The beehives buzzing quietly in the boot, I drove up the motorway. The bees thrived in the Ashdown Forest in late summer. Transplanted to East London, perhaps they would feel hemmed in by tarmac and buildings. But the next morning when I opened the hives, it took them no time to find the lime trees on London Fields and they filled the frames with a clear, sharp-tasting liquor. Later in the season, they created dark swathes of almost bitter honey (a speciality in some parts of the world) by harvesting honeydew from aphids. Londoners fill their gardens with exotic plants that flower even in winter and these plus the countless roadside cherries and crab apples keep bees in forage all year round. In cold weather they huddle in quiet, rustling balls, eating honey for heating fuel, regulating each other’s body temperature until the spring warms them and the flowers back into production. On milder winter days, they go out into the garden to crap out the indigestible matter in their food. The sight of them ambling around reassures me.
In their first London summer, the hives suffered a catastrophic outbreak of varroa. This parasitic mite invaded from Asia on the backs of imported bees and the virus it spread devastated our ill-adapted European populations. Bees crawled out of my hives with mutilated wings, attracting the interest of some carnivorous wasps which swooped down, biting the flightless bees in half, chewing off their legs and wings, carrying away their abdomens and coming back for the head and thorax. After I’d watched a wasp settle on my chest to perform the task of snipping off a bee’s legs, leaving its macabre deposit under my chin, I was convinced that it was time to take action. This is the only time I have used varroacide, though I know many beekeepers regarded my failure to treat the bees regularly as foolhardy. ‘I don’t understand why they’re not all dead,’ one said to me, bemused by the thriving colonies.
Varroa is just one of the plagues affecting bees in Europe and across the world. Asian hornets, neonicotinoid pesticides, mobile phone signals, climate change and the little understood Colony Collapse Disorder, which does with fearful rapidity what it says on the tin, have each been blamed for contributing to the decline in bee populations. Without any consensus on ultimate causes, some fear we may end up following the example of commercial fruit growers in the Hindu Kush, who resorted to pollinating fruit tree flowers individually by hand more than a decade ago when native pollinators were temporarily exterminated. It didn’t take them long to grasp how much work bees do for us besides making honey.
I never intended to keep bees. It happened by chance. It was a hot spring day and I saw a bee swarm hanging from an oak bough near my home in Sussex. I phoned the local beekeeper with the intention of suggesting he come and retrieve the swarm. His wife answered and I found myself asking instead what rules there were about the ownership of a swarm. ‘Whoever catches it,’ she said.