I began keeping bees last year and several people have asked if I’m writing poems about them. The answer is no. I’m not sure why this is.
My poetry mentor, Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft, suggests I’m too close to them. It’s only been nine months since my first two colonies arrived on the allotment. It’s been a steep learning curve, involving as much stress as delight! The ups and downs are at least equal, if not tilted slightly towards the problems. I lost a swarm within the first month and had several queens mysteriously vanish, all recorded in the Beginner’s Blog for the Beverley Beekeeper’s Association.
But I read a lot about bees, as in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and here are some of my recommendations from other writers and poets who’ve turned to bees for inspiration.
- Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal records his experiences of beekeeping, highlighting the details in a poetic diary which has the reader standing beside him as he discovers the intricacies and mysteries of bees.
- The Bees is a collection of poems from Carol Ann Duffy. Bee are the direct subject of some poems, while in others they exist on the periphery.
- An anthology of bee poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey, brings together a selection of poems from a variety of authors, all fascinated by the influence of bees on individual lives.
- Ten Poems about Bees introduced by Brigit Strawbridge Howard is a pamphlet anthology containing a selection of bee-inspired poems.
- Six Bee Poems by Jo Shapcott speak of how keeping bees can involve a process of transmutation as they slowly take over your body and life.
Bees are also the topic of a number of novels.
- The Bees by Laline Paull is written from the perspective of Flora 717, who works up from her intial role as a sanitation bee to become a nurse bee, and then a forager bee before promotion to taking care of the Queen bee. Echoing the iconic Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, about the gull who wanted to do more than fly, this work of fiction offers an insider view of life inside a hive.
- Telling the Bees by Peggy Haskell is set in mid-America. It tells the story of Albert, who has kept bees all of his life throughout the 20th century and contains wonderful descriptions of his experiences, shaped into a murder mystery story.
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is set in Alabama in the 1960’s, a time of racial tensions and their consequences for Lily and her friend Rosaleen. Lily finds herself in the home of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, who keep bees and the novel contains fascinating details of how they do this.
- One of my favourite books (so far) is The Beekeepers Pupil by Sara George. Based on historical records, it tells the story of Francois Huber, a beekeeper in the 18th century who is slowly losing his sight and employs Francois Burnens as an assistant. Their discoveries included the realisation that queen bees mate during flight rather than in the hives, as was previously believed, and together they developed The Leaf Hive, with movable frames which allowed for greater observations. Translations of Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History Of Bees inscribed by Burnens, are also available online.
- My other favourite novel is The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This explores the lives of William from England, who in 1851 set out to build a new type of beehive using the concept of bee space, George in the US in 2007, a beekeeper whose livelihood is being challenged by modern farming methods, and Tao from China in 2098, whose job is to hand paint pollen onto fruit trees because the bees have disappeared.
There are also autobiographical accounts of beekeeping and I’d recommend reading A honeybee heart has five openings by Helen Jukes, which records the narrator’s first experiences of keeping bees in a top bar style hive in Oxford.
With regard to textbooks on beekeeping, the three most often recommended are
- The British Beekeepers Association Guide to Beekeeping,
- The Haynes Manual of Beekeeping
- Beekeeping for Dummies.
However, if you are like me, and fascinated by the history of keeping bees, I’d suggest the following.
- The Hive – the story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson. This covers the art and craft of beekeeping from the ancient greeks and includes myth and legend alongside the development of beekeeping over the centuries.
- The Sacred Bee by Hilda M Ransome which specialises in the folklore of bees and bee culture in including practices in China, Egypt, and Babylonia, as well as more recent customs in England and Europe.
- The Buzz by Thor Hanson looks at the history of different types of bee, including the bumblebee, all accompanied with some fabulous colour photos of the different species.
So whatever your interest in bees, there’s something for everyone.
I’ve only listed the books I’m familiar with, so if you have any recommendations of your own, please share them in the comment box below.