More Musings from a Beginner Beekeeper in Lockdown…

Friday 3rd April

When did the world last stop like this? The World Wars? The Spanish Flu? But it wasn’t the same handbrake skid to standstill. When’s the last time so many noticed the sound of birds singing, or the small bright blooms of spring? Or had the time to notice the details of life? Bees are detail. Bees are full-stops. Before I started beekeeping, I thought I’d seen lots of bees. But I hadn’t – not properly. Drones – male bees have blunt square bottoms and cannot sting. You can hold one in your hand without fear or fright. Female worker bees have pointed rear ends. My Irish black honeybees are just that, with no real discernible yellow stripes. A queen bee is a pure delight to spot. She’s much larger than a regular worker – her extended rear end must hold a lifetime worth of eggs. I’ve seen my queen only once, just after she’d returned from one of her mating flights last summer; a complete fluke. It was early evening and she landed on my husband’s white bee suit. A new queen only leaves the hive for several mating flights at the start of her life. My hive was in its infancy then, but we’d seen the empty queen cup, so we knew she was in there. We carefully lifted her off his thigh and placed her back inside the hive. It was such a thrill to actually see her! A hive inspection must be done with great care. You never know where your queen will be. If you accidentally kill or lose her you risk your whole colony too. Small, seemingly insignificant details get lost amidst the noise of 21st century life. Everything has to be bigger and brighter than before just to catch our attention. Covid-19 has our full attention. It’s so small it’s invisible to the naked eye, we’re all blind to it and it’s terrifying.

I think:

Care. At least Covid-19 has brought that back to the forefront of life.

I was invited to ‘zoom’ into my best friend’s birthday party. A screen of square shaped lives from Dubai, to London, to Ireland. It’s impossible to look someone in the eye through a screen, each pair distanced and reduced to specs. But as least no one was wearing masks so lots of smiles were evident and the instantaneous response to smile back felt like a relief from something. Warmth exuded from the screen and I longed to be in their real-life company. A social diet of a fifty-one-year-old man and thirteen and eight-year-old boys is bland in comparison to the variety on the screen. I poured another gin and listened and laughed to their banter and promised never to take human company for granted again.

The forecast for the weekend is sunshine and the warnings coming over the radio waves and the tv echo with school authority. We are not permitted to go outside unless it is essential and only once a day for exercise, if we disobey there will be harsh consequences. The government is doing its best head teacher impersonation to a classroom of millions. I wonder how long we’ll all obey before some of us start to play truant?

6th April 2020

The Queen addressed the nation last night from Windsor castle. Resplendent in glorious green with pearls and the obligatory brooch. She urged the nation to ‘do the right thing’ and comforted us that ‘we will meet again.’ It was deemed a success. Though I can’t understand why a nonagenarian who is safely holed up in her castle should make the nation feel better. But she did. Human nature is a strange thing. We all want to belong, we all need to identify to something, or with someone. The Queen is the ultimate head teacher and perhaps the timing of her speech, just when people are becoming jaded with the idea of staying in while the sun shines was a masterpiece in planning (or coincidence). Something about this tiny woman shrunken down to the size of an oom-pah Loompa makes people behave. Martin McGuinness called her, ‘very nice’ after he’d shook her hand in an acknowledgment of peace and reconciliation. Donald Trump was meek and deferential in her company. There is a reverence to this woman who was never meant to take the throne, but who did so at the tender age of twenty-five and who has stuck it out for an awe-inspiring sixty-eight years. How many days has she woken up and wished she did not have to uphold the burden of being Queen? I can’t resist the temptation to liken her to a queen bee. Restricted inside a hive for her whole life, in charge, but yet not really in charge at all. Looked after, but only for as long as she is useful. Yes, the queen bee is deemed special and essential to the working of a hive. She is lauded by us beekeepers and she’s revered if we are lucky enough to get a glimpse of her. But if I was given the choice between a worker bee – allowed to fly free foraging for pollen, or the queen imprisoned inside the dark hive I know which I would choose. Queen Elizabeth talks about her experience as a mechanic during the Second World war as one of her most cherished times. I can see why, if you are brought up in palaces, you would crave the dirt of normality. While she sits resplendent in green telling us better days will come again, we believe her. We have to, no one else seems to know what’s going on. She carries the nation’s hope on her diminutive shoulders alongside her diamond brooch.

8th April

I’ve discovered my bees don’t do ‘take away.’ We found a field full of dandelions and duly picked some for the bees. I left a pile of them at the front of the hive; a little devout offering from me to them. No bees went near them! Obviously, the nectar flow needs to be live to appeal to them. Clever bees.

It’s 16 degrees today. Husband is working from home and so it’s perfect to have a proper check of the hives under his more experienced supervision. What a difference two weeks of isolation sunshine has made to my honeybees! My hive is bursting with brood, honey and pollen stores.

Underneath the top board the frames in a hive hang horizontal like a filing cabinet. Each frame is filled with hexagonal honeycomb and each cell has either got a store of honey, pollen or larvae. There are ten frames in a standard hive like mine and eight of mine were filled with either stores or larvae. After six months sealed up in the cocooned darkness of the hive, I’d expected them to be grumpy at being disturbed, but they were really quiet, almost tame. I hardly needed the smoker. I gently blew on them and asked them to move along so I could readjust the frames and make my checks. I didn’t see my queen, but the number of larvae in my hive means she’s in there and laying away like a superstar!