Martha Pemberton, beekeeper: 90 years young and no sign of slowing


CANTON, Ohio – Martha Pemberton starts every day with a cup of hot tea and a big dab of honey.
She’s not sure, but that tea and honey might just be the secret to her longevity.
If nothing else, tending to her hive and extracting the honey keeps the 90-year-old on the move, flexing her mind and muscles.
Just right. Pemberton’s little brick house in northeast Canton looks like most others on the street. She’s got climbing vines covering the outside and garden doo-dads poked into the flower beds. Most are shaped like honey bees.
She’s got bees silk-screened on the kitchen towel that hangs over the oven handle, and a rug with bees on it on the living room floor.
Yellow beeswax is rolled into miniature hive shapes and decorate the shelf above her computer monitor.
The front porch is decorated with a blue birdhouse with a colorful buzzing bee on the front.
And then there is the lone beehive along the backyard fence. Hundreds of the bees buzz around the entrance and dart away to gather pollen.
Pemberton goes to her garage and pulls out her smoker and the helmet whose attached netting protects her face and neck. She looks over them and decides they won’t be necessary today.
The turquoise water in her windowsill barometer says the humidity is just right for her to safely work around the bees.
“When it’s wet, bees can’t work. But when the weather dries up, bingo. You can go out without the smoker,” she says.
Long time ago. Martha’s sons, John and Joel, started her into this beekeeping hobby. Just entering high school some 50 years ago, the duo brought home bees from a Scout meeting.
Pemberton says her hobby grew one bee at a time, then one hive at a time in those early days.
“You just keep getting more. If you have one hive and they die, you’ve lost 100 percent, but if you have four and one dies, you’ve only lost 25 percent,” she says.
She peaked at 190 hives. They were here in her backyard and out in the country, where they had much work to do in pollinating the crops and flowers.
She says 128 flowers and vegetables rely on bees for pollination. That’s a big job, she says, wondering why so many kill bees they find.
She’s got a collection of more than a dozen wasp, hornet and bees’ nests strung on a branch in the garage. They’re like souvenirs to her, a trophy for removing them from trees and eaves for friends, neighbors and even strangers over the years.
Memories. Pemberton has fond memories of raising four of her own children and two stepchildren in their tiny house.
She tells of the time she and second husband Clarence arrived home one winter evening to find a bee buzzing through the living room.
Closer inspection showed stepson Loren had brought a hive indoors and hidden it upstairs, saying he didn’t want the bees to get cold. He was just 4 or 5 years old at the time, she says.
“We really got after him, asking him what he thought all the other bees did all winter,” Pemberton grins.
It wasn’t long until the boys had built an observation hive with see-through sides so they could watch their project at work. Martha had that hive in her living room for years, she says.
“I’m older, and older people can get depressed. The bees take my mind off what my problems are,” she says.
She laughs again to remember the time that living room hive got knocked over, dumping the bees into her children’s bed blankets as they slept nearby.
“It sure was something,” she says.
A lifestyle. Professors in Ohio State University’s honey bee lab paid attention to the Pemberton boys, watching them develop their hobby into a business.
They were soon known in the honeybee world as “those boys from Stark County,” Martha remembers.
Both worked their way through college at Ohio State, keeping bees between classes and helping in the lab.
Joel, the younger one, decided the setup wasn’t bad for a side job, but he didn’t care for bees as a career. John, on the other hand, couldn’t learn enough.
He kept studying, first in Ohio, then Utah, then Germany, where he earned his doctorate in beekeeping.
Today, in France, he operates his own lab to artificially inseminate queen bees.
“There’s a whole lot of science in this beekeeping thing,” Martha says.
Certified. Pemberton was declared a certified beekeeper years ago – she can’t even remember what year it was – and says that basically meant someone thought she knew what she was doing when it came to bees.
She kept at it and her work didn’t go unnoticed. She was honored as beekeeper of the year.
She laments her embarrassment at going to pick up her award with the secret knowledge that her one remaining hive had died off. She didn’t let on her secret but was relieved to find another swarm had made her hive their home the following spring.
Around the world. Over the years, Pemberton traveled the globe to attend international beekeeping conventions and seminars. She’s been to Australia and Japan and Greece and Finland, plus a laundry list of other countries.
“Yes, there’s a bit of travel involved in the whole thing,” she says.
She tells of the time she was “below broke” and had a dilemma on her hands. She could choose between attending son John’s wedding in Europe, or going a few weeks later to the beekeeping convention there.
She left the decision to John.
“I missed the wedding but went to the bee meeting. That’s the way John wanted it,” she said.
A little help. Today Martha relies on a friend to help her with the hive, which weighs about 70 pounds when it’s full.
She used to pitch them around like nothing, she says. But now it’s a little more than she can handle by herself.
She hasn’t even thought about giving it up.
“I haven’t found something more interesting than bees. The more I study them, the more interested I am,” she says.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at


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