IT was the melodious hum of the bees feasting on our flowering lime trees that started everything. ‘Bees love lime blossom,’ said the friendly beekeeper who was visiting with an observation hive on the day our garden was open for the Red Cross this month. ‘Have you thought of having a hive?’
Actually, as soon as I’d known that we’d be having a bee exhib-ition that day, I started imagining the banks of hives and jars of honey with our special label proudly proclaiming that this was made by our own bees (well, nearly) supping our own nectar. Then, I had visions of evenings lit by our own beeswax candles and furniture with a gleaming patina from our own homemade bees-wax-and-turpentine polish, just like my father used to make, heating the mixture in a special old pan. Its scent is not only evocative of old, well-cared-for houses, but it takes me back to my childhood.
But, before nostalgia takes over, back to the bees. Within hours, we’d met Jane Tuke, a beekeeper for four years, who was willing to share two hives with us. We found the best site, where the bees get the morning sun and the scent of the pollen of our limes and sweet chestnuts. Then, three days later, they arrived.
I knew nothing about bees, but I’m learning. One hive, Mrs Tuke told me, can be home to an incredible 50,000 to 60,000 bees (roughly the same as the population of Inverness). And one of the new hives already held more than 25lb of honey. Better still, our ‘out apiary’ the official term contains ‘a textbook colony’, which means the bees are of a ‘wonderful disposition’.
They have much in common with humans (although they were around 30 million years before us), having the same body temperature and producing honey, which is as perfect a food for us as it is for them. In Spain, there’s an 8,000-year-old cave painting of humans climbing trees to
collect wild honey.
When the bees have collected the nectar, they fan their wings in the hive to help it evaporate into honey before stopping each cell with a wax cap. This is the perfect storage method—honey behind wax dating from Ancient Egypt is still edible.
Bees are very social, in the nicest possible way, doing nothing that’s not good for the whole hive. As winter comes, if they can’t find food to take back for the colony, they pathetically go on searching until they die.
Mrs Tuke and her husband, John, arrived with the hives on the back seat of the car, both dressed in those alarming beekeepers’ hats that look like a cross bet-ween a spaceman’s helmet and a burka. However, they’re sensible because, although the hive entrance was carefully sealed, I noticed that several bees had escaped and probably wouldn’t much like the movement of the car. You can imagine what other drivers thought of this. Then, they got me into a complete white helmet and jacket, so the three of us were there like a Martian invasion. Although khaki is currently the fashionable colour, white suits sensibly show up any errant bees.
We unsealed the hives and, after a fair bit of buzzing and circling, the colony began to settle. ‘I get cross with other beekeepers when they bang the bees around,’ says Mrs Tuke. ‘You need to be gentle, because they learn if you intend them harm. And you can’t be haphazard.’ Other alarming risks are robber bees, too lazy to do their own work, and wasp attack, because the colony sometimes can’t scent the difference bet-ween the insects.
Mrs Tuke got into bees as she was allergic to fur. Unable to have dogs as pets, as a child, she had an ant farm followed by a tropical millipede bought, of course, from Harrods. But bees have cured these allergies, inc-luding her hay fever, and she now has Rhodesian ridgeback dogs. What’s more, she assures me that our garden will flourish as never before with the pollinating efforts of the insects. And we’ll have our own honey.
* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 23 2014