Rooftop Beekeeping

The Rooftop BeekeeperThe average age of a beekeeper is circa 60 years old. So, as a Gen Y female, I don’t exactly fit the beekeeper mould. It also explains—forgive me for insulting just about every beekeeper out there—why I’ve had trouble finding beekeeping books tailored to my tastes and needs.

Much of the beekeeping knowledge is, it seems, tacit. Think wily, hardy guys who’ve been tending paddock-loads of bees in rural areas. Not young, urban, emerging professionals looking after a hive or two in their backyards.

Complicating the matter is that any publications out there are fact- rather than design-led. That is, they’re helpful-ish, but they’re about as much fun as reading a textbook. Facts are integral to successful hive health and beekeeping, no doubt, but if they’re not delivered in a way you can understand or apply them, they’re pretty much useless.

Needless to say, I was stoked to find out a book was about to be published by a Gen Y-ish female urban beekeeper in New York. I pre-ordered Megan Paska‘s The Rooftop Beekeper and tried to temper my impatient enthusiasm. It might not be exactly what you’re looking for, I kept telling myself. You’re probably not going to get all the answers you’re after from it, I said.

I did a bit of a H&R Block-style fist pump when the book arrived in the mail, though. Beekeeping for beginners delivered in accessible terms? Check. A book written by someone like me for someone like me, i.e. a time-poor, inner-city Gen Y keen to do their bit for bees and the environment, but unsure how or where to start and not able to make it a full-time gig? Check. A book that understands the importance of marrying design with content in order to enhance its effect? Check.

Paska is a New York native who spent her childhood holidays visiting her relatives’ Virginia-based farm. That foundation led to a hankering as an adult to grow her own vegies at her New York home, where Paska gradually began expanding her efforts and her repertoire. Patches of tomatoes and herbs came to incorporate okra, lettuce, squash, capsicum.

The love and infectiousness of nurturing vegetables in turn acted as a natural progression slash gateway drug to Paska adding bees to the mix—those vegies needed help growing and bees were just the critters to facilitate that.

Her beekeeping practice is especially surprising when you consider her opening chapter (entitled How a City Girl Got Stung) explains she became an urban apiarist under the most unlikely of circumstances. That’s not simply because she keeps bees in one of the most densely populated, seemingly least-bee-friendly cities on earth (New York City), but because she’d spent most of her life being afraid of bees. Nay, terrified of bees.

But, ‘as a garden-obsessed adult’, she realised bees were far from vicious and were instead incredible creatures going about their incredibly important job of pollinating. She set about learning about them, learning the art of caring for them, and getting involved in such projects as the Brooklyn Grange rooftop garden (if you haven’t looked it up, I suggest you do so now).

Moreover, Paska is encouraging. Her book makes me feel as though I can manage the job (even if I will need the occasional little bit of help with the heavy lifting).

‘It’s my hope that as you read this book—learning about bee anatomy, colony management, or honey collection—you’ll grow confident enough to plan your own urban apiary,’ Paska writes:

Be fearless; simply do it. This book is meant to be a primer for making it happen. In fact, it follows my own decades-long path to becoming a beekeeper—from daydreaming to reading to doing. So get ready to score yourself a smoker, a veil, and a hive tool—and, even more important, your very own honeybees. Just be prepared; you might fall in love with being a beekeeper when you least expect it.

We’re seeing a surge in interest in beekeeping, with people like you and me (read: non-traditional, part-time beekeepers) being acutely aware of our effects on the food chain and wanting to right some of humans’ food-chain wrongs. So yes, we’re seeing some people unexpectedly falling in love with beekeeping.

Which is just as well—this might mean we start to see a reversal of some of the crazy, cruel, and inefficient schemes currently occurring. Sixty per cent of bee hives in America are shipped cross-country on the backs of trucks as beekeepers try to pollinate produce.

Should we talk about the inefficiencies and the fossil fuels burnt to facilitate this practice? Or the genuine—and genuinely-puzzling-to-me—surprise said beekeepers and the wider population seem to express when stressed bee colonies, not designed to be moved in such ways, are collapsing?

Paska’s book is concise, clear, and pragmatic. It’s clearly written by someone who still remembers what it’s like to get started, and to be starting in an urban environment with such considerations as roof access and communicating your beekeeping practices to close-by neighbours whose perceptions of bees might not be entirely positive.

And it entails beautiful a layout and images that make beekeeping seem achievable and enjoyable. (The back cover blurb describes the book as ‘part essential guide to urban beekeeping, part love song to the amazing honeybee, with more than 75 photographs and illustrations’.) Which is exactly the kind of book I’ve been looking for—part bed-time read, part reference book, part guide, part memoir.

If you’re thinking, as I am, of getting in to beekeeping (I’ve just completed a hive-building course an am about to embark on some mentoring, with bees set to arrive in spring Australian season-wise), I’d suggest The Rooftop Beekeeper is a good starter. Brand new, with an urban and hobby focus, and with all the basics covered, it’s likely to prove a good stepping stone in to some more serious bee-loving commitment.

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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.