By Grai St. Clair Rice
Beekeeping gets better with experience. Honey bees, as well as beekeepers, get infinitely more interesting.
Each year brings new depths of understanding, and this wisdom, when it is shared, is invaluable. The way it is shared makes all the difference in its resonance with the general public and the next generation of beekeepers.
Observation, experience, a love of learning and of teaching are all things that come naturally to venerable beekeeper Roberta J. Glatz. At the age of 94, she still exudes a youthful edge interested in scientific knowledge and intrigue in the world of pollinators. She is a little impish in her seriousness, and always seems to have just the right tidbit of profound insight into honey bees to match the moment.
You may have spotted Roberta at a beekeeping conference or, if you are lucky, seen her presenting at a bee club meeting. This Summer, Roberta once again attended the Eastern Apiculture Society conference, where in 1974 she became one of the first female presenters at this regional event. She relishes attending the American Beekeeping Federation meetings and thrives on the expansive international energy of Apimondia, which she has been attending worldwide since the 1960s.
After a number of bear attacks, Roberta decided approximately 15 years ago to retire from active beekeeping and move deeper into the world of research and teaching. She remains an engaged and active member of the beekeeping community. Roberta is currently a veteran member of the Apiary Industry Advisory Committee to advise the NYS Commissioner of Agriculture on matters related to honey bee health. Although not a specific member of New York State’s Pollinator Task Force, Roberta has attended every meeting since its founding in 2015, where she speaks up as often as necessary, keeping an educated, watchful eye over apiculture issues.
Roberta is a much sought-after speaker for beekeeping organizations, in part due to her ability to engage her audience through wit and story structure. She no longer brings her carousel of slides, which jammed in antiquated equipment, yet she can hold the rapt attention of a room full of beekeepers with her insightful tellings of beekeeping observations and experiences, with visuals conjured in the mind’s eye of the listeners. “You’re not the Boss of Me,” “Bee Smart” and “Before the Swarm” are some of her recent talk titles, with past talks including “An Illustrated History of Beekeeping in Russia.”
Roberta’s delivery and ability to convey information were cultivated during a long career teaching foreign languages in schools, with high school students being a specifically challenging audience.
Good teachers have a way of engaging our minds and activating our abilities to make connections with the world around us. She has been known to use a bit of shock to get people’s attention, which works well when a 90-year-old woman is in front of the room talking about sex and virgins in her humorous, yet matter-of-fact, way to make a point about swarming.
Formative, Family Years
Roberta was born in Albany, New York on June 21, 1924. As the oldest child in her family, Roberta proudly held the smoker and helped her father in his beeyard at the formative age of five. Nature and observation were part of daily life in the Van Auken family with Roberta’s mother being a youth leader in Albany’s first Girl Scout Troop, inspiring adventure, including campfires at the dining room table!
“Boredom was not tolerated in our family,” relates Roberta of her childhood. Her mother would stop and point at a crack in the sidewalk and ask her children to describe what they saw. “Open your eyes and look at the world – really look” was the directive given. This beginning is elemental, and feeds Roberta’s love of nature and reliance on quiet observation to inform.
Roberta had wanted to pursue the sciences in her education, however she chose to play field hockey in the afternoon at school, and had heard that Spanish studies were more fun anyway. The times were such that teaching language was a more secure option for a woman, so her practical self took hold. Roberta strives for excellence in everything she does, and continued her studies into the late 1960s. She holds an MA in Spanish and German Language and Literature, and an MS in Education. She began a PhD degree in Language and Literature, although she never completed her thesis because her advisor passed away.
Roberta married in 1949, and settled on a 90-acre property with a rambling building, that had been a wagon stop on a route from the New York State capitol westward. There, she eventually raised four children and countless bees, and still resides in the comfort of her collected history.
On a language Fulbright to Germany in 1957, Roberta was reacquainted with the goodness of honey and beekeeping through her landlady. It seemed a natural fit for Roberta to start her own hives when she returned to the states.
As a foreign language teacher with Summers off, and a growing family to support, Roberta’s passion for honey bees developed into a collection of bee yards totaling approximately 125 hives. She was what is called a “Sideliner” which is between a hobbyist and a commercial beekeeper. The name Indian Fields Apiary was chosen to honor a local town flooded by the building of a reservoir for the city of Albany.
Roberta’s beekeeping practice was a mix of observation informed by biology, as well as a genuine affinity and respect for her bees. She adapted her management style to fit her limited time and limited brawn, arranging her beeyards in a U-shaped configuration, and positioning a snowmobile trailer in the middle to minimize hefting. She had a gentle beekeeping philosophy, and worked her hives without gloves. “It’s always less work when you do things the bees’ way,” Roberta explains. “You can try to fight it, but they will win every time.”
Honey sales augmented her salary, selling via newspaper advertisements and while participating in local fairs and festivals. The whole family was involved in these proud days of winning ribbons and awards for honey and baking. Carol Glatz, the youngest of the children, reminisces about the annual Hunter Mountain German Alps Festival where Roberta had a large screened structure built to accommodate a small hive for live bee demonstrations throughout the day. Roberta would dress in a traditional Bavarian dirndl with Carol in a little sundress, as a way to challenge and disarm people’s paranoia in the era of the 1970s killer bee movies. The presentation would often include Roberta placing a drone in Carol’s mouth to the astonishment of the onlookers, and then Carol would open her mouth to let it fly away.
