I first found out about this beekeeping memoir after reading a review of it on the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group blog – Helen Jukes was a member of the group while she lived in Oxford.
A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings has already received favourable reviews in the national press (for example, in the Guardian). The story goes like this – busy as a bee, but one working in frustrated disharmony with her surroundings and hive mates, Helen is persevering at her new charity job based in Oxford. She is sharing with a friend in a rented house which they are trying to make feel more like a home. She’s recently moved from London, where she assisted commercial beekeeper Luke Dixon with some of his inspections (Luke has written Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities, which I also own).
Helen’s friends cotton on to how much she misses Luke’s bees, so they cluster together to buy her a colony of bees for Christmas. On the advice of Luke, she buys a top-bar hive to host the colony. This leads her to join the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group. I was amused by her description of her first group meeting, in which clear divisions were obvious between the members. Even in a group all about ‘natural’ beekeeping, there is a wide spectrum of keeping behaviours, from never opening the hive to regularly checking for disease. As always, there seem to be as many ways of beekeeping as there are beekeepers.
Helen takes us through her beekeeping journey and the year following the fateful Christmas present, slowly revealing the stages of her colony’s progress, from being collected from a remote rural honey farm to her eventual small harvest. She uses a simple ‘crush and strain’ method to extract the honey – but as her hive has no queen excluder there is brood within the honey combs, so bees are hatching out in her kitchen as she tries to collect the honey!
The book takes its time – she doesn’t actually get the bees home till page 127 – so you must slow yourself down to bee time to take it all in properly. You can tell that she caught the ‘bee bug’ which I and so many others have been through. In-between long hours in the office she comforts and distracts herself with long hours reading about the history of beekeeping, particularly the experiments of Huber and the trials of Langstroth. She visits an entomologist friend to view a honey bee in magnificently hairy close-up through a microscope. But she doesn’t seem to focus so much on learning the practical side of beekeeping, so it is Luke who explains the basics of swarm control for her colony’s first summer.
I’ll try not to ruin the ending, but along the way she falls in love with a man who her friend thought was a beekeeper… but it turns out he merely has an uncle who’s a beekeeper. Though a young man himself, his hair is “almost completely white”, complemented by eyes which are very blue. She mentions in the book’s final climax that she might have “called something up” through the experience of beekeeping. She has a feeling sometimes that this man she loves is not entirely separate from her hive.
I liked this idea and was playing with it in my mind, musing that perhaps the bees called a man up for their keeper, a man with hair white as fresh new honey comb and blue as their favourite flowers. Or that they opened something up in her which made her better able to cope with the stresses of her job and so more receptive to romance. The bees may not speak in human words, but they call to us in other ways, and they change those of us who feel their pull.
I’d recommend this book if you are interested in finding out more about beekeeping history and the meaning of certain words connected to bees. Through a friend who works for the Oxford English Dictionary, Helen explore the origins of words like ‘keep’ and ‘hive’, which turn out to be quite complex when you discover their many shades of meaning. It’s a very thoughtful book – but its many meanderings may try the patience of some!
I contacted Helen on Twitter asking for her sources behind a mention of commercial beekeepers culling colonies over winter to save money on feeding them. Within 24 hours she had emailed me a number of quotes and links. Very nice, right? So thank you Helen, I enjoyed your book.