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An interview with Helen Jukes

Helen Jukes’ debut book A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings was published last week. Here she speaks to Michael Malay about what it means to keep bees, to be kept by them, and the wildness that resides in them, and in us.

Michael Malay: Your debut book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, describes a year of keeping bees in a garden in Oxford. How did you end up becoming a beekeeper?

Helen Jukes: I lodged for a few years with a woman in Nottingham who used to tell me about a friend of hers in London who’d started keeping bees. He was keeping them in community gardens, and then he was keeping them on rooftops and in parks… it all sounded very exciting, and when I moved to London a few years later I asked for an introduction. By this time Luke had over fifty hives. He didn’t seem to mind me following him around, so I began a very informal kind of apprenticeship with him – opening a hive and learning a little more whenever I had a few hours to spare.

Some time after that I moved to Oxford, and found myself with a garden big enough to keep a hive of my own. I suppose I must have been going on about it, because that Christmas a group of friends clubbed together to give me a colony of honeybees – this was when I became a beekeeper proper.

MM: Reading your book, I was reminded of a line by Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you’. This seemed to describe your relationship with the honey bees. The more you studied them, the more they seemed to look back at you, as if you were being scrutinized by the thing you were observing… It was a kind of useful scrutiny, though, clarifying unspoken feelings and unmet longings – a need for wildness, perhaps, but also a desire for rootedness, two things that beekeeping seems uniquely able to satisfy. The relationship, though, goes both ways. The more the bees helped you attend to personal questions, the more clearly you were able to see the bees – their environments, their distinctive lives, their otherness. Can you describe what this process was like for you?

HJ: That’s a lovely quote from Hopkins. The observation of honeybees has a long history to it. It’s partly a story of how far humans have encroached – how we’ve attempted to understand, influence, manipulate and control the life of the colony; but there’s another story too, and one less spoken about than the first, about what honeybees do to us – what it is to come into contact with a wild creature, which perhaps comes into play whenever we engage in a close and intent act of ‘looking’.

Not long after I started beekeeping in Oxford I came across the letters of Reverend William Mewe, a beekeeper and natural historian from the seventeenth century. Since making regular observations of his colony, he wrote, honey production had ‘doubled’. Just by dint of his careful gaze, the bees had become more efficient! That stayed with me, not because I really believed Mewe’s claim, but because it seemed to gesture toward a sense he had that something was happening as he looked in on the colony. Perhaps the something was happening to him, and not the bees, but he didn’t have the words for that. Or perhaps it was happening to me, and not to Mewe, and by reading his words I was finding a way of describing it to myself.

We live in a time when it has become particularly difficult to see clearly. There is much done to cloud our perceptions – we know that surfaces are deceptive, that fictions can masquerade as facts, facts as fictions. Perhaps this, in part, was why the work of scrutiny (of scrutinising the scrutiny, as you put it) felt especially urgent that year in Oxford – it seemed so important just to look. And not just with my eyes, but also with my ears, nose, feet, mind, heart. The whole process felt like searching around for a good gaze – a careful, sensitive, even particularly ‘human’ kind of attention with which I might better equip myself to understand and relate to the world around me. That searching brought up lots of things – the ‘personal questions’ you mention. And it’s funny you say that ‘the more the bees helped you attend to these questions, the more clearly you were able to see the bees’ – I don’t think it ever felt that way to me! I was never sure that I was seeing them clearly, but I did try to write as honestly as I could, and to be upfront about how tangled and confused that sometimes felt.

MM: In a recent essay, Tim Dee wonders whether much of contemporary nature writing is ‘really life-writing’, a way of ‘talking about ourselves’ under the guise of talking about the environment. The worry is that such books, for all their beauty and intensity, tell us less about other animals and landscapes and more about ourselves – a problematic position, when you consider how much of the environment is disappearing because of human self-concern. Nevertheless, Dee also seems to hold the door open for the autobiographical ‘I’, suggesting that the ‘subjective voice’ adds a ‘necessary emotional and imaginative value to facts and to politics’. How did you – how do you – negotiate the vexed question of nature writing, especially the extent to which the writer should or should not intrude upon her subject?

