Despite a title that leaves the reader expecting a punchline of some sort, "Bees Don't Get Arthritis" is at heart a very serious book, and one that should be required reading for at least 50 million Americans. That's how many people there are in this country who reportedly suffer from some form of that crippling disease -- a whopping 20 percent of our population -- and if you're one of them, author Fred Malone has some news that could very well change your life.

No, "Bees Don't Get Arthritis" is not a book of insect jokes. It's a wellresearched and surprisingly entertaining investigation into the healing powers of various products of the honeybee that are beginning to attract the attention of the medical profession -- particularly in Europe and Russia, where the folk medicine taboo seems to be slowly lifting. These bee products include honey, pollen and propolis (a reain the bees use as glue), and the afflictions they are said to cure or help range from warts and asthma to cataracts and Hodgkin's Disease. But the book's major focus is on what appears to be a near miracle-cure for arthritis -- bee stings.

Not one of the "glamor" diseases, arthritis is the kind of affliction nonsufferers are likely to lump in the same category as cold sores and the heartbreak of psoriasis: unpleasant, certainly, though hardly a major killer. But anyone familiar with arthritis knows that the pain can be excruciating, and that at its worst the disease can result in disfigurement and a life of bed-ridden misery. Add to this a standard prognosis of palliation at best -- with costly treatments that are sometimes unsafe and usually ineffective -- and youhve got a bleak picture indeed for one-fifty of our population.

That's why Fred Malone, himself among that unlucky fifth, set out across the continent to collect information on bee venom therapy, during the course of which eh claims not only to have cured his own stubborn arthritis, but also managed to uncover a few tantalizing tidbits about other bee-related cures as well. The result of this odyssey, "Bees Don't Get Arthritis" is a highly readable and often amusing account that should give new hope to arthritics and other sufferers, and cause a few blushes within the medical establishment, whose sometimes laudable caution here seems to have approached stubborn closemindedness ("If this stuff is so good, why don't we know about it!... ").

An exnewspaperman with a sense of humor to match his easy, flowing writing style, Malone has coated the pill with sugar, so to speak, by adding a generous sprinkling of amusing anecdotes and whimsical digressions -- what he calls "fluff" -- to make the book enjoyable reading for all but the most confirmed bibliophobe. But, despite the easy style, "Bees Don't Get Arthritis" is no crackpot's bible. The evidence it presents is sincere and often impressive, and certainly deserving or further investigation.

Among the tidbits Fred Malone describes:

Case upon case in which arthritis cleared up completely after varying amounts of bee stings were sustained, with success rates reported to be as high as 97 percent in some studies.

William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz on TV's "I Love Lucy" show, being cured of the neuritis that prevented him from lifting his arms, after only one treatment of three bee stings.

The intriguing statistic, released in 1965 by the New York Cancer Research Institute but as yet not followed up by what would seem to be warranted research, that beekeepers have the lowest incidence of cancer of all the occupations.

The case of a novice beekeeper whose trigger-happy bees apparently cured him of the Ohodgkin's Disease that doctors said would kill him within the year (that was 40 years ago; today he's 79 and in excellent health).

The work done at Walter Reed hospital by Maj. James Vick (now chief of neurophysiology at Edgewood Arsenal), who shed light on a possible therapeutic mechanism of bee venom by showing that it raised blood cortisone levels in arthritic dogs while improving their condition considerably.

The discovery of "cardiopep," a component of bee venom that stimulates and stabilizes the heart and may someday save the lives of those suffering from congestive heart failure.

One question that's likely to arise as a result of reading "Bees Don't Get Arthritis" is why our medical establishment is so often reluctant to investigate potential cures that don't originate in the sterile confines of the laboratory. After all, nature still has plenty of secrets left... And besides, if a doctor can play golf and make money, why can't a hypodermic fly and make honey?