Expanding her knowledge and influence
Early on, Roberta was in a world dominated by men at local bee club meetings, until the 1970s brought a shift in caring for the land, and women became more active in beekeeping. Roberta tells of the first time she went to a bee club meeting in the 1960s and was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few women in attendance. After a time, she became aware that all the women had left the room. A male beekeeper approached, towering over her small frame, and informed her that the “ladies had adjourned down the hall.” She got her muster up, and blurted out “I’m no lady, I’m a beekeeper.”
Roberta became a regular at local, state, national and international meetings, where she gleaned tips from commercial beekeepers happy to explain away to the attentive, disarming, female beekeeper. She was always hungry for the academic presentations where she gathered the scientific knowledge she had craved since her youth.
Carol, 11 years younger than her next sibling, became her mother’s regular companion, attending her first bee club meeting in Puerto Rico in 1966 on her mother’s hip when only a few months old, and her first Apimondia in 1967. Roberta took all four children to the Moscow Apimondia in 1971, and continued to travel with Carol to most Apimondia meetings she has attended throughout the world, including Warsaw, Munich, Beijing, Budapest, and Australia.
Facility with languages opens many doors in life. Roberta is fluent in German and Spanish, as well as competent in Russian. She can navigate basic “beekeeping” talk in Chinese and Italian too, and I swear she also speaks “Bee.”
Roberta’s language skills, and her intrepid spirit, were invaluable on these worldwide, international beekeeping journeys. She always planned on staying in each country for the apiary tours that took place both before and after the main congress events. Roberta was fascinated by the different hive styles they came across and the charm of the beekeepers. She often has been better at translating bee talk than the translators assigned to each tour. The joy bubbling up from her retelling the stories of these journeys is contagious. She has been asked to present an overview of her Apimondia travels this coming Spring to inspire beekeepers in advance of the Montreal Apimondia in September, 2019.
Academic Work and Associations
Under Roger A. Morse, at Cornell, Roberta completed the first Master Beekeeper certification class in 1978. This accomplishment was enormously satisfying to Roberta and cemented a working relationship that lasted until Morse’s death.
In the early 1990s, Morse called on Roberta to assist in research following a growing concern over proper pumpkin pollination in New York State. This involved working in the trenches in the field, which was an absolute delight for Roberta who found herself thoroughly in her element. She collected every different kind of bug she could find in the pumpkin fields and sent them back to Morse. It became clear that the Eastern Squash Bee Peponapis Pruinosa was the prime pollinator of these Cucurbit, with the female bees specific to this pollen alone.
Morse treated her like a grad student and she received the title Cornell University Visiting Fellow.
Roberta dug into her work and became a specialist in the nesting and mating of these solitary bees. She became a part of a larger team from North and South America advancing the understanding of the habits and historical distribution of this specialized bee.
Roberta was a contributor to the comprehensive publication Pumpkin Production Guide (Ithaca, 2003). Her knowledge and insights into this field continue to be called upon for both conferences and as a valuable resource for grad students. She has provided a ballast for some students in finding direction for their research.
Throughout her beekeeping career Roberta has been actively involved in beekeeping organizations. In 1978, Roberta became an officer of the Empire State Honey Producers Association, and served as its President in 1982. Roberta has been a longtime member of the International Bee Research Association, Apimondia, the Eastern Apiculture Society, the Entomological Society of America, and the American Beekeeping Federation, along with local NY groups such as the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association, the Catskill Mountain Beekeepers Club, and an honorary member of the Ulster County Beekeepers Association.
In 1999, Roberta was honored with the New York State Beekeeper of the Year award.
Her Home and Extended Family
Roberta’s rambling house fits her personality. The “Cold House” is the unheated part that once housed her bee operation, and is where Roberta’s extensive library is stored. Her daughter Carol talks about the “ballroom” and the delightful collection of stuff to investigate.
Roberta spends hours reading, and then reads some more. Sometimes during the long Winter months she passes the time quilting. During the warm seasons, she scoots around in her VW Golf from bee meetings to presentations. Ever ready, like a well-prepared Girl Scout, for the next adventure with pollinators. She still likes to canoe on the Hudson River with her son, and row across the small pond on her property to get some fresh air. Her extremely practical side never lets her take on more than she can handle.
Over time, Roberta becomes like a family member to be cherished, always eager to share good stories and thin-mint cookies. Her wisdom and charm always ripe and ready, and the insights she offers the rest of us are genuine. Roberta is a respected elder in the beekeeping community having watched the likes of Thomas Seeley and Dennis vanEngelsdorp mature into their fullness. For many years, the story was that she was planning on adopting vanEngelsdorp to keep him in the United States due to his Canadian citizenship.
When asked what has guided her lifetime of devotion to honey bees Roberta said, “It is a whole civilization in a box, that you can have in your backyard, and it is still a mystery to the rest of us.”
Roberta Glatz is a jewel of enthusiasm, experience and dedication, with longevity in the mix.
Grai St. Clair Rice is a New York City based writer and beekeeper with HoneybeeLives. She co-teaches some of the classes and presents talks to the public and beekeepers.