Bees and the Keeper

keep, v.

To take care of, look to the well-being of; to look after, watch over, tend, have charge of.

It was then, in spring’s first balmy days, just as crocus, blackthorn and hazel flowers emerged to meet the light, that we thought we would have to destroy the entire colony. Prising off the hive’s roof and working frame by frame through the triple-stacked boxes – supers, for honey production, still part-clotted with last year’s stores; brood-rearing box specked promisingly with alabaster larvae, cupped in cells’ waxy hollows – it seemed that winter had been outlived. But we reached a place amongst the brood, within the Queen’s inner sanctum, that looked wounded: crusted brown blood-red gritted frames which should have been smooth with stores or emptied to receive fresh nectar and new larvae. Down amid the raw matter a glimpse, we thought, of brood, discoloured and stringy. After a precarious year of trying to keep this colony, to interpret this colony, to take its temperature, predict its movements, look into its future and map its needs, we were ready to assume the worst. After a precarious year, we were ready to find the symptoms of bacterial infection – the same blight responsible, in part, for the widespread reports of Colony Collapse Disorder across the globe – within the walls of the hive we had built, keeping company with the bees we were keeping. If such bacteria infect the hive, an official from the National Bee Unit must be informed to prevent it spreading to other hives. An inspector must be sent for, the hive closed up, the entire colony burned. Contaminated equipment must also be destroyed. Keep nothing.

After a hurried exchange with another local beekeeper, we discovered that the rusty red granulations were in fact the remains of honey stores made from ivy nectar. Over winter the stores had hardened into crystals, and the nectar’s composition was such that the bees were struggling to dissolve it back into an ingestible substance: runny honey. Breathing easier, we replaced the ivy-choked frames and watched new comb materialise with the coming of summer days. Wax glands slot the cell walls into place: the cells look circular at first before the pulse and heat of the hive presses them into the familiar hexagonal chambers. With time there are always patterns, tessellating point to point. They kept on; so did we.

keep, v.

To maintain, employ, entertain in one’s service, or for one’s use or enjoyment: in reference to animals or things, there is a mingling of the sense of possession.

The day we bought our colony was bright and warm, and we left early to make sure there were as many bees as possible in the hive when we collected it. As three amateur beekeepers looking to sustain a hive in the shady corner of the back meadow in our college grounds, only two of us had seen into the recesses of a living hive before. I had seen, in training, a dead hive taken apart for diagnosis: the colony had starved just as spring was coming. A frosty spell had left them clustered for warmth on a frame without adequate supplies, and they could not move to their plentiful frames because of the cold. They had greyed in death, and they flaked to the touch; some still hunting for nectar had frozen with small tongues extended, searching.

The day we bought our colony it was bright and warm, and protected by our suits we were shown the hive’s insides, its larvae, its Queen nestled amongst her workers. We could only just begin to make out the patterns with which the frames were woven: the concentric unfolding of capped honey stores, varicoloured pollen layers, and laying, the meticulous laying of brood. Bees are fastidious, though it’s hard to foresee where their fastidiousness will take them. If you ask two beekeepers for advice, you’ll get three different answers. We play it by eye and habits evolve in moments of success, like superstitions; we read, we follow their lead. We grasp as if at the air. The apiarist broke off some comb that had exceeded the frames’ boundaries – pale honeyed column, cell-imprinted totem – and we salvaged it from the grass with clumsy gloved hands, to keep.

It was only as we were about to leave that we noticed the car was brimful of bees. Belted shut, lodged in the boot of my car, the hive was uttering a buzzing, emitting excited worker bees, somehow, through solid walls. We fetched the apiarist, who lifted the hive to reveal, massed at its bottom, a congregation of a hundred or more bees that had left the hive as we rifled through it and were now anxious to find their way back in. Their attachment was magnetic: the apiarist had to bash the hive solidly against the ground to release the spell of their clinging. They swarmed as we stowed the hive back in the boot and went inside to wait their indignation out. I drove that day suited and gloved, bees fastened firmly to my rear left brake light. One or two still loose in the car gravitated towards the back windscreen, floating specks in my peripheral vision. When we reached college we found that several of the unfortunate outsiders had lasted the fifteen-mile trip; windswept, they kept to us as we carried the hive out into the meadow.


keep, v.

To maintain or preserve in proper order.

When a hive is opened, the bees rise like warm air. They are the air and our movements become slow, deliberate, yes, but sometimes I feel sleepy or dazed. I gaze at one spot for too long watching their incessant movement, like when the air breaks apart in front of your eyes and you wonder if it’s raining, or if it’s just your eyes. One apiarist has described this sensation, this bodily readjustment, as ‘bee time’. It is a strange adaptation. A new spatial order emerges, a new architecture, and one tries, moving slowly and deliberately, not to be out of place and to be in place at the right moment. Crevices open when you peer down into the hive’s recesses and into its cells. Gaps of a particular size: ‘bee-spaces’, that the hive artificially recreates between frames. If the hive is the wrong size, the bees will block up any inefficient extra space with propolis (the bees’ equivalent of glue), or extra comb. When opening the hive we sometimes have to lever the propolis apart with a hive tool; it cracks and bees rise like warm air from remote places. When we put everything back into its proper order, they begin the process all over again, of sticking things back together.

