Backyard Bees: A Guide for the Beginner Beekeeper

Backyard BeesAnyone who follows my social media feeds (or this blog, as I’ve written about it here) would be aware I’ve been learning beekeeping. It’s an admittedly strange thing for a vegan to be doing, but my reasons are not honey-related, but purely environmental—I’m deeply concerned about bees’ and the environment’s health and feel we’re not doing nearly enough to care for either.

My experience to date has, however, involved not finding a lot of accessibly designed and delivered information. At risk of typecasting all beekeepers and offending roughly most of them, I’ve found beekeeping to be the realm of wily 60-year-old men whose tacit knowledge is exceptional, but whose books (read: mostly pamphlets) about the matter are either non-existent or leave plenty to be desired.

And the beekeepers and their publications are commercially focused, honey-obtaining obsessed, and predicated on you having a lot of hives on a lot of land in rural areas. I’ve located little in the way of good resources for environmental-concerns-driven urban beekeepers, much less for women (of which I happen to be one). And certainly not in an Australian setting (the best I’ve found so far has been New York urban beekeeper Megan Paska’s The Rooftop Beekeeper, which features beekeeping in an urban environment and is by a woman).

Clearly, then, I was enthusiastically excited when Murdoch books sent me advance notice of (and an opportunity to review) a forthcoming bee-themed title.

Backyard Bees a guide for the beginner beekeeper brings together Murdoch’s strong aesthetics and communication design with the no-nonsense practical beekeeping explanations of a modern urban beekeeper.

With stellar images of the ilk we’ve come to know and love from Murdoch’s cookbooks meet coffee table porn married with author and ‘beevangelist’ Doug Purdie’s pragmatic, written-from-experience instructions, the handily sized Backyard Bees is timely and solid.

Purdie, who co-operates urban beekeeping business The Urban Beehive, got interested in bees for similar reasons to me: He became aware of how integral they are to the world, and was alarmed at how greatly they were in trouble and how little we were doing to ensure their (and our own) survival.

He too found his local beekeepers to be wise older gentlemen, but that the beekeeping secrets seemed in danger of being lost on future generations. So he got involved, both by writing this book, but also starting his own urban beekeeping business and the Sydney City branch of the NSW Amateur Beekeeping Association. That is, both operating in the city and catering for inner-city dwellers such as me, who are keen to do as much as they can, but who have small-yard and close-neighbour considerations.

Purdie delivers a trove of useful facts, including that despite some people’s fears, penicillin is a higher cause of death than are bee stings, and that in Greek mythology, a swarm landing somewhere was considered not a threat, but a great blessing.

Purdie and Murdoch (props to the editor and designer involved) lay out the book and the information you need to get started in concise, chronological order. They complement them with rich images that make you want to race out, don a bee suit, and get ‘keeping.

Perhaps my favourite part, though, is that Purdie features a bunch of beekeepers of varying backgrounds, including women (one of my greatest frustrations has been trying to find other women beekeepers; one of my greatest fears is that I won’t physically be able to manage the hives, which can get rather heavy once they’re full of bees and honey).

The Rooftop BeekeeperThere’s Mat and Vanessa, from Melbourne City Rooftop Honey (AKA the guys who kind of pioneered modern urban beekeeping in Australia, or at least popularised it).

There’s horticulturalist Elke, who found it took a few attempts to get the bees to accept her (I’m nervous about my beginner-ness and how steep my learning and succeeding curve will be, so it’s fantastic to know not everyone immediately takes to beekeeping like metaphorical ducks to water).

There’s Katrina and Jonathan, who keep their hive in their chicken pen, as chickens are bees live in great symbiosis. Chickens are disinterested in eating bees, but extremely interested in gobbling up the beetles that like to invade hives (if you follow my social media, you’ll know I adopt former battery hens under the long-running Operation Chooken campaign, so this is of significant interest and relevance to me).

And there’s George and Charis, Swiss husband and wife and beekeeping veterans, who make beekeeping (and life) look like a fantastically fun adventure.

Helpfully rounding out the book is a glossary of terms, an index, and a bunch of honey-themed recipes replete with salivation-inspiring images.

Backyard Bees will be released in August, just in time for people to read the book, seek out beekeeping courses, and prep to commence beekeeping in early spring. I’d recommend it for a touch of inspiration combined with practical advice—I know I’ll be referring to it regularly when my bees arrive in September and I attempt to put beekeeping theory into practice.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.