Horn spoke about the cultural significance of honeybees as a symbol of social collaboration and stable society. "Americans, like most people, need to feel secure...there isn't another symbol [other than the honeybee] that can do that in the American popular imagination."

Many American food crops are dependant upon honeybees for pollination. Almonds are one such crop -- having surpassed Spain, the United States is now the number-one almond supplier to the world. Other crops dependent on honeybees for pollination are cucumbers, watermelons, strawberries, cherries, and apples. North America has no indigenous species of honeybee. Prior to the introduction of the German honeybee in 1621, these crops survived on a smaller scale with native pollinators like the bumblebee.

"But whereas bumblebees are solitary," Horn explains, "there are 50,000 bees in a honeybee hive." These hives are precious to large farms and beekeepers can earn $150 per hive to help pollinate a crop. Without these hives there would be no way for farmers to cultivate these foods on a large scale.

"Pollination is the one process that cannot be duplicated. The crises facing beekeepers in the 1990s alerted our culture not to take honeybees for granted." Horn is referring to the varroa mite.

"Varroa mites were brought here from Asia in 1987, and when they first arrived they just wiped out the European honeybees -- in biblical proportions." Horn explains that after the 1922 Honeybee Act, which made it illegal for anyone to import any honeybees other than Italian honeybees, apiculturists (commercial beekeepers) were made more susceptible and vulnerable. "When the mite came, the Italian honeybees had no resistance. It was something up into the order of 70 to 80 percent damage to the commercial industry."

Because of this devastation, "Scientists started working with genetics to develop disease-resistant bees, which is still going on," says Horn. "And Congress relaxed the law, so that now we can import other honeybees, like Russian bees." Russian honeybees are more resistant to varroa mites than are Italian honeybees.

Another threat to the honeybee? The bear. "A man from North Carolina said the best solution he came up with was to put his bees in an abandoned school bus with the windows down and park it in the middle of nowhere," says Horn. "Bees fly in and out all the time, but the bears can't get in there." -- Barbarella

Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation Discussion and booksigning with author Tammy Horn Friday, May 27 7 p.m. D.G. Wills Books 7461 Girard Avenue La Jolla Cost: Free Info: 858-456-1800 or www.dgwillsbooks.com

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