Thursday, May 7, 2009

Susan Brackney's "Plan Bee"

Susan Brackney is a beekeeper living in Bloomington, Indiana. A nature writer whose articles about honeybees and beekeeping have appeared in the New York Times, Plenty Magazine, Wildlife Conservation, and elsewhere, she is also the author of The Insatiable Gardner’s Guide, The Lost Soul Companion, and The Not-So-Lost Soul Companion. You might have seen her taking Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie to task on Good Morning America.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet, and reported the following:
You don't have to don the beekeeper's veil to get to know honeybees, but, I admit, it certainly helps. Long before I set up my first beehive -- long before I'd even considered becoming a beekeeper -- I knew only what most people know about the striped insects. Namely, they produce honey in some mysterious way, and, occasionally, they sting. But that's giving the honeybee short shrift.

Peering into their humming cities from time to time, I've watched bees practice real magic. They fashion honeycomb as if out of thin air. Ever pragmatic, they hustle nectar, pollen, and even water and tree sap into the hive just as other bees haul out intruders, debris, and the dead. I've seen queens overthrown and drones tortured, and, naturally, I thought you might like to look over my shoulder.

Page 99 isn't a bad place to start. Bet you didn't know honeybees are typically sold by the pound. They are. And, most often, they're shipped quite spectacularly via U.S. Mail. The first bees I ever ordered came from a Mom-and-Pop apiary in Georgia. On hold interminably, I could hear a TV blaring from somewhere in the background...

Minutes passed, and I thought she'd forgotten me. If I hadn't wanted those Italians so badly, I might've given up. Instead I pressed my ear closer to hear Richard Dawson shout, "Survey Says!" followed by a game show Ding! and the requisite applause. The screen door banged once more, and here she was: "Ah think Earl's list is full up, but you tell him Mama said to put you ohn it. Mama said!" Once I had Earl on the phone, that's just what I did. He'd told me he was all out of bee packages, but he must really love -- or fear -- his mama. My bees arrived in the early spring.

* * *

Prices do continue to rise, but three pounds of bees and a queen can cost roughly $40 or $50 plus shipping. (I've never tried to count them myself, but most people say there are, give or take, about 4,000 bees to a pound.) Generally, when a cage full of live bees shows up, the post office notifies its recipient with uncharacteristic alacrity. (A rather rattled postmaster once phoned a beekeeper I know at 2 a.m. to let him know his bees had arrived -- and to ask if he would please come and get them at once. Instead, the beekeeper suggested they tuck the cage into a quiet corner somewhere until he could come for them -- at a more reasonable hour.) The bees usually come in a wooden box, and so that plenty of fresh air can circulate through, its sides are screened with wire mesh. This arrangement allows for an up-close view of thousands of honey bees.

There isn't anything quite like holding a cage full of bees, but it's OK if you'd rather take my word for it than find out on your own. Inspiring a general interest in honeybees is more important to me than inspiring would-be beekeepers, and, in the context of Colony Collapse Disorder, our continued reliance on pesticides, shrinking natural habitat, and the many other challenges with which honeybees must contend, there's never been a more critical time to appreciate them.
Learn more about the book and author at the Plan Bee website and Susan Brackney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue