Tobias Jones: How bee hives in a woodland sanctuary I set up for people in crisis came with a sting in the tale

A sting is so quick you barely notice it - but then the poison starts to pump in and you begin to look like you’ve done a dozen rounds with Joe Frazier

Tobias Jones
Monday 03 August 2015 00:56
Tobias Jones beekeeping at Windsor Hill Wood
Tobias Jones beekeeping at Windsor Hill Wood

Six years ago, my wife and I set up a residential woodland community for people in a period of crisis in their lives. The 10-acre site was an old quarry in Somerset which had been abandoned 50 years before, and over the subsequent decades it had become an enchanting woodland, albeit a post-industrial one: there were bits of clinker and metal and builders’ rubble amongst all the oaks, ashes, hazels and hawthorns. It was so far from any major road or city that we frequently saw deer and rabbits walking right up to our house, which was the old quarry-master’s pad.

Windsor Hill Wood quickly became a renowned refuge for a whole range of people – for those suffering, typically, from addiction, bereavement, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, homelessness and so on. Having started with just one guest at a time, we soon had half a dozen people living with us, most staying for six months or more in various shepherd’s huts, yurts, campervans and outbuildings. The fact that we were a strictly dry and drug-free house, with a lot of manual labour, good food, discipline and love, somehow seemed to help people get their lives back on track.

We started breeding pigs and sheep and chickens; growing industrial quantities of vegetables, heating our house and its water with our own wood, making charcoal and creating bespoke chairs and tables in our workshop. But we made plenty of mistakes: it was often the blind leading the blind, and we put the polytunnel in the wrong place (with poor soil and too much shade) and had to take it apart and start from scratch. We were very bad at fencing to begin with, and the pigs would often escape and plough through our precious vegetables. I wasn’t, in the beginning, a very confident leader, and would give disruptive people a second chance, and then a third, and a fourth, when I should have put my foot down, asserted the rules and told them to leave.

The economic value of both honey bees and bumblebees as pollinators has been estimated as somewhere in excess of £200m a year

But by far my greatest area of incompetence was with our bees. All my life I had watched my father among his hives and pottering about in his bee shed. He’s a tall man and in that white suit, with a black veil over his face, he looks a bit like an FBI baddie from ET: The Extra Terrestrial. The rich aromas of beekeeping always remind me of him: the nurturing smell of wax and the soothing white plumes from the burning cardboard in his smoker (a sort of bellows to calm the bees).

I had seen the way that his beekeeping made him friends wherever he went: it wasn’t just that he would give wax or honey to people instead of a dull bottle of plonk, he would also (as he was the South Somerset “swarm man”) get called round to peoples’ houses when they had a swarm, and – having captured the colony – would normally stand around chatting to them, making connections.

And my old man could make a connection with anyone. One of the pleasures of beekeeping, it seemed from a distance, was that it was able to break down all sorts of barriers of class and age. It brought together everyone, from earthy farmers to aristocratic landowners, from feisty old women to enthusiastic teenagers. Dad is so gregarious, and generous, that he seemed to pull all those people together, not just around bees but around himself too. Even now, it’s not infrequent for someone from the far side of the country, applying to come to live on our little sanctuary, to ask me: “You’re not related to Bob the beekeeper, are you?”

Bees were what made my father a much-loved local eccentric. For years he used to put a hive on a busy roundabout in Wincanton because it was covered with wild-flowers and dandelions. Most towns have some plaque declaring that a roundabout is sponsored by some local business; in Wincanton they’ve got batty “Doctor Bob”, the town’s GP for 35 years, and his hives. He was stopped on that roundabout by the police late one night, as he went through the frames under the A303. The local officer recognised the bald, Norman Tebbit-lookalike and smiled to his colleague: “Don’t worry – it’s only Doctor Bob.”

