Sweet Life Amid Honey and Hives

A BOOK OF BEES by Sue Hubbell, New York: Random House, 193 pp., $17.95

BEES, you think, those nasty, buzzing creatures that sting. But Sue Hubbell, a commercial beekeeper, can almost make you love the rascals. She nurtures 12 million of them on her 100-acre farm in the Missouri Ozarks.

Hubbell answers the question we all want to ask: How do you avoid being stung? Relax. Move easily among the bees. But in dealing with thousands of bees, ``Nothing gives a person more confidence ... than to be zipped snugly inside a bee suit.''

The main purpose of Hubbell's beekeeping is honey - and money. ``A Book of Bees,'' brief and elegant, divides the work into four seasons.

In autumn, she checks her hives for repairs. At this time established beekeepers are willing to sell some hives rather than carry them through the coldest weather. Winter is the season to order parts. On snowy days, Hubbell fires up the stove in her barn and assembles hives. Often she supplements honey-feeding for the bees with a sugary syrup if active colonies need it. In the spring, new queens arrive by mail (cost: $6 each). While laundry accumulates and her refrigerator goes empty, Hubbell settles the queens in the new hives. Bees work hard in the summer. So does the beekeeper, checking ventilation within the hives and clearing grass away from the entrances. Hubbell harvests the honey and travels from Missouri to Dallas, New York, and Boston to sell it.

She feels sad to see municipal workers mowing clover along highways. It is the best source of nectar for the bees. Sumac is good, too, especially in New England; poison ivy is fine. But mountain laurel, which bees love, produces a narcotic that affects humans.

Like Hubbell, you too will be amazed at the innovative uses of honey. It has been an ingredient for embalming, dressing wounds, easing hangovers, and delivering calves. Caruso took a tablespoon before a concert. Today it turns up in shampoos and shaving creams, in the center of golf balls, and as a remedy for arthritis.

Noting that Aristotle, Pliny, Virgil, and even E.B. White wrote about bees, Hubbell says, ``Beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.''

The pleasure that this former librarian takes in her life style is delightful. Explaining that she required many seasons to be convinced of the genuinely productive nature of her work, she says, ``It seemed like too much fun.''

She talks to her bees and admits, ``I begrudge every day I am away.'' When she sells a hive to a newcomer to the business, she realizes that she ``sounds like a mother relinquishing her firstborn to the kindergarten teacher ... a Republican tax assessor turning over the job to a Democrat.''

Recently married, Hubbell divides her time between embassy gatherings in Washington and her remote beehives. She enjoys both aspects of her life and contemplates her good fortune at ``being able to make a living by associating with a bunch of bugs.''

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