The Buzz about Bees ; Lord Tennyson Calling Rewrite: Make It 'Murmuring of Innumerable BOOKS'

Article excerpt

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. …