Review: Bee Friendly Garden

Bee Friendly GardenSelf-described ‘beevangelist’ and urban beekeeper Doug Purdie espoused the benefits of beekeeping in his first book, Backyard Bees. That book highlighted what people are increasingly cottoning on to: pollinators, on which we rely for as much as 75% of our food supply, are in danger worldwide.

His just-released follow-up book, Bee Friendly Garden, concentrates on helping those who aren’t keen or aren’t able to beekeep through various circumstances, but who still want to contribute. Of which there are myriad ways. Case in point: planting a variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees on which bees can forage.

Naff as it sounds, Purdie asks readers to ‘think like a bee’. He has a point. Reconsidering our gardens is crucial to transforming monoculture or, worse, desert-like landscapes to ‘bee highways’ in which bees have a fighting chance.

That arguably means letting go of the highly manicured, architecturally rigid, pesticide-laden gardens and embracing, well, nature. As Purdie writes, ‘landscaping flair, while pleasing to the human eye, is fairly irrelevant to the bee’.

While we’re at it, we need to reign in our obsession with McMansions—Australia holds the unenviable record for the largest houses in the world, which means ground square footage is taken up by bricks and concrete and not forage-able landscape to support bees.

Among other things, Purdie identifies three habitat-related issues directly affecting bees. There’s habitat loss, i.e. we keep cutting trees down and concreting over what was once garden. There’s habitat degradation, i.e. what land is left is not healthy. And there’s habitat fragmentation, i.e. habitat is cut by highways, roads, and buildings, so it’s insanely difficult and dangerous for bees to obtain food.

Backyard BeesWhile European honey bees travel between five and 10 kilometres to find food, native bees only forage a few hundred metres from their front doors. So if there is no nearby habitat on which to forage, they literally starve to death. Lack of diversity through such things as monoculture crops is another complication in terms of the forage available.

It’s not just bee species affected by this either. Among others, butterflies are too. By killing off butterflies’ food through herbicide, we are steadily killing off butterfly populations. Throw in poorly understood and even more poorly reported factors such as illegal logging…it’s all a rather bleak and interminable list of things we are doing to harm bees and butterflies and all manner of species.

But Purdie’s book is about providing solutions, and particularly solutions accessible to those of use living in small plots in the inner city or suburbia. The book spans the benefits green roofs, details a range of plants suitable for different environments, and offers suggestions for natural stink bug and weed removal (with a vacuum cleaner and boiling water, respectively) as well as companion planting to discourage pests sans chemicals.

The book also contains some useful titbits of trivia worth stashing away. For example, bees have five eyes and use ultraviolet vision to seek out nectar and pollen. It also advocates creating pollinator highways, or corridors equivalent to ‘re-charging stations for electric cars’ that bees, who can only carry so much food with them on their travels, can stop in at to refuel.

Being a Murdoch publication, Bee Friendly Garden contains cut-above-quality images and layout. Richly coloured and with content chunked in digestible, aesthetically appealing design, it’s the kind of book you can hand to bee aficionados and fandom newbies alike. It’s definitely one for consideration as personal purchase or a giveaway gift. Me? I’m keeping my copy and adding it to the list of books I’ll buy others for Christmas.

Review: The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver

The Beekeeper's Problem SolverSubsequent to my The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver post of a few days previous, I discovered the book is actually part of a handy problem-solver series. So I ordered its companion book, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver. Because in addition to bombarding my social media feed with about a billion pics of chickens, I intersperse some of those posts with images of bees.

I’m vegan, so keeping bees is an incomprehensibly weird thing to do, but I do so for environmental and bee-health reasons. As much as possible, I leave the honey for the bees (it is, after all, actually their food). And really, I’m less beekeeping and more providing fully serviced urban accommodation for three hives—or approximately 150,000—European honey bees.

Regardless, I am perpetually on the hunt for bee-related knowledge—both in terms of learning about bees’ make-up and their behaviour, but also understanding and analysing our treatment of them. Suffice to say I’ve just about single-handedly supported the bee-themed book industry with the amount of bee books I’ve purchased in recent years.

This book, by James E Tew, spans issues relating to bee biology to the beekeeping equipment itself. Its nine chapters include Beekeeping Basics (a logical place to start), Biology and the Behaviour of the Colony, Managing and Manipulating Hives, Diseases and Pests of Honey Bees, and Pollen and Pollination.

While it covers the most common issues, the book acknowledges that there is much about bees and beekeeping that remains a mystery to even experienced beekeepers. That’s something to which I can testify: I have a mere three years and three hives’ worth of beekeeping experience under my belt, but some days I feel like I know less than before I began.

