"When I came to Oracle
I never thunk
That I'd be sharing my adobe
With a tiny spotted skunk
Thru the years we were together
She became like family
I met all her babies -
they loved to eat my honeybees"
-"Oracle in the Transition Zone" by Fred Terry
I n his new CD, "Apicultor Cantant/," the "Singing Beekeeper," Fred Terry freely shares his life and experiences in song, just as he does when performing for children in Mexico or at home in Oracle.
"There's so much nature here in Oracle, I wrote the song to celebrate that, especially for the kids in town, to let them know how special it is," he said. "We talk about Oracle, about the phainopepla," a local bird, tar black with white patches under its wings. Nestled at the base of the Santa Catalinas, the town inhabits the transition zone between the desert and mountains.
Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Terry, 53, volunteers his time, singing and playing folk guitar to teach language and culture at Oracle's elementary school and in Sonora, Mexico, through Hands Across the Border, a cultural exchange program for fifth graders in Arizona and Mexico.
"Music is a great way to teach language," he said. "It's easier to sing than to talk." Last year, he released his first CD, "Songs for Learning Spanish."
A natural ham, Terry wrote "En Terrenate Hay Cacahuate" ("In Terrenate There Are Peanuts") about a little Sonoran town, to explore the indigenous roots of common Spanish words. The difficult Nahuatl word "chocolatl," has evolved to the easier "chocolate."
"In Terrenate there are peanuts,
there is chocolate,
there's no Burger King.
There are fiery wild chilies
In the grinder
In Terrenate (and like a coyote)
Jim Hewitt, a close friend and fellow musician, has known Terry for years. "Fred is very much his own person," he said. "He doesn't care much for social convention. Sometime he'll show up for a gig wearing the clothes he wears to feed the bees."
"He's extremely intelligent, more than he'll let on sometimes. He can come across as a Gringo from the Texas panhandle, yet he has a rich depth of experience in Latin American culture," said Hewitt. "A lot of people don't realize that at first."
When he's not singing, the beekeeper is a familiar sight in Oracle, cruising in his turquoise 1965 Ford Falcon, with eyes to match and a mile-wide grin. On any given weekend, he can be found selling his pure organic honey and beeswax candles at farmer's markets in town or at St. Philips Plaza in Tucson.
All his hives are located within 10 miles of Oracle, far removed from urban or agricultural areas. Because of the drought, he checks on his bee yards almost daily, often hauling water to fill metal drums for the bees to drink from. Purple hyacinth floats on top, oxygenating the water.
"This water is stream fresh," he said. "The coyotes like it so much they'll climb right up and take a drink." To keep out deer and cattle, he's had to surround each water drum with an outer barricade of drums.
At his honey house, a former blacksmith's shop built in1878, Terry minimally processes his honey, spinning it from each waxy comb through a stainless steel extractor. A settling tank then allows any remaining wax to rise to the top. He packs the honey into pint, quart and gallon jars and labels them with his "Terry's Apiaries" brand. To preserve flavor and nutrients, the honey is never heated or filtered.
"He is so dedicated to his craft. He's a purist when it comes to his honey," said his partner Judy Kalish, 50, a teacher. "He studies what other countries are doing to produce chemical-free honey. He pays attention to what's blooming and where the nectar is coming from. He'll take the honey off when the bloom quits, so you know that catclaw honey from Fred is catclaw honey."
It's the kind of life his father might have liked. The youngest of four, Terry grew up in Artesia, N.M., a town of 10,000. In the 1950s, his father went to work in the oil fields after a drought in West Texas turned his dreams of cotton farming to dust.
"He let go the dream of country life
To join the industrial age
The last supper on the family farm
He bowed his head and prayed
God bless those less fortunate than we."
Terry's love of storytelling and the natural world has its roots in simpler times on his grandmother Nora's farm.
There was a verse about his grandmother's tame fish that he never finished:
"She had this old watering tank with these huge goldfish. She could put her hand in the water and the fish would come around and get in her hand. She would pull them out and talk to them and they would lie there in ecstasy," he said. "As a kid, I'd stick my hand in there for hours and they would never come to me."
"Come Saturday night
In came the galvanized tub
Hangin' outside by the door
Then we'd heat up water
On the kitchen stove
Put the tub there on the floor
Now in West Texas in the 50s
Beauty was not before age
So I learned all about
gray water systems
Before they became the rage,
At a very tender age."
