Jethro, Going Postal
Honey bee (apis mellifera) and flower with extra-floral nectaries
Derek KeatsLicence CC BY 2.0

I started bee-keeping, encouraged by my father-in-law, as he had been by his father-in-law. He, the former, had had to give up his bees, after collapsing in the orchard following a sting, and sold all his stuff for, I think, £25, to the man from whom he bought my first hive (for £25): it was a ‘WBC’ hive – pent roof, sloping sides, splay-legged base, long ‘alighting-board’, in flaking white paint, beneath which was rotting wood…

Jethro, Going Postal
Houghton Hall – Walled Garden – Herb Garden – Bee hive
Elliott BrownLicence CC BY 2.0

William Broughton Carr had designed the hive, with a view to making life attractive to, and pleasant for the colony, and, in damp Cornwall, it had the added claim of superior ventilation, even having charming little pierced conical ventilators fore and aft in its pent roof. Against it, was ‘The National’, as severe as if designed by Le Corbusier, strictly orthogonal: if the bees didn’t like it… after all, in the wild, bees nested in the unlikeliest of places, chimneys being, oddly enough, often favoured.

I have somewhere here (passed on to me by my said f-i-l.) Dr. Butler’s book , ‘The World of The Honey Bee’. Had I known, or realised, that the quiet, unobtrusive man whom I’d met with a group of walkers around Lanteglos, was that Colin Butler I’d have begged him to stay, and at least autograph my copy. Apparently, after all those years at Rothamsted working with bees, he became allergic to them, so his colleagues’ retirement present was a collection of spiders.

Many people, I suspect, hazily imagine that a Bee-keeper has, at the back of all his picturesque hives, a tap, which he turns to fill the jars he holds beneath. ‘Are you making much honey?’ people will enquire. ‘No, but the bees are getting on with it.’ might be the reply. Bees, being good Capitalists (is there any other kind?), will collect Nectar (they do not collect Honey; they manufacture Honey from the Nectar they collect), and, if the supply is there, will expand their work-force in order to take advantage of the abundance, storing what is above their immediate requirements, in case of future needs (think Joseph, and the seven fat and lean kine).

There are cave-paintings (or possibly Greek urns), I recall, that show a man shinning up a tree, or possibly, shinning swiftly down said tree, beclouded by angry bees, as he endeavours to rob them of their hard-won golden liquid, and, for centuries getting the honey from them, meant killing the whole colony, usually by burning sulphur, and holding the hive (a straw-woven ‘skep’, not a WBC or even a National) over it. The comb would then be cut out and strained through cloth, the honey’s flavour enriched, no doubt, by all the bits of dead larvae, and the generations-worth of shed larval skins and excrement.  Often, ‘bee-holes’ would be provided in bits of wood, set out in the hope of luring a Swarm, so that they could finally be parted from their honey. Hence the old rhyme,

‘A swarm of bees in May, is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June, is worth a silver spoon.

A swarm of bees in July, is not worth a fly’

A May swarm would have enough time to build up a strong Colony, and store honey plentifully, whilst a month later, it would all be ‘touch and go’, and a July swarm (probably an ‘after-swarm’) would be likely to be small in numbers of workers, and perhaps from a diseased stock, or from a feeble strain and would yield no ‘harvest’.

Worker Bee-larvae are fed nectar, the ‘Royal Jelly’ having been cut from their diet after three days, so the hexagonal cell in which the egg was originally laid by the Queen, is their lavatory as well as their cradle, and, as they outgrow and moult their skins, it contains, as it were, all their nappies plus the contents (eggs destined to become Queens, are raised in specially constructed large cells, where they are bathed, not in Asses’ milk, but in ‘Royal Jelly’ until their emergence). When they finally emerge from their cell, other bees prepare it for the next egg, by burnishing the sides of the cell, but not completely removing all the detritus – which, subsequently will become the favoured site for the wax- moth to lay her eggs in: all that added protein!

There’s a lot of tosh talked about how to treat stings – vinegar, ‘the blue-bag!’… A wasp-sting is a relatively simple matter, since their sting is lance-shaped, and the venom is relatively simple; per contra a bee-sting is much more complex: for a start, the bee’s sting is barbed, so that extracting it, as the bee will, delivers more damage, then, the venom is contained in two separate sacs, the dose for injection being mixed only just before delivery. I am not belittling the wasp’s ability to kill a human with a few stings, but dwelling on the far more sophisticated armoury Apis Melliflora has at its disposal. When stinging (to death, of course) another, intruder insect, the bee will insert her sting , typically, where two plates of chitin adjoin, from which she will be able to withdraw it; no matter how ‘soft as your face’ your skin might be, it is too tough for her to pull her sting out, and, in furiously trying to do so, she will actually pull out of herself all the organs associated, leaving her venom-sacs embedded in you, and still pumping…

So, you scrape it along the angle at which it entered your skin, trying not to squeeze the venom-sac (which is still on auto-pilot, pumping…) as you do so. This, all the while beset by hordes of angered bees, intent on following their kami-kaze pilot predecessor, whose sting-pheronome has aroused their ire. There is, or used to be, an amazing film by the Oxford Scientific Film Unit – eat your heart out, Attenborough – showing an intruding Wasp being despatched by workers in a hive, as well as following the fascinating life-cycle of bees, within the hive.

