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.

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.