march: notes on sue hubbell

a book of bees

The latest installment in My Year of Excellent Essayists project.

random notes:

You may or may not have heard of Sue Hubbell. I chose her because she wrote a wonderful book called A Book of Bees…and How to Keep Them, which I read a couple of years ago when I became curious about beekeeping. Since we’re getting our bees this month, I figured that rereading Hubbell would be a nice opportunity to both study her writing, and delve into the world of bees. 

Hubbell was a librarian before she moved to a farm in the Missouri Ozarks, and began keeping bees. Her words read just as you might expect from a librarian-turned-farmer. Her writing is straightforward and mostly unembellished: the voice of a no-nonsense farmer. It’s also full of allusions to literature, poetry and the classics, which you might expect from a former librarian. 

A Kirkus Reviews’ quote from the back of the book says it’s “A melodious mix of memoir, nature journal and beekeeping manual.” She presents a lot of practical information about beekeeping, laced with her own stories and experiences. Her voice is easygoing and familiar; she makes you feel as if you’re sitting beside her under a tree, chatting and drinking coffee from a thermos while watching a hive, as she does so often throughout the book. As I read, I did my usual highlighting routine. Trouble was, I made two types of highlights: favorite lines, as usual, but also insightful information about beekeeping. I should have used different-colored pens–there are lots of highlights.

I suppose one could argue that this is a memoir, rather than a series of essays. (Although the distinction between personal essay and memoir always seems to get a little murky.) I also read some of Hubbell’s essays from her collection From Here to There and Back Again. I found myself drawn most to the essays that took place in the country, on her farm, like A Book of Bees does. Somehow, she seems most at home out there. I’d like to read  A Country Yearwhich is more about her life in the Ozarks.

a few lines to love:

“For a long, long time–for nearly forty years–I never had any bees. I can’t think why. Everyone should have two or three hives of bees.”

This is how she starts the book. Her down-to-earth writing voice comes through right off.

“The first rule of country living is to leave gates the way one finds them: open when they are open, closed when they are closed.”

Her writing is full of aphorisms like this one, which make country living seem both simple and complicated. She’s figured out how to do it.

“When only a few flowers are blooming the bees fly around in a desultory way, and often, if the weather is warm, they hang aimlessly on the front of the hive or stand in bunches on the alighting board.”

Typical beekeeping manuals don’t say it so elegantly.

On joining other farmers at the coffee shop: “I pour a cup of coffee and sit with them. I don’t know their names, but they know mine: Bee Lady. A middle-aged woman in baggy white coveralls who smells of burnt baling twine is a standout in any crowd.”


“The only time I ever believed that 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.”

I love this. (And I find myself thinking that the same notion applies to my experiences as a homeschooler, with my kids and their learning substituted for the bees and their honey.)

On watching the bees on a cold winter day: “The textbooks say bees cannot fly unless it is 10 degrees Celsius or more. The bees have not read the textbooks and often fly out for their cleansing flights on days like today.”

Another (witty) way to show that humans haven’t mastered the bee.

“Beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.”

Well, of course! (She follows this up with examples of beekeeping in literature, starting with Aristeus, the Greek god of beekeeping.)

“A single sunbeam and a lone wildflower mean springtime to an Italian bee.”

Reads like poetry.

On talking to new beekeepers to whom she’s given a box of her bees: “Last spring I began listening to myself talk and noticed what I sound like. I sound like a mother relinquishing her firstborn to the kindergarten teacher. I sound like a writer handing her manuscript to her editor. I sound like a Republican tax assessor turning over the job to a Democrat.”

Love the examples.

Strictly speaking, one never “keeps” bees–one comes to terms with their wild nature.”

Sounds like good advice for a new “beekeeper” like me.

I could go on, but I’ll stop.  If you’re lusting after a beehive, I recommend A Book of Bees as a fine way of learning about bees and getting your fix.  And if you have hives but haven’t read it, you must.

More than anything, I appreciated Hubbell’s ability to convey practical information in a captivating way. 

the plan for april:

We’re taking a trip to Los Angeles, to visit colleges with H. I think it’s time for some Didion.

5 comments… add one
  • Kristin Apr 6, 2009 @ 16:22

    Nicely expressed analysis. I couldn’t agree more with the main message about beekeeping: ““Strictly speaking, one never “keeps” bees–one comes to terms with their wild nature.” It’s a hard lesson, for a control freak like myself at times, to accept the fact that you can’t control the bees. You can learn to live with them in your backyard though.

  • stefaneener Apr 6, 2009 @ 20:49

    I know nothing every time I open a hive. Really. It’s a nice way to keep in touch with the beginner mind.

    Writing does this too, as I’m sure you know. Good to be reminded. And you’ll love the bees.

  • susan Apr 7, 2009 @ 14:47

    I’ll have to read it. I don’t have that sort of Socratic ignorance about the bees. I have true and deep ignorance, not the kind that accumulates over time, the kind that shows an appreciation of the depth of what there is to know, but an actual absence of any pertinent knowledge. It sounds like I’d enjoy learning from Sue Hubbell. On the other hand, our bees have thrived on benign neglect. So far.

  • Paul Feb 19, 2010 @ 6:03

    I’ve been reading Sue Hubbell for years. I think A Country Year is her best, but that’s like spotting the tallest giant in the room.

    • patricia Feb 20, 2010 @ 0:23

      I still haven’t read that one, but I will! Thanks for the reminder, and thanks for stopping by.

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