Picture a beekeeper. What image forms in your head? What gender? What cultural background? What uniform? What tools? What demeanour?
With Revery: A Year of Bees, poet, professor, organic farmer and apiarist Jenna Butler sets out to broaden our idea of who beekeepers are, what they do and how they approach caring for hives. Following the shape of a year at her and her partner’s off-grid farm near Barrhead, Revery recounts Butler’s “five-year partnership” with bees both imported and wild, a partnership she describes as “beneficial to both sides”: the bees having access to organic crops, pollinator plants and boreal forest, and the farmers benefiting from the bees’ pollination as well as honey and wax and “a deep sense of hope and well-being.”
Alberta is honey country: not only the largest producer in Canada, but one of the largest in the world. The province’s honey industry sprang up alongside canola, yielding a sweet, light, highly coveted product. But as Butler explains, industrial honey production is hardly immune from the risks associated with monoculture, pesticide use or invasive species, and there are many commercial beekeepers wisely seeking to diversify and detoxify honey production in order to reduce harm in the bee yard and perhaps slow the decline of the species.
Revery cuts a wide swath, covering industry and its harms, climate change and solastalgia, predators and disease, the workings of the hive, honey’s “colonial past,” the changing community of beekeepers, beneficial organic practices and the ways the bees have contributed to the author’s recovery from past abuse. “Working with the bees has given me back my sense of agency,” she writes. Teachers and therapists of the tough-love variety, bees will protect themselves and each other vigorously against any perceived threat, including beekeepers who approach the hive with a troubled mind. “I still have days when the bees’ behaviour tells me I’m not as calm as I thought I was,” Butler says. “If something’s bothering me and it’s buried, a couple of stings will let me know I need to tend to my inner life.”
This manner of close listening and observance, to the needs and preferences of bee species, to their behaviours and gifts, shows us a whole mode of living. And though one person making a good home for vital pollinators is not enough to undo catastrophic damage to bee populations, Revery insists that there’s still importance, benefit and meaning in forging a good relationship, right now. As Butler writes, the keeping of bees is “at its roots, an act of hope.” And so reads the book’s dedication: “to hope.”
—Laurie D. Graham is the author of Settler Education (M&S).