After two years of keeping them, we have not yet harvested any significant quantity of honey. Their movements elude that purpose. Swarming twice, or three times now, the colonies that remain and re-Queen have been too weak to produce enough food for winter. We feed them sugar-water in autumn, leave them a block of fondant icing for overwintering. Their honey becomes lustrous, frosting-white and unnaturally sweet. We watch them gorge on stores when we smoke the hive at opening: mimicking fire, the smoke drives them to gather their stores in preparation for evacuation. It distracts them from our presence and gives us a narrow but temporary way in; we move slowly in the spaces around, between, close by their tiny, feasting bodies. We try not to disturb the hive for too long, but occasionally become distracted by small scenes that play themselves out in the moments we are there. A worker tends to bulbous drone larvae; a group of workers spar with an invasive wasp; bright pollen sacs adorn small black legs like plus-fours in vermillion, ochre; inquisitive guard bees conduct a warning dance, buzzing shrilly into the netting around our faces. It is difficult, sometimes, to keep from watching them, to keep from spending too long.

keep, v.

To observe with due formality and in the prescribed manner (any religious rite, ceremony, service, feast, fast, or other occasion); to celebrate, solemnize.

They swarmed for the third time this June just gone. They swarm if they run out of space, or if the hive becomes too warm, or if the Queen feels it is time: a ‘swarmie Queen’, as she is known among local keepers. There is neither clear rhyme nor transparent reason to their leaving. They lead all beekeepers into curious places at unexpected times. ‘By their movements,’ wrote the French-American farmer J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur, ‘I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming; but the most difficult point is, when on the wing, to know whether they want to go to the woods or not. If they have previously pitched in some hollow trees, it is not the allurements of salt and water, of fennel, hickory leaves, &c. nor the finest box, that can induce them to stay; they will prefer those rude, rough habitations to the best polished mahogany hive. When that is the case with mine, I seldom thwart their inclinations; it is in freedom that they work: were I to confine them, they would dwindle away and quit their labour… This elopement of theirs only adds to my recreations; I know how to deceive even their superlative instinct; nor do I fear losing them, though eighteen miles from my house, and lodged in the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests.’ When you let go of the political symbolism that has attached itself to the colony’s workings and communications, and see these practically, you appreciate where it is the colony can take you. Last time they swarmed, on the warmest day of the year, one of our group followed them as far as possible before they disappeared away into the city’s hazy afternoon. This year they lighted upon a branch in the meadow, where they stayed while a few of their number went looking for a hollow, a chimney, an aperture in which to rebuild their comb. We watched them from afar throughout the day and approached them at dusk.

Suits; gloves. Through tall grass and thistle, a thin mist of wood-and-leaf incense from the smouldering smoker. Through tall grass and thistle, a heavy pair of shears at the shoulder, a large box, a sheet. We glimpse them, through tall grass and thistle, massed at the end of a branch, a large droplet with the weight at the curved bottom and ready to break. In the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests. Clustered bee-to-bee, bee-upon-bee in furry humming scales, they are tired from the exertion of leaving and waiting and are at their most docile. In tall grass and thistle we place the box beneath them: I tiptoe to cut the branch, a severing never as delicate – as invisible – as you would have it, and the droplet breaks heavily onto the box’s floor. We put the lid on, and follow the meadowpath through tall grass and thistle. We make twilight procession to an empty hive into which we drop the dissipating bead, the swarm-become-bees-again. The branch goes with them and we leave it in the part-framed hive in case the Queen is caught, protected by her swarm, on a leaf or in a branch’s crook.

When a colony swarms the hive must be left undisturbed for three weeks to allow a replacement Queen to be swiftly cultivated. Sensing the old Queen’s departure, an emergency Queen can be conjured by feeding a worker larvae fat with Royal Jelly. That, or the weakened colony gradually peels away from the hive in smaller swarms. A period, in a way, of mourning. We mourned. A small colony revived in our old hive, and kept on.

When we returned to visit our captured swarm in the makeshift hive, they had begun to build wild comb from the roof, edifices of wax that rose and fell around the contours of the tree’s branch. We carefully moved the comb to the bottom of the hive and removed the branch, to make room for new frames, to restore a semblance of order. In time, we hoped to reintroduce the renegade colony back into its old home, back between familiar walls.

In the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests.

We couldn’t remove the wilderness completely. When we returned a week later the colony had left, their structures of wild comb emptied of stores: ruins that we could do nothing with, but keep.