On Bees and Communities

Book review of Revery: A Year of Bees
Jenna Butler. Wolsak & Wynn Publishers, Ltd, 2020. 160 pages.

Written by Aalia Khan

On Bees and Communities

Honeybees are among the most charismatic insects; they are well-admired for their unique life histories and role in agriculture. However, Canada’s relationship with the honeybee is complicated. Jenna Butler’s Revery is a holistic reflection on the personal, cultural and historical relationships that she, her community, and the province of Alberta have with beekeeping. A beekeeper herself, she offers insights that are grounded in both the literature and her own lived experience. Through a series of riveting stories and commentaries, she drives home the message, “Though our relationship with honeybees in the north country might not be perfect, it is deeply committed.” 

Butler is the steward of an organic farm that employs a small number of beehives. Her expertise is broad and interdisciplinary, as she covers the scientific, political, historical and cultural contexts in which beekeeping has arisen and evolved in Alberta. She discusses the unique life cycles and ecological relationships of honeybees, as well as the slew of environmental and agricultural threats they face in Alberta, from monocrop and chemical farming practices, to the systemic challenges of larger scale beekeeping and environmental stresses such as climate change. 

She also reflects on how beekeeping builds community in Alberta, how it’s increasingly constituted of women, and how globalization and immigration are diversifying the knowledge of beekeeping practices in the province. While the book does not go particularly in depth into any one topic, it lets you come away with a well-rounded understanding of many concepts within the realm of beekeeping in the province.

Today, the majority of the public has given in to the idea that honeybees are tremendously important to our environment and need to be “saved”, even though scientific evidence points to the contrary. While they do face a variety of systemic and environmental threats, they are not native to North America and offer less ecological support to our native ecosystems than the truly endangered wild bees. To make things worse, honeybees often directly compete with and spread disease to native bees, and all the media attention focused on them leads the public to ignore the plight of the less charismatic wild bees. As a beekeeper and a committed steward of the land, Butler offers some reflection into the complicated position she is in. She also mentions how she works to monitor and improve habitat for native bees to support them.

As with the other topics, she does not cover all of the nuances, but she does offer a fresh perspective as a beekeeper striving to advocate for ecological sustainability.

All things considered, Revery is a touching and soulful read for anyone looking to deepen their connection to the land. It fosters empathy towards insects and brings to light their valuable role in our ecosystems, a perspective that is sorely missed among mainstream environmental works. In a world fraught with wicked environmental dilemmas, Butler does justice to many of the issues facing beekeepers by offering much-needed insight and expertise. Revery is the perfect book for anyone looking to explore the diversity of perspectives and challenges of beekeeping and environmental stewardship.

Aalia Khan is an undergraduate student pursuing a Joint Major in Environmental Studies and Biology at the University of Waterloo. An aspiring entomologist, she is particularly interested in exploring human-insect relations in the face of impending environmental threats. Outside of academia, she enjoys baking, birding and going on hikes.