Whilst surfing Twitter recently, I was reminded about the world plight of the humble honey bee, a creature ignored by me for some decades. Why? I spent them recovering from the scars of my teenage years.
Let me explain. I was around five or six years old when my father brought home his first swarm of bees. Weird, I thought. Like you do when you’re that age. I didn’t realise I was expected to partake in looking after them.
We dutifully dressed in long sleeves and trousers, my brother and I wearing the bee hats mother had recently sewn for us. We stood at a ‘safe’ distance on a drowsy summer’s evening in the orchard and watched as father presented the bees with their new home, and we waited for their approval. Over the next few years, it became apparent that my mother and brother were allergic to the stings and father and I weren’t.
I remember tagging along on trips to a workshop where the smell of warm beeswax scented the air, while father made sheets and sheets of hexagonal rectangles. I was bored stiff fascinated. During winter evenings he spent hours making wooden frames for the sheets to hang in.
Honey extracting was mother’s job. On hot summer days, we had all the windows and doors to the kitchen shut tight, to keep out any thieving bees and wasps. The wax frames were back, this time heavy with oozing golden honey. Most of it was covered in a thin layer of wax called a cap, which the bees added once they’d filled each cell with sweet honey. Mother’s work involved slicing off the caps, then spinning the honey out in a large drum type dustbin. It was sticky, but delicious work for small helpers.
The size of father’s apiary grew, as did his ambition to farm different flavours of honey. He needed to take the hives to different locations during the summer months. We had honey made from lime trees, oil seed rape and heather, to name a few.
I spent many summer hours, during my teens, with my father, helping him with his hobby and ruining my chances of any street cred . Mainly I helped when he needed to move the hives. Covered from head to foot, sweltering in protective clothing, including: a knitted Balaclava, thick gloves and a bee hat. We crept around the countryside in a rusty old Ford van at dusk or dawn when the bees would all be safely home. There’s nothing like being up close and personal at the end of a summer’s day with nature. NOTHING like it! Particularly when you stumble with the hive because it’s so heavy your arms are burning, and your short arm length means your chin is trapped on the hive roof and you can’t see where to put each footstep. So when the aforementioned ‘stumble’ causes a shift in the sections of the hive you’ve got, the last thing you want to hear is a buzz of an angry bee by your ear from the ONE or DOZEN that have just escaped. At this point Father wouldn’t allow us to run off screaming into the far distance stop and put the hive down. I had to hold on until we made it to the van and he soothed his ‘ladies’ and fixed their home.
In all my years of helping we were only stopped by the police once. I’m sure we looked very dodgy, driving slowly around country lanes, stopping in remote places. On that single occasion the policeman beat a hasty retreat after he poked his head in the back of the van, where upon he heard an ominous buzzing, and we were never stopped again.
Twice a year my father took me to The New Forest. The delightful picture of the wild ponies, a peaceful red dawn painting the sky, whilst early sun burned off a light mist, is never quite the same view from behind a bee veil, bouncing miles down a remote track away from the tourists. Every bump meant a rise in the volume of humming from behind our seats, mixing with my fear that the bump would cause a shift and one or two of father’s ‘lovely ladies’ would join us in the front! Windows were firmly shut in case of escapes. No bee would be left behind, to fly off into the unknown without her family.
The New Forest was home to acres of heather plants, and father hoped the bees would make some of the precious dark coloured, strongly flavour delight. We left them to enjoy their holidays and returned in October to bring them home. I used to insist father took me to the seaside after our early morning jaunt, but, alas, I was never dressed right for the occasion, no matter how often I dreamed of the trip.
I’m coming full circle back to the bees; a few years ago I did some talks in the local primary school. I created a story about the hive, giving the children parts to play and letting them handle some of the beekeepers tools. Now I incorporate honey into my family’s diet and I’ll always help a lost and lonesome bee back to a flower. But will I one day take on father’s apiary? I’m not sure.
What about you? Any beekeepers out there?