Book Review: Bees & Honey: From flower to jar

Bees & Honey Michael Weiler

I read a lot of bee books, maybe too many, I categorise them into two types; technical beekeeping manuals or more narrative tales about the natural history of bees and their keepers.  This charming book, which kept me company on a recent business trip, sits between those two genres. It is the biography of a swarm from  hiving until the beekeeper harvests the honey. Included are detailed descriptions of bee biology and their life cycle.

Published in Germany Bees & Honey was written by Michael Weiler an influential figure in the biodynamic movement and a beekeeper of considerable experience. Translated from German to English results in some interesting phraseology, for example, when describing bees flying down to a skep with a captured queen:


‘those still outside are gathering at the starting point on the branch on the branch flying round in the familiar lemniscatory loops’  (talking about bees flying down into a swarm catching box)

This gives the book real character and the mixture of photographs and line drawings provide effective illustration when required. Michael travels to the UK often to lecture on biodynamic beekeeping and based on this book I’m keen to listen to him in person.

Germany is the World’s largest consumer of  honey and beekeeping there is popular. As an English beekeeper I was fascinated by some of the different approaches to beekeeping within the book:

  • Keeping swarms in cool dark quiet places like cellar. This, I’m told, is a well known and common practice; I admit I’d never heard of it – but I’m still a fledgling beekeeper. It allows the bees to settle inside the box, giving the beekeeper up to three days to prepare a new site.
  • Hiving swarms with a horizontal board. Most of us have seen images of  a swarm walking up a sheet into a new hive. It’s a cool thing to watch and very British – all the bees queue as they wait enter their new home. German bees it seems are a tad more adventurous, they tightrope walk into the hive …. well almost. The method described by Weiler to hive a swarm is a little different. The new hive and the box containing the swarm are placed at a similar height with the entrances facing each other. A board is placed horizontally between the entrances creating a bridge.  The queen is driven into the new hive and the rest of her workers follow. A sight I’d like to see.
  • Walk in hives. Ever had a hive tall enough you needed to stretch to get the lid off? They are a pain in the arse, well a solution may be at hand. Page thirty eight has a picture of a ‘Baden three story hive’; a hive the size a wardrobe you can walk into. I’ve tried to find some other references to this monster on the Internet without success. The only evidence is this grainy photography – so I’m going to file it in the same box as the Loch Ness monster and the Yeti.

Bees & Honey: From flower to jar is different twist on a beekeeping book, it’s short enough to read on a commute or holiday and is packed with some great stories. I’d encourage you to grab a copy.


Honeybee Democracy – a review

Honeybee DemocracyI’m sure like most beeks I have the strange obsession with beekeeping books. A brutal combination of Internet access and a credit card means I have a stack of books on various bee related topics I now own waiting to be read. Some of them naturally fall to the bottom of the pile. Others simply cry out for attention; Prof. Tom Seeley’s wonderful Honeybee Democracy is such a book.

Tom Seeley has spent four decades researching what he refers to as Swarm Intelligence. A process in which animals can solve problems they’d be unable to by utilising complex social interactions with a larger group; the ultimate team work.

In Honeybee Democracy Professor Seeley explains how honeybees swarm then find the best new home for themselves. Writing a science book is a tricky balance. Too much detail it becomes nerdy and dry but not enough it turns into a series of anecdotes; most of which you’ll probably pick up at your local bee club. It is such a delicate balance that although there are an awful lot of so-called popular science books on the market there are very few readable ones. Seeley has just the right combination of storytelling and detailed evidence to keep the book both entertaining and highly informative.

Honeybee Democracy describes how as part of his PhD studies Tom set out to investigate swarming and hive location. He started by analysing feral hives which allowed him to determine that bees overwhelmingly choose hives that were roughly 40 litres in capacity with a 15cm entrance. He confirmed this preference by setting up a number of bait hives of differing sizes and monitoring a single swarm as it selected it’s final home, 80% of time the bees choose a 40 litre box.

However; this book is not a how-to for building the perfect bait hive. Seeley narrates in a clear and entertaining way the processes from the swarm leaving the hive to finding a new home. It’s an amazing story.

Honeybee democracy isn’t just a great science book about bees, it’s a great book full stop – you should buy it.

I’ve embedded a video presentation by Tom describing his work. It’s an hour well spent, check it out.