SWEETER THAN HONEY
How beekeeping allowed Helen Jukes to see the secret side of her city
Not long after moving to Oxford, I was given a colony of bees. I lived in a Victorian end-of-terrace not far from the centre of town; there was a slim garden at the back, overgrown and rambling – you could walk up to the far fence and feel completely hidden. This was where – in a space both wild and domestic; in the city, yet also slightly outside it – I placed my beehive.
In myths and folk tales bees have long inhabited these in-between places, and many cultures have seen them as messengers, able to pass across realms. In Ancient Greece, the sound of bees buzzing through the cracks of rocks was said to be souls emerging from the underworld; the Mayans believed that bees were imbued with mystical power; in British folklore they’re known as small messengers of God.
As spring came, my hive began to buzz and hum. Once a week I opened it up, pulling on my beekeeping suit and lighting the smoker (a metal contraption with bellows and a spout said to pacify bees). When I lifted the lid the buzzing intensified, the acrid smell of smoke mixing with the softer scents of wax and honey. Then I’d inspect the hive’s interior, piece by piece – as the bees bristled, tightened, swelled.
Opening the hive was fascinating, but I also learnt to just sit and look, getting to know the bees without intruding on them. I could lose whole hours like that, watching them lifting out of the hive or returning back, carrying pollen the colour of dumper trucks and traffic cones.
A few months in, I realised that beekeeping was changing how I experienced the city. I was noticing wildflowers where I hadn’t before; I’d become aware of what creature life existed through the urban noise. I’d started beekeeping to escape the city, but in fact the bees had led me back to it. ‘A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees’ by Helen Jukes (£14.99, Scribner) is published on 26 July.