So, like all men who admire their fathers, I probably wanted to be a bit like my old man and beekeeping was my method of imitation. But there were other reasons I was drawn to the hobby. Our woodland community was a conscious attempt to be a part of a loose movement called “New Monasticism” (an attempt, usually by lay people, to emulate the communalism of monastic life, to recreate its rhythm of prayer, manual labour, and hospitality).

Monasteries have often produced expert beekeepers, and understandably so: there’s both a peacefulness and a courage about beekeeping which seems to mirror monastic life. So having our own hives seemed a good way to cement the connection between us and the monks and friars of traditional orders.

Of course, none of it worked out like that. The first colony I got – a swarm that Dad and I collected from a cottage in Charlton Horethorne – was safely placed in a new hive with a lovely gable roof. The next day we went up to see them and it looked suspiciously quiet. I took off the crown board and the hive was completely empty. It was like that eerie feeling you get when you push the open door of a friend’s house and no-one’s in. “Bees, eh?” Doctor Bob quipped. “They’ve never read the text books.”

We got another swarm a few weeks later, and everything seemed to be going well. I used to enjoy watching the brown dots alighting on the landing board with bright orange pollen on their legs like a skateboarder’s kneepads. Bringing in pollen meant that the queen was laying and there would be brood inside. When I opened up the hive I pulled out a few frames and saw the sealed creatures there like loads of liver spots. The fear of those first few explorations was acute: the ferocity of the whine they make when you open up their home is far worse that the bark of a dog. But there was a beautiful geometry to the frames: the perfect hexagons, slowly drawn out by the wax from the worker bees’ thorax; the 7.5mm of “bee space”, which they’ll fill up if the place is too gappy.

By then we had been running our woodland community for a year, and had discovered – D’oh! – that communal living is often chaotic and noisy. As the notional “father” of a refuge for troubled, wounded characters, I was always in demand. But down there, by the hives, no one dared disturb me. It was the one place I could finally find a bit of solitude and admire a very different community which really knew about order, duty and sacrifice (when a bee stings to defend its own, it dies). But then those bees swarmed too. It was when my wife was in hospital having our third child. I was supposed to be looking after our other two, aged four and two but, fool that I was, I was buggered if I was going to let a couple of toddlers get in the way of me recapturing the swarm. I could see the furry tear-drop of bees at the very top of the quarry rock-face, hanging off a horizontal branch of hawthorn. Bees tend to swarm on sweltering summer days, and this one was a scorcher. I put on my veil, bee-suit and boots and enclosed the kids within the chicken fence. I then went rock-climbing with my skep (a wicker basket to catch the blighters), sweating like I was in a sauna. The idea is that you thwack the branch and the blob just drops into your basket; as long as the queen is there, the others will slowly follow.

A bee on honeycomb

But my veil got scratched by the thorns and the bees got in. Within a minute I was being stung all over my face. A sting is a bit like a papercut – so quick and cold you barely notice it at first. But then the poison starts to pump in and your mug begins to look like you’ve done a dozen rounds with Joe Frazier. The children a hundred feet below were beginning to get scared as the chooks pecked at their toes. I slid down the rock face like a cartoon character, his head surrounded by a blur of furious bees. Later, as we nursed our wounds indoors, I felt a very bad beekeeper – a bee-loser more like – and an even worse father.

There were so many other mishaps. One time I was feeling blasé and inspected the hive in my sandals. I had often seen experienced beekeepers picking up the frames in their bare hands, and I liked the idea of being close to the critters. They didn’t, to say the least, return the compliment. Within seconds of lifting off the queen excluder, they were going for my ankles. I had none of my father’s calm assurance and ran to the pond, diving in as the only way to get rid of them. The children attending our forest school looked on, bemused by the site of a wailing adult diving into the green water.

