Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

Our New Home

We get the keys to our new home on 21st December, the winter solstice. As well as being a turning point for us, the solstice is a turning point for the bees - every year, in their case. It is the start of their calendar. They respond to the gradual lengthening of days as a signal of impending spring, and will gradually raise their activity to be ready for the first blossoms.

I wrote here that I was looking forward to winter, for a rest. Miraculously among the frenetic activity of house-moving and my myriad work deadlines, I have found small interludes of time to satisfy my ambition of reading a beekeeping book. The book in question is Richard Taylor's "The Joys of Beekeeping". And my goodness that man could write. An introduction to the author (1919-2003) says that he "really had two parts to his interesting life", as he was a professional philosopher besides being a beekeeper. The book's first chapter is a work of art in 5 short pages.

For this post, I would like to give you a sample of a later chapter, entitled "Swarm Gathering". You will see why, as it has to do with a new home.

The unique reward of any swarm, particularly a large one, is seeing it. Of course, a swarm gathered early in the season represents a potential honey crop of significant value, but a beekeeper who lets his thoughts stop there views his craft with an astigmatism. The manner in which a swarm takes over a new hive is always the same, and the thrill of seeing it is always the same, even though it may be the hundredth time.
I dump a prodigious mass of bees in front of a hive, as casually as if it were a bushel of beans, usually onto a cloth that I have spread to prevent entanglement with grass and weeds. There is a momentary confusion as bees move aimlessly and a few of them take wing. Then a few approach the hive, recognize its potentiality and signal to others by raising their tails high and fanning their wings. The signal is quickly picked up by the other bees, which duplicate it, and within seconds most of them are facing the hive, heads low and tails high in the air as though bowing to Mecca. The mass of bees starts approaching the hive, slowly at first but gathering speed as they come closer and start pouring in.
At this point it is always worth searching for the queen. She can usually be found somewhere among those thousands and thousands, clumsy and frightened and beautiful to the eye of a beekeeper, and having the least idea of any bee in the throng what is going on and what is expected of her. Certainly she in no sense leads the other bees. If she is removed, however, it produces a visible consternation throughout the entire swarm. The new hive, which roused in the bees such excitement a minute ago, now ceases to have the slightest interest to them until they have her back. When I find her I usually pick her up gently, especially if she seems headed off in the wrong direction, and drop her near the hive entrance. She dashes in at once, away from the unfamiliar daylight and back to the security of darkness. The bees know approximately when this critical event has occurred, when their queen is safe in the hive, and a sense of contentment settles over the entire colony.
This is their home, from that moment and very likely for decades to come. What was before a lifeless thing, without significance, becomes now the foundation of their city and their destiny. From miles around they will henceforth return to this spot, and this one alone. In the course of a few minutes it has become the center of their universe, any other object on earth having meaning for them only in relation to it. They will build it up and protect it with their lives. Nothing will be permitted to befoul this hive, nothing other than a bee will be permitted to enter it, and indeed no worker bee except one belonging to this hive. As these bees themselves perish and are replaced by new generations, they will fall outside the hive or be quickly carried out.

Writings, images and sound recordings are by the beekeeper unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.

Logo artwork © 2015-2019 Susan Harnicar Jackson. All rights reserved.