Read of the Week: The Book of Bees by Piotr Socha

How do bees communicate? What does a beekeeper do? Who survived being stung by 2,443 bees?

Hey, nature folk! This week I’ve been reading The Book of Bees and I’m ready to give you the lowdown, honey.

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First impressions

There are three first things you’ll notice about The Book of Bees:

  • It’s big
  • It’s bright
  • It’s seriously, really big

My initial reaction was ‘woah there’, and then a slight panic of ‘this is never going to fit on my bookshelves!’ But then I opened it… and fell in love.

With its bold illustrations, fun facts and amazing size, it’d be easy to think of this as a children’s book. As I started to read I was so happy to find that this fun book was written for adults too.

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What’s it all about?

The Book of Bees by Piotr Socha (Thames & Hudson) takes you through everything from bee biology, apiary dynamics, bee myth and folklore (honey is the drink of the gods after all), right through to the vast history of bee traditions from all across the globe.

I have learned so much from this book. In fact, just call me a bee expert. Did you know we’ve been stealing ideas from bee architecture for millennia? Or that that the Eiffel Tower’s design was built on the structure of a human thigh bone? OK… that’s not very bee-ish, but this book is a goldmine of interesting facts.

A force of nature

Bees are both more intelligent and more brutal than I could ever have imagined, and I love them all the more after finishing this book. After reading The Book of Bees, I will never look at honey in the same way again. It takes four to seven bees – working full-time for a whole season – to make just ONE spoonful of glorious, golden honey.

Every single bee is a genius and an evolutionary marvel.

For bee lovers and new-bees, this book is a fantastic gift for everyone who loves nature and wants to save it.

 

Be-e a helping hand

Spring is just a couple of days away, and we all know this snow is going to disappear tomorrow, right? (Right??) It’s definitely time to welcome in the bees!

While numbers have dipped, it’s great to hear there so many bee success stories of people bringing them back to their patch. Here are some top tips to make your garden the buzzing place to be:

  1. Fill your flowerbeds with crocuses, sunflowers, heather and brightly-coloured plants. These will shout out to bees so they know to get them while they’re hot!
  2. Make a bee hotel. It’s easier than you’d think: cut a plastic bottle in half and fill it with bamboo sticks, twigs and reeds to give solitary bees a cosy home.
  3. It might surprise you, but bees need vegetables as much as we do. Bees require a variety of food to survive. Your French runner beans will do just the trick (and they’ll pollinate them for you too!).
  4. Go wild. Put the mower away for a couple of months. Bees love to shelter in overgrown grass. It’s great for wildlife, and gives your garden some rustic charm…
  5. And finally, if you see a bee that’s struggling, give it some reviving sugar water to help it on its way.

Have fun!

Find your copy of The Book of Bees at Thames & Hudson, £16.95

**Read my other bee and nature book reviews here!

Bee-&-Me

Enjoy spring and summer, whatever the weather, with this joy-filled wordless picture book.

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The Beast from the East is still in full swing: does anyone remember what March is supposed to feel like?

But don’t panic! You can still experience spring with this lovely little find on my picture book shelf.

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Bee-&-Me by Alison Jay

What’s it all about?

Bee-&-Me by Alison Jay is the simple tale of girl who rescues a bee on a stormy night and helps him grow. The two of them go on an amazing adventure to fill their city with wildflowers and bring back the lost bees.

Further to the delicate illustrations and wise insights from Alison Jay, one of the most stunning things about this book is that it doesn’t use any text at all. Wordless picture books – like those in my article for Knights Of Publishing – can help readers expand their perspectives, vocabulary and imagination, and I know my imagination was running wild with Bee-&-Me!

Wordless picture books (such as those beloved classics from Shaun Tan and David Wiesner) have become increasingly popular with both children and adults alike. They allow the reader to use their own words and description to animate the images, and think more in-depth about the story’s meaning.

Saving the world

Bee-&-Me is about wildlife conservation and how we can bring happiness to others by thinking of the wider world.

Bees and other pollinators have suffered from loss of habitat and the rise of dangerous ‘acute risk’ pesticides over the past 15 years. While many initiatives have led to wonderful wildflower meadows in edgeland areas and brilliant companies like Seedball helping us to sow bee-friendly wildflowers in our own gardens, there’s still a long way to go.

There are so many ways you can help bees and stories like Bee-&-Me really highlight the need for the caring, gentle and fearless approach we must adopt to save our wildlife.

 

Surprise!

Bee-&-Me made me smile a lot: I could enjoy it again and again. My copy even came with a secret packet of wildflower seeds so I can bring spring into my own home!

