Operation Honey Bee

The Rooftop BeekeeperThere’s a second, complementary element to Operation Chooken, which I blogged about yesterday. Entitled Operation Honey Bee (are you sensing a theme?), I’m about to learn beekeeping. For environmental reasons.

Bees are in trouble worldwide. Pesticides and mites are wiping them out at frightening rates, and what few humans seem to truly grasp that if the bees go, we go. That’s because bees pollinate a plethora of food and the entire ecosystem and our foodchain relies on them. (Apparently in China people are being paid to walk around and attempt to manually pollinate fruit trees. Talk about inefficient, ineffective, and downright terrifying that it should even need to be done.)

And in case you’re wondering how bees and chookens (the technical term for ‘chickens’) fit together, the answer is extremely well. It turns out the chookens ignore the bees and both potter about and do their own things, except the chookens eat any critters that tend to want to invade the bee hives. I reckon that’s pretty much perfect symbiosis—some people even keep the hives inside their chooken pens, although I can’t say I’ll be doing that (mostly for space reasons).

Right now, I’m on the lookout for good beekeeping books, both those that detail the how-tos of beekeeping in accessible and interesting terms and those that document the experience of being a beginner beekeeper trying to find your way.

I’m also madly trying to cram in and retain bee stats and beekeeping info. For instance, there can be some 60,000 bees in a hive, including just one queen. Most of the bees are female and they’re called worker bees because they do all the cleaning, baby bee raising, and so on. Also, bees maintain a hive temperature of 32–35 degrees all year round, regardless of where they are in the world. As a cold frog, I can wholly appreciate that last fact.

Truthfully, it’s been tricky to try to find an interesting and informative beekeeping book. I’m probably going to offend the world’s beekeepers here, but the books tend to be amateur, black-and-white, photocopy-equivalent copy that’s dry and in no way inspiring. So I’ve been looking more broadly, trying to find both a memoir and a modern version of beekeeping.

The first book of that ilk off the rank has been From A To Bee, a memoir of James Dearsley’s first year as a beginner beekeeper. It’s a great title for a book—he crowdsourced it via social media—and I’d hoped the book would give me insight into what I’m about to encounter.

In a lot of ways it has, but it hasn’t quite been as good as I’d hoped. My main gripe is that it reads as a blog plonked directly into print. Which it essentially is. Print books are not the same as blogs and vice versa, and the content needs to be tailored accordingly. Also, why buy the book when you can read the entries online for free?

Not helping the matter is that Dearsley’s motivations are completely opposite to mine: He’s obsessed with obtaining a single jar of honey in his first year of beekeeping; I’m vegan and see beekeeping only as an environmental and bee-survival mechanism. (I’m amazed at the number of people who are genuinely surprised to discover that honey isn’t an excess product bees produce; it’s actually their food and we steal it, substituting it with sub-standard sugary water.)

Keeping BeesSuffice to say, I found his obsession with obtaining honey at all costs, which included moving a hive to another location to try to increase pollen collection and with no thought to the stress it would put on the bees or that it might not be in their interest, more than a little selfish and offputting.

Still, From A To Bee is written in accessible, plain language, and Dearsley has a sense of humour about his efforts and wholly owns his mistakes and fallibility. I can appreciate and admire that. He’s also generous with resources, and I’m currently working my way through the list the book has at the back.

One thing I can definitely relate to is that despite his keenness to keep bees, he was actually nervous about the weight of responsibility that comes with keeping them and how he’d cope if they started behaving aggressively. I share his concerns, although I’ll hopefully find the beekeeping easier than anticipated and I’ll get to enjoy the grown-up-ness of it.

I also learnt some interesting facts about combining to weak hives to hopefully make a stronger one. If you just combine them, it leads to a bee war. But if you combine them and put some sheets of newspaper in between, they gradually chomp through it to meet each other, all the while getting used to each others’ scent and buzz. Huh, a fascinatingly simple and effective use of newspaper.

Next on my list of bee books to buy and try are:

  • The Rooftop Beekeeper: A Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees. It’s released in precisely three days and looks, from the pictures and the blurb, like an aesthetically appealing book right up my alley
  • Keeping Bees with Ashley English. I’m really going off the cover art, but I figure if they’ve made the effort to design that, they’ve made the effort to design the interior—both content and form
  • The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping. It has pictures. Good pictures. It understands the importance of providing clear, concise explanations with accompanying and complementary images that enhance said explanations. I’m the kind of person who needs pictures, whether it’s in my beekeeping guide or my cookbook. And good writing.

Beginner's Guide to BeekeepingBut what I’d really love to know is if you could recommend any beekeeping books to me, both how-to guides and memoirs, and preferably ones that tackle Australian settings. Especially ones that understand good communication design.

Or, coming at it from another angle, are there any I should definitely steer clear of?

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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.