A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings: A Review

I was watching the flight of a bumblebee around the lavender on the allotment the other day. Although the weather has turned; colder mornings, flowers dropping, leavings changing colour, there are still bees about the garden. I have always thought keeping bees would be a poetic activity, full of softness and rhythms, quiet and steadiness, but I have never quite managed to get into it. Helen Jukes has though, and in her wonderful memoir The Honeybee Heart has Five Openings she takes you through a year of bees and beekeeping.

I bought this book on a whim, spotting it high on a display shelf at Scarthin Books. The cover caught my attention (it is so beautiful) and then I was drawn to this story of bees, nature, life… I have noticed in my two years or so of reading the wild that very few nature books are written by women. This has made me wonder about our understandings of the natural world. What does it mean to be a woman in nature? How do women’s experiences of the natural world shape our understanding, our collective knowledge? How are these experiences captured? Whenever I do see a book of nature-related writing by a woman, I do a happy dance of glee.

Jukes’ book charts her first year of keeping bees in the back garden of her rented house in Oxford. She moves from London for a job and is still trying to adjust to a new life, new work, a new place. She lands on the idea of bees because it is something she had experience doing while in London – friends kept bees in various locations around the city, and she started to join them whenever the hives needed tending. She keeps being drawn back to the space just beyond the fence, perfect she keeps thinking, for a hive. Eventually it is her friends who help her make the leap, buying her a colony for Christmas (she only collects the bees in the spring).

Jukes includes a lot of history in her writing, about bees, about words, about beekeeping, and about honey, that I found fascinating. The writing is full of colour, and the vibrancy in these passages echo Jukes’s pleasure of the bees. It contrasts with her other work-life, where she struggles in a crowded office, stressed out and unhappy.

Becky peers over my shoulder at the screen. It shows a painting from medieval Italy, a single wicker hive drawn as a cross-section. The walls are thick and smoothed like gathered skeins of golden thread; the comb inside is depicted as a series of horizontal levels like the floors in some grand building, with sculpted white pillars holding each one very neatly in place” (p.49).

Throughout the book the natural world and the human one jostle, crossover, break apart. As Helen begins to keep her bees, she has to learn the right amount of intervention, knowing when to get involved and when to step back and let things unfold.

I am becoming less and less convinced that it’s possible to be a purely rational and detached observer of the natural world – or if that’s all we’d want to go on, if it were” (p116).

I particularly loved the characters and communities of people that pepper the book. Of course there are the bees, but the book is also about people, community, loneliness, love. She finds a local beekeeping group, who trade stories of their experience with their bees. There are the friends who drop in and out, appearing with gifts for the bees, or time to hang out over wine. I loved Ellie, Jukes’ friend and employee of the Oxford English Dictionary. Ellie has a special way with words, and features variously with definitions of bee-related words.

‘I was thinking about swarming. Remember when I mentioned the verb hive? How the meanings seem to contradict each other, so that in one sense it’s about collecting and gathering together, but in another it’s about breaking away, making separate? Well, it occurred to me this week that the verb swarm is just the same.’ She leafs through her notebook until she finds the page she is looking for. ‘Here we are – I made a list. To swarm is to gatherto come together…to assembleto crowd. But it’s also to escape from the parent organismto found a new colony. Funny, isn’t it? Like two opposing pulls in one same motion. I wonder if your bees are feeling a bit torn’” (p.223).

I read Jukes’ memoir over a weekend, unable to put it down. The writing is lyrical, the choice of words careful, thoughtful. It is simply a marvellous account of a year encountering the wild, from the trappings of the city. Read it if you can.