Behind the Bee Book Posts: A Summary

2010 was a honey of a year for me, what with the publication of THE HIVE DETECTIVES and all. It’s been a treat to mark the sweetness by sharing the stories and the people who helped me bring the book into the world. Thanks to all of you who have read the stories, commented on them, and shared them. Here’s a link list for the entire series of posts.

Part 1: My friend, Linda
Part 2: Erica Zappy
Part 3: Ellen Harasimowicz
Part 4: Jennifer O’Keefe
Part 5: Mary Duane
Part 6: The Hive Detectives
Part 7: Gus Skamarycz
Part 8: My sister, Karin


Behind the Bee Book: Part 8

l&kChristmas 1981 (or so)

When I visit schools, I tell kids that at the top of my favorite-parts-of-writing-a-book list is the dedication. I usually write it after all the research is done, the writing is finished, the editing is finalized, and the book is ready to be printed. I take a deep breath, think about all the experiences that have helped to shape the book, and to shape me as its author, and choose one person to whom I would like to pay tribute.

For me, for this book, that person was my sister Karin. Karin is twenty years younger than me (not really, but she’d want me to tell you so) and is one of the most genuinely compassionate people I know. This is the girl who would give you her car keys if you really and truly needed them, and she would not think to ask if you have a driver’s license. She doesn’t care. You are in need, and she can help. So she does. I’ve always admired this about her.

While I was writing THD, Karin moved from outside of Boston where we grew up to the boonies, where I live. I wonder now how I got along without her. She lives around the corner and is Auntie K, the person my kids turn to when I am being unreasonable and refusing them everything. She is also the person I turn to when I need help, whether it’s a gallon of milk or a day of childcare or an ear to chew. Without her to handle the rustle-them-up-and-get-them-off-to-school morning routine with my kids, I simply wouldn’t have been able to do school visits the past two years. And there were plenty of afternoons when she has handled the greet-them-off-the-bus-and-feed-them-a-snack part of the day, too. It would have been so much harder to write this book—and get through our day-to-day life—without her. Which is why if you open THE HIVE DETECTIVES to the first page, you’ll see this dedication:

For my sister, Karin

And in case this final post in my ‘Behind the Bee Book’ series is feeling a bit too lovey-dovey and mushy, you should also know this: my sister Karin hates bees. With. A. Passion.

(Tee Hee!)

Thanks for everything, sis. I love you more than bees!

Behind the Bee Book: Part 7

Gussm© Ellen Harasimowicz

This fellow, Gus Skamarycz, stung me with a honey bee. Here’s the proof, which can also be found on page 41 of THE HIVE DETECTIVES:

Bee Sting 2tight © Ellen Harasimowicz

What more can one say, except Thank you, Gus!

I’ve got one final post in this Behind the Bee Book blog series, which I’ll tack up tomorrow. My feelings of thankfulness and good fortune, however, will likely go on for some time …

Behind the Bee Book: Part 6

People often ask me where I get ideas for book projects, and I tell them the truth: all over the place. In the woods. From my friends. Hanging on trees. I know this isn’t true for all writers, but for me, ideas are the easy part. It’s the next step that I find daunting: pursuing the scientists I want to write about and convincing them to help me tell their story. It takes tact and, to be honest, a level of persistence that is sometimes uncomfortable for me.

You see, to convince a publisher to offer a book contract, I need to assure them I’ve got access to all the information I need to make the book, for example, that the scientists I am writing about are on board. But the easiest way to get the scientists on board is to tell them I have a book contract. Which I usually can’t get until I convince them to get on board. It can be an awkward little dance, and for THE HIVE DETECTIVES, that dance began at the 2007 conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society.

I’d been researching the CCD story for months and learned that this conference was going to bring together a group of scientists pursuing various lines of CCD research. Despite the fact that I hadn’t even pitched the book to my publisher yet, I began spending the advance: I registered for the conference and set out for Delaware.

I heard Dennis vanEngelsdorp speak on the first day and although I hadn’t planned to approach him, found myself in an elevator with him and a few of his colleagues shortly after. I did a mental dash through my elevator pitch, marveled at the fact that I was actually going to give it in an elevator, took a deep breath … and decided not to say a word.

Hey, I never said I was good at this.

Back in my conference dorm room, though, I psyched myself up for a second chance. And then I made sure I got one. I found Dennis after another talk and told him about the book I was hoping to create for young readers. His response was enthusiastic, and he gave me the sort of inside information that is crucial at this stage in a book project: the names of some scientists I should talk to, and permission to tell them he’d sent me their way. And so, back home and with a book proposal well underway, I contacted Jeff Pettis, Maryann Frazier, Diana Cox-Foster and Dave Hackenberg. Thanks in large part to Dennis’ introduction, each agreed to be part of my project. Not long after, I got my book contract.

