Select Page

Some Great Mentors

Jan 1, 2009 | 2009 Writings, View All Posts

As a change of pace from my other contributions for 2009, I thought I would share with you a few stories about my mentors and how they shaped the way I conceived and developed the apiary I’ve described in this magazine over many years. I’ve been thinking more than usual about them during the past year due, no doubt, to the passing of my wonderful friend and (along with his wife Martha) most beloved mentor, Bill Treichler, last fall at his home in Hammondsport, N.Y. These reflections have reminded me of how lucky I have been to have such outstanding teachers and friends. They also have reminded me of the mysterious, amusing and sometimes convoluted ways that important knowledge and wisdom are passed from one generation to the next. We all learn from people and other beings too numerous to count, but I have a list of nine that I’d like to at least mention. Aside from Bill, most of them were beekeepers, with a few insects thrown in. None of the people are still with us. The insects remain…

I served out the last two years of my high school sentence at a place called The Mountain School (TMS) in central Vermont. It was a tiny school with just 30 students, located on an isolated farm, surrounded by thousands of acres of abandoned land and forest, and where the students and faculty lived and mingled together like a bunch of extended families. Perfect for a dumb kid from New Jersey who didn’t like suburbs, cars or stores. Bill and Martha Treichler, with help from their five children and the students, ran the farm program at the school and also taught classes in agronomy, chemistry, physics, French and English. Meeting this family, and developing lifetime friendships with them, was the most transformative event of my life. I’ll leave their story for last; because it’s the best one, and because it overshadows all the others. They were my first encounter with mentors—also the best and most lasting.

The other momentous event that occurred during my first year at TMS was a toboggan crash that damaged my knee pretty badly. While I was recovering—moping around, unable to ski or ice skate—someone tried to cheer me up by giving me a book about bees. I don’t even remember which one it was—maybe The Life of the Bee, by Maurice Maeterlinck or even How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey by Walter Kelley. But before I saw my first colony of honeybees, I knew this was something I had to learn more about. There were no successful beekeepers in Vershire, Vt. at that time so, to find a live one, I had to wait until summer, when I was visiting my family in New Jersey. Somehow I had gotten word of an elderly beekeeper who lived alone and still produced honey for sale…

When I stopped my bicycle in front of Myron Surmach’s one acre lot, all I could see was the tall, dense evergreen plantings surrounding and defining the property. It looked like some kind of a fortress in midst of conventional suburban houses and lawns. Walking up the drive was like entering another world. Except for the small, brick house the whole property had been made into a scene from Ukrainian village life, with overgrown flower beds and towering sunflowers everywhere. Dozens of ornate birdhouses perched on tall poles, none of them quite straight up and down. There was an orchard, and a kitchen garden with gigantic vegetables growing out of dirt that looked like finished compost. There were even some beehives with walls and roof made of straw, each one built to look like a tiny thatched cottage. I found Myron re-stocking his self-service honey stand, and after a few minutes of conversation he said I could come back the next day, when he would be checking his bees.

As it turned out, the straw hives were no longer functioning, except where a swarm had gone into one of them, and Myron had a row of 30 colonies in modern equipment in the back corner of the property. He apologized for the unkempt appearance of the yard—his wife had died a few years before and he was having trouble keeping up. Myron was in great shape, physically and mentally—especially considering that he came to the U.S. in 1913, and could still remember everything that had happened the day before, and also what the Ukraine was like before World War I and the Russian Revolution. But the heavy deep boxes of honey were obviously getting hard for him to lift, and I soon started spending most of my free time in New Jersey at his house, helping with the bees and other projects. He showed me how to use the tools, and what to look for inside the beehive. Each of our workdays had the same pattern: I’d show up around 9:00 AM, just as he was finishing his breakfast and we’d go directly to work in the beeyard or occasionally in the garden. We’d wind up by 12:30 and then we “must” go into the house for lunch. He would insist that I sit and rest while he prepared our lunch—usually boiled eggs and steamed vegetables from the garden. Then I would sit for awhile longer, spellbound, as he would reminisce about the rural Ukraine of 1912, when horses and oxen were the only means of transport; details about life in houses lit only with candles, and about the earthen and tile stoves that were used for cooking, heating and sleeping on at night. He described how his mother agonized over the decision to sell the family milk cow so that he could come to America. Myron had a great life in the U.S. After arriving with nothing and struggling for a few years, he finally made a big success by importing Ukrainian books and music and selling them to other, more established immigrants. He was a wonderful example of generosity, cheerful hard work, and the ability to look at the bright side of every situation. My only regret is that Myron didn’t live long enough to see the Ukraine as an independent country. When he came to the U.S., his village was part of Austria. The first time he returned, it was part of Poland; and on his third and final visit, it belonged to the Soviet Union…

About a year after I first met Myron, he advised me one day to seek my fortune in bees. I wasn’t consciously following his advice, but after finishing high school, I worked for one season with Charlie Mraz in Middlebury, Vt.; where I returned years later and began the apiary I have now. You might say working for Charlie was my Berlitz education in professional beekeeping, and it was also my first opportunity to be involved in queen rearing—watching Charlie graft with an apple twig into the cell-builders he had rigged up behind his house. Charlie’s heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever as a young man, and by the time I worked for him in the early ’70’s, it was catching up with him. His wife insisted that someone go with him on all his trips to the mating yard so, after working in honey production during the week, I spent many weekend days catching queens and putting in cells at his mating apiary near Lake George. Charlie had not imported any bees or queens into his apiary for a long time, and made up his losses by splitting strong colonies and letting them raise a new queen. This wasn’t a great scheme for honey production in the era of modern farming, but it did create a strain of bees very well adapted to its home environment, wintering well with little feed; and even at the beginning of my career, the innate “wildness” and resilience of them made a big impression on me. To be fair, Charlie was hard on himself and those around him, but it was impossible not to have an enormous amount of respect for him. He worked hard for everything he had and devoted an enormous amount of time to helping people who could benefit from bee venom therapy. Charlie virtually created the apitherapy movement in N. America. Over 40 years he cured and brought relief to probably thousands of people who suffered from arthritis and other diseases, and would accept no payment in return. This gesture alone is a very powerful healing force in a society like ours, focused on greed and acquisition. He deserved the monument the town erected on the green in his honor, after his death.

My next three mentors all came into my life during the three years I spent at the Cabot Farm in Wenham, Ma., in the mid-’80’s; and where I began from scratch the apiary I have now. An acquaintance had asked me for advice about a certain farm management situation I was familiar with. I advised him not to move his family there, and a year later Toby offered me a small apartment on the farm where he had found a much better job. There were three rooms, one on top of the other, built into one corner of the barn where the livestock spent the winter. In another barn there was space I could use for storage and woodworking, and I could pay my rent by doing carpentry jobs around the property during the winter. I could also cut firewood there, and there was plenty of room for a vegetable garden. The soil on this farm had been ruined by past owners, but the setting was stunning, with stone walls surrounding all the fields, the beautiful woodlots, and no way of knowing how close the suburbs had approached on three sides. When I had a housewarming party there, some of my friends from Boston stepped out of their cars just in time to see a huge team of horses come up the driveway pulling a disc harrow and a big man with a long black beard and a beret walking behind, holding the lines. After a few moments of stunned silence, one of them said: “I think we travelled 100 years backwards in that last half mile.”

This was a great place for starting an apiary from scratch, without borrowing money. I had a place to live and work, low expenses and the ability to pay my rent and earn the other money I needed by doing carpentry work during the winter. And, of course, bees did well there. In addition to other honey plants, there were clumps of magnificent locust and basswood trees all around the neighborhood. The location, age and grouping of these trees puzzled me for a couple of years until I found out that they were descendants or root suckers of individual trees that Henry Alley had planted one hundred years earlier. Henry Alley (Wenham, Ma.,) and Gilbert Doolittle, (Borodino, N.Y.,) were the pioneers of modern queen rearing. Doolittle’s grafting method eventually superceded Alley’s plan of cutting out strips of comb containing young larvae, and fastening them on cell bars. But Alley’s methods of setting up cell builders and mating nucs are still widely used today.

