Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Book of Bees...and How to Keep ThemA Book of Bees...and How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite animal is Apis mellifera and among many, many things in the world that make me sad, very few make me sadder than the danger to the survival of bees. World agriculture may suffer because of decreased pollination, people may have to miss out on honey, and this wonderful and fascinating species may face a risk of near extinction. I have a personal regret as well: over 12 years ago, when my wife and I bought a house with a large garden, we had thousands of bees, living in an ad-hoc hive in the walls of our pool shack, buzzing sweetly all around, working on flowers, and pollinating our avocado tree. Even two or three years ago, we still had some bees and my dream of getting a few beehives to work with when I retire was still alive. Now all bees are gone from our garden. What's worse, bee colonies are disappearing all over the world at much faster pace than in the past because of the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder, probably caused by new-generation pesticides.

I have just read a wonderful book about bees and beekeeping, Sue Hubbell's "A Book of Bees" (1988), one of the many books I had bought because of my retirement apiculture plans. In the 1980s Ms. Hubbell was a commercial beekeeper, with an annual yield of about 6,000 pounds of honey from 300 hives. She clearly knows what she is writing about, despite her protestations "The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I've known less and less and have accepted the humbling truth that bees know more about making honey than I do". (The realization that it takes a lot of learning to know how little we know is, of course, true for most professionals.) In addition to all the stuff about beekeeping, Ms. Hubbell writes about plants and various creatures of the Ozarks, where she had her honey business. Her writing is beautiful: leisurely, assured, quiet, yet engaging. She even quotes large fragments of Virgil's poem about bees that had been written over 2000 years ago.

Of all earth's creatures, bees feature some of the most fascinating social behaviors. I have read several books about bees, including research monographs, so I have some rudimentary understanding of the theory of the subject. Ms. Hubbell provides so many details of the practice. From her book I have learned about joining colonies, uniting hives, preventing swarming, dealing with "supersedure" (which happens when bees themselves "requeen" the colony), and many other topics. Let me quote one humbling tidbit: to make one pound of honey a single bee would have to fly 76 thousand miles (three times around the Earth). I have also learned that, contrary to popular perception, bees spend a lot of time doing nothing at all, which makes me love them even more. Clever creatures!

My fascination with bees probably began in 1962 or 1963, when I read the well-known 1901 book "The Life of the Bee" by Maurice Maeterlinck. I hope that fifty years from now bees will still be around, pollinating flowers, making honey, and making my grand-grand-grandchildren happy.

Four stars.

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