This book is a gorgeous reminder of joy, friendship and the amazing things bees can do for our world.

Find your own copy of Bee-&-Me on the Old Barn Books website (£10.99).

Little Hazelnut

The pop-up picture book that brings you closer to nature.

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It’s almost spring – can’t you feel it? The green is sprouting in the park and the birds are shaking out their winter feathers as if to say, “Bring it on, 2018.”

With those longer days fast-approaching, I wanted a book that made me feel fresh and alive. So when I first opened this one my eyes lit up.

Little Hazelnut, by Anne-Florence Lemasson & Dominique Ehrhard, is the simple, heart-warming tale of how a hazelnut defies the odds and survives the bitterness of winter to become a beautiful new shoot in spring.

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I can’t resist a pretty book like this one.

The book is filled with adorable wildlife pop-ups which slot together seamlessly. We follow a scampering snow-white mouse, a busy squirrel and a foraging blue tit along the book’s pages, always shown in a delicate, calming colour pallet

Old Barn Books publishes titles that really reflect and connect with the natural world, and I’m so happy to have found them. Aimed at 7-9-year-olds, this perfect picture book is a great gift for kids who love wild animals and appreciate the little things in life.

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These beautiful pop-ups run throughout the book
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What a sweet little chap!

Tomorrow is the 1st February, traditionally a time when we lit bonfires to banish the winter and its searing cold. Although it might still technically be winter, there are fresh snowdrops on every grassy bank and the pairs of birds on the river near my house look ready to start nest-building. Believe it or not, the first lambs are already out in the fields!

What signs of spring have you already seen?

Nature, charm and a little touch of magic – Little Hazelnut is the perfect book to get your little ones ready to bloom.

 

 Find your own copy of Little Hazelnut on the Old Barn Books website (£10.99).

 

Winter Birds – book review

Lars Jonsson’s dazzling new UK release

Winter Birds Lars Jonsson
Winter Birds, Bloomsbury 2017

Batten down the hatches: that autumn chill is here once again.

Up and down the country, as October flurries by, birdwatchers are keeping their fingers crossed for a Waxwing winter. We reminisce about recent years when these colourful Nordic birds have soared across the North Sea to fill up on berries in UK suburbia.

As I open Lars Jonsson’s Winter Birds, the stunningly illustrated mixture of field guide and artist’s sketchbook, I am reminded that Waxwings are ten a penny in Jonsson’s native Sweden and feel a pang of envy.

 

Waxwing Lars Jonsson
Waxwing, Lars Jonsson

But that’s certainly not all this book evokes. Turning the pages of the beautiful hardback, I’m struck by the level of elegant detail and complete devotion that has gone into the study of each bird, which Jonsson has watched from his studio in southern Gotland.

A popular artist, writer and ornithologist, Lars Jonsson has twelve titles to his name and has frequently displayed his artwork across the world in Sweden, the US and all throughout Europe. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Winter Birds is a complete delight.

The author quotes Swedish poet Bjorn von Rosen to reveal that in order “to see the invisible, one must learn to look properly at what is visible.” It is very clear that Jonsson’s book, the result of many months – if not years – of study, is a deep reflection of how wildlife can be seen through the medium of art.

This stunning compendium contains full-page illustrations alongside sketches and colour palettes in muted, frosty hues evoking the icy landscape these birds inhabit. Indeed he calls the Waxwing’s plumage a depiction of “its northern landscape.” His masterpiece aims to create personal impressions of these birds, with his deeply intimate explanations of each species just like descriptions of dear friends.

Great Tit Lars Jonsson
Great Tit, Lars Jonsson

Jonsson talks about the nomadic Waxwings with such veneration – icons of his home country. The Waxwing’s plumage becomes “[a] thousand shades of grey in lichens, birch trunks and spruce branches [set] against the deep rusty-red crowberry shrubs. The black bog water provides sharp relief against yellow marsh marigolds and white cotton-grass, the wax-like protuberances like red whortleberries.” This striking bird becomes a revered symbol of a frozen land.

As the colder days approach, I’d recommend cosying up with this incredible book. It is an intricate merger of wildlife and artistic contemplation, and is certainly enough to sate any Waxwing-enthusiast as we all wait hopefully for winter.

Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson is out on 19th October 2017 (Bloomsbury, £26.99)

 

Few and Far Between: On the Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals

Charlie Elder is on a mission.

From endangered snakes to adorable dormice – this author will stop at nothing until he’s uncovered some of the rarest animals in the British Isles.

Few and Far Between gives us a unique glimpse into the lives of our most secretive creatures, and the experts who are doing all they can to protect them, in a whirlwind trip through the wilderness.

