Tom Hodgkinson: I get such a buzz out of beekeeping

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The Independent Online

Victoria started keeping bees three years ago, and the experience has not always been a happy one. When my wife and I opened up our two hives at around this time last year, we found the corpses of 10,000 bees glued to the frames inside. A combination of the very cold winter and varroa – the little mite that has been causing beehives to collapse around the world – had done for them, poor things. So Victoria decided to solicit the help of the local beekeeping group, and Roy became our adviser.

We feared the worst following this winter. It was cold and snowy, and Victoria suffered from a constant sense of having neglected the bees. You are supposed to feed them a sort of sugar syrup to add to their honey stores. But had she given them enough? So I was a little apprehensive when Roy arrived today and we went to inspect the hives. It was a beautiful spring day; bright and sunny with a little nip in the air.

The bees appeared to be buzzing quite happily, flying in and out of the entrance to their hives. We put on our veils, and Roy used the smoker to calm the bees. The smoke makes them think their hive is on fire, so they all get very busy feeding the young, and with any luck will ignore the beekeeper. He lifted the top off the first hive and looked inside.

"Oh, they're doing very well indeed," he said. "Look at that. They're doing the figure-of-eight dance. These ones with their tails in the air: they're sending out pheromones to the other bees, to tell them that the queen is safe. They look lovely and shiny."

There was honeycomb everywhere. Some of these little hexagonal chambers are for keeping larvae; others for keeping honey. Roy said the first thing a newly born bee does is clean out its cell. Later, as they grow, they will graduate from lowly cleaners to higher-status foragers, or even, if they do well, attendants to the queen. A summer bee will live for perhaps only six weeks, while a winter bee can last six months. Roy poureda mixture called Hiveclean over the bees. This encourages them to clean themselves and get rid of the mites.

I told Roy Victoria had worried she had not done enough work on the bees over the winter. "Actually, the less they are interfered with, the better," he said.

The habits and mysteries of bees have delighted and fascinated humans for thousands of years. There is a huge amount of writing on the subject from the Greeks, such as Aristotle, and later the Roman farming writers such as Columella devoted endless pages to advice on beekeeping.

Virgil's Georgics, his great didactic farming poem, has a very beautiful book on bees. It was felt that the bee was a marvellous and magical creature. It flew up to the sun and brought back the gifts, literally, of sweetness and light, in the form of honey to eat and wax for candles. Virgil opens Book IV with the words: "Next I will discourse of Heaven's gift, the honey from the skies," and goes on to talk about the "wondrous pageant of a tiny world".

Like the modern beekeeper, Virgil advises using a smoker when inspecting the hive, if you want to avoid being stung: "Whenever you would break into the close-packed dwelling and the honey hoarded in their treasure-houses... in your hand hold forth searching smoke. Their rage is beyond measure; when hurt, they breathe poison into their bites, and fastening on the veins leave there their unseen stings and lay down their lives in the wound." This is certainly true: if they decide to attack, you will know about it.

It seems bees were just as susceptible to disease in 70AD as they are today. Virgil says they sicken easily, and that you will witness tragic scenes if they do: "An unsightly leanness mars their looks; forth from their doors they bear the bodies bereft of life, and lead the mournful funeral train." Columella, too, writes: "Bees are often overtaken by diseases."

Our next step, said Roy, is to expand the colonies. Before the bees swarm, separate them and put them in new hives, where each colony will expand. Again, this is wholly in tune with the Roman advice. Columella writes: "Fresh stock must be continually propagated and care must be taken in the spring, when new swarms issue forth, that they are intercepted and the number of dwelling places increased."

The more hives you have, the better. The bees will do their essential job of fertilizing the plants, so we can eat; and the beekeeper should have a goodly supply of sweetness and light.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'