The buzz about bees

Lord Tennyson calling rewrite: Make it 'murmuring of innumerable BOOKS'

After immersing myself in three new books on beekeeping and honey, I now find myself with a new role model: I want to be a honeybee when I grow up.

Honeybees are relentlessly on task, orderly, efficient, industrious, free of ego static, and mindful of others; in a bee-brained sort of way, that is.

They travel Magellanesque distances. They distill vast fields of flowers into a golden substance that has been sweetening the lives of man and beast for millenniums.

As a sideline, bees facilitate the sexual commerce of much of the plant kingdom, to the point that they are critical to the production cycle of entire agricultural sectors, notably almonds, cucumbers, and watermelons.

Bees' contributions to their ecosystems are immense. Emily Dickinson wasn't just being poetic, and wasn't even exaggerating much, when she wrote:

"To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee."

Beeswax was a significant source of illumination for much of history, and had countless uses in manufacturing and cosmetics as well. Bees were even used in warfare, in ancient times and beyond, when hives were used as a form of "smart enough" bomb that could be lobbed at the enemy.

And around the world, across a wide range of cultures and traditions, humanity's connection with domesticated bees seems to have something almost spiritual about it; bees give a whole new meaning to the phrase "good vibrations."

In short, bees have so much to recommend them as objects of study that we perhaps should not be surprised that no less than four new general-interest tomes on bees and honey have come out more or less simultaneously within the past month.

The fourth to arrive, too late for this review, alas, is Hattie Ellis's globe-girdling "Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee," borne to the US on favorable critical winds for the British edition.

"Robbing the Bees" grows out of New York writer Holley Bishop's desire to connect authentically with her new environment after she had bought a house in Connecticut.

She thought, after watching a neighbor's small beekeeping operation, that having a couple of hives would be a way of getting into livestock in a small way. (She was only partly right.)

Her title comes from an expression beekeepers use to speak of gathering honey. Bees produce honey by instinct; even after their hive's own needs have been met, the machine doesn't shut off. As long as beekeepers provide the structures for bees to make honeycombs, bees will fill them. This is a benign and symbiotic theft.

Bishop's book is organized thematically, with sections on honey itself (of course) and also pollination, wax, venom, and military applications. She introduces us to Florida beekeeper Donald Smiley, whom she met on the Internet when she went searching for a more experienced apiarist to guide her own venture into beekeeping.

Smiley serves both as a mentor and as a convenient protagonist for her narrative as she cuts back and forth between him and the larger panorama of the world of bees. His casual application of honey to a minor wound sustained in his workshop, for instance, provides a segue to a discussion of medicinal uses of honey.

In "Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation," Tammy Horn focuses on the United States and soldiers chronologically.

But she introduces some big political ideas that are very much worth knowing about; for instance, the concept of the American colonies having been "hived off" from England. The comfortable classes there had felt free to think of the poor and unemployed as "drones" who had no useful function in society and could be left to die, metaphorically or otherwise. Many of these "disposable" individuals went on to new and productive lives in the New World, where they came to regard certain officials of the British Colonial government as the real "drones" instead.

Horn's book is also full of the kind of rich detail that a narrow focus, paradoxically, makes room for.

One of my favorite bits is the Revolutionary War story of Charity Crabtree, a Quaker girl charged with warning George Washington of the advance by General Cornwallis's troops.

As she is about to set off on horseback, she knocks over her hives; the bees start attacking the Redcoats. She is able to break free and deliver her message; Washington credits her with saving the country.

Once again, Horn observes, bees are seen as protectors of home and hearth.

Stephen Buchmann, author of "Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind," is a University of Arizona entomologist and sometime amateur beekeeper.

Among the strengths of his book, written with Banning Repplier, are his on-the-scene reports of sweet encounters around the world - Australia, Malaysia, South America.

Buchmann covers honey hunters, who find bees and their nests out in nature, and beekeepers, who have domesticated bees to do their sweet work inside various kinds of man-made hives.

Like a gracious host who not only introduces you to a new friend but tells you enough about him so that the two of you have plenty to talk about, Buchmann introduces bees to the reader with colorful vignettes, bits of folklore (see pages 29-30 for a discussion of why honey hunters of Malaysia use knives of bone, not metal), recipes for cooking with honey, and ideas for a honey-tasting party.

He also writes as an activist - one who has done extensive research into indigenous hollow-log beekeeping of the Mayans in Mexico, whose tradition he and colleagues are documenting in hopes of preserving it before it dies out.

A clear theme through all these books, sometimes implicit, but often explicit, especially in Horn's, is the politics of sweetness. All three authors make a case for honey as so vastly superior - in taste, aroma, color, nutrition - that one has to wonder what people were thinking when they established all those sugar plantations.

Honey production, going back to the ancient Egyptians, falls naturally into a model of relatively equal-opportunity cottage-industry entrepreneurialism. (A poignant note from Horn: Beekeeping often proved a satisfying and even comforting vocation for severely wounded veterans returning from World War I.)

Sugar - cheaper and more readily transportable than honey, which it began crowding out of the market in the 16th century - seems to have led naturally to industrial agriculture, slavery, and oppression. African slavery, for instance, was introduced into the New World to provide labor for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Without slavery, would there have been an American Civil War?

With all these new books raising awareness of all things "bee," I expect that we'll be hearing quite a buzz about bees for some time yet.

Now, quick, I'd better close here before my editor discovers another book on bees for me to read.

Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

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