Dear Readers, the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing is the UK’s most prestigious prize for all kinds of writing about the natural world, and this year I am determined to work my way through the shortlist. I was very happy to start with this book, ‘Dancing with Bees‘ by Brigit Strawbridge Howard – she is sixty-something, like myself, and has found much joy in reconnecting with the nature that she enjoyed so much as a child. When she says that:
‘I always warn friends who suggest going for a walk that they might like to think twice about having me as their companion, for I find it quite impossible to walk past anything small that moves or catches my attention without stopping to examine and admire it’.
I (and probably my friends) can definitely relate.
Strawbridge Howard finds herself becoming interested in the natural world again through the medium of bees. At first, stories of colony collapse disorder cause her to look into the way that honeybees are treated, particularly in the USA where they are moved, in their millions, from place to place. But gradually, the empty space in her heart where nature used to be is filled by the buzzing of our many native bee species, and it is her exploration of these that takes up the majority of the book.
On the subject of honeybees, though, Strawbridge Howard introduces me to the organisation ‘Friends of the Bees’, who recognise that introducing honeybee hives into an area can outcompete other species. Her lovely husband, Rob, thinks carefully about introducing hives into the garden that he manages:
‘Had there already been large numbers of hives in the vicinity, Rob might thought twice about introducing a hive to his garden, as he would not have wanted to knowingly add more competition to an area already saturated with honeybees’.
Certainly there were many horror stories when ‘urban beekeeping’ became a ‘thing’ in London a few years ago – there was so little forage that even the honeybees themselves were starving, so goodness knows what the impact was on other bee species.
And, as Strawbridge Howard points out
‘‘Keeping bees might well help increase crop pollination, but the fact is that you are no more likely to save bees by becoming a beekeeper than you are going to save ‘birds’ by keeping chickens’.
The author manages to weave her personal story through her developing passion for bees; the chapter ‘The Upside-Down Bird’, about the death of her mother, moved me greatly. I love the tales about her misadventures too; as I’ve found, nature has a way of punishing hubris – just when you think you know something, you find out that it was much more complex than you thought.
But what I love most are the nuggets of information about bees, and the obvious joy with which Strawbridge Howard imparts them. I don’t think I’ve ever made so many notes in a book. Here are just a few:
‘When wild honeybees set up home in tree cavities, they tend to site their nests four to six metres above the ground to give the colony protection from natural predators….which is where log hives come in. They are basically hollowed-out logs, fashioned from trees that have been blown down in storms….They closely mimic the bees’ natural nesting sites and can be strapped on a tree, at exactly the kind of height where honeybees would be likely to establish a new colony. They have a very high success rate in attracting honeybee swarms’.
‘Pollen, in its raw state, is indigestible. To make it digestible, the workers add nectar, together with saliva, gut enzymes, and wild yeasts. Over a few weeks, these cause the pollen to ferment. The resulting ‘bee bread’ (also known as ambrosia) is eaten by nurse bees -worker bees whose specific job it is to care for the brood- to produce royal jelly which, in turn, is fed to the queen and larvae, exclusively in the case of queen larvae and for about three days for others’.
‘Inside the nest, she (the queen bumblebee) secretes slithers of grey-white wax from glands in her abdomen and uses these to fashiion a little pot, about the size of a child’s fingernail and shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey jar. This she fills with her foraged nectar’.
‘For the bumblebee eggs to hatch successfully, the queen needs to sit on them and keep the temperature at around 30 degrees Celsius. She does this by disconnecting her flight muscles inside her thorax and shivering her muscles until her body reaches the required temperature’.
Within a bumblebee nest – ‘Larger workers, being capable of carrying more pollen and nectar back to the nest than their smaller sisters, usually take on the role of foragers, whilst smaller workers stay at home, cleaning the nest, tending to the queen and feeding the larvae’.
‘…a single Red Mason bee (Osmia bicornis), who collects pollen underneath her abdomen (rather than in a specialised pollen ‘basket‘) can be around one hundred times more efficient at pollinating than a single honeybee.
‘..ground-nesting bees solve any potential water problems by smearing the sides of their nest chambers, which are seldom made at the lowest point of the tunnel, with antifungal secretions’
(Notes in bold are mine)
The writer is interested in a whole variety of aspects of ‘natural history’ – at one point she is investigating the history of her village in order to find out whether a particular species of bee is likely to live there, and I am reminded of my sudden interest in the history of Muswell Hill Playing Fields with their patch of ‘peculiar’ flora;
‘I have become a nature detective, investigating, digging deeper, leaving not a stone unturned in my search for evidence that the village of Sedgehill might be home to more than just one, lone Yellow Loosestrife bee’.
And, towards the end of the book, she realises that she has moved beyond just an urge to identify the bee species that she sees, and to learn everything about them, to a more holistic, open-minded search for connection. In this way, yet again, her journey mirrors mine. This could well be my mission statement:
‘Henceforth, I resolve to embrace lateral, creative and inventive thinking, as well as an inquisitiveness about, and wonder and awe of, whatever subject takes my fancy on a given day‘.
I loved this book, for its interweaving of the personal, the scientific and the historical, for the enthusiasm with which the writer’s discoveries are shared, and with the passion that burns through every page. I thought I knew a fair bit about bees, but there was lots here that was new to me, and plenty to provoke thought. Plus, it’s filled me with a desire to take a camper van to the Outer Hebrides and search for the Great Yellow bumblebee, or to a tiny nature reserve next to an industrial estate to find the Potter wasp. This book feels like an act of generosity, from someone who is filled to bursting with a love for the natural world, and with an irrepressible urge to share it with all of us. It’s certainly made me want to pay even more attention to the bees in my back garden, and to want to take even more care of them, which is a tribute to Strawbridge Howard’s powers of expression and persuasion. A worthy contender for the Wainwright Prize.