GARDENING / What's the buzz, what's the hurry?: Urban beekeeping is a perfect antidote to the stresses of city life. Wilma Paterson observes the odd antics of hive society

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The Independent Culture
URBAN beekeeping is an absorbing and fruitful pastime, but not without its hairy moments, such as when the creatures decide to swarm. Despite your best efforts, this can happen any warm May or June day, usually around noon. It is fascinating to observe, but try persuading your ashen-faced neighbour that the 20,000 or so bees that have filled the entire sky are docile, harmless and unlikely to sting.

It happened only last week, for my little yellow bees - good-natured, prolific and incredibly industrious - are inveterate swarmers. A few days of warmth after a bitingly cold, wet spring convinced them that summer had arrived and they decided to take off with their abdicating queen and seek pastures new.

It was a text-book situation: almost imperceptibly, the soothing hum of the bees altered and intensified until it reached an alarming yet strangely seductive level. I gazed in paralysed wonder as they came pouring out of the hive like molten treacle, before taking to the air in a frenzy of excitement. There they hovered in seeming indecision. Then off they went down the road, in the proverbial bee-line, and I was jogged into swift action for fear of losing them. Bees remain the property of the person who hives them even when swarming - though to prove that a swarm is yours you have to run, literally, and keep it in sight.

So on with bee suit and veil, rubber gloves and wellies and off in hot pursuit with a cardboard box and a piece of branch to jam into it to give the bees something to cling to. For once, it was easy to retrieve the swarm, because the bees had formed an unusually neat cluster on an elder branch overhanging a neighbour's garage. I clambered up, set my box underneath the swarm, gave the branch a mighty shake and in they plopped. If you manage to catch the queen, the others will follow, guided by her powerful pheromone.

Bees often do better in town than in the country, where intensive farming has resulted in a dearth of traditional fodder. It is not so much the showy garden flowers that make for good foraging as the mature trees of parks and avenues, and in my case the lime trees of Glasgow's Botanic Gardens and Great Western Road. Other sources of nectar are sycamore, hawthorn and a variety of garden plants and weeds, from early crocuses to late heathers.

Last year my two hives yielded 120 lbs of surplus honey - after I'd left some for the poor bees to winter on, instead of giving them Tate & Lyle. Most of it comes in the month of July, when the lime has finished flowering, but in a good year you can get 40 lbs by the end of May and a bonus crop in later summer if you are brave enough to transport your hives to a heather moor.

Bees in London, where the climate is kinder, can achieve more spectacular results than in wet western Scotland. Robin Leigh-Pemberton, now Lord Kingsdale, kept two colonies next to St Paul's when he was Bank of England governor: 50-60 lbs per hive was his average. When he lived in Westminster it was an astonishing 80 or 90 lbs - helped perhaps by the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

Extracting the honey is an immensely satisfying and gloriously sticky occupation. If it's not to be eaten in the comb (a deliciously extravagant way to consume it) you have to uncap the frames of honeycombs and remove the layer of pale, delicate wax which seals them, before you put them into an extractor (which removes the honey by centrifugal force, leaving the combs intact to be used again). These 'cappings' are saved and rendered down later, to make old-fashioned beeswax polish, candles and cosmetics, and you can collect additional wax almost any time you open the hive.

Beekeeping gives the lazy gardener every excuse for sloth. You can't mow the grass because the bees hate the vibration; you can dig discreetly and delicately only when it's dark, cold or raining; and if you pull up dandelions, brambles or rosebay willowherbs you are depriving the bees of valuable pollen.

It is cleaner, and cheaper, to keep bees in town rather than dogs or cats, and not only do they provide honey, beeswax, propolis (antibiotic bee glue derived from plant resins) and royal jelly, they also pollinate plants within two or three miles, so local gardens flourish.

When I first thought of keeping bees (a friend's father had died, leaving a lot of unwanted hives full of bees), someone advised me to put them on the roof, out of consideration for the neighbours. I tried it for a year, but they got too hot and besides, there was nowhere for me to run to if they were in angry mood.

So now my bees are almost part of the household, in the south-facing back garden, and though I don't talk to them, I love watching them, listening to them and learning about their extraordinary, perfectly organised society. Not all my neighbours appreciate this proximity, and I sometimes get complaints. But a pot of honey or beeswax polish can have a powerful palliative effect.

Bee venom is considered preventive and therapeutic in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and other diseases of the joints, and beekeepers rarely suffer from such ailments, but it is tricky convincing someone with a large swelling on their nose that a sting is actually good for them. When I was in Bermuda I met the island's chief beekeeper. He told me that he regularly doses his mother-in-law (of whom he said he was truly fond) with six or seven stings at a time, to her intense relief (and the death of the bees).

I couldn't help thinking there must be pleasanter ways of administering the medicine, so I checked with the local homeopathic hospital: 'We never use live bees,' I was assured, 'but treat our patients with apis, which is derived from the whole bee. This is used for various conditions: swellings, stinging pain, fluid retention, inflamation of the kidneys, rheumatoid arthritis and so on.'

Most people aren't badly affected by stings, though the reaction is worse when it affects tender tissue, such as around the eyes. Yet bees are not naturally aggressive and will normally sting only when defending their hive. Harvesting the honey from the hive can therefore be a daunting experience - best done with a beekeeping friend to help lift the heavy crates and lend moral support as the armies attack in their hundreds, battering like hailstones against the veil, or urgently seeking a chink in your armour.

An average colony has around 50,000 bees, the majority of them workers - undeveloped females or 'those virgin daughters of toil' as Maeterlinck called them in his classic La Vie des Abeilles. They perform the myriad tasks of the hive: produce wax and build comb, feed and tend the young, clean the nest, fan to regulate the temperature, act as undertakers, collect and process pollen, nectar and propolis, fetch water, and feed, groom and protect their queen. She is the only fully developed female in the hive, a prodigious laying machine capable of producing a million eggs in her lifetime, and equipped with a sting that can only be used to kill another (rival) queen.

'Lazy, stupid, fat and greedy,' says the poet Busch of the drones, the males who enjoy a brief life of luxury, fed and pampered by the workers, and kept for the sole purpose of mating with a virgin queen. The price of success is high, for these drones die within minutes of the act, their genitals ruptured and left behind in the queen's vagina, to be pushed aside by the next eager suitor. As the days get shorter, luck runs out for the remaining drones, who are evicted from the hive by the workers and left to die of starvation.

The ruthless perfection of this society might appeal to hard-line feminists, so pitiless is its treatment of the male of the species, but most lady beekeepers of my acquaintance are gentle and kind - even to their husbands.

Sylvia Plath, who took to beekeeping in the last few months of her life, left behind a little collection of sharply observed bee poems. She dearly loved her 'winged, miraculous women': 'They have got rid of the men, the blunt, clumsy stumblers. Winter is for women.'

A bee incident was another blow to Plath that final autumn: 'Even my beloved bees set upon us today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder,' she wrote to her mother in October 1962, 'and I am all over stings.' -