In an amazing stroke of serendipity, I had started a new apiary (at that time one of a very few in the northern states focused on queen rearing) just a few hundred yards down the street from Henry Alley’s house. I walked and bicycled dozens of times past the little house before I bothered to stop one day and read the small plaque in front of it, put there by the local historical society. After recovering from the initial shock, I involuntarily went to the door and knocked. The elderly woman who answered turned out to be Henry’s great granddaughter, and I later spent several enjoyable afternoons visiting and reminiscing with her. There were just a few of Henry’s beekeeping artifacts left around the house, but many memories had been passed down in the family. She could describe what the back yard had looked like when it was completely filled up with mating nucs, and also told me that Henry had only taken up beekeeping full-time after his primary source of income—a smokehouse—had burned. The mysterious locust and basswood groves were explained as well—Henry had planted these trees all over the town.

I’m very sorry now that I’ve forgotten the great-granddaughter’s name, and within a year of our first meeting, she had moved to a nursing home, and I moved to Vermont. My last effort at historical research here was to find copies of the two books Henry had written (The Beekeeper’s Handy Book; and Improved Queen-Rearing) and given to the town library. These books really should have been in a display case somewhere, but I found them on the local library shelf, available to anyone. I asked the very nice looking elderly librarian what the charge was for a lost book. She looked it up in the library rules and answered: “Ten Dollars”. “That’s good news,” I said with a smile as I pushed the two books across with my library card. She looked at the books, then looked up at me, and in her sweetest voice said, “But if you lose these books, we’ll have you drawn and quartered…” As you can tell, I returned the books, but reading them helped make Henry Alley come alive for me, and he showed me through his activity, his memory and the trees he planted how one person’s everyday work can still be present, contributing, and creating a better world for people living one hundred or more years later.

Another of my favorite mentors I never met in person, and knew him only from his books and a little correspondence—Brother Adam. During the three summers I spent at the Cabot Farm, I spent an embarrassing amount of time alternately lying on the floor reading Beekeeping At Buckfast Abbey, (Brother Adam), and Contemporary Queen Rearing, (Harry Laidlaw); and then rushing out to try yet another method of cell-building or set-up for nucleus colonies. I was attracted right away to the clarity of Br. Adam’s writing and the exotic setting, but at first I considered his books somewhat quaint and removed from the everyday working reality of beekeeping. But as I gained more experience and continued to study his books, I gradually became convinced that this was by far the most impressive and accomplished beekeeper I had ever met or heard of. From the scope of his breeding work, to the meticulous attention to every detail as he solved a whole series of practical problems, he created a standard for beekeeping that has never been equaled. I have yet to find anything in his books that doesn’t hold up in actual practice. My own system of queen rearing, overwintering nucleus colonies and bee breeding was lifted in its entirety from Brother Adam’s books—adapted only slightly for our Langstroth-size equipment and to produce more products for sale.

I had some correspondence with Brother Adam near the end of his life. His replies to my questions always came back immediately, and were typed on the same, obviously ancient, typewriter. I once asked him how much inbreeding a certain line could stand before it became damaged by inbreeding depression. His seemingly vague answer surprised me: “Well, it depends…it’s hard to say… but, I happen to have a copy of this season’s breeding plan, which I enclose for you.” Finally, after learning his system of record keeping, and carefully studying the few lines of letters and numbers he sent me, I realized that he had answered my question in the most thorough and elegant possible manner—by showing how his annual breeding program used every acceptable degree of inbreeding on a sliding scale, so that the point of unacceptable damage could be known exactly. I’m told that he often challenged his students and proteges in this way, making you work and stretch to find an answer so that you never forgot it. Every little detail of his beekeeping system had a purpose, and the elegance imbedded in a seemingly complex undertaking was truly breathtaking. One of my prized possessions is a note from him inviting me to visit the Abbey and its bee yards; and one of my biggest regrets is not being able to make the trip while he was still alive.

