Book review | Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World
by Alison Gillespie (Croydon Hill 2014)
This entertaining book is not about beekeeping but about beekeepers—and a strange group they are. Gillespie, an environmental journalist, shadowed urban beekeepers through several eastern cities as they tended hives on rooftops and balconies, in vacant lots and forgotten alleys. Whether her cross section is typical is impossible to say, but she found some winners.
She interviews a beekeeper who erects a ladder in his bathtub and climbs through a skylight to get to his rooftop bees. She rides with another in a bucket truck to extract a huge colony three stories up in an antebellum building. The book offers an intriguing look at how urban beekeepers cope with landscapes, laws, and attitudes that are often antagonistic to the notion of stinging insects.
To be honest, I almost didn’t read the book. Being somewhat fanatical about the vocabulary of beekeeping (who me?) I nearly hyperventilated over her use of certain terms, super vs brood box being chief among them. And of course hive vs colony and caste vs sex. I longed to send her a copy of my post, “English for beekeepers,” but deciding that was impolitic, I put the book down and walked away.
I finally reminded myself that Gillespie is not a beekeeper, that she learned the unfortunate terms from beekeepers, and that beekeepers don’t care about them anyway. In short, after seven days and a sizable swig of whiskey, I convinced myself to get over it—and I am glad I did.
Although Gillespie begins with beginners, the text often reads like a who’s who of beekeeping in America. She managed to get interviews with many names you’ve heard before, including Toni Burnham, Kim Flottam, Andrew Coté, Tony Planakis, Bill Castro, Jeff Pettis, and Sam Droege. She is nothing if not complete.
Gillespie covers in depth the issues unique to urban hives, including air quality, amount and distribution of forage, the danger of hives being blown from their rooftop perches, antiquated laws, and the fear of swarms. But she also discusses the pride urban farmers have in their hobby, their honey, and the feelings of accomplishment they share with their cohorts.
Her portrayal of the various personalities drew me in, as did her description of beginner beekeeping classes in the downtown, and extraction demonstrations at the Maryland State Fair. Her prose is straightforward but sometimes touches on the lyrical, as when she describes bees in the cityscape:
“Gardens full of bees thriving in the middle of that urban core seem to mean the city is safe, livable, hospitable. Indeed, for some of the people I’ve interviewed, the bees form an unexpected sign of the urban good life. For centuries the honey bee has symbolized industriousness or selflessness, but now—in a new urban twist—it has become a symbol of a human willingness to acknowledge and connect with the natural, the good and the pure even in the most unlikely places.”
A chapter titled “What is killing the bees?” is particularly well crafted with solid explanations of why bee health is such a complex subject, and why answers are so slow in coming. She provides a short history of pesticide use and abuse, and provides a glimpse into the challenge of maintaining native pollinators.
The one thing I found lacking in the book was a good proofreader. Errors are sometimes funny—such as cows that have utters—and sometimes confusing. After one sentence (“A man is walking by below the hill where I’m sitting with a very well-groomed German Shepard on a leash . . .”) I spent considerable time trying to figure out when she acquired the dog.
In spite of a few rough spots, I think the book provides a fair and unbiased look at the urban side of beekeeping and an especially good portrait of the personalities behind city hives. If you are interested in urban beekeeping or the people who do it, the book offers a comprehensive peek into a very different—and sometimes strange—world. Go ahead and give it a try.
Information on purchasing the book in paperback or various e-book formats is available on Gillespie’s website.