Learn beekeeping - a hairy moment.
URBAN beekeeping is an absorbing and fruitful pastime, but not without its hairy moments, such as when the creatures decide to swarm. This is all part of the challenge when you learn beekeeping.
Despite your best efforts, this can happen any warm May or June day, usually around noon. It is fascinating to observe, but try persuading your ashen-faced neighbour that the 20,000 or so bees that have filled the entire sky are docile, harmless and unlikely to sting.
It happened recently, for my little yellow bees - good-natured, prolific and incredibly industrious - are inveterate swarmers. A few days of warmth after a bitingly cold, wet spring convinced them that summer had arrived and they decided to take off with their abdicating queen and seek pastures new.
It was a text-book situation: almost imperceptibly, the soothing hum of the bees altered and intensified until it reached an alarming yet strangely seductive level. I gazed in paralysed wonder as they came pouring out of the hive like molten treacle, before taking to the air in a frenzy of excitement. There they hovered in seeming indecision.
Then off they went down the road, in the proverbial bee-line, and I was jogged into swift action for fear of losing them. Bees remain the property of the person who hives them even when swarming - though to prove that a swarm is yours you have to run, literally, and keep it in sight.You have to accept this type of situation when you learn beekeeping.
In pursuit - up a tree.
So on with bee suit and veil, rubber gloves and wellies and off in hot pursuit with a cardboard box and a piece of branch to jam into it to give the bees something to cling to. For once, it was easy to retrieve the swarm, because the bees had formed an unusually neat cluster on an elder branch overhanging a neighbour's garage.
I clambered up, set my box underneath the swarm, gave the branch a mighty shake and in they plopped. If you manage to catch the queen, the others will follow, guided by her powerful pheromone.
Bees like the city life.
One surprising thing you may discover when you learn beekeeping is that Bees often do better in town than in the country, where intensive farming has resulted in a dearth of traditional fodder.So urban beekeeping can be very successful. It is not so much the showy garden flowers that make for good foraging as the mature trees of parks and avenues, and in my case the lime trees of Glasgow's Botanic Gardens and Great Western Road. Other sources of nectar are sycamore, hawthorn and a variety of garden plants and weeds, from early crocuses to late heathers.
Last year my two hives yielded 120 lbs of surplus honey - after I'd left some for the poor bees to winter on, instead of giving them Tate & Lyle. Most of it comes in the month of July, when the lime has finished flowering, but in a good year you can get 40 lbs by the end of May and a bonus crop in later summer if you are brave enough to transport your hives to a heather moor.
For those who learn beekeeping in London, where the climate is kinder, can achieve more spectacular results than in wet western Scotland. Robin Leigh-Pemberton, now Lord Kingsdale, kept two colonies next to St Paul's when he was Bank of England governor: 50-60 lbs per hive was his average. When he lived in Westminster it was an astonishing 80 or 90 lbs - helped perhaps by the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
A sticky business.
Extracting the honey is an immensely satisfying and gloriously sticky occupation. If it's not to be eaten in the comb (a deliciously extravagant way to consume it) you have to uncap the frames of honeycombs and remove the layer of pale, delicate wax which seals them, before you put them into an extractor (which removes the honey by centrifugal force, leaving the combs intact to be used again).
These 'cappings' are saved and rendered down later, to make old-fashioned beeswax polish, candles and cosmetics, and you can collect additional wax almost any time you open the hive.
The slothful gardener.
Beekeeping gives the lazy gardener every excuse for sloth. You can't mow the grass because the bees hate the vibration; you can dig discreetly and delicately only when it's dark, cold or raining; and if you pull up dandelions, brambles or rosebay willowherbs you are depriving the bees of valuable pollen.
When I first thought of keeping bees (a friend's father had died, leaving a lot of unwanted hives full of bees), someone advised me to put them on the roof, out of consideration for the neighbours. I tried it for a year, but they got too hot and besides, there was nowhere for me to run to if they were in angry mood.
Therapeutic value of bee venom.
Bee venom is considered preventive and therapeutic in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and other diseases of the joints, and beekeepers rarely suffer from such ailments, but it is tricky convincing someone with a large swelling on their nose that a sting is actually good for them. When I was in Bermuda I met the island's chief beekeeper. He told me that he regularly doses his mother-in-law (of whom he said he was truly fond) with six or seven stings at a time, to her intense relief (and the death of the bees).
I couldn't help thinking there must be pleasanter ways of administering the medicine, so I checked with the local homeopathic hospital: 'We never use live bees,' I was assured, 'but treat our patients with apis, which is derived from the whole bee. This is used for various conditions.
An average colony has around 50,000 bees, the majority of them workers - undeveloped females or 'those virgin daughters of toil' as Maeterlinck called them in his classic La Vie des Abeilles.
They perform the myriad tasks of the hive: produce wax and build comb, feed and tend the young, clean the nest, fan to regulate the temperature, act as undertakers, collect and process pollen, nectar and propolis, fetch water, and feed, groom and protect their queen.
She is the only fully developed female in the hive, a prodigious laying machine capable of producing a million eggs in her lifetime, and equipped with a sting that can only be used to kill another (rival) queen.
Wilma Paterson, author
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