The Chicken Keeper's Problem SolverBut dare I say, the content The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver covers is—as far as my rookie beekeeping experience goes—balanced and evenly spread.

The issues/questions it features are useful and, though each entry is brief, they are substantial enough to give you a solid foundation and send you off in the right direction to research the issue more deeply.

Case in point: It covers troublesome Nosema Apis and Nosema Ceranae—parasite-led diseases that I’ve encountered, the latter of which terrifyingly nearly wiped out my first hive.

As with The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver contains striking images, call-out boxes, and clean, clear layouts with concise, easily digestible questions and answers.

So thumbs up to this book too, and please do let me know if you stumble across other useful ones in the series. Say, for example, a problem-solving book outlining how to write a thesis painlessly…

Bees in the City Book Review

Bees in the CityBees in the City: The urban beekeeper’s handbook sold me on both cover design and title. The cover, with its watermarky aesthetics, hints at a modern, professionally designed book that marries content with form (something that’s often missing from beekeeping books, which look like they’ve been run off on a photocopier and patched together in someone’s house). And the title, well, it summed up exactly what I’m doing for environmental and bee-survival reasons: urban beekeeping.

It was disappointing, then, to discover the aesthetics (and its related budget) had been reserved solely for the cover artwork. The insides of the book, which I expected to have if not vibrant images of bees and beekeeping then watermark iterations of them, had only text.

Don’t get me wrong, I love text. But beekeeping is a practical thing and a mesmerisingly beautiful one that should lend itself to creating beautiful books. I also found the book’s opening chapter (or three) a little slow.

I’m not sure why I persevered with it then, but I’m glad I actually did. Bees in the City is a fascinating examination of urban beekeeping—its challenges, its logistics, its successes, and the profound effects beekeeping has not just on the environment, but the beekeepers and people who encounter the bees.

Documenting the urban beekeeping scene in London, and especially what it’s like to be involved in it, this book is the follow-up to the authors’ A World Without Bees. I haven’t read the first book, but it’s one I—we all—should get on to stat.

The book is pragmatic about the rise in interest in beekeeping. For example, introducing millions of bees into urban environments may not be the most responsible thing to do if we don’t also ensure there are enough plants on which the bees can forage.

It also notes that not everyone can—or should—become a beekeeper. Sponsoring hives and donating to organisations that do research into bee survival are just as useful and crucial. An interesting point is that many of us may be suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ and bees help us reconnect with our environment. All of which is to say there’s plenty of food for thought peppered throughout.

A World Without BeesThe parts that interested me most, though, were the diversity of beekeepers. There were some schools and workplaces that managed to overcome nervousness about stings and potential lawsuits to set up hives on their premises and teach students and employees beekeeping practices.

The effect has been profound, with people appreciating the incredible work and complexity of the bee superorganism and also finding common ground to relate to each other. It’s revitalised schools and offices.

One of my favourite moments of the book involves a school student who went from being the naughtiest in the school to being a model student—all because he found his place working with bees and is something of the school’s resident bee expert now.

My second favourite moment involves people who’ve gone through a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program now learning beekeeping, and the incredible influence it’s had on helping them stay clean. Perhaps there is something in that native deficit disorder thing.

My third involves teaching kids at risk who live in housing projects beekeeping. As an added twist, they put them in teams Apprentice-style and encouraging them to work out how to make a viable byproducts such as lip balm.

I earmarked a lot of pages in the book and I won’t bore you with my fourth, fifth, and more favourite moments. But I will note one of the bee expert quotes contained within it and that has resonated with me long after reading the book’s final page:

The world’s most interesting animal lives in your backyard. What I want to get across, to schoolchildren in particular, is that while watching Sir David Attenborough in the Amazon Basin or Borneo, it’s easy to forget that the creature with the most complicated communication system of all is on your doorstep.

So, while Bees in the City may not have the pictures I’m after, I do still consider it a worthy read.

It’s B Day! Or Rather, Bee Day!

The Rooftop BeekeeperIt’s B Day, or rather Bee Day! By the time you’re reading this, it will be Bee Day (unless you’re at home reading this on a Friday night, in which case I say more power to you).

After a year of reading research, three beekeeping courses (first for native bees, then one each for langstroth-based and top bar-based beekeeping), countless emails and phone calls to beekeepers not savvy at using social media or even just the interwebs, and even moar reading as a refresher, some bees will be taking residence at my house in the early hours of Saturday morning.

And yes, I am wondering how I, an entrenched night owl, have once again signed up to look after creatures that literally get up at the crack of dawn. Clearly, I haven’t learnt my lesson from ex-battery hens.