Elder, Charlie - Few and Far Between Cover

But this isn’t the author’s first trek across our countryside: in his last book, While Flocks Last, he took us on a journey to the treetops in search of Britain’s most furtive birds. His latest adventure is jam-packed with an impressive list of species, each more strange and seductive than the last. From the very beginning, we get a titillating insight into the world of the Scottish wildcat, the basking shark and the mysterious pine marten, to name just a few.

Opening Few and Far Between, there is a real sense of the passion that has gone into planning this trip – the 4am starts, the wobbly ferries to tiny islands – Charlie Elder will go to extreme measures to quench his thirst for the weird, wonderful and the just plain bizarre!

But it’s not always plain sailing. After some astonishing finds, things get a little stickier. Dealing with some of the most elusive creatures in the world, sometimes even the experts can get it wrong. Whilst in search of the camera-shy Bechstein’s bat, he is left empty-handed as the critter makes a sneaky getaway.

This book is packed full of fun anecdotes interspersed with hard-hitting facts which makes for a very satisfying read. Charlie Elder really does have a way with words. The descriptions of these rare and wonderful creatures can be completely mesmerising – take the Duke of Burgundy butterfly with its “wings, patterned like cracked marmalade glaze” or the skylarks “sieving the air into thousands of semiquavers”.

Duke of Burgundy butterfly, Charlie Elder

While at times it is hard to see why the author has chosen to take up such a task – he is no nature expert and can’t use an OS map without falling face first into a hedge – Charlie Elder, nevertheless, sweeps us up on his mission. It’s easy to agree that “scarcity bestows a certain quality, an undeniable allure” to these creatures. This book is so easy to read, gliding seamlessly from one habitat to the next, covering a dazzling array of species across sea, land and air.

But this isn’t just a tick-sheet; this is an exploration of how humans and nature co-exist. Few and Far Between is a heartfelt journey into how we are responsible for some of the most shocking declines in natural history. Over the past fifty years, 60 per cent of our species have plummeted in numbers and some are now close to disappearing. Without our meddling, we would not have to travel to the depths of the wild to catch a glimpse of Britain’s amazing creatures.

This book shows us what we have been missing and offers hope for a future richer in nature.

Few and Far Between by Charlie Elder is out on 23 April 2015 (Bloomsbury).

Rambling down the Ribble

There’s nothing like a cheeky escape to the country when you know other people are in work.

It’s like ducking out of P.E. and getting to laugh at everyone tripping over their shoelaces. Ha.

On Monday I had the morning off to do some dreaded ‘life things’ because apparently I’m an adult now. However, amongst the piles of washing and forms to sign, I managed to get out to Avenham Park in Preston for a walk along the river.

It’s amazing how many people believe that the landscape just dies over the winter months – that the whole scene just falls into disrepair and animals dose up on Xanax. OK, Monday wasn’t exactly the most glorious of days, but it meant that birds were out in their dozens, all waiting for a juicy worm or two.

Squirrels circled their turf. A flock of tits landed on spindly branches. Two song thrushes mimicked each other in the trees, yellow throats quivering.

The Ribble has been pushed to the max over the past few weeks, but the resident goosanders (three males, two females) had dropped anchor just past the bridge and battled against the wind. They’re such gorgeous things to spot. They are known as ‘toothed’ ducks because of their saw-like bills and eat mainly fish. They can be found as residents in the North and West of Britain, so keep an eye out.

Now that the days are lengthening and the storms are dying down – I’m looking forward to some more sneaky escapes.

What have you seen this winter?

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Photo courtesy of David Tomlinson Photos

Walking the Holloway…

I was skipping about the shelves at Waterstones recently and came across the beautiful and intriguing Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stan Donwood and Dan Richards (Faber & Faber, £14.99). I had to do a double-take. I mean, have you seen this book? With its swirling whorl of branches in stark black and white, I needed it on my shelf. Pronto.

In the past couple of years there seems to have been a surge in popular nature writing. Travel writing appears to be veering away from tales of far-flung places – those exotic island resorts – and coming home to hunker down in old places with their legends just barely attached. A good example of this is Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham. This book gives us a history and ongoing narrative of one of our favourite native creatures: whilst informative and lively, Barkham manages to help us feel attached to our homeland through language and stories, revealing how the badger has become integrated with our everyday lives and landscapes.

However, what is it that other writers in this genre are trying to achieve? A couple of months ago I read Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, which can only be described as an ode to supermarket car parks. While the book has received much praise and aims to put us in touch with our familiar childhood play-spaces, the book left me uninspired and feeling somewhat… grey. By romanticising the unromantic and tying myths to 1960s concrete, this form of ‘nature’ writing left me cold.

