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Inquiry into the mysteries of the hive

The Queen Must Die, by William Longgood. Illustrated by Pamela Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton. 234 pp. $12.95. Bees are busy, right? They are a society with a purpose, insects we admire for their industriousness. Emily Dickinson advised, ``Partake as doth the Bee?/ Abstemiously./ The Rose is an Estate --/ In Sicily.''

No small number of books have been written about bees, and the latest addition to the literature is William Longgood's ``The Queen Must Die,'' a book with an epistolary quality -- it has 86 brief chapters -- and a very fine book indeed.

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Longgood's introduction to bees and beekeeping came about by chance, but, once he was acquainted, the friendship blossomed. He took a class in beekeeping, he read books on the subject, but mostly he watched, studied very closely the incredibly well-ordered world of his bees.

It is Longgood's Thoreauvian patience and powers of observation that make ``The Queen Must Die'' a special book, but there is also lots of natural historical information, the sort you expect and need in this kind of book. For example, ``It is not by chance alone that bees decided upon the delicate hexagon shape for their honeycomb. Mathematicians consider it the most efficient form possible, providing a cask that holds a maximum of honey with a minimum of wax. The walls are so incredibly thin that it would take 2,000 to 3,000 laid on top of one another to equal a single inch.''

Longgood addresses drones, workers, the mating flight of the queen, the occasional killing of queen bees, honey, swarming, the mechanics of beekeeping, play flights, the division of labor, and while doing all of this, manages considerable anthropomorphizing of a sensible and mildly provocative sort.

``The Queen Must Die'' is also full of questions. ``What urgency within tells the bee that she is ready for this final step from hive bee to fielder? Is she aware that already her life is half spent? . . . What happens to bees, puppies, kittens, and children who so soon lose their capacity for play and joy? What abiding sadness is woven into the tapestry of life itself?''

Take the above remarks by Longgood as something of a litmus test: If they interest you, you will probably like this book. I did, very much.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.