Tom Hodgkinson: I get such a buzz out of beekeeping

Related Topics

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'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little