My neighbour is a multi talented man. Teacher, taxidermist, storyteller and occasional shepherd. What I did not know was that he is also a beekeeper. Last year I set up my first ever colony of bees. Well, to be more accurate, a friend from the frozen wastes of Northumberland set them up for me. Third generation beekeeper, wizard mechanic and real hard man, he rarely wears any form of protection against bee stings and brought them down to Northfield in a box in the back of his car. It has to be said, these bees were truly good natured. We put them into their new/old hive in a corner of the garden and I watched them work through the summer. I could walk right up to their hive, as could my dogs, and the bees would just keep on their endless journeying to and fro, buzzing away as they worked. I could even bring the mower up close to their hive without any sign of bother. So kind were they that I neglected to obtain a bee suit, putting off the regular inspections I should have been making because the bees were so obviously doing well.
Then, mid way through August, the wasps descended. They came into the garden, into the house, into the yard and into just about anywhere they could get. A colony of bees appoints guards among its members to defend the hive against these and other intruders. As the wasp comes into the hive, through the same entrance as the bees, the guards surround it, grasp it, drag it further into the hive and then tear it apart. Some years though, the wasp raids reach epidemic proportions. Last year was such a year. When this happens, the bees cannot maintain their defence of the hive and the beekeeper must narrow the entrance of the hive down to the width of just one single bee.
This beekeeper, having no suit, feared not the bees but was terrified of the wasps, and so the entrance stayed at its normal width. Each day I would go out and watch the battle rage. It was like a micro version of one of the great battles from Lord of the Rings. One day the bees would seem to be gaining the upper hand, next day the wasps. Then after a couple of weeks I went out and the bees had decided that they had had enough. Only wasps remained. They plundered the hive and then moved on.
This year I joined the Leicestershire and Rutland Beekeepers Association, went to evening classes and bought my suit. The first thing I learned was that many experienced beekeepers had lost colonies to wasps last year. My multi-talented neighbour visited a few weeks ago to say that one of his colonies of bees had swarmed, a common occurrence at this time of year. He helped me set up my empty hive to lure in any passing swarms. Within half an hour, bees started to arrive. Over the next three days, a whole colony moved in. Now, with a suit and a little more knowledge together with expert help, I am engrossed in the fascination of beekeeping. Painting, constructing, scraping and nailing until the early hours of the morning. Most importantly though, I watch the bees work. I watch them on their journey to and from the hive. It would be nice to think that these are the same bees. That they have come home to give me a second chance after my poor start last year. They do seem to be kind bees, and hopefully there will be Northfield Honey on the shelves this Autumn.
So many people have responded to the plight of the honey bee in this country that there is a record number taking up beekeeping. There is a shortage of some types of equipment and great demand for colonies of bees. So, if one morning you find a large buzzing mass of bees hanging from the branch of a tree in your garden or in some other place, please do two things. Call up a local beekeeper who will almost certainly be delighted to come and fetch them, then just stand or sit quietly and watch the bees and contemplate how extraordinary they are.