A Christmas Bee and Earwax Candles…

My two hives are quiet, they’re like damp, derelict buildings. Winter is a constant cycle of helpless concern for beekeepers. Several times a week I put my coat on and take a hot cup of coffee outside and watch until I drink my cup dry. If I’m lucky I see at least one bee return to a hive. A single bee is enough to reassure me that a colony is still alive and I go happily about my life for another day or two. If I see no sign of bee life sometimes I put my ear against the side of each hive and strain to hear the hopeful buzz from the nests inside. But I only ever hear traffic noise from the road beyond against the feel of the damp timber on my ear. That’s when fear digs her sharp nails into my shoulder and I worry they’ve all died, my precious bees.

It’s difficult to pull positives out of these dark, wet, locked-down days. Daylight is brief, the last blooms are gone, trees are wooden skeletons all bare branches with no flesh. I think of the bulbs I planted in September, hunkered down in the cold dark earth growing incrementally and waiting for spring. It helps, everyday might seem the same but it’s not. Nature never stops moving forward and she never looks back. I planted some leftover hyacinths into pots in the kitchen and they’re starting to bloom already. It must be the heat and there’s plenty of light. Every day they grow a little taller. The star shaped blooms are the palest violet blue. They’re a floral antidote to the heavy grey clouds outside that hold threatening rain all day or release it at a moment’s notice. In a few weeks’ time the countdown to spring can truly begin. The snowdrops I planted will be out for my bees to forage from on a mild January day. The earth will begin its turn and tilt towards the sun and another winter will be behind us. It helps to keep that thought alive on a dreich winter’s day.

Last week I made my first candles, it takes eight times as much energy for a bee to make wax than it does to make honey, however my candles’ colour is more like earwax than beeswax! Secreted wax is a pale vanilla colour but once it has held brood, pollen or nectar it becomes discoloured and is various shades of brown. The filtration process takes out the debris but it doesn’t improve the colour. I decided not to add anything to make them more palatable to the procuring eye, they’re like me without the hair dye. When they burn they remind me of inside a hive; waxy, honey, floral, clean and happy. Their scent puts me inside my suit on a warm summer day with my bees flying about, the colony strong and full of forage and everything feeling right in the world. When I burn a candle it keeps a pocket of that alive inside me.

The light from a beeswax candle is the same spectrum as the sun – who doesn’t need that during these darkest of winter days? I wonder if, subconsciously, my body knows this because I find myself pulled towards their flame; hypnotic in its light – more golden than the rest. A beeswax candle gives off negative ions that purify the air. There is no lingering scent, but perhaps it’s the absence of scent that I notice. The air’s rejuvenated, without the aroma of food, family or dogs left suspended in it. I didn’t think it was possible to fangirl my bees anymore but I was wrong, the delight of their candles has brightened up each December day for me. No wonder ancient man revered these tiny insects and considered them messengers from God. They are as magical as an elf at Christmas.

Everyone has got in the Christmas spirit early this year, hoping that its cheer will be an antidote to lockdown frustration. Every December we buy a misshapen Christmas tree from our local greengrocer and each year it stands in the same windowed corner of our living room. If its limbs are particularly unruly, it encroaches on the seating arrangement and two armchairs are moved forward, so as not to crush its bushy branches. It’s festooned with a mixture of decorations curated from places we’ve been. A tour of its branches is a walk through our family’s fifteen Christmases. A special addition last year was my Christmas bee. I found her in a bookshop in Belfast. An unusual item for a Christmas tree decoration. But there she was. A singular bee among the other ‘normal’ Christmas paraphernalia. Her stodgy stripped felt body is bright yellow and black. Her wings are white, she has large friendly cartoon eyes and a huge, wide red-lipped smile. I’ve never put a tree up when the calender is still in the single digits of December but this year, as we know, nothing is ‘normal.’ On 5th December our premature lockdown tree went up. I’ve hung my joyful Christmas bee front and centre of it. She hails the promise of another year’s beekeeping ahead, she’s my talisman dangling between the twinkling lights. The thought gives me a sweet hexagonal glow inside.

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