It may not be riding rockets, but bee-keeping has a certain edge to it when you’re allergic to their stings.
Last autumn we set up three hives on a corner of the garden. Andrew and the botanical team have since given the hives proper plinths, we’ve registered them with the local authorities, and it’s become a rite of passage for willing guests to join a hive inspection or feeding.
Claire agreed to join, if I could find a pink bee suit. Turns out, white ones dye really well:
The bees just call her "Blossom" with a capital B
For those of you who, like me, know virtually nothing about bees or beekeeping, here’s the short short version.
Beehives are cleverly designed as stacks of rectangular boxes without a floor or a ceiling. You combine different types of boxes to get different things done. For example, the main body of the hive lives in the base box, called a brood box. That’s where the queen hangs out, the comb there has both honey cells and hatching cells (think honey-eating bee-maggots, more charmingly called brood). The worker bees move freely up and down the hive, from box to box. You put a filter above the brood box to stop the queen, who is too big to fit through the grille, from laying eggs upstairs.
You get boxes for feeding the bees, and boxes for collecting honey. The honey-collecting boxes are called “supers”, and the others, which are more like spacing boxes with room inside for gadgets and gizmos are called ekes (possibly Norse, for “augment”?). Since our colonies are young, they haven’t yet filled out their brood boxes, so I’ve focused on feeding them. I accidentally drowned half the bees in each of the colonies in the first attempt by failing to install the feeders properly so, all in all, I’ve come to appreciate how fragile the colonies can be.
Throughout the course of the year, there are different things to watch out for, or get done. Early in spring you give the hives a dose of syrup to get them started. We started feeding them in March.
This Easter weekend, with my brother Bradley & guest visiting, and spring springing, seemed like a perfect occasion to see how the colonies were doing. We made some feeding syrup last night, woke up at sparrowfart this morning and suited up. Our goal was to check out the hives, make sure they seemed healthy & happy, and replenish the food to help the colonies grow quickly.
Things got a little adventurous while we were inspecting the brood frames of the first and most vigorous of the hives. Two of us ended up with bees inside our veils, so we closed up quickly and beat a hasty retreat for a brush-off and tea. I got stung on the neck, but I think the sting failed to set properly so the epi-pens are all intact. Some disappointment in the household that nobody got to jab me in the heart with one.
Restored, we went back to finish off the other hives, and Bradley spotted a queen – first time I’ve seen one of them. Once we all relaxed it was a pleasure to work through the frames together one by one. As Bradley said, there are millions of years of evolution telling you that you urgently have to be somewhere else every time the hive buzzes. We’ve got to figure out the best way to clear each frame without ending up surrounded by a cloud of upset bees. But it all went smoothly.
So, all things being well, next year we’ll have honey that is genuinely local. And we’ll get to test that old story about local honey being good for hayfever. All in the name of science, of course.