As a young man, Terry played football all through school and went to college in Silver City on a football scholarship. After a year of bruising injuries, including a dislocated jaw, he transferred to Beloit College, a small liberal arts college in the Midwest.
"I decided to use my head for something besides bumping into other people," he said. "And it had all these foreign study programs - I went to summer school in Mexico, spent the better part of a year in Spain and Washington, D.C."
He graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, an international relations degree in hand, and spent a year in New York City working for the student exchange organization, American Field Service. In his spare time, he played guitar and also studied yoga with the Indian yoga master Swami Bua, a disciple of Swami Sivananda.
Terry moved to Arizona after receiving a scholarship to Thunderbird, the Glendale-based graduate school in international management. While working on an MBA, he happened to meet an old beekeeper.
"He was 78, he'd just lost his wife and couldn't do the work any more," Terry said. "I told him if he would teach me, I'd do the hard work."
After a few seasons of beekeeping, he finished the MBA, but dropped plans to pursue a doctoral degree. "I figured out how much it was going to cost me, and I was tired of reading things I didn't want to read," he said. "Bees were physical, in nature, and endlessly fascinating, plus what you get from bees are some of the finest products we have."
Terry, who has taught beekeeping in Central and South America with USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer Program, believes in his product. He rolls back the cuff of a fingerless cotton glove to show a nasty gash on his hand that he's treating with honey.
"Honey is nature's best antiseptic, it has great healing power for wounds, burns and ulcers," he said. "Bacteria can't live in honey. It's also a great nutritional food. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar so it doesn't cause spikes in blood sugar levels."
Bee pollen, a nutty yellow powder used as a protein source by both bees and humans, "is the best vegetable protein ever studied," he said. "The body can utilize 80 percent of its protein, a protein efficiency comparable to eggs or milk."
The beekeeper discovered Oracle after a musician friend invited him to work with a children's theater in Tucson and took him up for a visit.
"I looked around and thought this would be a great place to put bees," he said. "It has tremendous plant variety and it's wetter." Plants need water to flower. And bees need flowers.
In 1985, Terry moved to Oracle, not because Phoenix was too dry - it was an El Nino year - but because it was "too Phoenix."
One of the first people in town to give him a site for his bees was Wilma Huggett, a former rodeo queen and bull rider who grew up on the 3C cattle ranch. "She knew all about the flowering plants, the weather, the rain - she'd lived here all her life," he said. He wrote a song for her after she turned a portion of her property into a 300-acre wildlife corridor.
"Some folks say
that she's a prickly pear
But I know Wilma,
And she's a teddy bear … cholla."
About the time Terry moved to Oracle, drought ended the lush El Nino years, the price of honey plummeted because of cheap imports from China and a parasitic honeybee mite came on the scene.
"The mites devastated European honeybees worldwide," he said. "There are very few beekeepers left." Terry's hives dwindled from 350 to less than half that.
"The African honeybee is the reason I'm still beekeeping," he said. African honeybees, which are highly resistant to mites and adapted to a desert climate, were introduced in Brazil in the 1950s to boost the Amazon region's honey production.
In 1990, the bees migrated to the Tucson area and other parts of the United States, where shrill newspaper headlines proclaimed them "killer bees."
"They've never been called that in Africa or Brazil," said Terry, who has worked with African bees for a decade. "In Brazil, the African bee is considered a great asset." That country is now the second leading honey producer in the world after China.
The smaller African bees are fierce, he said, but their aggression is a defensive strategy, employed only as a means of survival.
"African bees much more ferociously defend their nest," he said. "Bears, skunks, lizards, birds, spiders, birds, kissing bugs and wasps - all kinds of creatures - eat bees," he said. Bears alone have destroyed as many as a third of Terry's hives in the past three years.
"Imagine a three-story colony. A bear will come at night, when bees don't fly. He'll take off the top box, set it aside, and then tear out the comb looking for the brood - the larvae, pupa and eggs - which are high in protein. After that he'll go and get the second box, and separate it from the hive."
On a recent visit to the honey house, white painted hive boxes were piled up out back, and birdseed littered a low, outdoor windowsill. Javelina visit often, climbing a rocky jutting ledge to get to the seed on the windowsill.
"I'll probably call my third CD 'Killer bee farmer and javelina rancher,'" Terry joked. "Maybe by the end of the year."