Spectator: Lucy gets to grips with local bees

The man leapt out from behind a pillar shouting ‘Bee’ at me, as opposed to ‘Boo’, a cunning exchange of vowels that had me texting a donation to The Bee Cause (Friends of the Earth) within minutes. That and he reminded me of my godson. He gave me a small yellow folder containing a packet of wildflower seeds and a thank-you message.

This, I sensed, was a better campaign than my own rather more militant Workers’ Rights for Bees, a short-lived effort I began some years ago when after I read about the appalling treatment of bees in the vast almond and orange groves of America: they’re fed junk food, have no time off, are shipped across time zones and are fatally over-worked.

The movement con-sisted of some T-shirts and pants with the name printed on them and a boycott of my favourite orange juice. Happily, the bees belonging to my former neighbour are at the other end of the spectrum. She’s been patiently and passionately teaching me about their behaviour as the busy period approaches for any apiarist, especially one whose devotion to the creatures has led her hives to multiply from one to 17. The trouble, I begin to realise, is that she can’t say no. It’s not just a question of dividing her own hives-she gets regular calls when other people find a swarm, for which she can’t always find a home.

She rang this morning to say that she had a swarm in her garden-would we like to watch her catch it? Yes, we definitely would. Alfie and I watched her catch one last year when we were too chicken to get out of the car.

Now that I’ve spent a bit of time with the hives, I feel more relaxed and I’ve been nurturing a plan to take Anna to see the bees. She’s terrified of wasps-many a summer lunch has been ruined for her by their presence. Might she not be cured of this phobia if she stands amid 30,000 buzzing creatures with the capacity to sting? I think she might.

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As a swarm is usually about half the original hive size, approximately 10,000-15,000 bees are hanging off a young pear tree in Clarissa’s garden. A sheet is spread on the ground, the tree is shaken and most of the bees drop into a basket, which is then upturned with a small gap left at the bottom for the ones left behind to follow suit. ‘By tonight, they’ll all be in and then we can watch them “walk the plank”‘, when these extraordinary creatures form orderly queues to walk from the basket into their new hive.

We set off to inspect five hives some miles away, each one with its own personality-Clarissa might describe one as ‘skittish’, another as ‘grumpy but very productive’ or ‘this lot are pussy-cats’. We’re entranced as she shows us the bees who flap their wings to maintain the correct hive temperature, the ones who stick their bottoms in the air to beckon the foragers to come home, the ones who move in a figure-of-eight circuit thus giving specific directions to prime nectar spots-‘go left, along the hedge, then right a bit’-and the ones carrying pollen baskets of green, orange or yellow, depending where they’ve been.

Zam and Alfie have come to find us, keeping their distance as there are no spare suits to wear. We’re making our way back to the car when we hear a loud yell. Zam has been stung on his head with the bee still trapped in his hair. When we get home, there’s a message that my brother-in-law, a keen strimmer, has been stung multiple times as he tidied under my sister’s hive. His arm is so dangerously swollen that he’s been sent to hospital by the GP. Both men are in considerable pain, yet this synchronised stinging makes no difference to Anna. ‘That wasn’t scary at all,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think it’s going to work.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘They aren’t wasps.’

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