There aren’t many beekeepers that the whole world knows. No one gets famous for keeping bees. Sometimes a beekeeper becomes locally infamous, but I can’t think of any beekeeper as well-known as, say, Sir Edmund Hillary. He and his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, will be honoured forever as the first to scale Mount Everest. Hillary’s day job? Beekeeping. He spent his first thirty years working on the family honey farm. Hillary, who passed away in 2008, would have been 98 years old today.
Surprisingly, when he returned from his expedition, the beekeeper who climbed the world’s highest mountain went right back to hard manual labour, working with the family’s 1,400 hives. He had a remarkable humility about his feat. Here’s Sir Hillary, in 1953. He was 34 years old when he was interviewed in this film. He doesn’t mention his bees in this clip, but I put it here so you can see the grace and charm of the young man.
When Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest back in 1953, most of us weren’t even around yet. Back then, technology was relatively primitive – a typical TV was bigger than a fridge. Communication was painfully slow. It took 3 days before the world knew whether Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the peak – or had died trying. The team wasn’t the first to attempt Everest, but previous efforts ended in tragedy.
I mentioned Sir Edmund Hillary’s bee farm. He wasn’t a hobby beekeeper with one hive under an apple tree in the orchard. He was a real commercial honey farmer. Hillary wrote several times that beekeeping had conditioned him physically and mentally for the challenges of mountain climbing. Here, from his book A View from the Summit are Hillary’s own words about his beekeeping experiences:
“My brother Rex was a year younger than me and he, too, was part of our family beekeeping business. Rex and I worked well together as a team. He was smaller than me but very strong and vigorous. In the friendliest fashion we competed energetically with each other, often running side by side with heavy loads of honey to pile them on our truck…we actually enjoyed the beekeeping. Our thirty-five apiaries were spread out on fertile dairy farms up to forty miles away, so we were always on the move. The spring and summer, when the bees were gathering nectar, was a time of great excitement. The weather made beekeeping a tremendous gamble, of course. Each apiary we visited could have a substantial crop of honey in its hives or almost nothing. Rex and I reveled in the hard work.”
For a few seasons after his famous conquest, Sir Edmund Hillary went back to tending the family’s 35 apiaries scattered around his island home. At the time, he didn’t think the climb was a big deal and he expected his moment of glory to fade quickly. It didn’t.