HJ: I’ve struggled with this question so much! When I started writing the book I was determined not to be the major player in it. I had in mind a narrator whose gaze was only ever turned outwards – whose internal world might only appear fleetingly, through her interactions with other things. The focus would be on the bees, not me, and it would be their story I was telling. I wanted to be like Kathleen Jamie, or Richard Mabey, or Rob Macfarlane, or any of those other quiet, still nature writers who seem able to hush their insides enough to become a channel for the world around them.

I shared an early draft with a few people, and the response was pretty unanimous – there was a sense of a personal story going on, but it was so oblique as to be frustrating for the reader. Perhaps it was nature writing, but it wasn’t very good. I made another few drafts, and found that my ‘I’ stepped further into the frame each time. It was a very personal story, after all. A friend called it memoir but I decided early on to keep to the present tense because I wasn’t writing memories, I was describing something very much in process, a line of questioning which only unfolded as I wrote. And what really interested me – what became most important, most pressing, to write about – wasn’t actually myself or the bees but the nature of the relationship between us. If I was going to do that properly, we’d both have to be present – me and the bees – and I’d have to own up to my unhushed insides.

I agree with Dee that the ‘I’ can add necessary emotional and imaginative value to facts and to politics‘ – and I think that it can also add a strangeness, an apprehension that we’re implicated, bound in complex ways to the creatures and environments we’re writing about. We bleed into the world we describe, as it bleeds into us.

Coming out the other side, I’m surprised to realise that I’ve become a convert to memoir as a form. The ‘self’ is in a sticky place at the moment – it needs interrogation, needs scrutiny, needs pulling apart and putting back together again. I’ve been deeply moved and challenged by writers Maggie Nelson, Sheila Heti, Annie Dillard – each of whom have taken the stuff of experience and piled it into new forms of enquiry and meaning. For me, that opens up an exciting new terrain when it comes to writing about our relationship with the natural world – when it comes to writing about anything, really.

MM: After finishing your book, I began to reflect on the aptness of the term ‘beekeeping’. In keeping bees, isn’t it also the case that you are ‘kept’ by bees – in the sense of being tied to the garden where the colony lives, and otherwise tangled up in the hive’s fortunes?  Incidentally, this question of keeping bees – and being kept by them – makes me think of the double meanings in words like ‘hive’ and ‘swarm’, something you discuss in your book. A sense of doubleness – of contradictory possibilities – lives in so many of our words for the natural world, making one wonder whether a kind of wildness resides in etymology, in the roots of language? Is there a sense in which writing about bees also rewilded the English language for you? 

HJ: That’s such an interesting idea – that there might be a doubleness, an ambivalence, at the heart of language. I did have a sense as I was writing that words are very beelike – there’s an unsettledness about them, their meanings shift and change so that we can never quite pin them down.

The beelike nature of language felt relevant too when it came to thinking about voice and form. I liked the thought that through the course of A Honeybee Heart, the text itself might come to imitate something of the light and roving nature of honeybees. I wrote mostly in short sections, shifting between different contexts and timeframes. I wanted my sentences to flit and quiver like a foraging bee, or like thoughts, or like the feeling of tentative and gently probing ideas. And I wanted to give the story room to unfold of its own accord – not to be too controlling, just let the themes unravel themselves. This brought a sense of serendipity to the writing – and a mess, at times. It meant I came across connections I hadn’t expected; followed trajectories I wouldn’t have considered if I’d had it all laid out from the start.

MM: One of your chapters describes the phenomena of swarming, which is what happens when half of the colony, finding the hive too cramped to sustain a growing population, departs in search of a new home. What does it mean to be in relationship with something that you care for and tend to, but which is also completely indifferent to your attentions, ready to swarm off as soon the hive feels restrictive?

HJ: It’s essential. Our culture is geared towards a very anthropocentric worldview – we’re taught to see ourselves, our own needs and desires, as the pivot points around which all else revolves. It’s initially disturbing and then surprisingly revealing to find yourself caring for a creature that doesn’t give two hoots about you. Bees don’t need us. And yet, as we’re coming to realise, we need them.

MM: The western honey bee has attracted its fair share of admirers over the years. Who are some of your favourite characters in the history of our fascination with this species?

HJ: My favourite descriptions of honeybees belong to the Classical thinkers. Aristotle believed that honey came from heaven; Pliny the Elder proposed it was the saliva of stars, or some kind of moisture produced by the air purging itself. But my favourite character has to be Francois Huber, a Swiss natural historian writing in the seventeenth century, who published a series of letters titled New Observations on the Natural History of Honeybees. He designed a hive that looked a bit like a book, with frames like leaves which opened out. And he went on to make a series of investigations which transformed the understanding of the time (he discovered, for example, how a honeybee queen is impregnated – and so how a colony regenerates itself). What is most extraordinary to me about Huber is that he was almost completely blind. All findings came to him through his trusted assistant, Francois Burnens – which causes me to wonder what observation meant to Huber by the time he came to titling his letters. Perhaps it had come to encompass something far broader in scope than vision.

MM: In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane celebrates our capacity to find wildness in copses, hedgerows, streams, but also roadside verges, abandoned factories, and otherwise neglected places. But he then goes on to make a disarming observation. ‘That margins should be a redoubt of wildness’, he writes, is ‘proof of the devastation of the land’. Is there a complicated sense in which ‘urban beekeeping’, even as it reassures ourselves of the vitality of the natural world, obscures the extent to which the natural world is becoming more unhomely for bees? In other words, do we surrender something larger when we accept our ‘nature fixes’ in smaller and smaller doses –roadside verges, a hive in the backyard. Or, as Macfarlane goes onto say, do these small points of contact enliven us, reminding us both of the ‘resilience of the wild’ and the way in which ‘wildness is weaved with the human world’? 

HJ: Actually, I think beekeeping clarifies rather than obscures that unhoming – lifting the lid of the hive, I find a creature that is wild and strange and also deeply implicated in human culture. A recent study found that a quarter of UK honey contains bee-harming pesticides; parasites uncommon in hives even thirty years ago are now widespread. The health of UK colonies is in decline, the result of a complex mix of factors including loss of nesting and foraging habitats, pesticide overuse, pollution and climate change. Beekeeping opens up an encounter with all this, as well as with the wild.

I think it’s important to recognise the ‘weaving’. I like Kathleen Jamie’s notion of wildness as ‘a force requiring constant negotiation’. ‘To give birth is to be in a wild place,’ she writes – ‘so is to struggle with pneumonia.’ So is the slick of mould forming underneath my fridge, the cancerous lump in my friend’s breast. The wild is never far away – it lives under, through, around us. The more we’re able to recognise it as part of us, as in negotiation with us, the better equipped I think we’ll be to face those bigger questions you talk about.

MM: A recent report from Germany found that, over the past 27 years, there has been a 76% decrease in insect life. What’s more troubling is that this data was gathered from nature reserves – meaning that, on intensively farmed land, the situation is likely to be worse. What does it mean to keep bees when so much insect life is disappearing?

HJ: Yes – that’s a shocking statistic. Beekeeping won’t save the bees, but it does challenge and change me. To come up close to a creature like that – to see how complex and sensitive and highly tuned it is, forces my gaze outwards, sideways, and back in on itself. It forces me to ask – how am I living, and am I living in a way that is equal to this, that gives life to this, am I attentive enough to these other and different ways of being. Those are sometimes difficult questions to have to face.

HELEN JUKES is a writer, beekeeper, and writing tutor. Her writing has appeared in Caught by the River, BBC Wildlife, Resurgence, the Junket and LITRO. She works as a tutor on the creative writing programme at Oxford University, and also with the Bee Friendly Trust, a London-based charity founded by beekeeper Luke Dixon to promote our understanding of honeybees and help nurture sustainable habitats. She lives in the Welsh Marches. Her book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, is published by Simon and Schuster.

Illustration – Swarm by LISA GIAMBRA.

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