Why Now? | The Idle Beekeeper by Bill Anderson

In honour of World Bee Day, we’re sharing an extract from the brand new book, The Idle Beekeeper, by top urban beekeeper, Bill Anderson.

Global bee populations have been rapidly declining for years, and it’s not just our honey supply that’s at stake: the contribution of bees to the pollination of crops is essential to human survival. But even in industrial apiaries, bees are in distress, hiving in synthetic and hostile environments. Enter idle beekeeping: the grassroots, low-intervention system that seeks to emulate the behaviour and habitat of bees in the wild—and it only requires two active days of beekeeping per year, one in the spring and another in the fall.

In The Idle Beekeeper, Bill Anderson calls upon his years of applied curiosity as an urban beekeeper to celebrate these under-appreciated insects and show how simple and rewarding beekeeping can be. In this entertaining, philosophical, and practical guide, Anderson shares why and how to build a hive system that is both cutting-edge and radically old. Maximum idleness is achieved through step-by-step directions to help the beekeeper gently harvest honey with minimum effort, make mead and beeswax candles, and closely observe and understand these fascinating and productive social creatures. For anyone interested in keeping bees, The Idle Beekeeper is the definitive guide to getting started, even in a city, and without effort.

The following is an extract from The Idle Beekeeper: The Low Effort, Natural Way to Raise Bees by Bill Anderson, Abrams Press. 

Introduction: Why Now? 

Almost everyone now knows how much we all depend on bees. In 1958 the Chinese found out the hard way in a cautionary tale of biblical proportions. Agricultural targets were not being met, and Chairman Mao decided that sparrows were responsible for eating intolerable amounts of the people’s rice crops. He orchestrated a hugely successful campaign to eradicate them. The sparrows. The whole population was encouraged to get involved. Good citizens used guns and catapults to shoot the birds. They banged pots and pans, beat drums: anything to scare the sparrows from landing, forcing them to keep flying until they fell from the sky, dead from exhaustion. Nests were destroyed, eggs smashed, nestlings killed, and the sparrows were driven to near-extinction.

But with the sparrows gone, the insects they ate flourished. Plagues of locusts wreaked even greater devastation on the crops. Chinese scientists then actually looked inside dead sparrows’ stomachs and discovered 25 percent human crops and 75 percent insects. Oops. So now the insects got it. Patchy and panicky misuse of pesticides like DDT not only wiped out the locusts, it killed all the pollinators as well. The bees weren’t the only innocent victims of these acts of devastating human ignorance: the ensuing ecological disaster exacerbated the Great Chinese Famine in which at least twenty million people died of starvation.

In 2012 a study commissioned by Friends of the Earth estimated that if the United Kingdom couldn’t rely on insect pollinators and had to do the job ourselves by hand, it would cost the economy $2.3 billion a year—for a green and pleasant land of sixty million people that doesn’t grow enough food to feed itself.

That same year I got my first bees. But it wasn’t as a result of terrifying, apocalyptic statistics. I’d been in a beautiful English garden directing Lewis, a television drama whose pilot I’d “helmed,” in the oddly nautical language of our industry. We were filming a scene that involved a fictional family enjoying a relaxing lunch alfresco. The laws of filmmaking usually insist upon hurricanes or snow on these occasions, but it appeared we had been given special dispensation: it was merely unseasonably cold. Actors were huddled like convicts in huge quilted thermal coats sprayed with stenciled coat hanger symbols—wardrobe department graffiti to discourage any thoughts of theft or style. Inelegant feather puffas were abruptly plucked away at the last moment before shooting the illusion of a midsummer, hypothermia-free take.

I was talking to the cameraman about how we might make the next freezing shot look warm and golden, and though he seemed to be listening intently, he began to slowly lower himself down to the lawn where we were standing and surreptitiously picked something up off the ground. Dropped litter I assumed, and carried on. But then, without taking his eyes off me, he tried to pretend that he wasn’t gently blowing into the fist he’d made around the litter. Mysterious.

He appeared to be still diligently listening to what I was saying, but I wasn’t: I noticed he’d put his other hand into the pocket of his down jacket, a much more efficient way to keep it warm, so what was with the blowing?