There followed an abundance of interviews, lab tours, apiary tours, and follow-up questions with the hive detectives. It was a lot to ask of men and women on the front lines of an international pollinator crisis—but these particular men and women happen to have not only a sincere passion for their work, but a dedication to sharing it. Thank you Jeff, Maryann, Diana, Dave, and Dennis. I appreciate every interview, tour, lesson, answered email, and borrowed photograph; THE HIVE DETECTIVES is a better book for all of it.

Behind the Bee Book: Part 5

Mary Duane 66© Ellen Harasimowicz

When I met Mary Duane, president of the Worcester County Beekeepers Association, I had no plans to include her in THE HIVE DETECTIVES. I was, however, super excited to take her up on her offer to show me around a box hive. Working with Mary in her bee yard was the perfect way to rest my brain as I puzzled my way through the writing of the THD manuscript.

And let me tell you, about halfway through the first draft, my brain needed a rest. I’d realized that the story I was telling—the story of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)—was hard to write about without using a lot of unusual bee terms, and defining all these terms was killing the dramatic tension I was trying to build. Also, the ending I was building up to was dire (maybe too dire?); I wasn’t sure how to temper this.

So I rested my brain while working bees with Mary. She taught me how to inspect a hive, how to find the queen, how to recognize the signs of a colony preparing to swarm, how life in the hive was tied to the weather and the bloom, how to collect honey. Over one spring, summer, and fall, I learned how to keep bees, and in the process—bonus of bonuses—I discovered the answer to my manuscript dilemmas: Mary herself.

By bringing readers into one of Mary’s hives at the very start of the book, I was able to introduce all those pesky bee terms. When they came up later, readers already knew what they meant and so they weren’t a distraction to the drama of the CCD story. And to balance that visit into Mary’s hives at the beginning, I decided to include a return trip at the end of the book; readers learned how to collect honey and got a sense that some bees—in particular, Mary’s bees—were doing all right, despite the mysterious scourge called CCD.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your knowledge and your bees, and for not hesitating when I said,

Behind the Bee Book: Part 4


If you are a children’s book writer or illustrator, and especially if you live in New England, you may like this bit of bee book trivia: What New England children’s book author/illustrator took the photo on the cover of THE HIVE DETECTIVES?

Answer: Jen O’Keefe!

It turns out that in addition to writing, illustrating, photographing, mothering, and volunteering, Jen keeps bees. (She is hiveless at the moment, but I get the feeling this is temporary.) When she found out I was writing a book about honey bees, she mentioned her hobby and sent me a few photographs. I knew the moment I saw the image above that it would make an amazing cover shot. It’s creepy and mysterious and aesthetically irresistible all at the same time.

The picture is of something called burr comb. Under normal conditions, honey bees shape their honeycomb into flat sheets. Under certain unusual conditions, however, the bees get a little loosey-goosey with their protocols. They’ll build honeycomb into spaces that were never meant to hold it—between hive boxes or inside syrup feeders, for example—and the shapes they come up with can be pretty funky. Several years ago, Jen fed one of her hives some leftover chunk honey (honey containing chunks of wax) inside a box-shaped feeder tray. She went on vacation for a few days and came back to a box-shaped tray full of burr comb. The photographer in her couldn’t resist:

“It was astonishing and gorgeous and I caught it in the nick of time, because [the bees] were grooming the comb for laying. I’ve still got the feeder in my art studio filled with the burr comb. It’s like a museum piece.”

Thank you, Jen, for sharing your talents with me, and for letting that unforgettable burr comb grace the cover of THE HIVE DETECTIVES.


Behind the Bee Book: Part 3

tnPhoto courtesy of Ellen Harasimowicz

I knew early on that I would need to hire a photographer to work with me on THE HIVE DETECTIVES– this was a fresh story, and it needed fresh photographs–so I was crushed to find out that my friend Betty Jenewin, a photojournalist and one of the photographers behind the images in TRACKING TRASH, wasn’t available for the job. And I was leery when Betty told me that she knew another photographer, also a photojournalist, who might be available, not because I didn’t trust Betty’s judgment, but because I was setting out very soon for a research trip across the mid-Atlantic states. Whoever I hired would have to be game for traveling on short notice, bunking with me throughout the trip, and traipsing through commercial honey bee yards and research apiaries in search of images and stories. It seemed like a lot to ask.