If you keep bees, you will be stung: you will keep trying to minimise this, they will keep trying to maximise it. [The local Blacksmith ‘down ‘ere’, was once badly stung by an incomer’s bees. I went to commiserate, a trifle smugly, perhaps. He philosophically said, ‘Granfer Rollins allus said, ‘Bees is all right, ‘til they sit down: then their asses ‘r’ sum ‘ot!’] Understandable, when you consider that the Honey you desire is a mere source of pleasure to you, but is, to the colony, life or death. In nature, there is no sentimentality: I have seen a returning forager Worker literally drop dead on the ‘WBC’ hive alighting board, her wings ragged from incessant toil, and incoming Workers, trying to suck out any gathered nectar from her, before going on in. In the Spring and Summer, the Worker bee literally works herself to death, in as few as four weeks: once the sun has illuminated and warmed the hive, she will fly out, her eyes, sensitive to the polarisation of light, able to detect the angle of the sun (unlike us, they can detect where the Suns is on overcast days) and more sensitive to the ultra-violet region than ours: some flowers that, to us, look merely yellow, have, under ultra-violet light, the equivalent of runway lights, to guide them towards the nectaries. In addition to this ‘3-D Vision’, bees are acutely sensitive to scent: it has been said that bees even smell with their feet. To put it another way, the rest of ‘Nature’, including the Animals, whom we alternately sentimentalise and scoff at, still possess abilities we have long ceased to need or use, such as sensitivity to positive ions, to Pheromones, to the Earth’s magnetism. The great G.K. Chesterton remarked on some of this, in his poem ‘Quoodle’ (‘…and Goodness only knowses the noselessness of Man.’) Meanwhile, in an unremarkable symbiosis, we now know that plants waft out their fragrance, not in the least to delight us humans, but to attract pollinating insects, who will follow these billowing wafts as WW2 night-fighters did the ‘knickebein’ or our Radar beams. Plants even seem to have developed an ‘after you Cecil’ of timing, so that they release the scent of their blossom at the time most appropriate for them ( no point in ‘jamming the airwaves’): Apples, I remember, or misremember, pushing out the fragrance of their blossom from about half-past ten until noon.

My father-in-law (God rest his soul) used annually to go to a farmer on the Moor, whose rheumatic knees needed to be stung, or else he’d be unable to go about his farm. He’d take a matchbox of bees, he told me, open the box under the bedclothes, and then pat up and down over the quilt to provoke the bees’ sting-reflex, and that complex bee-venom would stimulate the farmer’s

own body’s defences… or something: the Science might not have been satisfactory, but it worked. Some beekeepers recommended the hot end of the Smoker be applied to the site of the sting, perhaps one of those ‘kill-or-cure’ remedies, adhered to by a hardier generation; others said the would-be beekeeper must bare an arm, and get the bees to sting him a minimum of thirty times, to innoculate himself against sever reactions.

My Father-in-Law also gave me William Herrod-Hempsall’s little book on Beekeeping, with all its gruesome black-and-white (are we allowed to say that any more?) pictures of diagnosing Foul-Brood by means of a matchstick twisted into the already deliquescent remains of a bee-larva, and of Queen Bees being artificially-inseminated. He himself, relished reports of Herrod-Hempsall giving talks on beekeeping to rural audiences, asking for questions, answering a question, from some countryman (you know us simple souls, straw in our hair, smocks on – the sort who voted leave…) and then asking, ‘Do you understand?’: then sometimes coming back with, ‘You’re saying ‘yes’ but with a ‘no’ face: I’ll explain it again.’