Like a schoolboy caught stealing in a sweet shop, Paul slowly unfurled his fingers to reveal an insect lying on its back in the palm of his hand. Six legs skywards.

“Looks like a dead bee,” I offered, none the wiser.
“Well, it might be . . .” Paul looked intently at the bee.
I didn’t have to: “It’s definitely a bee.”
“Yes. But it might not be dead. If they stop moving for too long on a cold day, they can cool down so much their flight muscles stop working. Then they’re stuck outside and they’ll cool down even more and die. But sometimes, if you warm them up a little . . .”
. . . Two of the six legs twitched . . .
“. . . just get them going again . . .”
. . . The dead bee flipped over off its back and started crawling on Paul’s warming palm . . .
“. . . they can fly back to the hive where there’s warmth and food . . .”
. . . Lift off! I watched Paul’s gaze following the bee as it flew off purposefully into the heavens. I’d just witnessed a resurrection.
“Not at all! I just gave her a helping hand,” he said, but his eyes were twinkling with joy.

French philosopher Albert Camus said, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” As a storyteller I spend most of my time interrogating characters’ choices with the question “Why now?” It’s the crux of dramatic narrative. All of us are all too aware that we often avoid making those significant life choices that will change everything: we know they will define us, determine our future, but how to get them right? The circumstances that demand such a choice may have been pressing for years, so when we finally commit and decide to act, what happened? What was the trigger? Why now?

I later found out that Paul, the cameraman shooting my drama, had another life: as Bond . . . Paul Bond, he was secretly a World Champion beekeeper. Even later I realized my choice to keep bees had secretly been made the moment that bee flew from his hand.

Right now you might like to consider why you’ve chosen to be reading this book at this particular moment.

The writing of it goes back to another, altogether grander English garden where the annual Port Eliot Festival beautifully meanders by a tidal estuary on the south coast. In the summer sunshine on the riverbank lawn I came across not a catatonic bee but a large tent: “The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry, and Merriment.” The use of that last word outside the context of Christmas or alcohol brought a smile to my face and drew me inside. It was love at first sight. The Idlers’ motto is Libertas per cultum and as well as teaching you Latin so you can knowingly pursue “freedom through culture,” philosophy, astronomy, calligraphy, music, business skills, English grammar, ukulele, public speaking, singing, drawing, self-defense, taxidermy, harmonica, and many other subjects were also on the Idle menu along with much hilarity and merriment. But not Idle beekeeping.

The Idlers also publish a bimonthly magazine whose intention is to “return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject.” Not out of sloth, but in a considered, slightly unorthodox, very low maintenance way, this is how I try to keep bees because I believe they know how to do it better than I do.

After the briefest conversation—“Can you write?”—I became the regular beekeeping columnist for the Idler magazine. Most of the participants in ensuing Idle beekeeping workshops assumed these gatherings where I taught the little I know were at least partly a ruse to sell copies of my book, but surprisingly not all of them were relieved to discover no such book existed.

In our biosphere there are outstanding individuals who have given their lives to studying and keeping bees either in an environment of dedicated peer-reviewed academic rigor or through decades of hands-on experience, often both. I am neither. I’m not even a shining example of Idleness. But I have spent many years telling stories for a living. Fabricating a tissue of lies into a believable semblance of truth is only possible through empathy, on the part of both the storyteller and their audience. The basis of the contract we make with each other is an agreement to empathetically work together to viscerally imagine and virtually experience the lives of others.

I wondered if the empathy that can allow us to understand and care for our fellow humans’ dramas could allow us to do the same for the bees. But isn’t that a bit soft and woolly? Where’s the rigor? I come from Scotland, a country where “Physics” is still called “Natural Philosophy,” squarely defining the study of all matter and energy in our universe as an act of human contemplation. This, too, is not possible without empathy. Nothing worthwhile is.

This book is going to show you why keeping bees with the minimum of intervention is positively good, and how to do it responsibly with minimum effort.

The Idle Beekeeper is out in the UK on Tuesday 21st May 2019. Get your copy here
Find out more about The Idler here