We are having an actual Summer here in the UK this year, which is a very welcome, if unexpected, treat. Most beekeepers seem to be reporting that it’s a good year for honey. I always find that most of my honey comes off a handful of big colonies – the ones that grew fast and didn’t swarm, which this year means my three biggest. I will get some honey off most hives, but the three monsters are where the bulk of it will come from.
Having assisted with bees in New Zealand in a tee shirt and shorts, and having seen Mike Palmer’s team do the same in the heat of July in Vermont (where it does get surprisingly hot at times), you might think that during this heatwave I would not be overdressed. Overdressed in these temperatures would be anything more than a thong. If I wore a thong, I’m confident that my bees would abscond in protest, and the farmers who own the land would no doubt take a very dim view of such bad form. A walrus in a thong; it’s just not cricket. I am not keen on bees flying up my shorts where they can sting my delicate nether parts, and I found that my excessively hairy limbs act as snares for the unwary bees, who get caught up and panic, resulting in stings. So shorts and tee shirts are just for rare occasions when I don’t want to look like a sissy (even though I am one).
I do not wear one of those boiler suits when doing the bees, because they are a pain to get in and out of and, of course, they tend to boil their occupants slowly, like a lobster. I wear an old pair of jeans, and a jacket/veil combo called a “Honey Rustler” by BJ Sherriff, my preferred vendor of bee suits. I only wear gloves if I get several stings which hasn’t happened so far this year. In fact, come to think of it, I’ve probably only had about five stings in the last three months. That’s tempting fate, isn’t it?! Nevertheless, beekeeping in the Summer is a sweaty, smelly business. I only have a few hives, and I come home exhausted, drenched, parched…and I smell like a territorial male cat that has smoked twenty Rothmans whilst sitting by a bonfire. People who do this every day for a living are heroes. It is arduous work.
Anyway, I enlisted the help of Eldest Child and took about half of the honey off my three biggest hives. It came back to my honey processing plant, which is an office building in my back garden and which also houses the instrument of deep pain and torture, otherwise known as the cross trainer. For most of the year this building is a gym, but occasionally the honey extractor has its day. I ended up with 120lbs of the delicious golden liquid, and I know that I have upwards of 200lbs left on the rest of my hives. Every year my honey tastes slightly different, but I maintain that it is the best I’ve ever tasted (all beekeepers say that about their produce).
I finally managed to set up a cell builder colony, and today I grafted twelve minuscule larvae into little plastic cups and gave them to the anxious nurse bees who I had made queenless this morning. Hopefully, the bees will turn them into beautiful queen cells, which will then go into nucleus hives to emerge and go on their mating flights. I was sat in my car in the heat, sweating like a walrus, trying to gently lift tiny larvae that are only a day old from their cells on the comb, using a tiny paint brush. I am not convinced that I did a good job. The bees will let me know. They will reject any larvae that are damaged in any way. Next time I’m going to use a jewellers loupe because my eyesight is not quite good enough for such delicate work, and I think I’ll also try a Chinese grafting tool. Did I mention how hot and sweaty it was?
The only way to get good at such things is to try, try and try again, just like any skill. I want to make my own queens, so I’m going to keep at it, and I have inspirational characters like Mike Palmer, Peter Little, Richard Noel and Murray McGregor/Jolanta to follow. If I can get half as good as those guys, I will have done very well indeed.
So, the next time you tuck into some delicious raw honey purchased from your local beekeeper, think about these incredible bee facts and how much sheer effort the beekeeper has gone to in order to bring you this special treat.