In the USA – and probably no place else on Earth – today is Presidents Day. When I was a kid, we called it Washington’s Birthday and got the day off from school, though Lincoln’s birthday seemed to be somehow conflated with it. These days, I live in Canada. We also get a holiday. It’s not “Prime Ministers Day” but instead today is Family Day and it has nothing to do with politics.
But let’s look at Presidents Day. I think that all presidents could be better leaders if they were beekeepers before entering the White House. Bees teach patience, restraint, and frugality. They encourage caution yet promote curiosity. Every beekeeper becomes a mini-scientist, observing how nature and ecology interact while testing new techniques. Beekeepers are business folks and environmentalists and they blend these worlds together, becoming diplomats and experts at compromise. They make deals with their bees by honest actions, not lengthy contracts written in legalese. Certainly these beekeeper’s qualities are qualities that a president ought to have.
Few presidents kept bees, but at least one was keenly interested in beekeeping. Thomas Jefferson is sometimes described as a farmer, scientist, diplomat, musician, and writer. The third US president kick-started the whole American experiment (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, 2-term president) yet he found time to ponder and maybe even putter among the bees. His library included beekeeping books, including Francois Huber’s famous bee guide that described the freshly-discovered secrets of the queen bee’s mating habits. It had been published about the time Jefferson took office.
Jefferson had an insatiable curiosity – when he went to his inaugural ball, he had fossils in his waistcoat pocket. He knew that a geologist would be there and he wanted to see if the fossils could be identified. Later, after he doubled the size of his country through the Louisiana Purchase, he sent Lewis and Clarke west to map it and to search for scientific curiosities.
It was partly from the explorers that Jefferson confirmed that honey bees had been imported from Europe and were not native to the continent. It’s interesting that this was even a question in the president’s mind, but more than two hundred years had passed since the early settlers had brought the first bees across the Atlantic. People had lost track of whether bees were native to America, or had arrived with the Europeans. In Jefferson’s Natural History Encyclopedia of Virginia, he wrote that the natives “call them the white man’s fly” and Jefferson agreed with them – honey bees are European imports. Here are Thomas Jefferson’s own words about the arrival and distribution of honey bees:
“The honey-bee is not a native of our continent. Marcgrave indeed mentions a species of honey-bee in Brasil. But this has no sting, and is therefore different from the one we have, which resembles perfectly that of Europe. The Indians concur with us in the tradition that it was brought from Europe; but, when, and by whom, we know not. The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians therefore call them the white man’s fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlements of the whites.”
Estate records for both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson listed dozens of hives on their plantations. There aren’t many stories about those hives, but I saw a bit about Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s plantation manager. He wrote, “I remember General Dearborne coming to my house once with Mr. Jefferson, to look at my bees. I had a very large stand, more than forty hives.” Forty hives, in the early 1800s or today, is significant.
After the first and third presidents, I don’t know if any others had bees among their possessions. If we skip way, way ahead, we find that the Obamas had bees at the White House. These were kept by a fellow who worked on the grounds but the bees were enthusiastically welcomed by Michelle and her daughters.
Here’s the American president on the lawn on a beautiful spring afternoon, reading Where the Wild Stings Are to a hundred kids who are distracted by . . . a BEE. The youngsters are scared but Obama calms them down. Watch this short video and you’ll hear three of the coolest words ever uttered by any president: “Bees are good.”
🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝
Post Script: I didn’t intend for this to be a political piece, just an appeal to reason. I didn’t mention the current president by name, but I have no doubt that he’d have a different personality if keeping bees had been part of his background. Beekeeping transcends politics – most of the readers of this blog are conservatives and I sometimes agree with their thoughts. A few months ago, I blogged about Vice-President Pence’s wife, Karen, an avid pet owner and beekeeping enthusiast. Karen keeps bees at the government-owned vice-presidential estate near D.C. where she, Mike, and the kids live.
Feel free to add your comments, below, whether political or otherwise. But play nicely with each other or you will be banned from this site….