SCITUATE — After he delivers a touch of smoke, sweat drips down the face of Jim Lonborg as he peers in for the signs.
Twenty thousand honeybees have no idea that their veiled beekeeper is the 1967 Cy Young Award winner who went 22-9 and won two World Series games in the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” season.
Lonborg, 77, is all smiles as he calms the bees and carefully checks their hive. The bees are healthy and happy, declares the retired South Shore dentist.
“They are very busy,” he says proudly.
That’s sweet news, because 41 percent of managed honeybee colonies in the United States have disappeared in the last year, according to a recent University of Maryland-led study.
“Bees are the most perfect of God’s creations,” says Lonborg. “They are a miraculous group of insects.”
Honeybees pollinate 70 of the roughly 100 crop species that feed 90 percent of the world, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Lonborg is very concerned about their future.
Scientists believe pesticide use, decreasing habitat, climate change, and varroa mites cause “colony collapse disorder.”
Lonborg, an avid gardener, took up beekeeping 20 years ago after his wife Rosie got a recommendation from the parents of a child being treated at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she worked as a play therapist.
He took an intensive eight-week course at the Plymouth County Beekeepers Association and started his secret life with bees. He inspired his son Nick to be a beekeeper and presented him with two thriving honeybee hives, which Nick placed near the cranberry bogs of his Halifax home.
Sometimes Lonborg simply pulls up a stool and marvels at his colony, especially the scout bees. They find sources of nectar and pollen, and travel miles back to the hive.
“Then they do a little dance on the honeycomb that shows all the other bees what direction to go,” says Lonborg. “They have phenomenal GPS systems.”
One thing most people don’t know, Lonborg says, is that the queen bee, whose sole job is to lay eggs, can be replaced.
“If the queen is not laying eggs the way the community thinks she should be laying eggs, they will start to make bigger cells [to raise other queen bees], unbeknownst to her,” he says.
“The initial community will push the old queen out and the new queen will arise and begin her reign.”
The righthander used to sell autographed jars of organic honey under the label “Beesball Honey” at his dentistry office in Hanover.
He says honey is the only product made by one of nature’s creatures that never spoils. And he lightheartedly denies that the sweet treat kept his dentistry business thriving.
He says most people use it moderately in their tea.
“It’s not like you drink 10 cups of tea,” he says.
Lonborg believes the local honey is great for allergy prevention. He says it builds up antibodies for people with allergies such as ragweed.
When he harvests it in September, he extracts only half of the honey.
“You take too much and they’ll never survive the winter,” he says.
Gentleman Jim has been stung numerous times.
“Mostly when I’m not paying attention,” he says.
“If you’re wearing a loose-knit flannel shirt, [a bee] can stick his stinger right through that,” says Lonborg.
“The first thing they teach you in school is to try to get that stinger out as quickly as possible, because there’s a little venom sac that sits right at the end of the stinger. If you don’t get it out, you’re going to suffer some inflammation in that area.”
Lonborg says bees play tough team defense.
“Once a bee stings you, it releases a pheromone — it’s like a red flag,” he says. “All the other bees smell it and they go to the source and attack and sting to help their friend.”
Sounds like a baseball fight.
“Yeah, right,” says Lonborg. “Except they’re going to lose their life.” (The bees’ abdomens are ripped open when they try to pull out the stinger). “The baseball player, all he loses is his dignity. Baseball fights are so stupid.”
Lonborg remembers triggering one against the rival Yankees.
On June 21, 1967, Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson beaned Sox third baseman Joe Foy, who had hit a grand slam the day before, in the second inning. In the bottom half of the inning, Lonborg faced Tillotson.
“I just couldn’t tell you how happy I was that he was coming to the plate,” says Lonborg.
The first pitch was “a torpedo with a sonar device” that stung Tillotson between the shoulder blades.
“So he’s yelling at me as he’s going down to first base,” says Lonborg. “He says, ‘You’ve got to [expletive] hit, too.’ I said, ‘With that [expletive] you throw, it won’t hurt me a bit.’ ”
Players rushed out of the dugouts like swarms of bees. Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli and Yankees outfielder Joe Pepitone, two Brooklyn boys, got into a scrum and Petrocelli’s brother, a New York City police officer, ran out on the field looking for Rico.
“It was just those typical old ’60s fights, where they just kind of pushed and shoved each other,” says Lonborg.
Lonborg won 157 games in 15 seasons with the Red Sox, Brewers, and Phillies. But the 1967 season was his best, and it forever changed baseball in Boston.
The Red Sox, a preseason 100-1 shot, won the American League pennant on the last day of the season and Lonborg was swept away on fans’ shoulders in a tidal wave of joy.
He then pitched two of the greatest consecutive complete games in World Series history, a one-hitter and a three-hitter, in Games 2 and Game 5 against the Cardinals.
“It’ll never, ever happen again,” he says, citing the prevalence of relievers.
The Cardinals beat the Red Sox in Game 7, with Lonborg pitching on only two days of rest.
“I knew I was in trouble when Dal Maxvill, their little shortstop, hit a triple off the center-field wall,” says Lonborg. “I was just off the corners a little bit; there was too much plate coverage.”
Lonborg relaxes his 6-foot-5-inch frame now at the lily pond in his backyard. His garden is straight out of House Beautiful, and he cruises around Scituate in a red four-door ’57 Chevy Bel Air hardtop. The engine is so clean it gleams.
He’s definitely old school. He didn’t like the Red Sox resting their pitchers this spring.
“Arms and muscles need to be used,” he says. “I always felt that April was a time period for a starter to win four or five games because they were ahead of the hitters, especially in New England.
“Who cares whether or not they’re tired at the end? It’s a long season; they’re supposed to be tired at the end.”
Life is good for Lonborg. He has 13 grandchildren, plays golf, and does a lot of charity work.
Lonborg, who famously wrote “$10,000” in the palm of his glove — an estimated World Series share if he could beat the Twins in that final game for the pennant — says he’s not raising bees to make money.
It is a labor of love and it gives him a buzz.
“I do it,” he says, “because it’s one of the most fascinating things that I’ve ever encountered in my life with regard to an orderly society that presents a great product and is a life-saver for our planet.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.