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Plenty to tell bees

05 December 2011

Caroline Chartres on an apiarist’s story in a troubled land


Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo
Elizabeth Gowing

Signal Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

AT THREE weeks’ notice, Elizabeth Gowing left her north-London home to accompany her husband, who was funded by the British Gov­ernment as an adviser to the Prime Minister of Kosovo while the country prepared for independence.

Kosovo: the tiny, landlocked state half the size of Wales, at the heart of the conflict that dominated the news headlines during the late 1990s, is squeezed between Serbia and Albania, who have fought bitterly over it — hence the blood of the title.

On her first birthday in the coun­try, Elizabeth is given a beehive. As she learns about beekeeping, she is drawn into encounters with other beekeepers — farmers, freedom fighters, victims of human traffick­ing — and so into a deep engage­ment with Kosovan life and culture. The honey exemplifies the strength and sweetness she discovers as she unexpectedly falls in love with a country that is at first terrifyingly foreign.

As Elizabeth acquires the kit and skills of the apiarist, we learn that today’s standard box-hive (the “Langstroth-Root”) was invented by a clergyman, whose prototype was apparently an adapted champagne crate. In a full hive, there may be more than 100,000 resident bees; as the hive was opened, the sound was “staggering . . . less like a buzzing than a throbbing or vibration, or like a note on an organ.

“With this, the smoke, and the man presiding in his special robes, I felt like I was in attendance at a Sun­day service.”

Even as she struggles with some aspects of Kosovan society, notably the place of women (“This is one of the things I love less about Kosovo”), the author identifies some unexpected advantages — for example, the prevalent respect for older people, which translates into practical care, “even when they are in full health and energy”.

The book is threaded through with straightforward, honey-based recipes that bind together her aperçus and her cast of diverse characters, who bring to life a land recovering from war. It is both a love story and an exemplar of how to be truly at home in a foreign country.

If the publishers reprint it, some simple maps would significantly enhance the whole.

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