The mentor I got to know in person during my time in Wenham was Nevin Weaver; brother of Binford and Roy Jr.; of the famous beekeeping Weaver family from Navasota, Texas. Nevin started off in the family bee business, but then decided to continue in school and work eventually as a scientist. He was the first person to raise a worker bee, from egg to adult, in a petrie dish—sleeping on a cot in the lab, so the larvae could be fed every few hours. He was teaching Physiology at U Mass, Boston, when I met him one night at a county bee club meeting. He didn’t make his living from beekeeping, but he stayed close to his family and Weaver Apiaries, and he and his wife Betsy spent the summers in Navasota. He did many research projects, without getting heavily involved in the funding rat-race, simply by using the family’s bees and facilities during his summer vacations. Nevin was an enormous help to me in the early years when I was learning the basics of cell-building and managing mating nucs. With any kind of a beekeeping question, I always went to Nevin first. He and Betsy were also completely supportive of the idea of becoming a full-time beekeeper—I think they had more confidence in me than I had myself. Everyone needs a couple of mentors like that. It was a great privilege to be friends with them, and I spent several memorable Sunday afternoons at their home in Lexington, Ma. On one of these occasions Nevin gave me the old excluder box that I still use every year for setting up cell builders. After I moved to Vermont, they came to visit once in the winter, but they never got to see the full-blown, summertime apiary they had done so much to help create. Nevin was literally walking to the car to start on a July trip up here, when his legs collapsed in the first episode of the degenerative nerve disease that finally carried him off. I’ll always be grateful to Nevin and Betsy for their example of generosity, genuineness, warm-hearted support, cheerful optimism and self-confidence.

I’m going to skip quickly over two important insect mentors: tracheal and varroa mites. I’ve written quite a bit about how tracheal mites helped me to develop my system of bee breeding, and showed how pests and diseases can improve our honeybees, if we can see them as friends and allies. When varroa came, I was better prepared, and now it appears that these mites can also serve the same purpose—even with the huge imbalance between this pest and its host. But the key concepts that enabled me to make these connections came to me many years earlier from my favorite friends and mentors: Bill and Martha Treichler of Hammondsport, N.Y.

We can go back now to The Mountain School, where I first met them. For a kid from the suburbs who didn’t know much—except that he didn’t like suburbs—The Mountain School and Vershire, Vt. were a kind of paradise. The people were mostly interesting oddballs with lots of energy and ideas. When you walked out the door in any direction, you first encountered the school farm; then abandoned farmland; then long-abandoned, steep farmland, completely reclaimed by forest 100 years ago. Everything was new, mysterious and interesting. The huge and overwhelming presence of Nature loomed everywhere, and evoked in me a new sense of having a home. The faculty and students were impossible for me to pigeonhole based on my previous experience. Everyone seemed to be from a different place and situation. We were a rag-tag and successful academic community, but almost everyone also spent quite a bit of time helping with the farm and/or exploring the countryside, on foot and on skis. The girls were the fiercest hikers of all and a few of them thought nothing of “walking” fifteen miles between the end of lunch and the bell for dinner. I was in awe of them and struggled to keep up when I was invited to come along.

But I was most powerfully drawn to the Treichler family, who ran the school farm and had two sons and two daughters near my own age. At the same time they were the most inscrutable of all. They were the closest family and the most truly educated, healthy and accomplished people I had ever encountered. To say they were iconoclasts is like saying that tornadoes are windy. There are some people you can learn a lot about and from right away when you first meet them. But it took me quite awhile to really understand what the Treichlers were all about…

Bill and Martha met at Black Mountain College in N. Carolina after World War II, and began their married life by building a little house from recycled materials at Bill’s parents’ farm in Iowa. They made the conscious decision not to have jobs away from the farm until their children were grown. The family moved to Vermont only because their home farm was threatened by an Army Corps of Engineers water project. They had never had a television or even a phone at that time, and every available evening they spent listening to Bill read aloud. They read hundreds of books together this way, while the family was growing up. It was embarrassing to be invited for dinner and listen to them all talking and laughing about Richard II—even little John (age 8) piping up about his favorite parts. Sometimes “Pass the potatoes” was all I could contribute. Between them all they could do every kind of farming job, auto and tractor repair, and credible work in all the building trades. At the same time, the kids eventually managed to get degrees at Harvard, Cornell, and other colleges. I found all this pretty amazing, but my biggest shock was yet to come.

