Book Review of Helen Juke’s A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop

“It felt like slipping through a hidden side-door, stepping slightly outside the flow of things and into a different version of the city. Nothing was as it first appeared when we went beekeeping […] We followed underground tunnels and hidden passageways, entered green spaces I hadn’t guessed were there.”

 

Helen Jukes is a British author, Oxford University tutor and a beekeeper. Her new book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, is a memoir of her first year of urban beekeeping in the backyard of her home in England. The story is subtle, but unexpected and riveting, as the bees gently nudge the author towards love, understanding and life’s bigger picture.

The hardcover book itself is a work of art, with its gold-embossed dust jacket and beautiful and cleverly-depicted pictures and patterns. The book, whose gentle words flow readily, describes to us the author’s journey that changed how she views the world – how she now notices details and colours, and the life of creatures that exists ‘behind and between London’s walls.’

This wonderful work of non-fiction blends modern day memoir, facts and romance, and is peppered with delightful insights on each page. I found myself ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at the enchanting ancient mythology surrounding bees. Did you know that in ancient Greece, the sound of bees buzzing from between rocks was believed to be ‘souls emerging from the underworld,’ and that the Mayans believed bees to have mystical powers? Even British folklore proposed that bees were the teeny-tiny messengers of God Himself!

I have been fascinated by bees for many years and tantalised by idle musings of one day keeping an urban hive, just to be near these awesome little creatures. The book reminded me of the commitment and resources it would take and the study of it all that I long to take up again – bee brushes, skeps, the hive tool, broodand propolis. But Jukes is not solely interested in making her work about keeping herself in honey. Yes! This resonated with me, and impressed me the most.

The author has a knack– not only for writing in a way that delivers memoir like a novel, and facts like suspenseful fiction – she has the uncanny ability to articulate the seen, but the intangible, what is thought but left unsaid. One of my most cherished parts of the book is when Jukes describes the feeling left in the house after a visit from her human friends: ‘The house is empty but still full of them, and the rooms are quiet but still ringing with them.’ Bingo!

I was delighted to find that the acknowledgements section has information on how to become involved in the preservation of bees in a positive way – not just where to find information about keeping them, but information on how to help the struggling creatures right now. While the book is set in Britain, there were even recommendations for further information for readers in Australia and New Zealand. No spoilers, but best of all was the discussion at the end of the book about how to help the local bees and how to easily promote flowering and nesting habitats for these important little entities.