Quite a lot of people have asked me why on earth I keep bees. They also ask me how often I get stung. Actually, bee keeping is not all that scarey or dangerous – unless you’re allergic to bee stings, and I’m not. I haven’t been stung very much – probably not more than a dozen stings in my whole life. Partly that’s because I wear a bee veil and gloves and use a smoker to keep the bees calm.
Why? It’s a family thing. And partly to do with the fact that having had our strong tasting family honey all my life, I have no taste for the bland supermarket honey. The story below describes how I made the step from honey eater to bee keeper.
How I came to keep bees…
Bee-keeping has been in my family for generations – not as specialist apiarists, but just as farmers or terrorizors-of-the-neighbourhood or whatever. Both my father and grandfather kept bees so I’ve always had them in my life – sticking mainly to the eating the honey side of things, which I am pretty darned good at.
However, suddenly I found myself in a situation where my grandfather was long dead and my dad, too sick to handle the bees any more. I wanted to learn… but I was pretty busy and so kept putting it off. Then Lo! A swarm of bees had landed in a tree out the front of my house. I didn’t even see them until a neighbour complained and told me to have them killed!
Kill bees? Dear hard-working innocent little bees? NEVER! Not only does destiny overcome procrastination, I am given a mission – to save the bees from the Evil Neighbour. (Actually he’s a really nice man, but I don’t want to spoil a good story!)
I wait till dusk… partly from half remembered bee-lore from Pop, partly so that the Evil Neighbour will not realise I mean to keep these little devils in my own backyard and provide them with love, care, a home and endless good gossip (well-remembered bee-lore from Nan – you must always tell the bees your news.)
Living far from my parents and their equipment, I improvise. I fill an empty dogfood can with pine needles and set them a’smouldering (smoke is supposed to calm bees). Having no proper netting or bee-safety equipment, I drape myself in old lace curtains instead.
Looking tattily elegant, and hoping I’ll be safe from stings, I climb a ladder and examine the swarm. They’ve settled in well, a nice flat football of wax comb has already been constructed. That means the swarm has been there for quite a while. Pity — new swarms aren’t likely to sting. Established hives, on the other hand….
Still swathed in Safety Lace, I remount the ladder, cardboard box in one hand, smouldering dogfood can in the other, carving knife clenched pirate-like between my teeth, keeping a wary eye out for angry bees, awkward branches and Evil Neighbours.
Rain begins to pelt down. I quickly cut the wax football with a zzzillion bees clinging to it from the branch it’s hanging from and knock the swarm into a cardboard box, catching as many as I can, which is most. I hurry down the ladder and close up the box, which is now buzzing furiously. I take the box into the laundry and toss a cloth over it.
Next morning dozens of really grumpy bees are buzzing around my laundry. I notice neat bee-sized holes have been drilled in the cardboard. I hurriedly slap on sticky-tape. I make a bee-line for the nearest apiarist supplies and spend a fortune on boxes, frames, wax, wires, and so on and then spend the rest of the day attempting to assemble them. In the meantime more bee-sized holes keep appearing in the cardboard box and I slap on more sticky-tape. The box is soon more sticky-tape than cardboard.
Finally the bee-hive is ready and dusk is falling again. I find the perfect place – facing nor-nor-east (I live in the southern hemisphere) and with a good clear runway. Donning the elegant Safety Lace curtains again I tip the buzzing contents of the box into the nice wooden hive and whack the cover on it. I block the escape, thinking to force my hospitality on them for yet another night. Next morning I take away the barrier and they peer out curiously. For two more days they come and go — apparently happily.
But on the third day they disappear, probably swarming into the Evil Neighbour’s gas chamber, leaving me with an empty box and a few sad little orphans hatching themselves from the old wax comb. By this stage I’m determined to get another hive but I don’t want to fork out good money for another lot of escabees without knowing what I did wrong. I hear about a beekeepers monthly meeting at a hall near me, so on the appointed night, off I go.
The Hall is a forest of beards! At first I think I have come to a Beard Admiration Society, but I am assured by a Big Talking Bush that it is an apiarists meeting. I am directed to Beginners’ Corner. I sit there, draping my hair under and across my chin (it was long then, luckily) and trying to look as though I belong in a roomful of beards, instead of being the owner of a pink feather boa.
My sole contribution concerns a discussion of bees who I now know are called “worker layers” who are actually poor little ordinary worker bees who in the absence of a Queen (she’s dead, not merely out to lunch), imitate one and have a lovely life being fed and pampered by everyone instead of working themselves to death. They even lay fake eggs, poor little things. Anyway someone asks “What do you call these bees again?” and I pipe up “How about Drag Queens?”
The Beards are not amused! I hide in my hair for the rest of the evening.
But later the Big Talking Bush turns out to be an apiarist who runs a course in bee keeping, so I enrol in that…
And a few months later I took over my dad’s hives and had my first harvest of honey…
Which the Evil Neighbour really loves (I told you he was a nice man!)
The Collingwood Children’s farm is located about 15 minutes drive from the CBD of Melbourne, Australia. Vistors can observe the apiary at the Collingwood Childrens’ Farm on the second and fourth Sunday of each month from 10:30 to 3:30. More information here.