It was a hot sunny June bank holiday 2000 and there was a frantic knock on our door.
Our neighbours Betty and Eileen Joyce had arrived to tell us that the road outside was full of thousands of bees, all clustering on a beech tree at our gate. The place resembled Armageddon!
Leslie contacted a beekeeper friend from Adare, who said if we set up a fine mist spray, simulating rain, then there was a good chance that the swarm would remain on the tree for a couple of hours, to give him time to get here and collect them.
The spray was duly set up and we waited, watching the huge black, ever expanding heaving ball of bees clustered with wings all pointing downwards as protection against the “rain”.
The beekeeping friend arrived complete with his boots, gloves, suit and headgear. We watched in amazement as he deftly knocked the ball of bees into a box and covered them with a cloth, which was tied securely around the lip. This was my first introduction to the honeybee and little did I know that our lives would change dramatically from that day. Leslie’s Dad had kept bees, so this was familiar territory for him and it reopened a youthful fascination. I am not sure if there was any discussion about the possibility of these new visitors taking up permanent residence in our garden. (There were certainly no minutes kept of this E.G.M.)
An early morning trip into Limerick and the investment was made. Pristine white suit with full protection, timber to build a home for her Highness and frames for them to fill with honey and “Bobs your Uncle“ we are now Bee Keepers.
While planning permission was not a necessity the open floor plan design was meticulous. Bee space around the edge of each frame must be exactly and precisely 7 mm, any smaller or larger and the bees will “bung” it all up with wax and antibacterial propolis gathered from the trees.
The front door into the hive needs to be of a size that they can easily access, yet protect and defend against any enemy. Each colony has appointed sentries whose job it is to warn off robbing predators such as wasps and even the occasional mouse who might anticipate a warm winter B and B.
Each hive has its ultimate ruling queen who is minded and cosseted by her loyal supporters who see to her every need. She has the large male “drones” who have no sting and whose sole purpose in life is to mate with her, as “She who must be obeyed” is on her one short mad liberating flight.
Legend has it that the drones congregate in groups waiting and watching in the huge anticipation of this once in a lifetime thrill. They pay dearly, making the ultimate sacrifice for their moment of ecstasy! Incidentally, did you know that a drone has a mother but no father!
All the remaining bees in the hive are female and they take on various roles, some are foragers, others construct the wax comb gluing everything together with sticky chestnut coloured propolis which acts as an antibacterial agent in the hive when the queen lays her eggs. There are nursery bees whose job it is to mind the brood and “heater” bees that control the temperature keeping it at 34°. When constructing the honeycomb, they make normal size cells to breed the worker bees and the larger cell, usually in the lower part of the frame to breed the drones. The queen then reverses her abdomen into the cell to lay an egg and depending on the size of the cell, she will either fertilise the egg, if it is a worker, or not fertilise the egg if it is a drone cell.
I should explain about how a new queen is formed. The bees will take an egg and place it in a larger cell on a bed of royal jelly. It is this special royal jelly that determines that a normal worker bee becomes a queen in just 16 days. When she emerges, for the first two weeks, she will be mated by up to 15 drones this is the one and only time that she will be mated and she retains this fertilising fluid in her body for the rest of her life, (approximately three years.)
As often in life queens will not tolerate each other! There will be jealousy and each will have her own supporters causing derision in the colony. They will either swarm and leave, with one queen taking all her followers or they will have a right “Royal” battle, an MMA brawl, resulting in the death or expulsion of the weaker one.
When a prime swarm leaves, that is when the existing queen leaves, taking all her young bees and loyal supporters, this is detrimental to a surplus honey crop. They also take a lot of honey with them as they need to survive for three or four days as they establish a new colony and re-orientate themselves to their new area.
How was I to know that the swarming season could go from April to August, with most of the activity occurring as the dinner is put on the table, or, just as we are heading out to a wedding? How was I to know what a familiar sight, that now grubby bee- suited figure would become, lurking behind bushes hanging from ladders and running down the river after an escaping swarm trying to recapture them.
Life on constant “bee watch” can be all consuming.
Once caught, they must now be re-housed and that takes place at dusk.
A cloth is placed on a ramp leading up to the new available hive and the contents of the box, tipped out to “pour” upwards like treacle making its way uphill into the hive. In the centre of this “puddle of bees” is the queen being minded, shepherded and cared for by her colony. Sometimes when she is spotted, she can be marked with a tiny dot in the colour of the year (2017 is yellow.) This ensures we know her approximate age and also, she can be spotted more easily.
The presence of a healthy queen results in a happy hive and all is well!
How was I to know that my “bee-man” would learn to think like a bee, anticipate their every move and thwart their escape. He can spot any unusual activity, hear any increased in their hum and with logic, work out the problems before they occur.
Our garden has become a haven for the bees with every flower shrub and tree selected for its “bee appeal,”
Beekeepers are slightly odd, special, passionate, obsessed and definitely unique!
We have met so many lovely caring individuals all attracted by the many mysteries of beekeeping and their awareness of the importance of their preservation in a world hell bent on their destruction.
Will the next generation be reduced to pollinating with feather dusters as already in parts of China?
As a somewhat reluctant observer I think I had a Eureka moment when one autumnal day, we arrived home to find about 60 bees lying dead on the ground at the corner of our house. The sun has come out briefly and they had headed out to forage, only for a strong icy wind to whistle up the field from the river, sapping their energy and causing them to be unable to make the safety of the hive.
So, they lay dead and lifeless!
Leslie ran for a Tupperware box with a lid and proceeded to collect all these dead bodies and I was instructed to look where I was walking. (I thought this time “we“ had really lost it!)
The container of inert bees was placed on the mantelpiece close to the stove. Within 10 minutes I noticed some movement and in 30 minutes the box was alive with buzzing bees.
Les carried them out and put them close to the hive and I thought of Lazarus and decided I had witnessed a miracle!
Barbara Hartigan (The Bee Keeper’s Wife.)