After I had known them for two years, Bill told me one day that the year their fifth child was born, their gross income was $600.00. I was stunned, and felt like someone had just hit me between the eyes with a stick of cordwood. Here were the healthiest, most capable, well-read and intelligent people I had ever met, and they had chosen a life-style that yielded them annually just $600.00, (probably equivalent to $10,000.00 today) for seven people to live on. In that moment, any formative notions I might have had about security, the value of money and priorities were shattered, and I knew I would have to start again from scratch to learn what these things really mean.

The Treichlers were more than kind to take me under their wing and include me in many of their family activities. It was perhaps the greatest privilege of my life to have a life-long friendship with Bill, Martha and their children. I learned so many things from them, probably more than I could say, even if I wanted to. But thinking about it a different way, there may be only two things I learned from them:

The first is that most people don’t use very much of their potential. They allow their lives to be defined and controlled by other people and their ideas. This leads us away from genuine reality; often leads to much needless suffering and abuse; and evolves into a society where everyone must be either the hammer or the anvil.

The second is that all tasks are of equal difficulty—they just take different amounts of time to accomplish. The trick is to choose the right tasks and do them in the right order. When your life builds in a positive way from one thing to the next, then it’s possible to live life independent of much of the chaos and destruction we see around us now, and easily accomplish things most people believe to be impossible…

I’ll finish with the story that made me think of writing this entry in the first place, and another thing that I learned from Bill. He was a lifelong organic farmer, never having learned any other way. Bill was very successful with his farming, and improved the land in all four places where he lived and worked. I learned from Bill, so right from the beginning I never had any doubts about the soundness of the methods. From this tradition I learned the concept of seeing pests as friends and allies who can show us the way to better farming in the future. The best farmers throughout the ages have always known this, but it became one of the focal points of the modern organic farming movement through the work of Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), during his tenure as Imperial Economic Botanist for British India. Howard wrote extensively about his experience and conclusions in An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health. Through the co-incidences of war and happenstance, Bill had a unique connection with this great agricultural scientist.

By the time he was 18, Bill had read several British books about organic farming and had become a charter member of The Soil Association—one of the first English language societies devoted to the advancement of organic farming. Shortly afterward, during the Second World War, he performed one of the most dangerous jobs allotted to any American serviceman—turret gunner on the long range bombers that flew from England to Germany and, sometimes, back again. He survived 25 missions. The airbase where he was stationed, in East Anglia, happened to be near the home and estate of Lady Eve Balfour, who was also a Soil Association charter member, and a close friend and associate of Sir Albert Howard. When Lady Eve found out that an American airman stationed nearby was a Soil Association member, she arranged for him to spend his off-duty time at the estate as her guest. So Bill became quite familiar with the Haughley Farm, and a friend of Lady Eve. After the war, Lady Eve gave part of the estate to the Soil Association to be used for research into organic farming. The farm was divided into three sections, each farmed in a different manner: one “conventional” (crops and livestock plus artificial fertilizers and pesticides); one “organic” (the same crops and livestock, but with no agricultural chemicals); and one without livestock (relying heavily on ag chemicals for fertility and pest control). The project (called The Haughley Experiment) went on for more than 10 years, and followed the health and success of many different crops and livestock through several generations. It was the best comparison of conventional and organic farming ever done, and clearly showed the deleterious effects of agricultural chemicals, especially the cumulative effects over several generations. You can read about the project in Lady Eve Balfour’s book The Living Soil (try to find a later edition that has an appendix about The Haughley Experiment). Something similar should be done in this country, while there’s still enough energy left to produce chemical fertilizers. It might help us to save some of that energy for better uses.

So, through European wars, guardian angels, the kindness of a British aristocrat to an unknown American serviceman, flooded farms in Iowa, and a generous dash of serendipity, I somehow became one of the guardians of knowledge and wisdom handed down for centuries, and way past my own abilities. We need more mentors like Bill, and I know I will miss him every day that I can still think and breathe. The only runner-up mentor I have that’s even in the same league is the honeybee.

Share This