Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey -- the Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World
By Holley Bishop
Free Press, 324 pp., illustrated, $24
Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee
By Hattie Ellis
Harmony, 243 pp., illustrated, $23
Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind
By Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier
Bantam, 275 pp., illustrated, $24
Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation
By Tammy Horn
University Press of Kentucky, 333 pp., illustrated, $27.50
It's impossible to write a review of four recent bee books without remarking on how strange it is that there should be four recent bee books. Up until now, the bee-history genre has not been a crowded one. You've never seen anyone wearing a T-shirt that says, ''So many bee books, so little time." So why the sudden rush to bring us news from the apiary?
Maybe it has to do with the popularity of Sue Hubbell's writing on insects, or of Sue Monk Kidd's novel ''The Secret Life of Bees." Or maybe publishers are flush with the recent success of all those energetic little books whose grandiose subtitles suggest that some offbeat substance or concept -- cod, salt, nutmeg, or longitude -- has advanced civilization at least as much as the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel.
Whatever the reasons for publishers' sudden embrace of bee lore, few readers are going to want to wade through more than one book on the subject. There's a fair amount of overlap here -- several of the books include recipes, several discuss honey's importance in ancient embalming techniques, and all four touch on the subject of killer bees. But there's also a wide variation -- in scope, tone, and, frankly, whether the books feel like pleasurable or heavy going.
Holley Bishop's ''Robbing the Bees" is intelligent, lively, and utterly charming. Bishop began keeping bees in Connecticut six years ago and has been learning about the subject from books, from other beekeepers, and most of all from the bees themselves.
Her initial reaction to becoming a beekeeper was terror. After picking up her first box of bees from a local dealer, she ''drove home too fast with all the windows down, blaring the radio to drown out their frightening whine. For once, I wanted to get stopped by the police so that when they asked why I was speeding I could simply point to the teeming box in back."
Overcoming her initial fear, Bishop soon became confident around her bees, which led, disastrously, to overconfidence. In a harrowing (but very funny) passage she describes going down to the hive one summer evening to replace a piece of equipment, without bothering to put on any protective clothing (she had just finished dressing for a date). The bees panicked and flew into her hair; she began to feel ''buzzing vibrations on separate parts of my head like little bursts of electricity"; she started jumping around and slapping herself on the head; and she and her date spent much of the evening plucking stingers from her scalp. But the highlight here has to be her lyrical recollection of whipping up a honey-laced pasta sauce during the August 2003 New York blackout, wearing nothing but a camping helmet.
Bishop intersperses her own experiences with a New Yorker-style profile of Donald Smiley, a Florida professional beekeeper with more than 1,000 hives. She also neatly braids in long passages on bee science and history, fashioning a rich and complex narrative that's a lot of fun to read.
In ''Sweetness and Light," Hattie Ellis covers much of the same historical territory as Bishop, in somewhat more detail. Where she excels is in her brief, vivid portraits of the scientists and inventors who advanced the study of bees and beekeeping. Most memorably, she describes the relationship between the blind 18th-century Swiss naturalist Francois Huber and his servant Francois Burnens. Burnens patiently tested Huber's theories about bees with repeated experiments and minute anatomical and behavioral observations. They discovered, among other things, that the queen bee mates during flight and that worker bees lay eggs -- which, unlike the queen's, produce only drones.
Stephen Buchmann is an esteemed entomologist whose passion for and knowledge about bees are clear. His ''Letters From the Hive" is a somewhat odd mix of sophisticated science and heavy-handed goofiness (chapters have subheadings like ''Sex Parts: That Flower's Packing a Pistil"). Buchmann jumps around from describing Malaysian honey-hunting techniques, to musing on anthropology and ecology, to fantasizing what it would be like to see the world through a bee's compound eyes. Cheerfully disorganized, the book is like a big trunk full of bee stuff: It's something to rummage in rather than read straight through.
Tammy Horn's ''Bees in America" reads like an academic exercise: What would you see if you looked at American history through the lens of bees? The answer is: ''A lot." But at the same time: ''Not much." Horn has dredged up every bee incident, anecdote, and metaphor recorded since the first hives were shipped from England to Virginia, in 1621. Bees crop up as images of industry or, conversely, of idleness (lazy men were commonly compared to drones). Honey and beeswax were valued commodities for Moravians, women, Native Americans, and Western pioneers. Horn makes a case for the bees' ubiquity, but somehow being pelted with all these little facts doesn't quite convince you of their overall importance.
Joan Wickersham is the author of ''The Paper Anniversary." She lives in Cambridge.