Bees 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.
The 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.