HONEY AND VENOM
Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper
By Andrew Coté
295 pp. Ballantine. $27.
I will never eat bananas near a beehive. The mere thought is enough to set lively scenes from Coté’s book replaying in my mind’s eye. Bananas contain a chemical that resembles the substance in honeybees’ alarm scent, so the resulting encounter could turn nasty.
Coté’s book is full of facts like this, interwoven with anecdotes from his life as an urban beekeeper. And we’re not just talking one or two beehives in a backyard here: Coté tends hundreds of hives throughout New York City, high on rooftops, in parks and gardens. He also travels the world to talk about beekeeping.
Month by month we accompany Coté through the key events in a beekeeper’s calendar, as he weaves in stories from his life. Coté’s relationship with his father, who initiated his son into the mysteries of these hard-working hexapods, is described with great affection. His journey to urban beekeeping is brought to life as he recounts often funny or bizarre situations — like rescue operations that involved swarms of bees that saw fit to set up house in a church tower or on a traffic light in New York City’s most exclusive shopping district.
The book’s title suits it well: “Honey and Venom” isn’t all sweet stories. Bees aren’t the only ones who can deliver venomous stings, and now and then Coté’s depictions of the people who oppose his sticky endeavor can get to be a bit much. At the same time, enthusiastic praise for beekeeping is served up by the ton in this slightly rambling but informative and entertaining memoir.
BEE PEOPLE AND THE BUGS THEY LOVE
By Frank Mortimer
312 pp. Citadel. $25.
A lecture on backyard beekeeping at the library spurs Mortimer to take his abiding fascination for honeybees to the next level and start out as a beekeeper. In this book, meetings — with both individuals and the local beekeeping club — play a major role as we follow the author’s progress from “newbee” to experienced beekeeper. There is no shortage of eccentrics on hand to offer Mortimer help and more or less good advice. All, from oddballs to flagrantly self-promoting windbags, are described in an effective, relatable way that is never malicious — more like, affectionately barbed.
Mortimer presents himself as a bee nerd and he offers solid expertise when it comes to facts about honeybees. For a book so broad in scope, one could perhaps have wished it to widen its perspective to include the role of wild insects when discussing the significance of pollination. That said, it is an achievement to convey so much knowledge so accessibly without once seeming overbearing. The main reason it all works is the honest descriptions of friendships that spring up around a shared, all-absorbing interest in bees.
The book is written in a stylistically assured voice and with a structure that makes it easy to follow. And Mortimer intersperses useful facts about his passion in a successful and funny book that is sure to swell the ranks of the world’s beekeepers.
SHOW ME THE HONEY
Adventures of an Accidental Apiarist
By Dave Doroghy
294 pp. Touchwood Editions. Paper, $20.
If you think beekeeping is a quick and easy shortcut to wealth, this book will set you straight. Doroghy keeps his houseboat moored on the Fraser River in British Columbia and is not especially interested in either insects or the intricacies of nature to start off with. One day, his sister, a beekeeper, asks if she can set up a beehive on the back deck of his houseboat. After a resoundingly successful first season, Doroghy ends up receiving the hive’s 15,000-strong population as a Christmas present. And there he finds himself: a brand-new adoptive dad without the faintest clue what to do.
One by one, Doroghy makes all the mistakes a rookie beekeeper possibly could, and he recounts his failures here with a humility that borders on self-flagellation. His detailing of the practical challenges and his attempted solutions are honest and often witty. There are poorly performing queen bees, wasps to chase away, mite problems to deal with. Through all his errors, Doroghy gains growing insight into all the things that need to work if the bee population is to thrive and his dreams of a honey-based fortune are to come true. Knowledge of bees and beekeeping is worked so naturally into the story that it never becomes didactic.
From time to time, the descriptions are a bit long-winded and the wisecracks on the feeble side, but all in all, this is a light read on the pleasures and pains of a beekeeper that will give you new respect for all the work — by two- and six-legged laborers alike — that goes into producing the spoonful of honey you stir into your tea.
A HONEYBEE HEART HAS FIVE OPENINGS
A Year of Keeping Bees
By Helen Jukes
238 pp. Pantheon. $26.95.
The title of Jukes’s book is as delightful as the book itself, offering as it does a hint that this will be about more than hive tools and honey production. And indeed this book is just as much about people and our relationships with one another as it is about beekeeping.
After a rootless, itinerant urban life, Jukes starts a new job in Oxford. There she rents a small house where she tries to get a grip on her new existence. Her backyard is just big enough for a beehive. Having previously been initiated into urban beekeeping in London, Jukes now decides to get some bees of her own. But what does it really mean to “keep” bees? Is it about owning and holding onto or rather about tending and caring? What is a home — whether a house or a hive — and is it possible to truly tame other beings?
Through such reflections, often accompanied by references to etymology (Jukes’s friend works for the Oxford English Dictionary), Jukes gently weaves her personal history into a larger tale of friendship and responsibility: for one another, and for different species such as honeybees.
This book is not big on action, flowing as slowly as golden honey. And perhaps it takes a while to grasp its soul, especially early on. Here, Jukes reads up on the history of beehives and beekeeping, and for the remaining chapters we follow her own bees through the first season. While you will undoubtedly learn something new about bees, this is, first and foremost, a successful and eloquent piece of modern nature writing.