Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Buzzing! Some of my Favourite Literary Bees

Last Saturday, Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM had a bit of an apian theme, as I talked about a selection of my favourite books about nature’s magic pollinators… bees! You can listen again to the show on the player below, but (as promised) here’s a list of the books I included on the show. Let me know in the comments if I missed out your favourite!

Side note: I started off the show by mentioning a couple of cool beekeeping projects in North Manchester that you might like to check out. These were Medlock Bees (who meet at the New Moston Club on Parkfield Road North), the Manchester and District Beekeepers Association (whose headquarters are at the Dower House in Heaton Park) and the Baytrees Bee Project in Harpurhey. If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments.

And then it was on to the books! Here are the ones I featured on the show…

Coffin Road by Peter May (2016)

This was the book that inspired this week’s theme, as I was part way through reading it when the show was broadcast. Peter was a guest on the show back in April, and I’ve talked about his books a few times. Coffin Road is set mostly on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, so I was really looking forward to reading it (we spent part of our honeymoon on Harris and absolutely fell in love with the place).

Coffin Road begins with a man washed ashore on Luskentyre beach, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he came to be in the sea. As he struggles to piece together his identity, he discovers two confusing things: he may well have been involved in a murder, and he has hidden a series of beehives on the Coffin Road. Are these things connected? How can they be? Coffin Road weaves together a whodunit (made more complicated by the fact that one character doesn’t know who he even is) with a thriller that touches on very real concerns about the future of bee colonies across the world. And, of course, it’s all told with Peter’s distinctive and captivating sense of place.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001)

Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Melissa Owens, a 14-year-old white girl who lives with her abusive father T. Ray and motherly maid Rosaleen. Lily is haunted by jumbled memories of killing her mother when she was a small child. When Rosaleen is arrested and badly beaten for trying to assert her newly-enshrined right to vote, Lily helps her escape from the hospital and the two go on the run. They are guided only by a picture of the Virgin Mary as a black woman with the name ‘Tiburon’, which had belonged to Lily’s mother.

On arriving at Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen discover that it is home to the headquarters of Black Madonna Honey, which is run by the Boatwright sisters (August, May and June). The runaways are welcomed into the business, and Lily is taught about beekeeping and honey harvesting. Of course, she learns a little something else along the way. There are plenty of actual bees in Kidd’s book, but also a good dollop of apian metaphor as well: honey and beeswax are a balm that heals life’s pains, and bees are symbolic of order and harmony. Though the book touches on some pretty dark subject matter, it is, as one reviewer put it, ‘more honey than vinegar’.

The Secret Life of Bees was adapted into a film in 2008, starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson.

Royal Jelly by Roald Dahl (1960)

Moving away from honey now to another bee-favourite: royal jelly, the substance secreted by honey bees and used to feed larvae. Roald Dahl’s characteristically dark short story presents this substance in somewhat more sinister light.

First published in the anthology Kiss Kiss in 1960, ‘Royal Jelly’ was republished in the Tales of the Unexpected anthology and in Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983. It introduces us to Albert and Mabel Taylor, an ordinary couple who are tending to their newborn daughter. The baby is struggling to eat, and the Taylors are beginning to fear for her health. But then Albert, a keen beekeeper, hits on a solution that he believes will solve the problem. And it does… though there may be some additional consequences.

‘Royal Jelly’ is one of Dahl’s well-loved ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, and it was adapted in the second series of the TV series of that name (in 1980). Albert was played by Timothy West, and Mabel by Susan George.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King (1994)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, perhaps, one of literature’s most famous beekeepers. As we discover in the short stories ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ and ‘His Last Bow’, Holmes retired from Baker Street to keep bees on the South Downs in Sussex. He even, as we might have expected, wrote a textbook on the subject: Practical Handbook of Bee Culture with Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen.

A number of writers have revealed a fascination with Holmes’s beekeeping retirement, and a desire to return to the elderly detectives Sussex seclusion. Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection has the (unnamed, but undoubtedly Holmes) detective as an old man living out his days with his hives, as does Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind (upon which the film Mr Holmes was based). But I decided to include Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series on my list today, specifically the first book in the series.

Mary Russell begins the series as a 15-year-old Jewish American girl who comes to live in Sussex after the death of her family. There she discovers the great detective (middle-aged here, rather than elderly), and soon becomes his apprentice. It’s not only beekeeping that Holmes encourages Mary to pursue, and the young woman ends up reading Chemistry and Theology at Oxford. A few years later, when Holmes is consulted on a kidnapping case, Mary truly becomes his apprentice – paving the way to become a whole lot more in the future.

