Any good adventure starts with some kind of invitation into an unexpected realm. Alice follows the rabbit, the Pevensie children go through the wardrobe and I followed my father, fresh from his holiday to New Zealand out to tend to his hives, which are stored in apiaries near to his house. I had always been fascinated by the bees in the garden, if somewhat terrified of the consequences of getting stung. We discussed the process of what I would need to do on my first day out (basically just watch and try and not run away). Eddie Izzard has an extremely funny bit about “My father was a beekeeper before me and I want to walk in his footsteps and their footsteps were like this, AAAAARRRRGGGHHH I’M COVERED IN BEES!!!” And yes, beekeepers do lose it occasionally, or at least I did as a complete novice. We are essentially trying to steal their honey after all.
I arrived at the first apiary and we went through all of the equipment that I had to wear; a veiled and hooded suit, elasticated sleeves, rubber gloves and wellington boots. I put all of the equipment on and I felt completely safe for the time being. My father opened the smoker; a small metallic tube with a lid that looks like the helmet on a suit of armour. He placed some shredded cardboard inside the smoker and started burning it with a blowtorch. I decided that I would try to steal this job as quickly as I could as it looked like lots of fun.
We collected a hive tool, which is a small metal crowbar for levering frames out of the hive and a notebook and pencil. My job was to write notes. To be honest, I thought this best on my first trip out. We walked over to the hives and my father blew several puffs of smoke in through the opening of the hive. This is done to mask the pheromones produced by the colony when the colony should attack. It is done to stop the bees from trying to sting us. He then began to loosen the straps surrounding the hive, removing the lid, a second lid and one of the top boxes. We then got to a barred layer, which he removed before checking the underside of it carefully and placing it on top of the pile.
We were now down to the base level. This is where the Queen lives. Our job on this level was to a) locate the Queen b) check for queen cells (if there are queen cells then the colony are preparing to swarm, we don’t want this to happen) c) count how many frames contain nothing, stores and brood. He then started to work methodically through the hive. Stopping occasionally to peer down into the wax with a torch. He was checking for eggs. If there are fresh eggs, there is a queen. If there are no fresh eggs, the queen is gone.
The one thing that I immediately loved, was the smell and the sound that comes from the hive. The one thing that I struggled with, was the bees that would fly at your face. The attack bees. The bees that will follow you for 100m and see that you get back in your car and leave. They get locked on to you and will give their lives to protect the colony. I did have to move away on a few occasions feeling that I was COVERED IN BEES!!!
My first experience of beekeeping was terrifying and exhilarating. The air around the hives is filled with incredible sounds and smells and you get that slight rush of adrenaline that you get whenever you do something slightly dangerous. All of this, made my first experience intoxicating. I had to remind myself to breathe on many an occasion because of the onslaught of attack bees and eventually felt relaxed in the face of something difficult. You had to be aware that there are dangers, but mostly they are all in your head becuse you are protected by the equipment. I was immediately hooked and was looking forward to my next outing and I survived my first experience without getting stung. Something that I felt very pleased about.