* * *

Neither the ‘WBC’ nor ‘The National’ would have been possible but for the work of an American Congragationalist Minister, Langstroth, who, in 1851/2 worked out that, in nature bees would leave a space of 3/8ths of an inch between surfaces: anything larger (bees. Of course, work to Imperial Measurements), they would fill with comb (‘Brace-comb’); anything smaller, they would block up with Propolis, the resinous-gummy material they gather from, for instance, chestnut ‘sticky-buds’ (I was amazed once, having a quick look into my hives, to see that the combs and frames were all blackened; the answer came as I walked up the road: it had recently been tarmaced, and my bees had saved themselves the flight to parks, and re-purposed tar! His next great innovation was the Queen Excluder, a grid through whose slits the longer and wider abdomen of the Queen would not pass, thus restricting the hive-boxes (‘supers’) above it to workers bringing in nectar; in their natural state, bees would construct larger cells (‘drone cell’) in an arch-pattern at the top of the comb, using the larger cells both for the Queen to lay drone-cells in, and for storage of nectar, the larger cells making the process of evaporation more speedy. So the ‘moveable frame hive’ became possible, and soon ‘foundation’ could be bought, beeswax rolled and impressed with the same hexagon pattern as natural comb, cut so as to fit the frames, added strength given by having thin wire embedded.

At this time of year, the beekeeper’s nose is gratified by the scent of newly-planed wood, as he assembles new hive parts and frames, and the imcomparable aroma of fresh beeswax – or, perhaps, the disgusting stink of frames ruined by wax-moth, because he had been careless and not piled up the still honey-wet ‘Supers’, without moth-repellent such as Glacial Acetic Acid, or the carcinogenic ‘PDB’ crystals.

Jethro, Going Postal
Moth infestation – Possibly Wax Moth. . .
Johan Bichel LindegaardLicence CC BY 2.0

Stings and Smokers

The Bee will defend the Colony; her sting is a kind of nuclear deterrent (‘Mutual Assured Destruction’). She won’t sting you (famous last words!) if you upset her when she’s foraging in your flowers, ‘though she will sting, if sensing being squashed, or if trammelled in your hair (evolved response to Spider-webs?); she will be vexed, as I discovered when trying to auto-focus on a Bee in a flower, by, I suppose, the unexpected dose of infra-red on her back, but will prefer to buzz off not try and kill my Nikon.

Some of those ancient paintings show fire being used by the human comb-robber. A forest fire induces in the bee that ‘flight’ response the infinitely smaller infra-red did, and, when there’s a strong chance of all you have and own going up in smoke, as you begin to flee, you collect as much as you can, to see you through whatever the next stage might be: so, the bees go to their stores and, literally fill their guts with their honey. With their ‘honey-stomachs’, to be politer, ‘full up, fit to bust’ with their refugee gold, they cannot physiologically, it seems, extrude their stings, as well as being in a state of satiated benevolence: that ‘refugee-gold’, sown, as it were, into the hems of their clothing, will not merely fuel their flight, but, when they reach somewhere away from the heat and smoke, will provide the means for them to build their new nest, for it is from Nectar, that they make Wax. So, in future, think of beeswax as Nectar distilled to the utmost. The most beautiful Comb to be seen, is that produced by a Swarm, perhaps in the very first hours of their initial alighting: delicate, pearly-white, hexagonal, attached to whatever the surface might be – tree-bough, Skep, or cardboard box – subtly adapted to it, and soon asserting its precise geometry: hexagonal tubes, of ca. 12% declination. The Bees hang, head uppermost, and from some of their ventral plates, extrude tiny flakes of wax, which they comb off with the bristles on their legs, and which then become a kind of chewing-gum, the warmth and the saliva making the wax malleable and so able to be formed into those amazing hexagons. A beekeeper will usually make himself small rolls of corrugated cardboard to fuel his smoker, some putting a wisp of grass into the smoker’s funnel, a. to cool the smoke and b. to give it that forest-fire whiff – and c. to prevent burning particles of fuel being puffed into the hive.

Drones v. Workers

I have never witnessed workers evicting the drones from the hive, either stinging them to death, or just turfing them out in the winter, to die of exposure, but the books assure us this is the case. At one time, it was thought that Drones were somewhat like the lilies of the field, which ‘toil not, neither do they spin’ and that (cue feminist outrage) they only existed to fertilise the Queen (Sex! The only thing they think about! tm same viragos). However, it is now established that the drones, with their larger, more powerful wings, help regulate the temperature in the hive. Any male who has worked in a predominantly female establishment, such as a Girls’ School, will know how useful a few males can be in lowering the emotional-temperature from close-to-eruption to gently-simmering. Aerodyamically, the Drone is, I suppose, the Bee-equivalent of the Lancaster or Wellington; less teddy-bear plump than a Bumble-Bee, he’s a Rugby-player, not a wendyballer – a Fly-half, maybe. He, as much as any Oxford oarsman in ‘Eights Week’, needs his food – not for rowing from Putney to Mortlake, but for flying almost stratospherically high where, they tell us (Lord knows how they found out) Drones congregate, and whither Virgin Queens will fly. His wedding-tackle is apparently hydraulically elevated, and, once inserted, the goods having been delivered, he dies… the Queen dizzies on, perhaps mating with several others, storing all they’ve yielded her in her Spermatheca.

