Country Matters: Hot, bothered, vengeful and abuzz

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The Independent Online
SINCE changeable weather came in at the start of July, the bee scene has been relatively quiet; but during the hot spell before that we spent weeks under siege.

The trouble set in when I opened up my four hives to take off the season's first batch of honey. This operation always arouses the wrath of the inhabitants, for it is nothing short of robbery with violence, and the bees know it; yet I have never found them so aggressive as this year.

The violence consists in tearing apart their carefully built storehouses. If the hives are really full, as they were by early June, the bees use every cubic inch of space, building bridges of comb not only between the frames in each lift, or storey, but also between the lifts themselves. The result is that when you separate one lift from another, you cannot help inflicting structural damage, and the bees go berserk.

Never have I been so frenziedly attacked. There was no sign of the dreaded varroa mite - anything but: all the colonies were hyperactive. Finding that I was being stung through my suit and gloves, I doubled my protective layers, even down to wearing a pair of thick gauntlets designed for rose pruning on top of my normal leather gloves.

These precautions did render me impervious to assault, but they made me clumsy and extremely hot. They also had the unfortunate effect of causing the bees to commit suicide in vast numbers - for kamikaze warriors fastened on to the backs of my hands by the score and plunged their stings into the hide of my gauntlets.

It may be that they mistook the leather for living skin. Whatever the reason, the carnage was appalling. Stings came needling in at such a rate that my hands vibrated from the multiple impacts: none of them penetrated my layers of defence, but bees were dying by the dozens, and my gloves were soon bristling, hedgehog-like, with a forest of torn-out needles.

My instinct always is not to kill bees if I can possibly help it; but the instant each of those stings drove home, its owner was finished, and I could do nothing to save it. The same was true of the bees that forced their way into my clothes, usually at the wrists: though sometimes still able to sting, they were all too badly damaged to survive.

Whenever I left the area of the hives, I was pursued by a vindictive cloud, whining and pinging at my veil. To disperse them, I was obliged to shut myself in the dark of the old stone privy at the end of the lawn for a few minutes. Even that manoeuvre left more than enough assailants in close attendance, and it was no easy matter to regain the safety of the house without taking a swarm of infuriated attendants with me.

When all the bees had been evicted from the porch, there remained the problem of peeling off my garments, layer by layer - a process that almost always flushes out a few infiltrators, in extremities of rage.

Normally, when you take honey from hives, the colonies quickly settle down and start filling the empty combs you have given them. Not this year: for the next fortnight the bees went on what in military terms is known as combat air patrol, or Cap.

There was no question of them merely defending their territory: they were cruising far afield with hostile intent, on the lookout for targets at all hours of the day, and they attacked on sight if I or my wife ventured as far as the archway between our two barns, about 75 yards from the nearest hive.

With that supercharged, high- pitched buzz that signifies intent to harm, they zoomed straight in at our heads and instantly became lodged in our hair, so that only a flurry of blows to the skull could save us from being stung.

Any business about the farmyard became hazardous, any sortie beyond it foolhardy. It needed high vigilance, steely nerves and a heavy dose of insect repellent to pick vegetables in the kitchen garden, which is next to the orchard where the hives stand.

To work in the garden wearing normal clothes was impossible. Only when clad in my smock, with integrated hat and veil, could I concentrate on weeding or planting. Even then, I would have a cloud of 20 or more bees hovering in front of my face and crawling about the veil as they tried to get at me.

Luckily, they did not seem to regard the animals as targets. Sheep grazed recklessly close to the hives without any trouble, and only once did the donkey take off like a lamplighter, snorting, cavorting, threshing his rat-like tail and doing occasional headstands - having, I suspect, caught a smart one in or about the ear hole.

The reign of terror made life most uncomfortable for humans. I put it down partly to the fact that in the hot weather our colonies had expanded at great speed and become overcrowded. When I checked one hive a few days after taking the honey, I found that the two lifts which had been empty were already packed with bees.

I am not, I fear, one of those professionals who go through their hives every few days, pinching out queen cells and generally keeping a close eye on developments. I favour a policy of laissez-faire - and if a colony swarms, it swarms.

Thus, when our neighbouring farmer rang up to say that he had found a swarm of bees nearly a mile away in a valley known as the Dingle, I did not know whether or not they were mine.

Inspection from a safe distance confirmed that all my hives were still well inhabited, and as I did not want to start up another, I asked the farmer to find someone else to take the swarm. This he promptly did: a man came and collected it, but had some difficulty because the bees were low down near the ground in a pile of brushwood and, although he captured the majority, he left a group behind.

For the next three weeks, a lump of bees the size of a grapefruit clung to the branch on which they had been stranded. Rain fell on them repeatedly, and we felt sure they must disperse or die, or both. Yet there they stayed, with astonishing persistence, until we began to believe they must be sheltering a second queen.

I felt sure the swarm was too small to be self-supporting, but the farmer (who has an admirable determination to foster all forms of life) felt bound to do something for them. So one evening, at his behest, I made up an empty hive, drove out with it, set it up, and dumped the little lump of bees on to a board sloping into the entrance.

As I had feared, I could see no queen among them. Many of them did march up the board and into the hive, but that could have been because we had laid a sugar syrup bait. There was no sign of the massed surge that normally signifies the presence of a monarch, with her escorts struggling all around her as they hustle her into her new domain.

And yet . . . that was a week ago. Now the offshoot colony has definitely taken up residence in the hive. Though few in number, they are working hard, clearing out rubbish from the old combs in the brood chamber and bringing in pollen.

Is there a queen with them after all? I cannot tell. But clearly these bees are survivors: it seems a miracle that they have lasted so long without a proper home, and I can only hope that their heroic efforts will not be in vain.