Holloway was an interesting one. Telling the history of England’s oldest paths and wegs, the book is written in dreamlike prose. A lyrical traipse and trample through the undergrowth of Dorset – an exploration of forgotten ways – the book is told in a hypnotic tangle of the authors’ combined voices, and something older.

Macfarlane feeds the readers’ curiosity with ancient lore, woven together with small, personal anecdotes which really give the book its memorable quality.

Overall, the book was a joy to read although repetitive and sometimes clunky as the authors fought for the better portion of a chapter. However if you have an interest in being absorbed by the past, Holloway is for you.

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The Bird and Bookcase

We might still be clinging to our hot water-bottles and be deep in our winter socks but it’s never too early for a spot of spring cleaning!

Having finally decided to get into nature conservation, this blog needs a bit of sprucing up. As of March 2014 I will be a Resident Intern at Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve in Silverdale, Lancashire: this obviously means frolicking through the midday fields and singing to sparrows on my window sill. Don’t ruin my dream.

It’s been a major decision and means I will be living onsite for six months, but I can’t wait! I’ll be engaging with visitors, leading education groups and getting people excited about wildlife.

Perhaps what I’m most thrilled about is being able to spend time outdoors in nature.

There’s only one thing to worry about… which books am I going to pack??

I’m going to use this blog to record my countryside ramblings and literary exploits. Expect anything from roe deer and water rails, to crazed midnight writings.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

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Courtesy of spguk (Flickr)

Sharon Olds and “memory’s dark-blue corridor”

Have you ever been to Reid of Liverpool? Well, you should have. You definitely should have: but I warn you, if you’re a bookworm – you may not want to leave.

Reid is a secondhand book shop on Mount Pleasant, complete with log-fire, plumes of dust, and a poetry collection that spans an entire wall.  It’s where I stayed transfixed for about 2 hours. It’s also where I discovered Sharon Olds.

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I desperately wanted to find some new poetry (where better place to look?) and was determined to leave this bookstore with a new oh-my-gosh-love-of-my-life poet.

I’d heard of Sharon Olds before: In 2012, she won the prestigious TS Eliot Prize for Stag’s Leap –  a collection detailing her recent divorce. Olds is known for her controversial subject matter and I’d been intrigued by a couple of poems I’d read online. When I saw One Secret Thing (£10.00, Jonathan Cape) I snatched it off the shelf right away.

This collection is filled with tactile imagery, conjuring the sensation of flesh on flesh, tiny fingers in a parental palm:

… On the back of my hand, a luminous

wedge, a patch of Alamogordo –

the new-risen moon, the last quarter,

as if my mother, in her sleep, took

a ladle, and poured this portion…

The poet is speaking to all female experience: she examines our bodies, our relationships with our mothers and our internal struggles with image consciousness. Her poem, ‘Home Ec’, is stirringly intimate. However, these are issues explored by many poets wishing to reach out to a female audience – they are the pit-stops and eternally pilfered topics of fresh-faced Plathites.

Olds’ poetry goes far deeper than this, giving our personal experiences a vast kind of historical gravity. One of the major themes of the collection, particularly in the first section (simply titled ‘War’), is the Second World War and the Holocaust. The way these themes of womanhood and everyday wartime experience work seamlessly together is perhaps what gives this collection a feeling of extreme completeness.

There is something richly fulfilling in her imagery which covers the mundane: the “sweater drawer”, to the “cranking of the solar system”. Her style is incredibly distinctive: you get a thrill from the fluid rush of unshaped stanza.

One Secret Thing is unnervingly close to the bone, but that brings comfort with it.

Note to self: raid Reid every weekend.

Dreams Without Frontiers

So I’m lapping up the merits of working in Manchester.

OK, so it hasn’t been the glamour and glitz of a metropolis, but at lunch I get to do things like this:

 

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I work just around the corner from the Manchester Art Gallery, and stumbled across the wonderful ‘Dreams Without Frontiers’ exhibition. If you’re a big fan of The Smiths or just like to bask in the beauty of urban decay, being blasted with ‘Asleep’, then this one’s for you.

This bleak display of seventies architecture takes up only a small corner of the gallery, but it’s a definite must-see. Showcasing the work of two artists, Cyprien Gaillard and Kelley Walker, the exhibition uses a combination of post-industrial images and popular vinyl to explore the human impact on landscape.

I was blown away by the room and the ghostly video installation. Whether you’re a Smiths fan or not, this is something well-worth seeing, so be quick!

Exhibition closes at the end of May so get there quick! (Images from Manchester Confidential)

 

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