Poems written at the hive

‘The smaller bees are kittenish.
Tapped hive, the noise continues long.
Supposed to be a sign of health.
The drones are vast, bothersome.’

I6TH JULY

As the beekeeping year draws to an end I have been reading Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, a collection of poems written at the hive. The poem-journal gives an account of the relationship between a beekeeper and his first hive. It is intimate and beautiful storytelling.

The journal starts in May with the collection of a small nucleus hive, charting the life and death of the colony and the arrival of a swarm two years later. Each poem freezes a moment in time like bees frozen on the comb. Queens, drones, summer, honey, wasps, spiders, winter, varroa… it is all here: ‘All day they have dragged in jewel-pins of nectar’.

As the seasons pass, the colony casts its spell upon the beekeeper who, like many before him, reorients his life around the hive. ‘Bees at the bottom of the garden’ becomes ‘the house at the bottom of the apiary’ as Borodale begins to see the world through the multifacted eyes of a bee: sources of pollen, waggle dances, locality of water, the position of the sun.

As a beekeeper I understood the author’s initial curiosity and fascination, recognised as this turned to awe and wonder, and smiled as it became affection. The poems gave me nostalgic feelings for my first summer of beekeeping with my first hive and my first queen, the long dark-gold Jasmine.

‘Jewellery box: I did not expect this strange calmness.
Eyes go steady with study of larvae,
womb, light, wax, bee eggs.

Still I have not seen the fountain of all,
where is
she?
Must learn to find this instrument by heart.’

30TH MAY: EXAMINING BROOD

Non beekeepers will love Borodale’s exquisite description of life inside the hive and beekeepers will enjoy his expression of familiar thoughts and emotions. A poem about inspecting the brood nest made me remember my first visit. Like the author, I found a strange calmness in holding before my eyes the frame of bees, eggs, larvae, comb – and my mind was consumed with the thought of finding her. Borodale doesn’t name his queens, but she is never far from his thoughts.

The author’s observation of the bee world is poignant. As a keeper of bees he becomes more aware of the changing seasons, more observant of what is in flower, and more interested in local weather patterns. The single-line entries for March are simply: ‘Catkins’ (1st March) and ‘Snowdrops’ (7th March); just as my thoughts in spring this year were ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Crocus’.

My favourite poem is of the little bee drinking water…

‘I assume this creature is my bee.

There it is: one pulsing abdomen;
light brown, familiar, gently striped. Tongue
at drinking water.

Frail, how it concentrates
not solely for
itself.
It makes one part.’
26TH JULY: IN THE GARDEN

I shared this poem with a beekeeping friend. He appreciated ‘the author’s perception of the paradox of individual drinking, but being one part of the organism, while the organism would not exist without its components…’ This is something that all beekeepers come to grasp but it never ceases to amaze.

I went through a box of tissues as the author gives a stark account of the death of the hive and releases an intense feeling of loss, ‘I go to the shelf where the honey lives, and say, this is testament: bees did exist’. All beekeepers who have lost a hive will know what he is feeling. The discovery of Jasmine’s dead city after our first winter was devastating: grief, guilt, disappointment, frustration.

But there is also hope with the arrival of a new swarm and a surprise revelation of the circle of life.

This is Borodale’s debut as a poet as well as his genesis as a beekeeper, and you can tell that there is a deep discovery taking place. Bee Journal is a soulful reflection of a year in beekeeping that captures the thoughts and emotions of a novice beekeeper. I am even more impressed that the author wrote this poetry in veil and gloves, while I struggle to make notes for our hive records!

‘bees batting this pen and poem’s paper.
Bee on my gloved hand,
heads of bees brushing over.’
25TH JUNE

Related links

Bee Journal
Sean Borodale
Published by Jonathan Cape, Random House; London: 2012
ISBN 978-0-224-09721-5

A useful tip from my hive partner, Emily, if you access Amazon via this link on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website they receive a donation worth 8% of the total purchase, at no extra cost to you. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says: ‘Last year, we raised in excess of £3,500 through this Amazon associate scheme. That’s a lot of wildflowers for our bees.’

Also read:

The Urban Beekeeper and Bee Journal: review by Ian Douglas
Sean Borodale biography

More goodbeereads!

A Honey of a Good Book: review of The Beekeeper’s Bible by The Garden Diaries
‘Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming and beekeeper in Kosovo’ review by Adventuresinbeeland’s blog
On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

My book reviews are collected on my blog page here.

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18 thoughts on “Poems written at the hive

  1. i would love to read this book. I love poetry and I myself have attempted to write a couple of poems about bees, but now I have my own hives, I would like to do some closer round the year observations too.
    Unfortunately my attempt at ‘becoming’ a bee-keeper did not go too well yesterday. I misunderstood what my neighbour asked me to do (my french is obviously not as good as I had imagined) and put the sugar syrup in the wrong hive. He was not very happy with me. I was not very happy with myself. At the moment I just want to dig myself a hole and crawl in it.

    I just want everything to go well in my first year as a beekeeper but I really feel that I have let them down right now and let myself down too 😦

    anyway, thanks for the lovely post and gorgeous photos too,
    Louisa

    • Hi Louisa, you are too hard on yourself, everyone makes mistakes in their first few years of beekeeping. I know beekeepers who have been doing this for decades and they still make mistakes. I don’t think I could do beekeeping instructions in French!

      Poetry is a beautiful expression of the craft, I hope you read this book it will inspire you 🙂 I can’t write poetry at all so I am full of admiration for someone who can bee-keep and write poems at the same time.

      How are your hives doing this year? What sort of bees do you have 🙂

      • we have abeilles noires – which I assume are black bees? my neighbour tells me they are European, but I do not know much more than that. We have them positioned next to an old apple tree and we have caught two swarms from the two original hives already from this tree since May, so now we have four hives. I really do not know much about beekeeping yet, I am just watching my neighbour like a hawk, as I do not understand everything he tells me – I have no idea of the names of things in English!!

        My neighbour learnt his skills from his father and beekeeping has been in his family for generations here in the mountains, so he is a fantastic source of info, esp. when I get to watch him extract the honey next year.

        Our other neighbour who is 80 tells the weather forecast on local radio from the information his bees give him – isn’t that fantastic? he predicted the first snow three years ago on exactly the right date – it was an unusually late date – and everybody thought he had finally lost it until his prediction came true!

        I have written more about my recent bee saga on my other blog : http://snowflakesonourtongues.com if you are interested. I may post some bee poetry there, but it is primarily for photography at the moment as I have just bought a new camera 😉 (i love your b and w photos btw!)

      • Everything sounds better in French – ‘abeilles noires’ – enchanting! I love the story of the 80-year-old neighbour who forecasts weather by the bees. There’s a blog post in that story!

        Congratulations on your new camera, what type is it? I bought a new camera this year and am having lots of fun taking photos of bees, flowers, bees… Bees are great for macro shots if you can get close enough, and if they stay still!

        I am following your beekeeping in France. It sounds like an amazing adventure 🙂

    • Thanks, Amy. I was going for the nostalgia of b/w photos with poetry but liked how they turned out. Thinking of doing an end-of-season gallery post in colour and b/w of my favourite bee photos this year. Some of the nature shots on your blog would look very dramatic in b/w. 🙂

  2. A connection formed with and amongst nature is a beautiful and spiritual experience; no matter the form. Thank you for bringing this collection to my attention. As a lover of nature and a poet myself, I fully intend to pick up a copy of Bee Journal to explore 🙂

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