It was my first wife’s idea to keep bees. Friends were emigrating to Canada. They kept bees in their line side garden beside the main King’s Cross to Edinburgh railway. They gave us the bees - two hives - and we bought the equipment
It should have been my then wife who kept bees. I had an intense dislike of the nasty, buzzy, stingy little things. And they knew it. She should have been the beekeeper, but she was allergic, had a severe reaction to any sting. Needed to go to hospital.
So, she being her, I kept bees. The honey would be good for the children, she said.
Most of their necessary equipment came with the bees, but not all. I bought beekeeper’s hat and veil, gauntlets and a smoker to go with an old white painter’s overall I already had. And a book: ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’. It should have been Beekeeping for Dummies.
Beekeeping is a fascinating, complex, compelling, intriguing hobby, with much to learn. I enlisted the help of Joe, an elderly friend, fellow cardholder in the political party I espoused, a retired college lecturer and longtime beekeeper, to be my guide and mentor.
To move bees, it is necessary to shut up the hive, find some way of securing it and get the hive into van, truck, wagon or car. At that time, I drove estate cars. Helpful with a growing family. With seats turned down, Joe and I manipulated the two hives into my car to transport them to my garden. Up the drive. Through the garage. Past the kitchen door. Up the steps through the lower garden. Through the rustic arch. A bit of a struggle there. Up the steps to the upper lawn. Across it and then finally, onto the flat concrete platform I’d prepared and which Joe had checked with his spirit level. I found out then that not only was he meticulous, he was impossibly careful and meticulous. We did all this twice.
The bees were mine. I could hear them inside the hives, humming in sinister fashion. It sounded like, ‘We’ll soon get him. Be ready.’ But, of course, to ensure that bees didn’t beetle back off to my friend’s garden seven miles away, they still needed to be shut up in their hives. Anyway, my friend had already gone to Canada with his wife and children to start a new life in Newfoundland. The day came, soon enough, when Joe said to me,
‘I’ll come across after you come back from school tonight.’
My house was just across the school field, handy for late mornings and occasional coffee breaks in free periods.
‘It’s time to let the little people free.’
So, in the cool of the evening, the bees were released. There was some activity, some movement at the entrance to the hive - but at that stage, very little.
‘Too cool for much activity,’ Joe said. ‘Wait until tomorrow. Have a look during your lunch break.’
At lunch break, the hive was a hive of intense activity. Bees came. Bees went. Bees were everywhere,. I kept my distance and reported in to Joe.
‘Fine’, he said. ‘Just as it should be. I’ll come round on Saturday morning when you are free and we’ll inspect the brood chamber.’
Oh! Inspect! Brood chamber! I knew from my reading research that this was a seething mass of insectivity. Did I really need to be a bee inspector?
‘Oh, yes!’ said Joe. ‘Learn just as Sylvia Plath did.’
Now this was the first - but not the last - that I had heard of Sylvia Plath’s engagement with bees; Sylvia Plath the beekeeper. Like her, I had a lot to learn.
The innocent reader, if there is one, needs to have innocence and ignorance dispelled about bees and bee facts. First, there are essentially three types of honey bee: the worker, who is by far the most numerous; the drone, who has only one real task, to mate with the queen; and the queen, herself, of whom in most circumstances, there is only one. The hive is a complex of activity and clearly defined tasks. Workers forage for nectar and pollen, bringing both back into the hive, they secrete wax, build cells, fill the cells with honey, feed and tend larvae, clean and defend the hive. Drones do little, until the time comes for a once in a lifetime opportunity to mate with a queen, then it is every drone for himself. All the queen has to do, after mating, is to be fed and to lay eggs, for she becomes the all-mother.
At the heart of the hive, the queen will lay an egg in any empty cell she can find. The bee-keeper knows if her majesty is well and laying eggs by noting workers coming into the hive with yellow pollen sacs full. This is a sure sign of good hive health and a welcome sign after overwintering, which can be perilous for a weak hive. However, the queen and her children, (note children rather than subjects for this is the more realistic order of things in the hive) need access to the honey which the beekeeper also craves. So, human cunning being what it is, the beekeeper inserts between the brood chamber and an upper chamber, a thin sheet of perforated zinc, the perforations of which are of sufficient size for workers to pass through but not the queen. The queen is a much larger individual than a worker. Therefore, in the upper chamber no eggs are laid but workers do store honey there. It is this stored honey that the beekeeper will take.
