Journeys in Books

A reader of this blog asked if I would add his two books to the ones you see floating around the left edge of this page. I like beekeeping books and own several. Several hundred. A few are ancient classics, written and printed over three hundred years ago. My copy of Bee Treatise (1593) by Thomas Hill predates Shakespeare. Except for edges singed during the Great London Fire, it is in pretty good shape and makes entertaining reading. Sort of like a Shakespearean beekeeping manual. Some 15 generations of beekeepers have held this book.

My Hungarian in-laws have given me a number of central European classics: one is Méhész Naptár (1856), a prized beekeeping manual in my collection. It was printed on the exact same printing press that inked the 1848 declaration of Hungarian independence from Austria. (That revolution failed and its leaders were executed.) Among my other foreign language books is a first edition volume of Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeiles (1792) written by the blind beekeeper Francois Huber, the fellow who figured out how queen bees mate. It is a brilliant and practical book. (Huber describes an observation ‘leaf-hive’ with frames that flip like pages of a book – a precursor of Langstroth’s moveable frame hive.) For easy reading, an account of Huber’s story is told by Sara George in The Beekeeper’s Pupil (2002), a romantic novel based on the lives of Huber, his wife, and his beekeeping assistant. By the way, that paperback novel was a bit cheaper than the gilded Huber original I picked from a bin of old books on a trip long ago.

I like these unique and vintage bee books, but most of my beekeeping volumes are modern. They resemble text books and have titles like The Bee Craftsman, The Art of Beekeeping, and The Behaviour and Social Life of Honeybees. There are also dozens of specialized books on things like raising queens, producing comb honey, and diagnosing diseases of honeybees. These are all good instructive volumes, but my favourite beekeeping books are the ones that tell stories about beekeepers. That’s part of the reason that I wrote Bad Beekeeping back in 2004. I like stories about the failures and successes of beekeeping, especially when told from a personal perspective. Bad Beekeeping, released eight years ago, tells the story of my younger days as a commercial beekeeper and it (as I have been told) has become something of a minor classic in the bee literature. I am grateful for that, but I have encountered a number of much better books that tell better yarns about beekeeping of yore.

My favourite personal-account beekeeping book is Fifty Years among the Bees (1911) by C.C. Miller. That book is a true classic. Like me, Miller was from western Pennsylvania and headed west to become a commercial beekeeper. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. CC, as most people called Dr Miller, was brilliant – arguably the best beekeeper of his generation. He lived during the “Golden Age of Beekeeping” – an era about a hundred years ago when good beekeepers managed 300 hives, produced 50,000 comb sections a year, and made a comfortable living of it. CC originally trained as a physician. He gave that up because he was in constant fear of making a mistake that might kill someone. He kept bees instead. Fifty Years is a fantastic story, a very personal tale of how one can live a good life as a beekeeper. If you can’t find a decent hard-cover edition (Years ago, my father gave me his copy.), you can download it online as a PDF here at The book was published over a hundred years ago, the copyright has expired, and over a thousand people have likewise downloaded Dr Miller’s informative and amusing story.

The reader of this blog who asked if I would link his work is Dennis Brown. He runs a website at Lone Star Farms and he offers two books: a question and answer collection and a personal journey tale. I can’t say if Mr Brown’s book, Beekeeping: A Personal Journey, is as good as Dr CC Miller’s Fifty Years, but the title is promising. And if you follow the link to Amazon, you can “Look Inside” and read a few sample pages. I did and I decided to order a copy of the Personal Journey so I can read the rest of the story. I hope I find it interesting. Sometimes the most useful lessons are taught by people who have made a few mistakes and then shared their experiences. It’s certainly less painful than creating one’s own stupid follies and then trying to recover from them.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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