Burt’s Bee Buzz

Arguably, the most famous beekeeper in all history was an unlikely hippie living off the land in Maine’s remote woodlands. Burt Shavitz died this weekend. He was living the good life, a reclusive member of the back-to-nature, granola-chewing crowd. In his case, Burt Shavitz had left New York City for a self-imposed exile in the northeast corner of America. He was seeking solitude and the chance to live a life of hard independent work. It was a primitive, subsistence life. In the 1980s, while in his 40s, he was living in a turkey coop. To earn a small bit of cash, he kept bees.

There is a movie about this peculiar man. Burt’s Buzz, a 2014 documentary film about Burt Shavitz, reminds me a bit of Forrest Gump. Like Forrest, Burt seems to have appeared at the right place and time with neither scheming forethought nor greedy desire. Also like Gump, Burt seems oblivious to the world around him, yet he rocks it like an ocean liner rocks lesser boats on the sea. It’s an interesting, but odd film. The highlight of the documentary, for me, was when Burt, on  a promo trip to Taiwan, skypes his dog back in Maine and the two begin howling in harmony. Not that other parts of the film weren’t charming. We learn that at age 78, Burt is comfortable in a house without hot water. Running water is, in fact, a step up from the way he spent most of his earlier life.

In the end, he led a strangely divided existence. He clearly loved his frugal life on his Maine farm. But he also relished the attention he received as Mr Burt’s Bees – a walking, talking corporate mascot. When he wasn’t lighting his wood stove or feeding wild birds, he roamed the world while managers pampered him. Burt Shavitz was paid to promote the corporation’s products, nearly all of which still sport his bearded face on the packaging.  But he was more than a human mascot or an unwitting parody of the Burt on the lip balm sticks.

Burt wasn’t always Maine’s most famous bee man. He was a staff photographer for a New York Jewish weekly, then Time Life gave him credentials to freelance for them. He sold pictures of John Kennedy and Malcolm X, among many others. At 35, he tired of New York City, borrowed an ex-girlfriend’s van, loaded some books and a mattress, and headed to upstate New York, then Maine. He worked odd jobs until a swarm of bees appeared. He housed the bees in equipment given to him by a friend. One hive grew into 26. ““It’s a way to make a living if you’ve got a strong back and a strong mind and good eyes,” said Shavitz.  About beekeeping and neighbourliness, Burt told a Times reporter that he was lucky, “. . . that there was a man who was patient, knowledgeable and even-tempered to teach me beekeeping. He told me to stand back and watch what he did.”

Soon after, Burt met Roxanne Quimby. She was hitchhiking. He stopped his flatbed truck to give her a lift. Roxanne was a single mom with 6-year-old twins when they came together in 1984. It seems Burt was infatuated with the young woman. “She could do anything. Chop wood, grow beans…she was strong.”

Roxanne could also make candles from Burt’s beeswax. And she knew how to sell them. She had the business brains in their union. She experimented with face creams, lip balm, treatments for cold sores. Though the products sold well because the ingredients were purportedly natural, it was probably the packaging and the logo that really created the billion dollar company. Success came when Roxanne started marketing a lifestyle – Burt’s lifestyle. His image became the company’s icon and the wholesome self-reliant vegetarian zen of a man was part of the package. In a dozen years, the company’s annual sales grew from $22,000 to $23 million.

Burt and Burt’s Bees parted shortly after the company was moved from Maine to North Carolina, in 1994. He tried to work in the south for the big outfit which he had inadvertently helped create, but Burt left amid a situation of a personal nature. He never really felt at home at the huge corporation – so distant psychically and physically from his woods in Maine. Within those years of unbridled growth, Roxanne and Burt grew apart. In a dispute that seemed to leave both Burt and Roxanne feeling betrayed, Burt was allegedly paid $130,000 and given 37 acres of land for his share of the company. Roxanne later gave Burt four million dollars more. By then the company was sold for $935 million. The new owners hired Burt to represent the company at store openings and promotional events around the world. All he had to do was dress like Burt, act like Burt, and say very little. It was corporate publicity and it worked well for everyone involved.

(Roxanne, by the way, has been generally maligned in the press as an aggressive business woman. But she created the company and ran it with progressive ecologically and socially enlightened guidelines. After receiving hundreds of millions of dollars for the Burt’s Bees company, she purchased 120,000 acres of Maine forest which she is preserving and trying to give to the state as a sanctuary and park. She is also very active in a number of Portland charities. Seems she never really needed money, either.)

I began this piece by mentioning that Burt Shavitz may have been the most famous of all beekeepers. After watching the documentary of his life, I suspect he didn’t mind the fame, even though he loved his solitude. (“A good day is when no one shows up and I don’t have to go anywhere.”)

For Burt, it was never about money.  His settlement gave him some cash, plus a home in Maine. He lived another twenty years, undoubtedly more content as a chopper of wood and a friend of animals than as a manager of men in the business world. Although the corporation was sold for a billion dollars a few years after Burt left, he wasn’t disappointed that he had missed out on a fortune. As he once said, he never aspired to a life as a yuppie, with a trophy wife, a trophy car, and a trophy house. His life was very much what he wanted it to be – an old retired hippie on a farm in Maine.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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