And it would have been, for most people. But Ellen Harasimowicz is not most people. We met for the first time on March 25, and three weeks later we set off, the trunk of my car full-up with her camera equipment, my recording supplies, and two sparkly new bee suits. That’s how Ellen rolls. As soon as we hit Pennsylvania, the two of us taped our pant legs closed with duct tape, donned those bee suits, and marched into an apiary that was home to millions of honey bees; we visited a quarantined bee yard and sampled the honey left in its empty supers (realizing only afterward that whatever it was that scared off the bees might just be in the honey we ate!); and we volunteered to carry three boxes of honey bees from one bee lab to another … even before knowing for sure if our cargo of bees would be dead or alive (they were dead). It was a blast of a week, full of stories and insights and adventures. We returned to Massachusetts with great material for the book and, more importantly, a true friendship.

In nearly every review of THE HIVE DETECTIVES to date, special mention has been made of Ellen’s pictures. In case you missed them, here’s a sampling:

Harasimowicz’s clear, beautifully reproduced photographs support and extend the text.” (Kirkus reviews)

Fully illustrated with excellent color photos …” (Booklist, Starred review)

… gloriously crisp photographs of bees and people at work out in the field and inside scientific laboratories.” (The Horn Book)

I am lucky to have found Ellen (thank you, thank you, thank you, Betty Jenewin!) and am grateful for her talent and flexibility. She and I have done some pretty amazing things since that first trek together: we’ve stung ourselves with honey bees, we’ve ridden horses to the top of a mountain in central Mexico to see colonies of monarch butterflies*; and we’ve lived on a Costa Rican butterfly farm with giant bats, garrulous howler monkeys, and poisonous snakes.** We’ve spent long hours considering photographs and book structures and new adventures. At this point we have more book ideas than we have time to make them, and I, for one, hope it is always this way.

Thank you for everything, Ellen. Here’s to all the books (and bookish adventures) ahead of us!

* Pictures from this trip will appear in our citizen science book, coming from Henry Holt in January 2011.

** And pictures from this trip are right now enticing an editor to sign the book we call SPECIAL DELIVERY. Or so we hope. Stay tuned!

Behind the Bee Book: Part 2

Loree and Erica 2© Gerry Burns

That’s editor Erica Zappy and me at the 2007 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards ceremony, where our first book, TRACKING TRASH, was given an Honor Book Award. It was a special night.

TRACKING TRASH was a literal first for both of us: it was the first book I ever wrote, and it was the first book Erica ever acquired on her own. There is nothing like creating a sixty-four page, ten thousand word book illustrated with seventy full-color images by more than twenty different photographers to bond a couple girls. We learned a lot, made a book we are both proud of, and established a great working relationship.

All of which made the creation of THE HIVE DETECTIVES an even more positive experience. This time we pulled together fifteen thousand words and nearly one hundred photographs, and we did it with none of the drama (no lost photographs! no crisis conversations from the top of a London double decker bus!) of our first trip round the bend.

Thank you for everything, Erica. I am looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on book number three.

Behind the Bee Book, Part 1

LindaMillerPhoto courtesy of David Miller

I have been planning this series of blog posts since May, when THE HIVE DETECTIVES was released. Somehow, though, the actual writing and posting has been put off as first one thing and then another (and another and another) stole my attention. As the calendar year winds to a close, I’ve decided to put extra effort into finally and publicly thanking the people who helped me bring this new book into the world.

I’d like to start with my friend Linda Miller, who back in 2007, shortly after the publication of TRACKING TRASH, called to ask what I made of the honey bee crisis. To which I replied, “What honey bee crisis?”

And then, like some kind of eye-opening buzz magic, everywhere I turned were stories of honey bees and mysterious disappearances and concern for our food supply. I am not sure why the story hadn’t registered with me prior to that talk with Linda, but by the time the article she’d clipped from The Christian Science Monitor arrived in my mailbox, I was in too deep to turn back.

Within months I was registered for bee school at the annual conference of the Eastern Apiculture Society, where I met Dennis vanEngelsdorp. (He went on to star in the book.) I took more classes, joined a beekeeping club, infected photographer Ellen Harasimowicz with my honey bee mania, and began traveling the eastern seaboard to talk with bee wranglers and bee scientists involved in the CCD story. The journey from Linda’s question to a published book was a long and intense one, but I have not forgotten where it began: a conversation with a friend.

Linda still calls to ask interesting questions, and she sends handwritten notes by regular mail as well, usually tucking into the envelope a newspaper clipping or two. Not all of these lead to book projects, of course, but each and every one engages my mind. Which, come to think of it, is just the sort of thing Linda strives for: encouraging people to think.

Thank you, Linda, for asking the question that got me thinking about honey bees. Thank you for sending me notes and articles and ideas. And most of all, thank you for being my friend.