More musings from a beekeeper in lockdown…

29th May 2020

It’s hot. I’m out watering my new plants at 7am in shorts and t-shirt. The garden is dying of thirst and after such a wet winter this prolonged lack of rain is going to be equally difficult for the farmers. But this weather is glorious. The honeysuckle, that my husband said would never grow, has extended by at least 30cm and will need attached to the wall soon. My lavender, old and new, are doing well and the fuchsias have bloomed to the most beautiful salmon and hot pink colours. My dopamine levels surge when I think how much the bees will enjoy these treats next year. The certainty of another spring is something to cling to when the world is so unstable. I’m learning that gardening is care, a commitment of time and attention. This spring I’ve discovered nooks and crannies in our garden that I didn’t know existed. Our hives sit in full view at the edge of our front garden, and yet most people don’t even notice them. Many friends ask, ‘where do you keep your hives?’ Always shocked at the times they’ve passed them unnoticed.

My hive is basking in a pool of early morning golden sun and I count fifteen bees. I’m surprised they’ve started work so early. I feel a bud of pride for their work ethic. The tulips at the front of the hive have been replaced by a clump of bright yellow buttercups. I take a picture of my sunshine hive and google if buttercups are good for bees. They are. I have a new flower app on my phone, I can now learn the names of what I see. I know a buttercup. I don’t need the app for that. I make a mental note to sit with the bees later, I haven’t done that for days. I fill up their water and leave them to it.

If I’m lucky I have an hour before the youngest stirs and the day takes on the rhythm of home-school, lunch, cleaning and an afternoon of work interrupted by arguing children. I’m still reading the parenting book, though I’ve skipped most of the pregnancy and baby sections – it’s too late for me to change any of that now. The author says the book is not meant to make parents feel bad about how they may have already parented. How else can you feel when told you’ve already done it wrong? It’s parental self-harm. I don’t know why I’m reading it. My husband has never read a parenting book, why am I? It describes a baby’s parental attachment and how distressing it is for this to be broken. The author states, ‘a baby is not an animal to be trained.’ She advises exhausted parents to see to babies no matter how many times a night, or day they cry. The book irks and itches my current need to get away from my own grown babies. Conflicted feelings of guilt, privilege and frustration swirl inside me on a daily basis. I put down the book and step away from it. I may not pick it up again.

After lunch, I keep the promise I made to myself at 7am and I go out to the hive. The grass is so dry I’m able to sit directly on it. I can’t remember the last time it was possible to sit on Irish grass and not receive a wet bum. I cross my legs like a child at assembly and the blades of grass tickle the bare skin of my shin. The sun is strong. I should have brought a hat, or sunglasses, but I won’t go back inside – I’ll only get embroiled in the latest spat between the boys or distracted by some domestic task. I cup my hands over the top of my eyes to shade them. I watch. Bee by flying bee my petulant distemper, my irksome list of chores, my tiredness, my rage against the world slips away as I study my flying jellybeans. The traffic noise of a world back in motion on the other side of the fence is distracting, but soon I zone out of it too. Next year we plan to move the hives to the back garden beside the new ‘wildlife pond.’ It’ll be quieter there. I pull my distracted mind back to the present moment. Where are they going today? There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. They come and go in bursts; one minute the hive entrance is a flurry of bees, the next it quietens down, as if there is an internal traffic light system. I try to untangle the knot of bees hovering at the hive entrance, but I can’t. I don’t even know if they are coming or going. They are swirling about the hive in a bee tornado. I attempt to follow one, it swirls about the hive several times, then it flies higher and I lose it against the brightness of the sun. They look happy. It must be great to fly around on a day like this. I feel a pang of anguish for the queen, inside the dark hive restricted to a life of egg laying, never having the heat of the sun on her wings. I imagine her inside, cossetted and pampered, wishing she was free like a normal bee.

1st June

It’s time to check my bees again! It’s hot. I hope they’re not in stinging form, I’m only wearing shorts and t-shirt underneath my suit. My husband is helping the teenager with the ‘wildlife pond’ and so I go it alone. As soon as I lift off the top super it’s a disaster. My bees have added extra comb to the bottom of some frames which means they stick to frames in the bottom super. When I lift the top super off, three frames from the bottom super come too. They dangle, laden with bees and honey, then drop off onto the grass. A whoosh of angry bees fly up into the air and a load of dishevelled bees pile on the grass at my feet. Frames of bees are lying everywhere. I’m struggling to hold the heavy super alone. The wet of stressed sweat gathers in my armpits and at the base of my neck. I singe the air with the heat of my cursing. I set the super down and begin to pick up the dropped frames apologising to the bees as I go. I’m careful with my feet so as not to stand on the bees on the grass. I don’t understand why they don’t fly off instead of crawling around dangerously under my boots. I scrape the offending honeycomb from the frames and replace them in the bottom super. After a couple of minutes order is restored. I feel a sense of achievment that I managed the situation on my own.

A queen cup

In the meantime my smoker has gone out. The bees are still a bit miffed at being thrown around, but things feel more under control. I don’t bother with the hassle of relighting it. I complete my checks of the brood box. There’s a couple of queen cups, but both are empty. My earlier debacle is forgotten when I spot my first waggle dance! The bee is vigorously vibrating herself while walking in a figure of eight circle. It’s a wonderful bee samba. This is how the foragers tell other workers where to find the best pollen and nectar. Her body vibrates in the direction the other bees should fly in order to find it. Bee communication is intricate and continual. It’s a marvel to watch their silent, efficient conversation. A colony cannot operate in confusion, it must be united and whole.

I think:

The world would be much improved if humans were better at communicating.


Photo by Myriams-Fotos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA