How bee­keep­ing al­lowed He­len Jukes to see the se­cret side of her city

Town & Country (UK) - - TOWN -

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.

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