Book Review – A Book of Bees, by Sue Hubbell

by Lisa Linderman on June 24, 2011

in bees,book review,honeybees,swarm

I’ve really enjoyed several of the books I’ve read by Sue Hubbell.  She’s a writer now in her 70’s, who was a librarian at Brown University until 1972, when she and her husband moved to the Ozarks to raise bees and sell honey for a living.  After they divorced, she stayed on and worked her 300+ hives, living in the hills of the Ozarks and becoming attuned to the country life.  She’s one of those authors with a really clear sense of voice; though sometimes her thoughts aren’t exactly linear, and bits and pieces of other thoughts get strewn into the essay, it’s never hard to follow.  It’s like someone writing you a letter, or maybe just sitting down with you, drinking a cup of tea, and telling you a story.

Among her other books I’ve enjoyed were “A Country Year”, which is a book of essays covering a typical year in her life, and “Broadsides from the Other Orders”, which is a book about bugs.  Yes bugs.  She’s not an entomologist, not even a scientist, but she’s one of those creatures that are endangered and perhaps almost extinct: a naturalist.  She observes.  She hypothesizes.  She studies.  She experiences.  And then she passes it on.

A Book of Bees, by Sue HubbellHaving enjoyed those books so much, I don’t know why it took me so long to both discover she’d written one about bees and to read it.  I picked up “A Book of Bees” at Powell’s a few weeks ago, used, and put it on top of my growing stack of to-be-read books.  Fortunately, I don’t follow a FIFO strategy with books to be read, and I started reading it not too long after.


Aside from being a great read on its own merits, it was interesting to me because of the timeframe in which it was written and about which it was written.  It was published in 1998, but references 1988.  That was before Colony Collapse Disorder.  It was when honey was growing ever cheaper because of foreign imports.  It was long, long before keeping bees became trendy again.  It was before much of the uproar about insecticides killing bees, and even before the bulk of GMO crops were introduced (they began in 1994.)   So it’s both strange to read about beekeeping practices and thoughts on bees from almost 25 years ago, and a bit eerie to realize how clairvoyant she was.

“Some agricultural pesticides work so rapidly that the bees die in the field, but with others the bees struggle back and die in convulsions in their hive, where, as long as workers remain alive inside, they are carried out and piled in growing heaps in front of the entrance.  The honey and pollen may be contaminated, and the work force so depleted that the hive will probably die out, even if the workers have not brought home insecticides so potent that they will kill on contact all the larvae and developing brood, although that sometimes happens too.”

So even then, beekeepers recognized the dangers of insecticides to their bees.  It’s just taken the problem of CCD to get more attention to the matter, perhaps.

And she talks about swarms, with the usual resigned mild annoyance of the commercial beekeeper.  Swarms were not appreciated in the late 1980’s, for any reason; today, I can catch a swarm and turn around and sell it for $75 or $80 easily, even un-hived.  I don’t, though, I keep them!   Swarms are sought after by hobbyists and smaller-scale commercial keepers, and there’s actual competition on swarm lists.  The old rhyme:

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a cow and a bottle (bundle) of hay
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly

still pretty much holds true, though most of us will still try to baby a July or even August swarm through the winter.  Sue says, “A farmer today would scorn a deal offering him a swarm of bees, even in May, for a cow and a bottle (bundle) of hay.  Cows at sixty cents a pound and hay at a dollar fifty a bale are pricey.  And a package of bees (the equivalent to a swarm, but better because it contains a new queen) is not. “

Granted, I can’t imagine anyone actually trading a cow for a swarm, prices being what they are, but a package of bees can cost $85 and up, and queens can run anywhere from $5 to $ridiculous.  The assertion that a package of bees is “better” because it contains a new queen is interesting; certainly, she’s probably got more laying years ahead of her, but she isn’t related to the package bees with her, nor are they necessarily related to one another.  A swarm has flown because the hive is strong enough to do so (usually).

I know how lucky I am to live where bees have forage much of the year.  She continues, “Early, or May, swarms have a chance of building up and proving useful to a beekeeper.  A swarm of bees in July, when the flow of nectar from flowers has dried up, could not even keep themselves alive, let alone produce any extra honey to be harvested.  Indeed, they would have to be fed lest they starve to death.” Our nectar flow doesn’t dry up here until August or even September, sometimes even later.  The bad news with that is that our winters are usually mild, so the bees are more active and require more food to see them through a winter.  I had one hive starve last year because they just weren’t populous enough to build up reserves, or keep themselves warm.

“In the days of the rhyme, there were no bee breeders who sold tidy packages of bees, and picking up a swarm was one of the best ways to acquire them.”

And it is again, at least for the organic, more hands-off beekeepers I know.  Me, I’ve never had a package of bees and wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them.  I have installed seven swarms, and inherited a full hive, but have never seen a queen in a queen cage, at least not in person.  I have no idea about the different temperaments of the various breeds of bees like Italian and Carniolan, though I’m aware of their existence.  I have only seen a couple of my queens at all, ever, since I let the hives decide when to requeen.  It’s not a better way, it’s not a worse way, it’s just a way.  My bees are here to help preserve their genetics, help pollinate the local gardens, provide me with a hobby and dinner party conversation topics, and maybe give me some honey if they have the time and energy to do so.  Commercial keepers see things differently, is all.

One last thing that caught my eye when reading this book.  She mentions a time a hundred years ago when bees mysteriously died out.  I can’t tell if she means just in general, they died mysteriously because they didn’t have the forensic science to know about viruses and bacteria, or if it was a larger scale die out.  I’ll have to research it and find out.

“Fashions in beekeeping change, as they do in everything else, and a hundred years ago in this country, when colonies died out mysteriously from moths and disease, the apiarist considered himself lucky to have hives which would swarm because it meant that he could replenish his dwindling stock of bees.”

If you’re curious about bees but don’t really want to read a whole book about the nitty gritty of how to build a super, what to do with it, how to requeen, what medications to apply…this is a great book.  It’s a smooth, easy read and is just an interesting window into the life of a rare female commercial beekeeper, who both appreciates them for the livelihood they provide, and communes with them easily as a unique and beautiful species.

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