Sue Hubbell is an escaped intellectual, exlibrarian, ex-wife, a woman who didn’t discover her true vocation until, on the threshold of middle age, she moved to the Missouri Ozarks and took up beekeeping. At first no more than a way to earn a rather precarious living in a country she had loved at sight, this “unruly, benign kind of agriculture” quickly became an occupation “with such a wild, anarchistic, raffish appeal that it unsuits me for any other, except possibly robbing banks.”
Or, she might have added, writing books to which the same adjectives apply. It is probably always a mistake to call someone a natural writer. I doubt if there is such a thing. But a happy conjunction between a subject and a person uniquely qualified to write about it does occasionally occur, and Hubbell’s flight from the groves of academe to the idyllic landscape of the Ozarks (a Garden of Eden, according to her, complete with serpent, or rather serpents—a number of which slither in and out of her tale) was such a circumstance. Her quirky sensibility did the rest. In a postscript to her first book, A Country Year, a sort of loose-leaf journal of life on her mountaintop, she explains that her original motive was simply to find out what she was doing there: how to interpret an existence that in a felicitous comparison she describes as “a little like minimalist music. Each day resembled the one preceding it; the steps were barely noticeable, but the end was different from the beginning. I had made a record of changes I had thought too subtle for me to have noticed until I started writing.”
This of course isn’t an unfamiliar story. Self-imposed isolation in country only partly tamed, among people who if not actually “natives” are drastically unlike oneself, is a well-known incubator of the literary urge; and it may be that A Country Year together with its sequel, A Book of Bees, which covers much of the same territory in a more specialized way, will have exhausted what Hubbell has to say. No matter. I believe that books like these have a particular value at this stage of a tragedy that she, at first glance, appears to have evaded. In fact, the opposite may be true. Living as she does in close touch with nature she is more vulnerable than the city dweller to the forces—the developers, the would-be dam-builders, the spreaders of pesticides, the casual killers of animals—that will almost certainly destroy our world, and in fairly short order. Even her beekeeping is threatened by that now familiar form of economic ruin: foreign competition. Cheaper honey than we can produce comes from South America (made by those “killer bees” we hear so much about?), and she foresees the day when her three hundred hives will no longer support themselves—or her. “But after keeping bees, whatever will I do?” she asks in an uncharacteristic wail of despair. What indeed? What will any of us do when it is no longer possible to live a tolerable life on our planet?
These are cosmic questions and Hubbell, wisely, doesn’t attempt to deal with them directly. Like Candide, she tends to her own little acre. But she is intensely aware of them, and it is this underlying sense of impending loss that gives its peculiar poignance to her work. If she isn’t exactly stating that salvation may lie in the minutiae of an occupation like beekeeping, that would at least seem to be her subtext. And in the meantime she clings to that buzzing, mysterious, universe which gives her such pleasure.
In fact, apiculture isn’t, as she says, a kind of agriculture—to which it is allied but which it antedates by several thousand years. A rock painting in Spain showing man gathering honey dates to 7000 BC, long before the cultivation of fruits and grains revealed the importance of bees to the pollination of crops; and it has always been an unruly sort of business. Like the growing of herbs it is susceptible to folklore and magic, and has been remarkably resistant to change. Whatever the form or material, a beehive until the nineteenth century was simply a chamber in which the honeybees were encouraged to build comb as they would in any suitable cavity—the drawback to the system being that the comb, and most of the bees, had to be destroyed whenever the keeper wanted to get at the honey. Not until one Lorenzo Langstroth, an American beekeeper, invented the movable frame, which can be lifted, cleared of its honey, and restored to a box-shaped hive, was this clumsy and inhumane method superseded—astonishingly slow progress considering the fascinated interest that bees have aroused since ancient times.
The truth is that long and intimate as our association with them has been, no other domesticated creature has so baffled the human mind. Aristotle puzzled over them. Pliny wrote about them and so did Vergil, whose exquisite fourth Georgic nevertheless mistakes the queen in her nuptual flight for “a young king,” and the drones who mate with her for “young warriors.” This cardinal error, which incidentally makes nonsense of the organization of the hive, wasn’t straightened out until 1609—when a learned Englishman called Charles Butler, striking an early blow for feminism, correctly asserted that the young king was actually a young queen, and that the drone, far from having the character of a young warrior, was “a greedy lozell: for howsoever he brave it with his round velvet cap, his side downe, his full paunch and his lowd voice; yet he is but an idle companion, living by the sweat of other brows. For he worketh not at all, either at home or abroad.”
