VINTAGE BOOK REVIEW: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes

The Blurb (from Booktopia):

A fascinating, insightful and inspiring account of a novice beekeeper's year of keeping honeybees, which will appeal to readers of H is For Hawk and The Outrun

Entering her thirties, Helen Jukes feels trapped in an urban grind of office politics and temporary addresses – disconnected, stressed. Struggling to settle into her latest job and home in Oxford, she realises she needs to effect a change if she’s to create a meaningful life for herself, one that can accommodate comfort and labour and love. Then friends give her the gift of a colony of honeybees – according to folklore, bees freely given bring luck – and Helen embarks on her first full year of beekeeping. But what does it mean to ‘keep’ wild creatures? In learning about the bees, what can she learn of herself? And can travelling inside the hive free her outside it?

As Helen grapples with her role in the delicate, awe-inspiring ecosystem of the hive, the very act of keeping seems to open up new perspectives, deepen friendships old and new, and make her world come alive. A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is at once a fascinating exploration of the honeybee and the hive, the practices of honey-gathering and the history of our observation of bees; and a beautifully wrought meditation on responsibility and care, on vulnerability and trust, on forging bonds and breaking new ground. 

My Thoughts:

I have always been fascinated by bees, and imagine myself living in the country one day with a huge garden full of flowers and my own bee hives. I have quite a collection of books about bees in my library, and bought this beautiful volume as soon as I saw it.

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is a delicate and sensitive memoir of one young woman’s year of keeping bees. Helen Jukes has just moved to Oxford for a new job, but finds herself ground down by the long hours and high stress. One day, unable to stay inside a moment longer, she steps out into the frosty garden at dusk. It’s very small – only fifteen strides to the end – and is bordered by a wild hedge and brambles. For a moment, standing beneath a holly bush, she finds a moment of peace. Here is where the bees would be, she thinks. The thought takes her by surprise, but takes root in her imagination.

The term ‘beekeeper’ enthralls her. ‘In truth … I’m not so well versed in keeping things,’ she writes. She begins to read up on bees – the myth and folklore and science of the long history of their symbiotic relationship with humans. Much of this I have read before, but Helen Jukes has a poetic turn of phrase that lifts her out of the ordinary: ‘a bee lands on my hand and I lift her up to see the mandibles. Everything about her is somewhere between reaching and receiving; she probes the world, tastes and touches it, as she bites and chews it.’

Slowly the thought becomes reality. She orders the hive and friends give her a swarm of honeybees (according to folklore, bees freely given bring luck). As she cares for the bees, and studies them, she finds her understanding of the world about her changing. She has a new perspective, a new way of seeing: ‘(I’ve been) learning how to feel better, and what it means to look and listen and speak; how to define keeping as an action, a doing, and how a colony is generated and grows; how hives and homes and heads are each a kind of inner place, each voicing something about who we are and how we relate to our wider landscapes …’

A truly beautiful book.

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Kate Forsyth
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