Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Ripon with my husband, in quest of bees. We (I say ‘we’ – he is the bee-keeper, the one who has acquired the considerable amount of scientific knowledge needed and has the requisite patience; I am the bee-keeper’s assistant, so can get by on more limited quantities of both and shirk my duties if I feel like it.) started keeping bees a number of years ago, with reasonable success. However, the terrible winter and very wet spring here took their toll and, like many beekeepers, we suffered losses.
Because, according to the press, some 80% of the nation’s bee colonies perished this winter, ‘supply and demand’ now dictates that the cost of a ‘nucleus’ colony is very high (up to £250) and it’s definitely a sellers’ market. Hobby beekeeping isn’t cheap anyway, with hives, frames and beekeeping paraphernalia. The equipment is, to me, like something designed by Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg and I’m not surprised it’s pricey, given the frankly bizarre design of smokers, heated honey-capping knives, centrifugal honey extraction drums and solar wax melters; the few existing suppliers who have cornered the market definitely call the shots. Anyone thinking of starting up should throw those rose-tinted, back-to-nature, self-sufficiency specs away and go for crystal clear lenses. Then there are the bees themselves: they aren’t like kittens; they don’t come out to melt you with their charms when you are trying to decide whether to offer them a home and they don’t take kindly to being shipped by car and bumped around, before being hoiked out of one temporary home and bundled into another. Though some strains of bee, such as the Italian ‘ligustica’, are more gentle, bees tend to be ‘mongrels’ with very variable temperaments; sometimes a queen bee has genes with an attitude problem. So, though you might dream of summer days and drowsing in the garden sunshine, imagining yourself transported to the Mediterranean by the murmuring of the apiarian equivalent of the Italian soldiers in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the reality can be more like taking on the aliens in Independence Day or WWII kamikaze pilots, hell-bent on taking you out even at the cost of their own lives. Think high-pitched incoming whine and be prepared to take cover. Unhappy bees do not subscribe to the concept that assault and battery is a crime. They just do it.
However, for those of us who do love bees and have become used to their temperamental ways and needs, caution is the watchword, and we pulled the plug on the travelling box and retreated quickly to a very safe distance. They’ve settled in already. Apparently, they get their bearings by flying backwards the first time that they leave the hive, to note where they are as they look back on it. They are remarkable creatures: they’re incomplete individually, but together comprise what is known as a superorganism. Each worker has her own task to perform and this changes over time as she ages, becoming finally a nectar- and pollen-gathering ‘forager’. The male ‘drones’ have their moment of glory, flying with the virgin queen to enable her to mate with several of them, before dying a gloriously sexy death (genitalia ripped right out of them!), or never doing anything until they are kicked out by the workers in the autumn so that they don’t deplete precious food reserves over the winter. I’m not a feminist by any means, but I can think of a few men whose families would benefit from similar summary treatment!
Because of the way in which they organise their lives and collaborate, bees have cropped up in art and literature from earliest times. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics feature bees; the early Greek writers celebrated them in song and verse. In more recent times, Alexandra Kollontai used the bee colony as a metaphor for life and love in Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, in her masterpiece Love of Worker Bees.
Bees are a joyful trouble. If they’re successful, they swarm, and the bee-keeper, in hot pursuit, has to shin up trees or plunge into thickets, hanging on precariously with one hand as he tries to trap them in a traditional straw ‘skep’ or a cardboard box. (You notice I say ‘he’ – this is emphatically not this beekeeper’s assistant’s job – though I know that there are many very skilled female beekeepers.) They suffer from a parasite called varroa mite, on which war has to be waged all the time if the colony is to flourish. Bees eat unconscionable quantities of sugar syrup during the autumn and often yield only a few small jars of honey per hive in return, but the benefits of their wider gifts to agriculture and the environment are incalculably great.
And I have to admit, in spite of all those expenses and troubles, now that the garden is once again a-buzz with murmuring bees, it feels as if the summer has begun in earnest at last.