Beekeeping novel proves a buzzy debut

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The vital role of bees in global food production is becoming well recognized, and gardeners are planting flowers to attract and feed these pollinators. In her debut novel Mad Honey, Katie Welch takes an imaginative look at beekeeping and how it binds one family.

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The vital role of bees in global food production is becoming well recognized, and gardeners are planting flowers to attract and feed these pollinators. In her debut novel Mad Honey, Katie Welch takes an imaginative look at beekeeping and how it binds one family.

Welch writes fiction and teaches music in Kamloops, B.C. She grew up in Ottawa and chooses Lanark County, fertile countryside near Ottawa, as the setting for her novel.

In Mad Honey, Melissa Makepeace and her adopted sister Daphne are running Hopetown Farm, started by Melissa’s parents Charlie and Jill. Charlie disappeared when Melissa was 11; when she asked if he was coming back, her mother said no — he was still alive but had abandoned them. Despite her mother’s words, Melissa always half expects Charlie to suddenly reappear, walking through the farm gate with some credible explanation for his lengthy absence.

Mad Honey

Mad Honey

Unable to fully accept that Charlie is likely dead, she talks to the local police about the evidence they initially gathered when trying to locate him. She discovers some of the people who say they saw Charlie’s old truck in a nearby town, or think they saw him drinking in a local bar, are now changing their statements.

Jill capably runs the farm after Charlie has left, helped by their farmhand Joseph Sommerton. “Joseph quietly picked up jobs that Charlie had abandoned, the farmhand appearing like magic when strong arms were needed, silently lifting or hauling, restraining a stubborn, aggressive animal or fixing a broken truck.” When she was young, Melissa viewed Joseph as a surrogate uncle, but their relationship sours over time and Melissa now feels he usually disobeys her orders. This includes her request to help her harvest honey from the farm’s hives.

Melissa needs a hand with the honey this fall because Beck Wise, her fellow beekeeper and lover, has vanished for the entire summer. She has no idea why he left and isn’t very happy to see him again when he returns to the farm on her birthday in September. Beck is dishevelled, very thin and, most puzzling, unable to tell her where he’s been for the past three months.

Beck has no clear idea of what happened to him but holds onto the impossible conviction that he was living and working as a bee inside a hive. “I’m telling you, it feels like I was bees. A whole bee colony. Like all I did this summer was drink nectar, collect pollen, nurse larvae, fan the hive, take care of my queen — I was bees.”

He loves tending bees and has learned a lot about them. Yet he realizes his unexplained absence, and the mental images that haunt him, are far from normal. His mother, Eurydice de Famosa, is a Cuban high priestess of Santeria. She encourages her sensitive son’s flights of fancy and doesn’t rule out the possibility of a human transforming into an animal or insect. Beck’s father, Canadian Matthew Wise, a professional photographer, believes that his son’s mental confusion must result from a physical or mental injury, and he insists on taking Beck to a physician friend in Toronto for tests.

Beck’s obsession with bees brings him into contact with neighbor Marjorie Hill. A widow in her seventies, Marjorie lives in a ramshackle house but keeps her hives in top condition. She teaches Beck about the distinct roles bees have, how to safely handle the frames and extrude the honey, and the types of diseases that can quickly kill a hive. “That one afternoon in Marjorie’s bee yard gave him the confidence he needed to begin keeping bees.”

Marjorie also introduces Beck to deli ban, a dark orange honey that she says has powerful medicinal qualities.

Concerned over Beck’s mental state, Melissa struggles to finish the harvest and prepare the farm for the coming winter. Despite the setbacks at the farm, she is determined to organize and hold the annual harvest banquet.

Welch’s descriptions of Hopetown Farm and the surrounding countryside provide a visual background for the actions of Mad Honey’s characters. The information she includes on the life of bees also give substance to the plot. There are a few questions left unanswered, such as the basis of Jill and the taciturn Joe’s relationship, but overall the novel ends on a sweet note.

Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.

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