The beekeeper in lockdown gets a new outfit…

27th April 2020

My new bee suit arrived at the weekend. Ordered in a pre-Covid world, it still got caught up in the pandemic and has taken nearly eight weeks to get here. Until now, I’ve been squeezing into an inherited child-size suit. My new one is ‘lilac’ though I’d say it’s closer to pink than its purple cousin. It’s the same shade as the Cherry Blossoms that are blooming everywhere. I’m delighted – no more straining into a too small suit, no more wedgies when I bend down! My thirteen-year-old tells me I look ‘ridiculous.’ He’s spent lockdown growing. He must have shot up two inches since the world shut down. Happy to loaf about all day in his PJ’s, his lockdown has been a breeze. He’s made a gesture at schoolwork, but I know it’s been an imitation to keep me quiet. I feel sorry for him cooped up with people who, ‘just don’t get it.’ He sees the slump of my shoulders as I wilt from another of his daily teenage diatribes,

“It’s fun Mum. It suits you.” He indulges me with a smile and walks away. I savour the glimpse of a boy I used to know, underneath all those teenage hormones he’s still in there.

It’s coming into the busiest beekeeping months; from now on hives should be checked every week. Our eight-year-old joins us; he wears my old suit, that had been his brother’s and is now his. He’s always a good help with the smoker and knows his way around a hive as well as I do. We take off the super and lay it carefully on the grass so we can get to the brood box below and check for queen cups. On my last inspection I’d put on a queen excluder – it’s a grid that allows worker bees to pass through but prevents the larger queen from leaving the brood box. A bee version of a cattle grid. If the queen is forced to stay in the brood box, it’s supposed to make it easier to find her but unfortunately we fail to spot her, nonetheless. Checking the bees together is a welcome distraction, it takes us away from the monotony of this lockdown life. It’s like going to the moon, without the need for a rocket. Studying the bees puts everything into perspective; nature is so much bigger and better than the human race could ever hope to be. A hive inspection requires concentration. It’s important to look for signs of swarming and mite infestations. If something’s missed, next time the hive is opened it could be too late. Domestic squabbles are forgotten and irritations melt away as we bow our heads over the hive to gaze in wonder at a hidden world.

A hive tool is a metal bar with a hook at one end and a sharp straight edge at the other. It’s a decent weapon in the hands of an eight-year-old. He deftly uses it to loosen the edges of the frames from the side of the hive. There’s no other wild livestock that can be kept in a suburban garden and monitored by children and adults alike. The frames in the brood box are full of sealed brood – exactly what I need to see at this time of year. The queen should be coming into her peak laying period of close to two thousand eggs a day. We might not have seen her but my queen is laying like a pro!

The bees were quiet again and didn’t make a fuss about us poking around them. The lockdown weather has given the bees the best spring I can remember for years – certainly since we’ve had the hives. I remind myself that the season is long and try not to jar my honey before it’s here!

It’s early evening when we finish. My helper has discarded his suit on the floor and my husband has gone to light the BBQ. I enjoy being alone with the bees; maybe it’s a symptom of lockdown, maybe it’s not. The hive was quiet; most of the foragers having returned for the day. I knelt down in the comfort and safety of my new suit and watched the activity at the hive entrance. I recognised the guard bees checking each forager before they’re allowed to enter. The queen’s pheromones dominate the colony and every bee that belongs to it. I watch each worker bee as she returns to the hive; wings shimmering, as she hovers in the air for several seconds judging her landing, her dense jellybean body with legs dangling loose like landing wheels. Full pollen baskets on her back legs bulging like yellow-orange biceps, her body covered in the finest fur like a mint leaf. In the peak of spring and summer a bee can make up to twelve foraging flights a day, each one up to three miles away. Their wings move back to front and front to back, rotating in the air creating the vortices that make it possible for them to fly. They beat two hundred and thirty times a second; it’s what makes the famous buzz sound effect. Thirty-six miles a day on something as thin as cobweb. One in every three bites of food we take rely on these tiny appendages and the flights of their owner.

I think:

A bee wing is one of the most improbable truths on earth. Like love.

The tulips are nearly gone. I’ll miss their bright heads dotted around the garden. I’m going to plant more for next year. The weekend papers are full of ninety-nine-year-old Captain Tom Moore who walked 100 laps of his garden and has raised millions for the NHS. A feel-good story the papers and the public cling to like pollen on bee fur. We finished our day with a BBQ and ate outside. What will we do when the weather returns to ‘normal?’ Will we recognise ‘normal’ if it ever returns?

30th April 2020

The weather has turned colder. Spring freshness nips at extremities. After lunch I go have a look at the hive. I’m surprised to see any activity. There must be about twenty bees braving the weather. I’m sure they’re heading off in a different direction, perhaps there’s a nectar flow or pollen nearby that’s closer in colder climes; a convenient corner shop. I messaged a beekeeper friend to check if I should put insulation back in, but he assured me my colony is strong enough now to withstand any downturn in weather. He reiterated that I must do weekly checks for swarming and keep an eye on varroa levels. The thought of my bees swarming is alarming. I couldn’t bear to lose them now. They’ve become my Covid crutch.

The next day it rains at last. Five weeks with nothing and now it’s typical April showers. The rain is needed, but it means no bees. After home-school and lunch I go check them anyway – it’s become my routine. I put on a coat and carry my coffee in a cup. It’s a dry spell between the showers and the hives are sitting in a small pool of sunshine. I’m amazed at how many bees are outside. I stay well back; they won’t like the smell of my coffee. They zig and zag. It’s always a relief to see them. Dark clouds are gathering, there’ll be more rain soon, but for now, my bees are taking full advantage of the sunshine moments. And so, do I. I’m like a mother on the side-lines of a big match game; silently cheering. It only takes a few minutes before I feel reset, ready to face the remainder of the day. My bees, my magic medicine.