Bees, Breath and Back To School…

The day is dull, it can’t decide whether to rain, or not. The air is autumn cool, the blooms of summer have faded, there’s a ‘last orders’ feeling before winter. I’m hunkered down, underneath the big fir tree on the edge of our wet lawn half a metre from my first hive entrance. I’ve just left my youngest off at school for the first time in five months. He turned nine in July and takes his extra year into the bigger world of the P5 classroom. The teenager is still asleep upstairs, his turn will come tomorrow. My head feels dizzy with relief, I’m two gins in, but all that’s passed my lips this morning is coffee and water. I inhale deeply. For the next three hours I have responsibility only for myself. I don’t have to feel guilty that he’s still lying in his PJ’s watching youtube at eleven o’clock, I don’t have to magic up excursions, I don’t have to cajole and most importantly I don’t have to try and teach him! I breathe in the freedom of it and I exhale the last five months of pandemic parenting.

Last week I began the process of wintering my bees. I’ve narrowed the hive entrance, all that’s left is a thin dark slice, an arrowslit for them to defend themselves more easily against wasp invaders. I’ve conscientiously worked my way through a list of jobs to ready my bees for winter. I’ve been told what I do now will predict the health of my bees next spring. I’ve consolidated them into a single brood box and taken off empty supers. Despite the impressive size of my colony there is not enough honey for me to take the excess this year. Beekeepers across the country have disappointing honey crops. Spring was too dry, stopping the flowers from producing nectar and the summer months too wet for forage flying. The last few weeks of weather have been so bad that I’ve started feeding sugar syrup to boost them up before winter. My tall hives are now small and squat. They’ve lost the majestic height they had in summer when I had to pile on extra brood boxes and supers to house my large colony of bees. The same colony that on a hot sticky day in June swarmed to a branch of the fir tree above me. September cold partnered with the wind and rain means my bees are dying. There is no more food for them to forage. Only the strongest will be left in the hive over winter. I’ve discovered a dead drone zone just outside my hive entrance. The male drone bees are not welcome in the hive during autumn and winter. There are no virgin queens flying now, their reproductive services are no longer required, they’ll only eat up valuable food supplies. Last week I watched in fascinated admiration as my worker bees literally kicked-out drones. At first I thought my bees were sick, as several of them tumbled down the landing board onto the grass below, but when I looked more closely I saw they were drone bees being denied access to the hive. I saw one worker bee hitch herself onto a drone and carry him off by his wings!

Back in March when the world was thrown into lockdown and the sun shone relentlessly I had ample opportunity to observe my bees. During the last tumultuous five months they have soothed me from the inside out. I’ve learnt my bees provide a stage from the four states of attention (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989) called ‘soft fascination.’ It “allows the individual to be gently distracted in a low-stimulation activity, which reduces the internal noise and provides a quiet internal space to relax.” I’m curious about the effect my bees have on my mental state. A flying bee is a sight to behold; their dense jellybean bodies, with dangling loose legs like liquorice laces held aloft by the shimmer of wings that beat hundreds of times a second. When I spot one with hind legs packed with pollen crumbs it’s extra special. Pollen is the protein needed for raising brood inside the hive, from a beekeeper’s point of view it means the hive is healthy. The sight of bulging bee legs with pollen also indicates the bees are doing their job of pollination and in a wider context that means nature is hearty and normal. What a comfort to know that Mother Nature has maintained her order, even if the human race has not. Last week they were bringing in lots of pollen, bolstering themselves and their stores for winter. The stronger the colony is going into winter, the better chances it has of survival. We could learn a lot from bees.

My hive is quiet this morning, a sign that the bees know rain is on the way. But I watch anyway. My black Irish honey bees are hardier than most, they are bred to put up with our inclement weather. A few bees come and go, perhaps a dozen or so. Such a change to the busyness of the summer months. I watch. I breathe. I can feel the muscles at the back of my eyes relax, my brain softens like a dog rolling over to be petted. I stay hunkered down and watch until the rain comes, as the bees knew it would. In my retreat from the wet I pass the honeysuckle that I planted in May. I look up in wonder at how tall it has grown. My husband said it would never take in the rough, dry, waste ground that I dug out one hot lockdown evening, my new plant knee height beside me. Now, its green arms splay out high over the brick in a welcome viney hug. It will be a delicious nectar treat for my bees in the years to come. I adjust a tendril or two, tucking them gently behind the garden wire I attached to the wall to give it purchase. I breathe in the balance felt by planting for my pollinators.

I’ll miss my bees this winter but observing their preparations is reassuring. Autumn has a quiet certainty that helps us all prepare for the winter ahead. The turn of the earth can be felt in our seasonal cycles, the rhythm of Mother Nature’s heartbeat. The leaves on the Virginia creeper are transforming into deep, berry reds, the front of the house pulses and glows with it. Soon, I’ll plant my spring bulbs and tuck my bees up for winter. I’ll breathe in the waxy, honey smell of their hive one last time and wish them luck for the winter. I’ll secure the hives against winter winds, tying them up like birthday gifts. I’ll hang up my lilac bee suit, my red-stained propolis gloves and store away my smoker. I’ll sit by warm fires and read books about bees and flower forage, ready to begin again next year, reassured that whatever is happening in the world, bulbs will bloom and bees will emerge and life will keep on keeping on.

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