So much for drones, whose very name is synonymous with idleness and ennui. Worker bees, the Marthas of the insect world, are another matter; and some aspects of their behavior haven’t been fully understood until the present century. How, for example, does a bee who may have scouted several square miles of territory for nectar communicate the location of a choice stand of clover to its sisters back in the hive? The answer, first described by Karl von Frisch in 1923, is the famous “bee dance”—an elaborate ritual that exactly conveys both direction and distance. And this is only one of the ways in which bees communicate with each other.
Central to the operation of the colony is the relationship of the workers (who are sexually undeveloped females) to their queen, the universal mother on whom, since she can do nothing but lay eggs, her attendants lavish the most devoted care—feeding and grooming her and carrying away her wastes. This constant touching spreads her unique chemical marker, called a pheromone, throughout the hive, stamping its inhabitants as “hers.” Queen bees are fiercely jealous of their prerogatives. If two of them meet, they will fight to the death. And if their progeny are for some reason forced together, they will do the same. But this loyalty doesn’t last forever. Close as they are to her, her daughters are also the first to notice when her health or her egg-laying capacity begins to fail, and to spread the word that the time has come to raise her successor. The process is called supersedure, and involves the selection of a larva that would ordinarily develop into a worker for special feeding: a diet of the so-called royal jelly, produced from their own glands. It is this jelly that turns the larva into a queen, thus precipitating the battle royal that ends with the old queen’s death and the young virgin’s exit from the hive together with the drones whose sole function in life is to mate with her. Romantically described as the nuptual flight, this actually results in immediate death for any drone who successfully performs the act and for the queen, once she returns to the hive, in a state of pregnancy that lasts until she is worn out—usually at the end of a year or two.
Because they are so intensely communal, the tendency is to think of bee behavior as invariable, a matter of conditioned reflexes like those of Pavlov’s dogs. But that doesn’t seem to be quite true. They may, for example, raise more than one new queen, in which case there may be more than one duel to the death. Or there may not. Instead of murdering each other, the new queens may prefer to lead successive swarms from the hive—not the solution attractive to beekeepers since a swarming hive is quickly depleted. (Swarming, however, can have other causes, overcrowding for one, and nobody really knows why some colonies swarm repeatedly and others not. Nor is it understood how, having left the hive for good, the bees unlearn the programmed information they have previously possessed as to its location, and lose all memory of their old home.)
So much is, in fact, not known about bees that even an apiarist as experienced as Hubbell will occasionally be at a loss to understand what is happening. How, for example, to explain the phenomenon of the “laying workers”? In theory, these unmated females with undeveloped ovaries cannot lay eggs. Yet in a hive for some reason deprived of its queen and with no eggs fresh enough to raise another, the ovaries of one or more workers may suddenly begin to develop and the bees to lay eggs. This isn’t good news: the eggs, being infertile, will produce nothing but drones—dooming the colony. But what exactly triggers the development of a worker bee’s ovaries in the first place? Nobody knows for sure.
Odd events, too, have taken place in Hubbell’s honey house—like the occasion when bees trapped on the wrong side of a screened window apparently set up a system of communication with a cluster of bees on the outside. Escape hatches for bees are provided in a honey house, but for several weeks the prisoners seemed unable or unwilling to use them. They even started to build a honeycomb on the screen, indicating that they intended to stay where they were. They didn’t, however. The day came when as if on cue the whole mass formed itself into lines and marched across the ceiling to the escape. In a few minutes, they were out. Hubbell’s guess: both sets of bees were feeding each other through the screen, and it is known that chemical communication in the course of food exchange is one of the regulators of bee behavior inside the hive. But was it really possible that anything as complicated and unfamiliar to them as the interior layout of a honey house could be communicated in this way? An entomologist she asked had no idea. A fellow beekeeper, readier to accept the mysterious of bee behavior, was less puzzled: “Those bees on the outside just told the bees on the inside how to get out, that’s what happened,” he said. “It’s spooky.”
It is indeed. Bees are “spooky.” That is one of the reasons why they are so much more interesting to work with than chickens or cattle. Also more difficult. You need a sort of sixth sense to handle bees successfully, a rapport with them that not everybody has.
I know this because, a long time ago in Hungary, I was a beekeeper myself, and not the best. We had an orchard, an orchard requires bees to pollinate the fruit, and believing as I did at that age that anybody can learn anything from the right books, I undertook to manage the enterprise. Industriously I studied illustrations of queen cells (shaped rather like a peanut), worker cells (flush with the face of the comb), drone cells (larger, bulging), learned the meaning of “bee space” (the distance between the frames holding the comb), how to smoke the bees before opening the hive (which is supposed to quiet them), when and how to feed them with sugar syrup. I even learned to approach them calmly (bees, like horses, know at once if you are afraid of them, and react by stinging you soundly). But I don’t remember that we harvested much honey from my dozen or so hives, or that in the two or three years of my stewardship I arrived at any real grasp of what I was doing. A guide like Hubbell would obviously have been a godsend, but even so I doubt if I am the stuff of which the true apiarist is made.
According to Hubbell, few women are. Or better to say that few of us are or ever have been attracted to the business. Among commercial apiarists not many are to be found anywhere, and she believes she may be the only one in the state of Missouri. She also says she can’t think why this should be so—as if her own testimony didn’t provide the answer. Though the popular image of the beekeeper as a sedentary old gent pottering among his hives may be accurate as far as it goes, it doesn’t go very far unless one is talking about a hive or two at the bottom of the garden. Serious beekeeping is a strenuous affair that involves carpentry, heavy lifting, and if practiced on a large scale, a good deal of long-distance travel. Hubbell estimates that the bees in her three hundred hives cover a thousand square miles in their foraging flights, and her “beeyards,” which must be visited several times a year, can be as much as thirty miles apart. That isn’t all. Since she markets her honey herself, she must make long and exhausting sales trips by truck to the East Coast and elsewhere, eating and sleeping at truck stops along the way.
All this is daunting enough. There is also the nature of beework itself, to which women have traditionally been judged temperamentally as well as physically unsuited:
Picture a woman’s helplessness in view of a swarm safely clustered in the top of a tall tree! Imagine her lighting the brimstone and piteously dooming to death her faithful little laborers—if you can. Need we wonder then that ere the introduction of movable frames women did not aspire to be beekeepers? But that so few women are interested in apiculture today is less easily explained…. May it not be that the work, no longer impossible, is still for them undesirable?
That was written in 1875, and the answer today is the same as it was then: yes, there is something about working with bees that women don’t like—or many men either. Even Hubbell concedes that opening a hive seething with as many as sixty thousand bees (the average population at the height of the nectar-gathering season), every one of them equipped with a sting, is work that marvelously concentrates the mind. Though she insists that unless severely allergic, one easily acquires immunity to bee venom, the simple fact is that most of us (men included) are afraid of pain—and you can never be quite sure what will provoke a bee to inflict it. Clumsy handling will do it. So can thundery weather and a falling barometer.
They are fussy, too, about smells. “Thou must not be unchaste or uncleanly; for impurity and sluttiness (themselves being most chaste and neat) they utterly abhor; thou must not come among them smelling of sweat, or having stinking breath….” So wrote Columella in the first century, and how right he was I had occasion to observe when the Ruthenian peasant I had hired to help me in my own beekeeping venture was savagely set upon. Poor man, he was guilty of both offenses, and the bees might well have killed him. Add to these hazards the meticulousness and skill required in such operations as requeening a hive, and you begin to see that beekeeping isn’t a cozily domesticated occupation like growing vegetables.
But then Hubbell isn’t a domesticated woman. Her housekeeping is evidently casual to a degree. She admits to not being a cook, and would rather sleep under a summer sky than in her bed. Needing firewood, she goes out with a chainsaw and fells a forest tree. She can shingle a barn, fix an ailing truck, and when confronted by a snake that is threatening a bird’s nest she takes an interest in she seizes it by the tail and hurls it across the yard. Happiness to her is to be snowed in on her mountaintop, a program of Renaissance music on her radio, and a long day of assembling new beehive parts ahead of her—“so much fun that it is stretching matters to call it work.”
Maybe. I nevertheless had my doubts that her portrait of “myn owene woman, wel at ese” was invariably accurate—that she was never lonely or scared or just plain bored, if not with the birds and beasts and bees at least with the society of the good old boys who hang out at the local café and call her “bee lady.” And I may have been wrong. But in that case what to make of an ending so outrageously happy that even a woman’s magazine might find it improbable? A postscript to A Book of Bees tells the story. An old college friend reads a review of A Country Year in The New York Times. He doesn’t recognize her married name but does the photograph with the review. He buys the book and sits up all night with it. He writes, telephones; they agree to meet, do meet. They marry. This unnamed husband seems to have a job that involves embassy parties in Washington—where Hubbell spends six months of the year. The other six she is back with her bees and “the deer grazing winter grasses at twilight on my Ozark hillside.” Who could wish for more?
February 16, 1989