By then we were organising all sorts of workshops and classes for our guests: we had sessions on psychodrama, non-violent communication, the Enneagram, anger-management, self-compassion, anxiety and so on. One of the weekly things we laid on was art therapy with an elegant woman who quickly got the nickname “Perfect Petra”. One of our guests – a cheerful risk-taker and reformed coke-fiend – was called Macca. As part of the art-therapy session, and for reasons best known to himself, Macca decided to make a seat by the hive as a gift to one of our other guests. Both he and Petra ended up getting stung, Perfect Petra right next to the eye. It was beginning to seem like our bees were a source of pain and nothing else.

But paradoxically, the threat and menace of the bees occasionally helped our guests. It was our philosophy here that we always worked alongside each other, chopping logs or weeding the polytunnel or whatever, because it was invariably during manual labour that the deep conversations somehow happened. One morning I had to look at the bees, but one of our guests was having a serious panic attack. Graham was scratching at his face, saying “going to die” over and over again. As usual when these things happen, I just took him along with me so we could work together, forgetting that I was about to open up a hive. He stood there, bees flying around his curly hair in the midst of his panic attack and he actually calmed down. I saw him at one point with his arms outstretched, grinning at the energy of the beasts circling around him. “It was”, he told me later, “like the real but minor threat replaced a vague, terrifying one.” Because there was a concrete scare, he had paradoxically found some serenity.

The years went by and we never got any honey. But in a way, taking honey wasn’t the point of keeping bees. It was about pollination for our little orchard, it was a chance to spend time with my father, an opportunity – in a chaotic community – to go somewhere people couldn’t follow. There were other by-products, too: from the wax we made candles for our shelters and polish for our carpentry projects.

And I slowly remembered, or was reminded, that actually it had taken decades for my father to learn his craft. I remembered that when we were growing up he would often have swollen, itchy forearms where the blighters had stung him. He jokingly reminded me all the mistakes he had made over the years, such as the time he tried to mark the precious queen (putting a dot of paint on her thorax) but had actually pressed the queen cage too hard and killed her. There had been plenty of mishaps in his beekeeping career: I still remember the first time I saw him vulnerable, with his head in his hands in the changing rooms of a swimming pool after a swarm had got inside his veil and repeatedly stung him. He too had had his battles with bees.

Honey bees need a societal balance for colonies to survive and thrive (Getty)

I was gradually becoming more competent. I began to acquire, I think, that cool curiosity about the bees’ unpredictable behaviour, going through the hives not on edge, but simply fascinated. What are they doing now, and why? It was almost as if my softer approach had made them more compliant, and somehow more cooperative. When I looked through the hives now, the bees seemed more gentle because, perhaps, I was too. Near their hives I sowed all sorts of plants I knew they liked – broad beans, borage and so on.

And then, finally, last summer the brood chamber was chocker with bees and brood. I put on the queen excluder and a super (the shallower chamber where they put their stores of honey). By mid-June, when I lifted off the super to inspect below, it was as heavy as a bucket of water: all those tiny hexagons had been filled with honey, and capped with wax. I put on another super and that, too, slowly filled through June and July. At the end of the summer I took them round to my parents’ place, the same house where I grew up.

We took the uncapping fork and scraped off those wax cappings, and then placed the frames inside a stainless steel extractor about the size of an oil drum. We then turned a handle which spun the frames around, flinging honey against the side of the extractor. It sounded like hundreds of fingernails tapping a window as the tiny splats of honey hit the inside wall. We let it settle in the “ripener”, for the bubbles to disappear, and then opened the tap at the bottom and honey glugged into the jars like some sort of translucent snake.

Seeing those 40-odd jars stacked safely under the stairs was a bit like seeing stores full of logs. They exuded a sense of hard-won abundance. They seemed to suggest that we would be safe for another year; and that, for all my doubts, I was up to the immense challenge of looking after our experimental community.

More than that, they seemed to say that I wasn’t just a keeper at last, but also somehow kept: that I was being looked after too.

Honey had never tasted so good.

Tobias Jones’s book about his woodland community, A Place of Refuge, has just been published by Quercus

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