King’s series is quirky continuation of Conan Doyle’s Holmes – though some purists might not be happy with certain directions the character takes – and the books are people by an array of characters, from familiar faces (Dr Watson, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft), to cameos by other fictional detectives (such as Lord Peter Wimsey) and appearances by historical figures and writers (e.g. Sabine Baring-Gould and Dashiell Hammett). There are now fourteen books in the series, including A Letter of Mary, The Moor (which sees another hound stalking Dartmoor) and Locked Rooms.

Holmes’s bees come and go in the series, with some plots drawing heavily on their presence, and a number of the books making reference to Holmes’s textbook on beekeeping. While the books really focus on Mary and her relationship with Holmes, the fact that the detective is now also a beekeeper is never really far from our minds.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009)

The next book I included is really only because of one particular character, but it really is a very good book and so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be on the list!

The Year of the Flood is the sequel to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which tells the story of ‘Snowman’ (or Jimmy as we later know him), a man adrift in a post-apocalyptic world. As the novel unfolds, we flashback to Snowman’s pre-apocalyptic life, unravelling the part he played in the destruction of the human race and the devastation of the planet’s wildlife. Revealing the appalling end-point of corporate bioengineering, genetic manipulation and manufacted extinction events, Oryx and Crake is one part science fiction, one part stark warning about humanity’s future.

The Year of the Flood picks up where Oryx and Crake left off, introducing two new characters: Toby and Ren, women who have, like Snowman, survived the apocalypse against the odds. The book is told in flashbacks from both women’s perspectives. Where the first book focused on the corporate world to which Jimmy/Snowman is inextricably bound, its sequel focuses on the lower class people of the ‘pleeblands’, and specifically a group of cult-like self-sufficient farmers known as ‘God’s Gardeners’.

For the purposes of this list, the member of God’s Gardeners of most interest is Pilar (also known as Eve Six or The Fungus). One a senior scientist, Pilar now specializes in bees and mushrooms. She teaches new recruits the ways to handle bees and the importance of keeping their colonies alive. But there is a spiritualism infused in Pilar’s beekeeping – she believes that bees are the messengers to the dead. Although Pilar is not a main character as such, her wisdom and philosophy – and her bees – have a profound impact on the novel’s protagonists.

Atwood completed her trilogy with MaddAddam, which reveals a bit more about Pilar and offers a final resolution (and potential note of hope) to her post-apocalyptic tale.

The Forbidden by Clive Barker (1985)

How could I end this list without a little spoonful of absolutely classic horror?

Although perhaps better known through its film adaptation, Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’ (which was published in the fifth volume of the Books of Blood anthology series) puts bees in a very different light to the previous titles on my list.

It tells the story of Helen Buchanan, a PhD student who is photographing graffiti for her thesis project. Helen wanders in a council estate called Spector Street – she ‘had seldom seen an inner city environment so comprehensibly vandalised’ – and starts to take pictures of its graffiti. She meets a woman named Ann-Marie, who tells her that the estate has been plagued by horrific acts of violence – acts which have been hushed up by the press and the police. Helen isn’t sure how far she can believe Ann-Marie, but when she stumbles into an abandoned maisonette daubed with a huge and imposing image of a face, she begins to wonder if there’s something evil at the heart of Spector Street.

The hideous vandalism bears the legend ‘Sweets for the sweet’ – a line that Helen can’t quite place, but which she finds deeply unsettling. As she reflects, there is something about ‘the sheer overabundance of sugar upon sugar, honey upon honey’ that discomforts her. The secrets and conspiracies of the residents of Spector Street converge with this sickeningly honeyed warning and Helen’s stubborn disbelief to conjure up the embodiment of all that is deeply wrong. Someone is coming… someone who smells of candyfloss and whose torso hums with a disturbing buzzing noise.

As I said, ‘The Forbidden’ is probably better known for the 1992 film adaptation Candyman, starring Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen. The film altered the setting from an unnamed northern city in the UK to the Cabrini-Green area of Chicago – changing and expanding the backstory of the eponymous apparation (and his bees) as well. The film is brilliant, but it’s well worth reading the short story. The sense of the troubled geography and community of Spector Street is very well-done, and the eventual appearance of Candyman – ‘this honeyed psychopath’ – is utterly and compellingly wrong.

And on that unsettling note, my apian-themed show came to an end.

To learn more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch my Apian Special episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf here:

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