In the 1800s the Manchester textile mills were called ‘hives of activity’ and the workers compared with bees. The Borough of Manchester was granted city status in 1842; on the city crest seven bees are flying over a globe, signifying Manchester’s industry being exported. Images of bees can be found on buildings and bins. After the Arena bombing last year many Mancunians got themselves bee tattoos.
So, there is a lot of interest and excitement about bees currently dotted around town, in parks and public spaces. Over 100 large bees have been decorated by artists, while 130 little bees are part of the City Learning Programme. It’s how creative producers Wild in Art are celebrating their 10th anniversary, and there are some fabulous creatures to be found. The bee below shows some Manchester landmarks: the Town Hall, a Grade I listed building, the Manchester Central Convention Complex (the original Central railway station) and the Beetham Tower with 47 floors, until recently, the tallest building in the UK outside London.
On a recent trip to Leeds University to visit the Special Collection I was delighted to see a copy of the 1634 revised edition of the first English-language book devoted to beekeeping The Feminine Monarchie, the histori of bee’s. Charles Butler was also called The Father of Beekeeping. He was a priest and kept bees at his parsonage. Butler writes about bee gardens, hive making, enemies of bees, feeding, pollination and swarm catching. The book also includes a musical score: a four-part madrigal that mimics the sound of swarming bees!
One of the most original poetry collections I read in the last few years is Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Poetry Prize. Borodale had previously published books based on walking and writing on location and Bee Journal was supposedly written at the hive, with the poet wearing a veil and gloves! The 90 pages chronicle the life of the hive, from the collection of a small nucleus on 24 May – extract below –
He just wears a veil, this farmer, no gloves
and lifts open a dribbly wax-clogged
We in our whites mute with held breath.
Drops four frames into our silence.
to the capture of a swarm two years later, with all the learning, joy and anxiety in between The poem titles are all dates, some with additional notes, as below:
14th August: Bee Inspector
Today a DEFRA bee inspector clipped the wings of our queen.
Some days the poems are only a few lines, or a single word. 7th January starts:
Four inches of snow. The hive a hut
of silence and darkness.
A year later, there is the entry for 13th January: False Spring Week’s long hoax of mild weather/and bees wander like fools. On the 15th January Sean makes herb tea for his bees, adding grains of salt and their own honey (10%) to boiling water. Opposite is the devastating empty page, titled 24/25th January: Bees Die.
In between, there are many poems full of joy and marvel. Here’s a stanza from 2nd May:
A bee, a tine being struck was out:/sound like a rooting of thin flash/in liquid form poured from a bucket the size of an adult/tooth./Magnet of listening, I to hear it/turned the pole of my head.
Because of the regular small interventions the beekeeper has to make, his observations and devotion turn to a deep intimacy, with unusual imagery and dense, “clotted” language. Reading it was an amazing experience.