Musings from a beekeeper in lockdown on World Bee Day…

11th May

Last night the Prime Minister addressed the nation on the proposed easing of lockdown. It was a long-winded vague ramble; go to work if you can, but stay at home if you can’t, don’t stay at home, but stay alert. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all done their own thing and extended the lockdown for a further three weeks. The United Kingdom is not looking so united in the face of Covid-19.

The unpalatable reality of social distancing looks like it will become the new normal in a bid to keep the ‘R’ rate below one. The UK government is pushing for schools to open by June 1st but that will not apply to education authorities under the devolved governments. Unions are kicking up a hornet’s nest about safety, it’s going to be difficult to get people to come out of this in an orderly fashion. It’s all depressing and exhausting. Time is something that used to pass invisibly, without any notice. Few people recognised its worth in the moment, we used to be too busy looking at something further ahead in times’ great ether. But lockdown has made time visible. Time has been a topic that’s been in the headlines every day. How do you spend it, what are you doing with it, how do you fill it? No longer invisible, it’s being counted, it’s being felt.

The afternoon is sunny, even if much cooler than before. After home-school I drag the boys’ bright yellow beanbag to the front garden and sit beside the hives. I watch them at their business. It’s a balm. I’m reading a new parenting book. It’s been on my shelf for several months already, waiting to admonish me for everything I’ve done and continue to do wrong as a parent. Seven weeks into lockdown it might be too late, but I’m desperate. Last week the teenager said, “Mum you’re grumpy all the time these days.” It can’t end lockdown but I’m hoping it will help me cope with it. I sit on my buttercup beanbag and watch the bees dart and dance like a herd of wild horses.

I think:

Parenting; it can feel like a hundred bee stings.

The 2020 Honey Show has been cancelled; my beacon of light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. Considering the enormity of the events that have unfolded during the last two months, the honey show’s significance has paled in importance since I started this diary. So much of life is on hold or cancelled, like everyone, I am numb to it now. I might not be able to enter the honey competition this year but the thought of my first jar of honey still fills me with delight. Since my husband began keeping bees, honey has flavoured our world. We drizzle it and spoon it into everything. Every drop is savoured and appreciated.

13th May

We’ve started to clean up our wax! My husband has buckets that he’s kept from the past three years. There’s never been the motivation, time or impetus to do anything with it before. Perhaps our foray into wax will be something we’ll thank lockdown for in the future. First we needed to remove all the debris and dirt from it. I’m from a hording family; nothing is ever thrown out. A forty-year-old cast iron thirty-two-pint pot was a perfect find for our wax making. We added water and heated the mixture gently. A glorious smell wafted around the house – a mixture of burnt honey, wax and honeycomb. Once the mixture of wax and water had melted it was set aside to cool. As it cooled the sediment fell to the bottom of the pot leaving a clean layer of wax on the top. We’ll need to repeat the process again and then filter the wax before it’s pure enough to use.

Bees produce wax from glands on their abdomen, initially soft it hardens in the atmosphere. Making wax is labour intensive for a bee, it uses eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. Beeswax has been used for centuries as a healing balm and beauty product; I’m tempted to lather it on myself once it’s cleaned. Before electric light, only pure beeswax candles were used in churches because they don’t omit fumes and therefore did not damage the paintings and artefacts. The light from beeswax candles is said to be closest to sunlight. It’s another natural wonder product from the humble honeybee, an insect hardly bigger than a fingernail, that not only sweetens our world but can light it up too!

I haven’t been near the bees for three days – lockdown leeches my time. I’m tethered to the house by domestic chores, by people who need fed and watered, who need taught, who need dragged away from screens. I’m not so sure women are ‘locked down’ as ‘locked in.’ The eight-year-old has to construct sentences using verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives. A gregarious chatty boy; the nuts and bolts of language silence him. He sits and looks to the ceiling, though we both know he’ll not find any sentences there. Let’s go see the bees, I suggest. His tanned lockdowned face lights up. At the hive I say, “describe what you see.” “Dive-bombing, zig-zagging, clustering, excitedly, busy, buzzing, happily, speedily, quietly…” The verbs, adverbs and adjectives flow out of him.

Bees unblock the boy.

It’s been another dry week and I’m struggling to keep my new plants watered. The Dahlia is withered and shrunken already. I gave it a drowning today and hope it might perk up. The rest seem to be ok so far. I’m clueless when it comes to gardening, until the bees I had no interest in plants or flowers. I’m trying to learn as much as I can but it’s like dust, something that gathers with time. Gardening knowledge needs to be gleaned from the passing seasons; it can’t be rushed. I know more than I did this time last year, but that still amounts to very little. The lavender in the flower beds at either side of our front door are dead. I pruned them for the first-time last autumn and must have pruned too much. When learning to garden death seems to be part of the collateral damage. It makes me worry for my bees. I dug up the dead dried stumps of lavender and planted new ones with compost and water and hope.

‘Gardener’s World’ reduced me to tears on Friday, not due to a plant fatality, but because of the death of Monty Don’s dog ‘Nigel.’ The programme ended with a beautiful montage of the handsome hound, a feature in all Monty’s gardening programmes for the last twelve years. Before the bees, there’s always been ‘Doherty’ my own canine stalwart who is pure love and loyalty. He will be thirteen this August and his slowing down is difficult to watch. My affection for him has always flowed one way, without irritation, without any kind of compromise. The thought of losing him is internal pain like ingested bee stings. I hope the rest of Monty Don’s dogs stay safe– I don’t think I could take anymore.

Meanwhile the parenting book says its ok to make mistakes but I must ‘repair’ the ‘rupture.’ I’ve begun apologising to both children for past ‘ruptures.’ Numerous occasions when I could have taken an action that was less damaging to their self-esteem. The eight-year-old comforts me with kisses and says, ‘don’t worry mum’ but the teenager only looks at me with a bewildered pity. I don’t think I’m earning any kudos with him for my attempts at ‘repair.’

I think:

If only children were as easy as bees. I could keep them in a box at the bottom of the garden and check on them every week.


Photo by Alexas_Fotos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA