Reading: Hubbell, “The Beekeeper”

Sue Hubbell [b. 1935]

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, American author Sue Hubbell earned degrees in journalism from the University of Southern California (1956) and Drexel University (1963). She worked as a librarian in New Jersey and Rhode Island until 1973, when she and her husband moved to the Ozark Mountains in Missouri to work as beekeepers. After her marriage ended in divorce, Hubbell was left to run the business on her own, and to build “a structure on which a fifty-year-old woman can live her life alone, at peace with herself and with the world around her.” Hubbell vividly describes the beekeeping operation in her book A Country Year: Living the Questions (1986), a chronicle of several seasons on her farm. She has published several other books on farm life, including A Book of Bees (1988), On This Hilltop (1991), and Far Flung Hubbell (1995). In addition, Hubbell is the author of Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs (1993); Waiting for Aphrodite (1999), about the lives of sea mice, sponges, and earthworms; and a memoir, From Here to There and Back Again (2004).

“The Beekeeper” (1984), written as a “Hers” column for the New York Times, takes up many of the same themes as A Country Year.

The Beekeeper

For the past week I’ve been spending my afternoons out in the honey house getting things ready for the harvest. I’m making sure the screens are all tight because once I get started clouds of bees will surround the place and try to get in, lured by the scent of honey. I’ve been checking the machinery, repairing what isn’t running properly, and I’ve been scrubbing everything down so that the health inspector will be proud.

My honey house contains a shiny array of stainless-steel tanks, a power uncapper for slicing honeycomb open, an extractor for spinning the honey out of the comb, and a pump to move it—machinery that whirs, whomps, hums, and looks very special. My neighbors call it the honey factory, and I’m not above insinuating slyly that what I’m really running back here in the woods is a still.

The bees have been working since early spring, gathering nectar, first from wild plum, peach, and cherry blossoms, later from blackberries, sweet clover, water willow, and other wildflowers as they bloomed. As they have gathered it, their enzymes have changed the complex plant sugars in the nectar to the simple ones of honey. In the hive young bees have formed into work crews to fan the droplets of the nectar with their wings, evaporating its water until it is thick and heavy. Summertime heat has helped them, and now the honey is ripe and finished. The bees have capped over each cell of honeycomb with snowy white wax from their bodies, so the honey is ready for my harvest.

The honey that I take from the bees is the extra that they will not need for the winter; they store it above their hives in wooden boxes called supers. When I take it from them I stand behind the hives with a gasoline-powered machine called a bee blower and blow the bees out of the supers while the strong young men that I hire to help me carry the supers, weighing sixty pounds each, and stack them on pallets in the truck. There may be thirty to fifty supers in every one of my bee yards, and we have about half an hour to get them off the hives and stacked before the bees realize what we are up to and begin getting cross about it.

The time to harvest honey is summer’s end, when it is hot. The temper of the bees requires that we wear protective clothing: a full set of coveralls, a zippered bee veil, and leather gloves. Even a very strong young man works up a sweat wrapped in a bee suit in the heat, hustling sixty-pound supers while being harassed by angry bees. It is a hard job, harder even than haying, but jobs are scarce here and I’ve always been able to hire help.

This year David, the son of friends of mine, is working for me. He is big and strong and used to labor, but he was nervous about bees. After we had made the job arrangement I set about desensitizing him to bee stings. I put a piece of ice on his arm to numb it and then, holding a bee carefully by its head, I put it on the numbed spot and let it sting him. A bee stinger is barbed and stays in the flesh, pulling loose from the body of the bee as it struggles to free itself. The bulbous poison sac at the top of the stinger continues to pulsate after the bee has left, pumping the venom and forcing the stinger deeper into the flesh.

That first day I wanted David to have only a partial dose of venom, so after a minute I scraped the stinger out. A few people are seriously sensitive to bee venom; each sting they receive can cause a more severe reaction than the one before—reactions ranging from hives, breathing difficulties, accelerated heart beat and choking to anaphylactic shock and death. I didn’t think David would be allergic in that way, but I wanted to make sure.

We sat down and had a cup of coffee and I watched him. The spot where the stinger went in grew red and began to swell. That was a normal reaction, and so was the itching that he felt later on.

The next day I coaxed a bee into stinging him again, repeating the procedure, but I left the stinger in place for ten minutes, until the venom sac was empty. Again the spot was red, swollen, and itchy but had disappeared in twenty-four hours. By that time David was ready to catch a bee himself and administer his own sting. He also decided that the ice cube was a bother and gave it up. I told him to keep to one sting a day until he had no redness or swelling and then to increase to two stings. He was ready for them the next day. The greater amount of venom caused redness and swelling for a few days, but soon his body could tolerate it without reaction, and he increased the number of stings once again.

Today he told me he was up to six stings. His arms look as though they have track marks on them, but the fresh stings are having little effect. I’ll keep him at it until he can tolerate ten a day with no reaction and then I’ll not worry about taking him out to the bee yard.

I know what will happen to him there. For the first few days his movements will be nervous and quick and he will be stung without mercy. After that he will relax and the bees, in turn, will calm down. The reason I am hiring David this year is that a young man I have used in the past has moved away. We worked well together and he liked bees though even he was stung royally at first. I admired his courage the first day we were out together, for he stood holding a super from which I was blowing bees while his arm was fast turning into a pin cushion from stings.

When we carried the stacked supers to the honey house’s loading dock, he would scorn the hot bee veil as he wheeled the supers on the handtruck despite the cross bees flying around the dock. One time, as I opened the door for him to bring in the load, I noticed that his face was contorted in what I took to be the effort of getting the handtruck down the ramp. We quickly wheeled the load of supers up to the scale, where we weigh each load. He was going too fast, so that when he stopped at the scale he fell backward and 350 pounds of supers dropped on him. Pinned down, he loyally balanced himself on one fist so that he didn’t harm the honey pump against which he had fallen. The reason for his knotted face and his speed was obvious for the first time: He was being stung on the forehead by three bees.

Good boss that I am, I did not choose that moment to go to the cabin and make myself a cup of coffee; I picked the supers off his chest, scraped off the stingers and helped him to his feet. It became one of our shared legends of working together. This year I miss him.

Now it is David, still shy about working for a friend of his parents, still a little nervous about bees. He is nineteen and eager to please. But he is going to be fine. In a month we will have finished and he will be easy and relaxed, and he and I will have our own set of shared legends.


Sue Hubbell. “The Beekeeper” from The New York Times, August 2, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Sue Hubbell. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Darhansoff and Verrill Literary Agents.