Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Bee Charmer of Brooklyn

Mary Celley, the bee charmer of Brooklyn, explains the sweet nature of this misunderstood insect
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In ANEW Magazine, August 2006
Column: Around the Table

Scared of bees? Not Mary Celley. She’s got close to half a million of them, and she’s got the honey to prove it.

A full-time beekeeper who sells her wares at the Dane County Farmers Market, under her “Bee Charmer” label and runs a stinging-insect pest control business on the side, Celley, 50, is a lifelong booster of the gentle, widely misunderstood, and, unfortunately, increasingly threatened honeybee. She lovingly tends 100 hives on her farm in Brooklyn’s verdant countryside just east of Madison, where she lives with her life partner, Sue Williams – who, by the way, she says is “absolutely terrified of the bees.”

After earning a degree in entomology from the UW-Madison, Celley worked at the USDA Bee Research Unit on campus, then went into beekeeping when the program moved to Arizona in the mid 1980s. The university became pivotal in the development of the honey industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after a revolutionary invention, the removable-comb hive, made it possible to harvest honey without destroying the hive and killing a lot of bees in the process. A new, nonviolent chapter in human honey consumption began; production soared; beekeeping as a hobby and a commercial enterprise flourished, not least in Wisconsin.

Today, environmental pollutants and hardy, pesticide-resistant mites and parasites are decimating bee populations across the nation. Most Wisconsin beekeepers must purchase bees from out of state each spring to replenish their stock.

Far more than just honey is at risk: commercial crops and wild flora alike depend on the honeybee for pollination. “The bee is fighting for survival,” says Celley. “We all need to help.”

VVK: What do you like about bees?
MC: I’m in awe over their level of organization. Their ability to commune with 80,000 other individuals in peace and harmony. Their instincts for survival.
What the bees have taught me is what life, death and rebirth are all about. How to commune with one another, how to live in a close-knit society. They work for the existence of the hive, to keep it healthy, strong, vibrant. Their sole being is for the queens’s life. They’re taking care of her children – they watch them, nurture them. I don’t think there would be too many wars if we were like that.

VVK: Tell us some common misperceptions about bees.
MC: People think everything that stings is a bee. This is one of my pet peeves. The honeybee gets a bad rap for the more aggressive type of hornets, or yellow jackets, as some people call them, in late summer and fall. Honeybees never go after your beer or brat. They are strictly nectar feeders – not scavengers.

Also, many people think honey is “bee poop.” But it comes strictly from their mouth parts and nowhere else. Honey is nectar that has been processed by the bees in an incredible fashion, and with precision.

VVK: How do your neighbors feel, living next door to a half a million bees?
MC: My bees have made their crops more productive, through pollination. My neighbors only seem to mind when, in the early spring, my bees visit their bird feeders. They mistake the millet for pollen. They pack it onto their legs and carry it away to the hive. They can carry away a lot of millet! But then they can’t do anything with it once they get it there.

VVK: What varieties of honey do your bees produce, and how do you – and the bees – keep from getting them mixed up?
MC: Certain flowers only bloom at certain times, so that is how you know what you are getting. Plus, honeys have different colors and flavors. Black Locust tree honey is a beautiful, white, sweet honey. I also get the different clovers: White, Yellow, Alsike, and White Dutch. I also get a fall honey that comes from the different wildflowers. Any specialty honey is popular. People are willing to try new things, especially if you have it packaged and displayed right. I also sell beeswax candles.

VVK: How much honey do bees make, and how long does it take them?
MC: Usually they bring in 15 to 20 pounds a day. If there is a good honey flow on, I’ve seen a hive fill with 50 pounds of honey in a day. Every hive is different. Some hives are lazy, just like some people. Or, you could have bad genetics going on, or the queen is getting old and not laying a good brood pattern.
When they run out of space, the hive might swarm [fly away en masse in search of a new home]. You lose half your hive and honey – it really sets a hive back.

VVK: What’s your favorite thing about beekeeping?
MC: My favorite thing to do is to just watch and listen to the bees. The hum they make during the honey flow is like music being played by no instrument you can name. The smell of sweet clover opens the senses to joy and happiness. It’s aromatherapy at its best.
It’s all about joy and how grateful I am to know what I am here to do and why. I couldn’t be more fortunate in my life.


The best ways to eat honey are “pretty plain and simple,” says Celley. For delicately flavored honeys, like the pale concoction made from her briefly flowering black locust trees, just drizzle over toast and enjoy. More robust honeys are perfect for basting chicken during broiling, or in barbecue and slow-roast sauces. “Honey seems to act as a tenderizer,” she says, thanks to its powerful enzymes that break down tough tissue.

The sauce that makes these spareribs so sweet and savory is also great for outdoor barbecue cookery, perfect for summer entertaining.

Honey-Baked Spareribs

4 pounds spareribs
2 teaspoons salt

1 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups catsup
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Cut spareribs into serving-size portions. Simmer with salt in enough water to cover. In a saucepan, combine sauce ingredients and cook over low heat about 7 minutes. Drain ribs. Place in baking pan. Pour sauce over ribs. Bake at 400ยบ F for 45 minutes or until tender, basting every 10 minutes with the sauce.