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Life on the Outside: Jack Gilbert, Beekeeper

Life on the Outside: Jack Gilbert, Beekeeper
Sometime around 1980, a colony of bees swarmed right through the middle of campus and set up shop on a window outside of Welch Hall. The bees scared the bejeezus out of the occupant of the office, despite the fact that he had a wonderful view of the inside of a growing beehive. He called the campus exterminator.

But organic chemist Jack Gilbert, by then an avid beekeeper, thought it a shame to destroy the colony. So he captured the swarm himself, put it in a bee box, and took it home to join the other beehives nestled in his West Austin backyard.

Gilbert’s obsession with honeybees began around 1970, when an eccentric neighbor of his in Tarrytown invited him over to see his backyard beehive. “This guy opened it up with just a little smoke and no veil on his head,” says Gilbert. “I was just astonished that you could open up a beehive like that and not get stung.”

He was immediately hooked. He loves the beauty of the hexagonal combs; the fascinating insect society; the patterns of larvae and pollen laid out in the comb; and, of course, the honey. “When I take the caps off of the cells filled with honey, the odor of the honey coming out is magical,” he says. “It’s a truly wonderful experience.”

Gilbert bought his first hive from an 80-year-old beekeeper down in Pearsall, Texas who was running around 1000 hives. He learned the tricks of the trade from an old, white-bearded Swiss man named Max who frequented the Posse, a bar on West 24th Street built in an old gas station. “He was a great old bee man,” says Gilbert. “I spent long hours talking with Max about bees and philosophy.”

The bees buzzing around Gilbert’s backyard these days aren’t quite what they used to be. Back in the day of the Welch Hall swarm, he had 17 hives snuggled discretely behind his house, which kept him pretty busy during his free time. In fact, Gilbert’s bees produced so much honey—about a ton every summer—that he could sell it to places like the Upper Crust Bakery. He even jarred the sweet gold and sold it at a local Cash-Carry grocery store.

That was all well and good until a shocked next-door neighbor happened to see Gilbert’s address on jars of honey stacked on the grocery shelves.

The City of Austin put the kibosh on Gilbert’s large-scale bee operation, but 20 years have passed and he’s pretty darn satisfied (and within legal limits) with one or two beehives. It’s just a hobby, after all. His bees still produce 100-125 pounds of honey every year, more than Gilbert and his wife Lucia can consume or give away.

Jack Gilbert is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Natural Sciences. He recently announced that he will be joining the faculty at Santa Clara University in California. Read that story here.
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Thursday, 21 September 2017

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