A vegan beekeeper is an admittedly strange thing, but my reasons are extremely simple: rather than keeping bees for commercial purposes to rob them of their honey (the term ‘rob’ is both what beekeepers use and remarkably apt, because humans truly do rob bees—what seems to surprise people is that honey is actually bees’ food, not some delicacy they make especially for us), I’m offering them a safe, sustainable home. I’m not after honey; I’m after helping the environment. And bees are infinitely fundamental to the environment.

You’re probably aware that bees are in trouble around the world—pesticides are killing them outright, and poor commercial beekeeping practices and an opportunistic critter called the varroa mite are killing them slowly. Bees pollinate at least one of three bites of food we consume. Without them, we wouldn’t have such things as avocados, almonds, or apples. More simply: If the bees die, we die.

Blunt stuff for a Friday night/Saturday morning, but in truth I’m so excited I’m like this Kermit the Frog GIF. It’s been a bad season for bees (see above sentence re: bees are in trouble), which has made it doubly hard to locate healthy colonies to offer a home. So to have finally found a colony, and to have it moving in tomorrow, is a bit like striking gold.

Backyard BeesI should probably forewarn you that my social media feeds (and probably this blog) will be full of bee photos in coming weeks (for some of you, that may be spam, while for others it will represent a welcome relief from a steady stream of chooken photos).

Either way, I hope to retrieve, and put into practice, some of the information I’ve tried to embed in my brain courtesy of:

  • The Barefoot Beekeeper (functionally laid out, but full of useful information, this is the seminal text for top bar beekeeping, which is the sort I’m doing)
  • The Rooftop Beekeeper (a beautifully designed and inspiringly pragmatic book by a female beekeeper in New York, it gave me hope that I could, as a female, manage beekeeping)
  • Backyard Bees (a newly released book by a Sydney-based urban beekeeper that features lots of amateur beekeepers and some no-nonsense advice).

Wish me luck. And probably watch this space.

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of BeesDuring my intervals as a bookseller, there were a few books whose covers really stuck in my mind. The books were consistent sellers with memorable covers, but that I for some reason never quite got round to reading.

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees was one such title. Pale yellow—an arguably unusual colour for a book cover in and of itself—with a mix of clearly story-related images, gold-embossed bees, and a title that gave a distinct hint of mystery, it was a book I wanted to if not read, then to know what it was about.

I recalled it during my recent beekeeping courses and subsequent research. Though fiction, I figured it might give me insight into the world of bees and their complex, fascinating, super-organism ways. There were, after all, bees depicted on the cover and mentioned in the title.

The Secret Life of Bees features a young girl named Lily from America’s south who, after an accident as a young child that left her without a mother and with racial tensions coming to the fore when she’s a teenager, finds herself living with three beekeeping sisters.

From Augustine, June, and May (all of whom have month-long celebrations during the months of their namesakes) she learns that the whole world is a bee yard. She also discovers the principle of ‘bee yard etiquette’, including that you should: not be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you; not swat; wear appropriate, long-sleeved, long-panted clothing; and that if you feel angry, whistle, as anger agitates bees, but whistling calms them.

Monk Kidd (or Kidd—I’m never sure how to shorten tri-part names) has a beautiful way of viewing and expressing the world. She writes of how the bee suit veil softens the world, and how ‘knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier’.

The book’s about bees and nature, about truth and lies, about love and sorrow, and race and rights. Each chapter commences with a quote from a non-fiction beekeeping book such as:

If the queen were smarter, she would probably be hopelessly neurotic. As is, she is shy and skittish, possibly because she never leaves the hive, but spends her days confined in darkness, a kind of eternal night, perpetually in labor…He true role is less that of a queen than mother of the hive, a title often accorded to her. And yet, there this is something of a mockery because of her lack of maternal instincts or the ability to care for her young.

The book also weaves in bee history and trivia, such as how beekeepers used to drape material over their hives when there was a death in the family. It was to prevent the bees leaving, as having bees around was supposed to ensure a dead person would live again. The accompanying adage is : ‘When a bee flies, a soul will rise’. Interestingly, honey is a preservative—people used to use it to embalm bodies.

The Secret Life of Bees doesn’t include as much bee information as I’d hoped, but the story itself drew me in after an initial slow start. Each time I thought I should put the book aside for a more fact-based read, I found myself wondering what would happen to Lily and the sisters she encounters, what happened with her mother all those years ago, and whether there’d be a happy ending with her first love.

Now that I know the story, the cover befits the tale and was worth finally cracking the spine. It also inspires me to revisit a few of the other titles that caught my attention during my bookselling stints.

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.

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.

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?