By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Julia Rothman
Over Labor Day Weekend, Flip Mason holds his honey harvest. It’s a family affair, with son Nathaniel as harvest master, organizing friends and family to work and stocking mead for the barbeque celebration that follows. Daughter Nicole, who began beekeeping as a young child and whose name is also on their honey label, comes from California for the revelry. His wife Toddy is an enthusiastic supporter.
The bees want to come, too. They smell the honey and try to crash the party. The Masons make sure the messy work of uncapping and spinning the frames to extract the honey by centrifugal force is done in a room with tightly screened windows—not their home, as it’s a sticky business. But Mason makes the point that Brookline’s ban on beehives being any closer than 125 feet from the nearest dwelling is in ignorance. “Bees won’t come to your picnic,” he says. “They’re only interested in flowers and nectar.” This is indeed local wildflower honey, produced by the bees in Mason’s five hives from various flowers in his general neighborhood in Brookline. The yield might be anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds, but this year’s wet spring and summer probably will bring a small harvest because the bees couldn’t fly round and about to gather as much nectar as they’d like. Harvest over, the bees will continue to make honey during warm fall days, but with nectar from asters and goldenrod that bloom in the late season. Mason doesn’t like the flavor of honey from those flowers, so he leaves it for the bees to carry them through the winter.
This year, Flip Mason has something else to celebrate. He has just completed his bibliography of American books on bees published in English up to the year 2010, American Bee Books. Most of the descriptive entries are drawn from his own collection of books on bees and beekeeping, some 5,000 volumes, the largest such collection in the world. He has been working on it for 15 years. With the growing general interest in bees—he mentions “the current rage for city rooftop beekeeping”—he is not worried about finding a publisher.
One large room in his basement contains the books, all carefully catalogued and shelved by author, from A to Z around the room, with as many different editions as possible of particular works to complete sets. Mason is a meticulous man. His favorite book is Réaumur’s Mémoires pour servir á l’histoire des insectes, published in six volumes between 1734 and 1742. As an example of the bookmaker’s art and craft, its binding, paper, print, and illustrations are magnificent. Beyond that, Réaumur’s treatise on natural history describes in microscopically observed detail how, for instance, drone bees copulate with the virgin queen on her nuptial flight and then die, which had previously been a mystery. Written in French, the book is not in the bibliography, but it is a prize.
Midway around the room is the Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth section, which takes up four-and-a half shelves. His great book, The Hive and the Honey-Bee (first edition, 1853) changed bee management forever. This New Englander was a Yale alumnus, teacher, and Congregational minister in Massachusetts, who found he preferred keeping bees to teaching or preaching. In his experience with his hives, Langstroth noticed that they would leave the space of 5/16 of an inch free as a passageway on either side of a wooden frame in the beehive. Any gap larger or smaller they would fill with sticky beeswax. By allowing for this exact distance between all his frames, he could slide them in and out to inspect his bees or harvest honey without destroying the comb. And the bees could expend their energy on making more honey rather than rebuilding their hive.
In his day job, Mason is a corporate lawyer in Boston (where he goes by the name of Philip Mason; on the title page of his bibliography he is Philip A. Mason). But he found that he “raced home from the brick and concrete caverns of downtown,” as he put it, to tend to his hives after work. With his beekeeping and book collecting growing exponentially, he decided to study entomology at Cornell with Roger Morse, whose department was strong in apiary biology. Here Mason acquired expertise in the complex chemistry of bees and related topics, all of them reflected in his book collection. His dissertation was on developments in the history of American beekeeping as traced in books—by people like Langstroth.
In 1998, with Ph.D. in hand, Mason, by then in his 50s, was invited to stay on and teach at Cornell. Instead he and his family returned to Brookline, balancing his corporate legal work in the city with beekeeping and book collecting in pastoral Brookline. The collection has 29 categories, ranging from scholarly to whimsical and including many cookbooks. His favorite title, for instance, is Bee’s Kiss: A Honey Cookbook, by Ann Rosenfeld. A new children’s book seems to arrive every week. Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees he considers exceptionally well done, including her quotation, “Beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.” Another recent fine book, by Massachusetts writer Douglas Whynott, is Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers, whom he calls “the last American cowboys.”
Around Mason’s house, other items are on display: sheet music of honey-themed pop songs, romantic of course; bee pill boxes, including one with Abe Lincoln’s face; exquisite silver, porcelain, and crystal as well as plastic and rustic wood. Tucked away, Mason has an immense international stamp collection on bees and honey. Because mankind has been collecting honey since prehistoric times—a cave wall in Valencia, Spain, shows an image of two people raiding a beehive, dating back to about 8000 B.C.—honey iconography is a vast subject, which Mason does not enter in his bibliography.
A friend gave Mason his first hive in 1984, when the book habit was already well established. Today his five hives in Brookline, all Langstroth moveable-frame hives, make him a hobbyist, so he doesn’t have to worry about colony collapse as the large-scale commercial beekeepers do. He checks his hives every week or two during the warm season leading up to harvest in late summer, as he does during my visit when I, too, suit up carefully for inspection.
Before my departure he offers me several different honeys to taste, requiring concentration much as in tasting wine. The dab of leatherwood honey is dark amber, viscous, and complex; also the manuka, again from Tasmania, yet entirely different. Then we taste a rare wild thyme honey from Crete, and I remember his telling me that honey bees originated in the Mediterranean and Urals. Its savor is full of astonishing character. “Echt,” he says.
But at this tasting the epiphany for me is Mason’s own honey. Lighter than the others, its flavor is delicate yet rich and wholly unlike the others. From one year to the next it remains remarkably consistent, he tells me. The linden trees (basswood, or Tilia americana) planted all over this part of Boston by Frederick Law Olmsted, who lived nearby, is the principal floral nectar the bees use for this honey. After the initial taste it has a brightness I can only compare to high overtones as in musical timbre. On the way home and after, the sensation on my palate lingers and plays like music.
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Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), has been in print since 1986. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.