A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

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Book review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

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The sun broke through this year’s never-ending winter for Easter and blue skies brought hope that spring is really coming. The cold, bright sunshine reminded me of a poem from The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar and made me think of the months of honey ahead.

An extract from The Honey Month

Day 10 – French Rhododendron Honey

Colour: The colour of sugar dissolving in hot water; that white cloudiness, with a faint yellow tint I can only see when looking at it slantwise, to the left of me, not when I hold it up to the light.

Smell: Strange, it has almost no scent at all; it’s also crystallised, so it’s a bit difficult to scoop some out with the wand, but it smells cold with an elusive citrus squirt hovering about its edges.

Taste: There is a kind of sugar cube my grandfather used to give my sister and me every morning when we were small, not so much a cube as a cabochon, irregularly rounded, clear and cloudy by turns. It was called sikkar nabet, which is “plant sugar.” This tastes like it. The honey taste is so pale, so faint, it really is almost sugar water. I’m reminded of maple sap in buckets, right at the beginning of the boiling process that produces maple syrup, where it’s still water enough to be used for steeping tea.

harbour in Penryn
the moon is a sugar-stone
melting on my tongue

quai bas a minuit:
la pleine lune fond contre ma langue
comme une jeune Francaise.

When my good friend Lisa Tenzin-Dolma read about The Honey Month she ordered a copy for us both and mine arrived as a surprise parcel in the post. I read every page with pleasure. Amal’s sensual narrative spins poetry and prose around the colours, smells and tastes of honeys both exotic and familiar. Amal wrote the book in the month of February using a gift of assorted vials of honey from her friend Danielle Sucher to inspire a daily journey of discovery. Her writing is artistic, mischievous and bewitching as she explores the different textures and experiences of sweetness using her senses and imagination.

The book is illustrated by artist Oliver Hunter who brings to life Amal’s fairy-and-goblin woven world of bees and honey. And I couldn’t think of a better illustration to accompany my post on The Honey Month than the artwork created for my blog by Lisa’s daughter, Amber Tenzin-Dolma (read more).

I’ve taken an unintentional break from blogging since mid March due to new, and significant, changes for my job (more later) and to take my first bee exam (also more later), but normal blogging will start again from mid April, including the remaining posts of my module 6 revision notes.

Meantime, do enjoy Amal’s deliciously wicked book, The Honey Month is available at Papaveria Press.

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.

On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9