Duck Duck Book

23 – bees in america
08.16.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Bees in America : how the honey bee shaped a nation / Tammy Horn.
Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c2005.
[MCL call number: 638.1 H813b 2005; two copies, no holds]

There is a trend, of late, that favors the publication of a particular kind of popular nonfiction — books that report and explicate the history of objects, technology, and phenomena. The New York Times bestseller Salt : A World History, by Mark Kurlansky (New York : Walker and Co., c2002) is perhaps the best example, but there are many others as well. Henry Petroski’s books detailing the history of various feats of mundane engineering and design certainly fit into this category, though he began publishing this kind of work more than ten years ago (see, for example, The Pencil : A History of Design and Circumstance, New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003, c1989, reviewed in booklist number 12).

These books, and the others like them, can be characterized as cultural histories of somethings. In each, the author tells us a bit about the something (pencils, salt, the bookshelf, bees, potatoes) and then undertakes to show how the something has affected human culture, shaped our possibilities, and influenced politics or art or communication. And there is usually some musing about how culture has determined the shape and being of the something as well — e.g. honeybees live in North America only because people brought them here for honey production; their lives and possibilities are further defined by humans’ interest in using them as pollinators of crops.

Indeed, this trend of books about the history of things is not merely a fashion in publishing, it is a fashion in reading. The people who made the history of salt a bestseller are eager for more. They may move on to Consider the Eel, by Richard Schweid (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2002), or One Good Turn : A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, by Witold Rybczynski (New York : Scribner, 2000), or perhaps to Bees in America.

In Bees in America, Horn treats bees (though they are alive and it seems clear that there is something that it is like to be a bee) as things as well. Glorious, awe-inspiring things that work together so that they are more than the sum of their parts, but things nonetheless. Her approach is not really a history of bees and their lives, or a natural history, but rather it is an exploration of the history of what bees are to people. The inside jacket flap of the book waxes rhapsodic about the accomplishments of the text: “During every major period in the country’s history, bees and beekeepers have represented order and stability in a country without a national religion, political party, or language.”

So, indeed, this book is not just about bees. It is the story of the United States, every piece told through a bee-lens — a pair of bee-colored glasses, if you will. The book details American history and culture in relation to, because of, and in spite of honeybees, bee culture, honey production, and apiarianism in general. Bees in America is not riveting, and it leaves many questions unanswered for readers who, like me, are generally unschooled in bee lore and science. But it is an interesting exploration into how the culture and society of the United States has been influenced by bees and beekeeping, and I would recommend it to lay readers interested in these subjects.


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