Drones are Male, Queens are Female: Workers? Workers are female too, but with undeveloped, or underdeveloped Ovaries: they have had only three days’ worth of ‘Royal Jelly’, and, besides, it is thought that ‘Queen Substance’ is a means whereby their ability to ovulate is still further repressed. So, when a colony becomes queenless, the Beekeeper might become aware of this by finding lots of eggs laid in Drone Cells (Drone cells are larger, and are dome-capped by the Bees, knowing the drone will need the extra space, for his larger brain…) – ‘lots of eggs’, because, so inexpert is a laying-worker, that she’ll quite often lay more than one egg in a cell, and will lay quite haphazardly, whereas a Queen lays with regularity, fertilizing each egg as it passes down her oviduct, unless she’s laying in a Drone Cell, when she neglects to fertilise the egg. Curiously, the brood from a laying-worker are all drones, so are raised, you could say, parthenogenetically: all female input but all male output!

I mentioned earlier the olfactory delights the beekeeper enjoys at this time of year: the scent of freshly-machined wood and the aroma of wax foundation. There are other pleasures, indeed to be sniffed at – the heady smell of honey from the Extractor and settling-tank, the amazing perfume that transports you down a lane of Hawthorn in full blossom, as you carefully cut and place in those little tubs comb filled with Hawthorn honey, caramel, hazelnuts…  but, perhaps the most exciting and evocative smell of all, the smell of a Swarm. In order to take a swarm, the beekeeper, armed with nothing more than perhaps a pair of secateurs, a cardboard box, and a piece of cloth, will approach the gently-murmuring creatures (they’re discussing the pros and cons of the reports numerous scout-bees have been bringing back of possible places for a more permanent home than this apple-tree branch, already bowed and swaying under their weight; he might need to snip off some of the smaller branches, then, when he’s satisfied that it’s now or never, with his box ready, he’ll give the branch a sharp knock, dislodging all twenty thousand or so of them into the box, which he will promptly cover with the cloth, before inverting it on the ground just underneath where the swarm had pitched, propping it up at one edge with a convenient stone or stick. Provided that the Queen is in the box, the bees will stay with her, as they add this unexpected new place into their calculations. By sunset, they will almost all be in, and he can gently move them, box and all, to his prepared hive. As it begins to get ‘dimpsy’, he’ll have set up a board, sloping up to the hive entrance, and covered it with a white cloth; there, he’ll lift up the box over the lower end of the slope and give it another smart shake. They’ll tumble out, and start frantically finding their whereabouts, and, in seconds, what was a rout will become a disciplined march up the white cloth and into the hive. When this march begins, the beekeeper knows pretty much all is well – confirmed to him by the joyous bubbling hum, as they inspect every inch of their new home, amazed at their good luck, and commenting on it: then comes the scent. A number of bees will take up positions at the hive-entrance and begin ‘fanning’ – backsides out, wings working energetically, they send abroad their own, particular ‘colony scent’ which, to the mere human nose is a smell reminiscent of carbolic, of Friars’ Balsam, of Propolis: astringent, fresh, clean, it is their ‘Calling all Workers’.

It was back-problems that signalled the end of my beekeeping and the not-quite end of a fascinating and absorbing hobby: I used to jest that, although I reckoned I had every book on Beekeeping, there was always another one my bees had read, so that they were always at least a step ahead of me. They are wild creatures, not tame, not even domesticated. When ‘Isle of Wight Disease’ decimated colonies in this Country and was thought to have wiped out the ‘British Black’ bee, so there was a heavy-handed Government re-stocking scheme, introducing Italian bees, who’re almost wasp-like in their stripy vests, and whose trumpeted virtues were less apparent in our less sunny climate. As ‘progressive’ beekeepers have often surreptitiously brought with them from overseas a foreign Queen, they might also have brought with her the more recent plague Varroa.  One bee-book I never felt able to afford was Dorothy Hodges’ ‘The Pollen Loads of the Honey Bee’, published in 1952 (price now between £90 and £390!), with its exquisite colour-charts enabling you to identify whence those indefatigable workers have brought the ‘bee-bread’ back to their home. So much to learn, and so much information they refuse to afford us. I, for instance, stumbled upon the fact that even a dead bee can sting: I’d not noticed this long-dead bee, sting uppermost, as I was removing frames and carefully placing them in my extractor…

© Jethro 2019

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file