The Peterkin Papers


The Peterkin Papers,  written by Lucretia Hale, were familiar to many of our great grandparents and are now accepted as classical children’s literature.  They describe the escapades of a lovable but comically inept, citified clan that possessed ingenuity, resourcefulness and energy without much common sense. They were invariably rescued from their self-imposed dilemmas by ‘the Lady from Philadelphia,’ as indeed happens in the first installment, published in 1867 under the title, The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee, and which can be summarized thus : 


One morning, as Mrs. Peterkin was adding cream to her morning cup of coffee, she realized she had added salt instead of sugar. The taste was awful so the family was summoned, each of whom tasted, looked, wondered … and sat down to think.  


Eventually the eldest son,  Agamemnon, who had been to college, suggested that they 

seek the advice of the chemist, who, after some persuasion, agreed to come to the house. “First he looked at the coffee, and then stirred it. Then he put in a little chlorate of potassium, and the family tried it all round; but it tasted no better. Then he stirred in a little bichlorate of magnesia. But Mrs. Peterkin didn't like that. Then he added some tartaric acid and some hypersulphate of lime. But no; it was no better. "I have it!" exclaimed the chemist, "a little ammonia is just

the thing!" No, it wasn't the thing at all.”


“Then he tried, each in turn, some oxalic, cyanic, acetic, phosphoric, chloric, hyperchloric, sulphuric, boracic, silicic, nitric, formic, nitrous nitric, and carbonic acids. Mrs. Peterkin tasted each, and said the flavor was pleasant, but not precisely that of coffee.”  And so he continues -  calcium, aluminum, a little clear bitumen and many more - each of which changed the color; but, according to  Mrs. Peterkin,  “tasted of anything but coffee.”  (Lucretia Hale must have had a lot of fun writing this!)


After further sitting and waiting, the eldest daughter, Elizabeth Eliza, suggested they consult with the herb woman, who also agreed to come to the house where she set a pot on the fire and began to  stir in the different herbs. 


“First she put in a little hop for the bitter. Mrs. Peterkin said it tasted like hop-tea, and not at

all like coffee. Then she tried a little flag-root and snakeroot, then some spruce gum, and some caraway and some dill, some rue and rosemary, some sweet marjoram and sour, some oppermint and sappermint, a little spearmint and peppermint, some wild thyme, and some of the other tame time, some tansy and basil, and catnip and valerian, and sassafras, ginger, and pennyroyal. The more the old woman stirred, and the more she put in, the worse it all seemed to taste.”


“So the old woman shook her head, and muttered a few words, and said she must go. She believed the coffee was bewitched.”


It was growing late in the day when Elizabeth Eliza said, "They say that the lady from Philadelphia, who is staying in town, is very wise. Suppose I go and ask her what is best to be done.”  After listening very attentively, the lady from Philadelphia asked, ”Why doesn't your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?” 


In terms of how we manage honey bees, we have strayed far from the original cup of coffee, adding numerous modifications most of which are designed for the benefit of the beekeeper and few if any of which make the bees any ‘sweeter.’   An example might be the screened bottom board which was first introduced in 1853 as a solution for wax moths, but quickly fell out of favor.  It was re-introduced as the first non-chemical responses to varroa, with the idea that the mites would fall off the bees as they entered the hive, drop through the screen and not be able to climb back into the heart of the colony.  It was estimated to account for about one third of the mites entering a hive. 


We know now, primarily as a result of the work of Dr. Samuel Ramsay,  that mites do not ride on the back of honey bees; indeed if one does see a mite on the thorax of a bee, it suggests that the spaces between the ventral plates are already filled with mites feeding on the fatty lipid tissues.  Normally eight mites can be thus accommodated,  so one that is visible is probably the ninth entering the hive on that particular worker or forager. 


The sliding tray below a screened bottom board may have value as a diagnostic tool, but at what expense?  I have yet to find a feral hive with the equivalent of an open bottom board to  the nest, and have to ask how the temperature and humidity of a hive are impacted when, unlike say a tree, the bottom of the nest is not airtight.  I for one have gone back to a slatted rack which sits on a heavy, well insulated, fully enclosed,  base. 


There are many other examples of such modifications - the size of the entrance and where it is positioned in the nest,  the volume of the nest cavity, the insulation value of the brood boxes, the nature of the foundation,  the spacing between our hives, the role of drones, the more subtle effects of feeding sugar to bees,  the use of chemicals in a hive …


When we start beekeeping, just as when we first come into this world, we accept the current situation as ’normal’, as a base line on which to build.  Our Introduction to Beekeeping classes teach conventional wisdom - called anchoring in that it establishes a firm foundation on which to build - and our mentors mostly reinforce it.  It takes courage or desperation to question the credibility and function of the habitual and the conventional, to challenge the very foundation  of what we perceive as our knowledge but is more likely to be our assumptions. This, for me, is what Tom Seeley is suggesting with his Darwinian Beekeeping concept.  We need to examine the structure and dimensions of a nest in a tree that feral bees have chosen for themselves, and ask which of the many alterations evident in our current hives have proven to be of benefit to the honey bee.  


Nor is Dr. Seeley the only one thinking this way.  Tim Rowe in County Cork, Ireland, and Torben Schiffer in Germany are just two of many others. 


This concept is not unique to honey bees.  There is an intriguing development called Regenerative Agriculture which was inspired by the study of pre-industrial agricultural methods.  Instead of treating soil as in inert matter into which to pour a variety of herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers, regenerative agriculture requires that we rebuild soil organic matter and restore soil biodiversity, with the associated improvements in water quality and carbon retention.  Early results by a handful of practitioners are spectacular and, not coincidentally, both honey and native bees are seen as an integral part of the process.  


So yes, Mrs. Peterkin.  The solution lies neither with the chemist nor the herbalist, but with a little common sense and a fresh cup of coffee.


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my