On an approximately weekly basis, the wise beekeeper will open up the hive, and inspect the brood chamber. He will be keeping a close eye on the upper chamber, too, hoping for a good harvest of honey for himself. In the brood chamber, he will look for cells with eggs, cells with larvae, possibly look for the queen herself, although she is not always noticeable, and for cells that are a different size and shape from the majority. In a healthy hive, from time to time the queen will lay a special egg, the grub of which, fed a more substantial diet, will develop into another queen. The laying to hatching period takes about ten days. There are times when the beekeeper will welcome another queen. Times also when a new queen may not be desirable. A hive can only tolerate one queen at a time. Should a new queen hatch, the old one will gather her retainers around her and depart, a phenomenon called swarming.
It was to teach me about this process that Joe and I were to inspect the brood chamber. Joe, as an old hand, never wore beekeeping gloves. It made him more nimble handling the intenseness of the inner secrets of the hive. I was glad of my clumsy leather gauntlets. A sting meant little to Joe but much to me. If his hand got stung, he apologised to the bee as he gently brushed it off. An apology was needed because the bee’s sting is its only defence and for the bee, it is a matter of life and death.
Should a wasp sting you, it can fly away and sting again. Its sting is sharp, knife-like, straight and can be inserted and withdrawn. The sting of a bee is barbed, and once used, it cannot be withdrawn but brings with it internal organs vital to the bee’s life. Once the sting is used, the bee dies.
We didn’t identify the queen on this inspection of the brood chamber. That didn’t matter Joe said, because there were plenty of new eggs being laid, meaning she was there somewhere. Neither did we see any sign of a new queen cell but Joe assured me that I needed to keep an eye out for one. It could happen in the next week or so, or not at all. So, with some personal relief, the brood chamber was closed up and the bees left to peacefully go about their business.
Being advised by Joe to be aware of what was going on in there, next Saturday, I set about my own, first independent inspection of the brood chamber. It was a hot, sultry June afternoon when I instructed my wife to keep well away from the garden as I was going into the hives. Sweating profusely inside overall, hat, mask, gauntlets, I proceeded to smoke the first hive. Smoking makes the bees believe there is a forest fire, they gorge themselves ready for flight and this is supposed to subdue them. My bees were not subdued. They sensed my nervousness. They were aware of the sweat on my spectacles obscuring my view. They were ready for action.
Things went more or less smoothly at first. My gauntleted hands were more clumsy than Joe’s bare hands but I managed to get into the brood chamber. It was very busy in there and I could see lots of new eggs at the bottom of cells, white grubs ready to hatch into new workers, and then, something that didn’t quite fit. A different cell. A queen cell. I knew that if I left it, very shortly a new queen would emerge and the hive would swarm. I wasn’t ready for that so I did what I thought I had been advised. I cut the cell out, using my new hive tool. Inspection of the second hive revealed nothing out of order. Satisfied that I had learned a lesson, I reported to Joe.
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘We were waiting for that cell. I was going to show you how to manage a swarm and start a new hive.’
As I have said, there was a lot to learn.
My children did get honey. There never was a huge amount. Enough for breakfast, not enough to give away and never enough to sell. Joe showed me how to move hives around midsummer to the moor, permission of a friendly farmer, to get the benefit of nectar from the heather. Heather honey is especially runny and easy to extract, but it also full of health giving goodness cut straight from the comb, wax and all. Much of the honey gathered in my garden was spoiled. The farms all around grew massive fields of vivid yellow oil seed rape. The bees found plenty to forage on but honey made from oil seed rape crystallises easily, solidifies, and has a relatively bitter taste. Crystallised honey is virtually impossible to extract and is therefore difficult to use.
There were times when my adventures with bees left me marked. Bees always seem to get more agitated when the atmosphere is heavy and sultry. There was the occasion that I went to school on Monday with a spreading black eye that began just where my spectacles sit on the bridge of the nose. It was rare that any bee got inside the mask to attack the sweaty area just there, but this one did. The final straw came when I was promoted to a big new job and began to find difficulty managing the, by then, three hives. It was a very hasty brood chamber inspection job that precipitated the decision to leave bee keeping. The inspection had gone satisfactorily but the bees appeared to be particularly agitated by my interference in their management of the hive. Closing up the hives, I went back inside, very hot and bothered and prepared to take a shower to cool down. I got down to my underpants and as I removed them, a dead bee fell out. I had felt no sting. Presumably it had been expended on some piece of clothing rather than me. However, as that one bee had managed to find its way into a rather sensitive part of the anatomy, I decided that the time had come to part with the little creatures. Other beekeepers were happy to take my burden from me.