‘The smaller bees are kittenish.
Tapped hive, the noise continues long.
Supposed to be a sign of health.
The drones are vast, bothersome.’
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.’
Published by Jonathan Cape, Random House; London: 2012
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.’
The Urban Beekeeper and Bee Journal: review by Ian Douglas
Sean Borodale biography
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.