BOOK REVIEW / Sting in the bees' tale: Following the bloom - Douglas Whynott: Airlift Book Co, pounds 8.95

IN MARCH, in the woods of Washington County, Maine, the bears emerge from hibernation. Then, in mid-May, 10,000 beehives arrive - hired pollinators brought in on trucks to the blueberry barrens, some from as far south as the orange groves of Florida - and the bears have a honey orgy.

So traps are set, and bears are shot - and not everyone's too happy with that. 'I think they ought to shoot the beekeepers,' says one local, 'and leave the bears alone.'

In this entrancing portrait of America's honey cowboys, however, bears and hostile locals rank pretty low among the commercial beekeeper's worries. One careless crop sprayer can do more damage altogether, as a scene in North Dakota makes gruesomely clear - piles of poisoned corpses by a string of ruined hives.

Then there is the odd phenomenon of 'queenlessness'. A moved hive becomes stressed, and stressed hives sometimes kill their queens, 'as if blaming them for the repeated disruptions'. The disruptions in question involve transit for thousands of miles, loaded on dodgy rigs ducking through the night on dirt county roads to avoid inspection stations. Drivers wrestle through, in states of terminal fatigue compounded by venom headaches, sweetening policemen and farmers along the way with cases of honey.

They stay in grubby motels laconically described as '900 flies and a TV full of snow'. They break their ribs, and they break the law; rigs become bogged in sand, or spill their loads on freeway intersections. A television set falls on a driver's head. Gaskets blow, radiators puncture, tyres erupt under excessive weights of honey; restaurant car parks fill with angry bees. One driver, threatened with arrest, walks into the bee cloud. 'I figured they weren't going to go in after me.'

But these troubles pale into insignificance beside the risk of infestation with the tracheal mite, the varroa, or political mites such as Dan Quayle. When Whynott visits Washington with a chain-smoking Oklahoman honey lobbyist, the result is a model thumbnail sketch of the workings of DC, through the offices of senators, congressmen, aides and consultants.

Mr Quayle had given a speech trying to block the honey support programme. 'We are,' he warned, 'probably going to hear some arguments about bees being important to our national security . . . buzz, buzz, buzz; bees, bees, bees. They are buzzing about everywhere . . . and by golly, if you don't vote for them, watch out for those bees.'

In fact, 80 per cent of the pollination of an enormous range of US food products - from almonds in California to apples in Connecticut, from alfalfa in Wyoming to cucumber in Virginia - is performed by bees. These crops, in total, are worth dollars 20bn.

So Mr Quayle could not stop the honey train - but, it seems, the Africanised, or 'killer', bee might. In an otherwise gentle book, the section dealing with the spread of this threat from Brazil, where the feral hybrid first appeared, takes on a gripping and apocalyptic tone.

Twenty-six swarms were accidentally released from an experimental station in 1957. Today, they rule South America. They crossed the Panama Canal in 1980, and arrived in Texas two years ago. A project for a control barrier at the border was costed at dollars 170m; it failed to obtain funding. But potential losses, in terms of reduced crop productivity as the US beekeeping industry collapses, are immeasurably greater.

Whynott saves this punch for last. The rest of his book alternates between following the nectar harvest down the long roads of the United States and describing along the way, with elegant simplicity, the miraculous workings of bee society.

As such, this is one of those rare books that illuminates an arcane and awkward subject, without ever forgetting to entertain in the process. When Whynott speaks in North Dakota with Joe and Dawn Romance, it's romance - bee herdsmen fixed in their souls on honey flows, honey gambles, and honey mathematics.

Migratory commercial beekeepers came into their own in the Sixties and Seventies, thanks to forklift trucks and interstate highways. But in the way of things American, the boom is now busting. These people have been stung almost to death, yet as one puts it, 'nobody's cutting a fat hog in the ass this year'.