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.
I had just read Far from the Madding Crowd in which Bathsheba Everdene dons a ‘straw hat, and large gauze veil’ to catch a swarm. Her opportunism inspired me. I put a jelly-straining cloth over a sun hat, tucked my trousers into my socks, tied rubber bands around the wrists of my gardening gloves, and shimmied up the tree on which the rugby-ball-size blob of twenty thousand or so bees had settled, with a queen in their midst.
The rest flowed as if a re-enactment of a swarm-catching miracle I’d witnessed as a mesmerised six-year-old. Badger Kirby (so named for the streak of white in his hair) came over from the nearby village of Nutley – I too came from the Ashdown Forest – to scoop his liquid trophy from the maples in front of our house. He seemed to me god-like in bravery and grace. So intense was the experience that I found my memory had preserved every detail; clearest of all was the crucial moment when he gave the branch a sudden, firm tug – the apiculturist’s equivalent of the karate chop – and delivered the entire mass of bees into a cardboard box. Jerking the branch too feebly risks leaving the queen attached, impelling the dislodged bees to fly back to her. Failure to control the flex in the branch could result in a cluster-missile fired in any direction, including one’s own.
Bees swarm when their colony has produced a new queen. This triggers a palace revolution that sees one of the queens, usually the old one, buzzing off into exile with a band of loyal bees, sometimes up to half the colony. Swarming is thus a form of reproduction for bee colonies. The departed bees gather on a nearby object – a staging post while they scout for a new home. At this point, they are entirely focused on the queen. They soak up as much honey as their stomachs can carry before leaving the hive – they have around three days’ supply, three days in which to find a new home – and are as soporific as we would be after a big meal, and so quite docile.
The bees dropped obligingly into my box, which I then upturned on the ground by the tree, leaving a gap for any stragglers to rejoin the queen. I called the beekeeper again for further instructions, but when he told me to tip the bees onto a ramp made of ply-board in front of an empty hive and leave them to make up their own mind, I took it for mumbo-jumbo akin to the other Rudolf Steiner-inspired anthroposophist practices I knew him to favour, such as planting beans at an auspicious moment in the orbit of the planets. It surprised me to discover – on checking with a more conventional beekeeper whose number was printed on the pot of Sussex honey in my kitchen – that this is the standard method of hiving bees.
So the following day, having hurled tens of thousands of stinging insects onto the ramp, I watched as they sent out scouts to find somewhere safe to live. I saw a few exploring the roof of an adjacent barn, others investigating the crevices of an oak, some scanning a brick wall for openings. One buzzed its way up the ramp and into the hive’s entrance hole. Another soon followed, and then both re-emerged facing backwards, abdomens erect, wings fanning their scented message of discovery: indoors lay an empty palace, ripe for colonisation. More bees came, checked out the hive and then joined their comrades, until a tight knot of bees surrounded the entrance, all wafting pheromones to the swarm below. With a single mind, the swarm crept towards my hive. I caught sight of the queen, black and subtly elongated, crowd-surfing her way to the entrance. In she plunged, through the portal of guards.
My laissez-faire approach contrasts with the near-paranoid fulminations of the average beekeeper on the subject of swarming, the most festive moment in the bee lifecycle. I recognise that I’m a novice, but I’m suspicious of swarm control, which usually involves massacring queen cells. No new queens: no swarm. Ever since I was a boy I’ve been happy to wring the necks of chickens, slaughter my own pigs, or drop fallow deer with a rifle, but when it comes to ‘pinching out’ queen cells to prevent swarming, I recoil.
A queen cell is an elongated polyp that the workers construct in their comb, deposit an egg into and stuff full of royal jelly, a creamy white fondant laced with royalactin, the protein responsible for transforming the hatching grub into a queen. The presence of multiple queen cells indicates that the colony may be about to swarm.
The main reason beekeepers don’t like their bees to swarm is that it deprives them of half the colony and they end up with less honey. In unusual circumstances, the original colony can be so depopulated it won’t survive. Received wisdom also states that without human intervention ‘feral’ colonies are usually destroyed by the varroa mite within a few seasons. This isn’t always the case, and besides as long as they have swarmed at least once, these bees have contributed to the repopulation of their species.
When I lived in the Ashdown Forest, I allowed my bees to swarm naturally and would chase them across the valley. I was worried about doing this in London, but my new neighbour didn’t seem to mind when I jumped into her garden last year to scoop a swarm off her paling, although that may only be thanks to the honey I gave her as a bribe to sweeten neighbourly relations. Such lack of control over the swarming bees is considered by many to be irresponsible, damaging to the reputation of beekeepers, and potentially dangerous.
Am I going to have to get used to reginacide? In nature, some queens are killed off in the battle that ensues when they hatch. Some are pre-emptively destroyed by the workers. When a beekeeper intervenes, the decision is, genetically speaking, arbitrary. As for which male drones get to pass on their genes, we have no control over that either. The queen selects several sperm capsules from the lucky drones that have flown high enough to reach her on her one orgiastic mating flight, and they supply her with enough sperm for the million or so eggs she’ll lay in her three to five-year lifespan. Beekeepers nowadays often randomly kill drones in their cells because the varroa mite thrives on the male larvae, and anyway male bees are not productive members of the colony (they eat honey but don’t produce it). This reduces the gene pool, which seems to me a bad thing.
If bees aren’t allowed to swarm, a hive’s population can grow until you end up with metropolises of more than a hundred thousand adults. I wondered whether this contributed to disease in bee populations and asked a geneticist what she thought would happen in the long term. ‘I would expect an outbreak of parasites and diseases,’ she told me. Pesticides, foreign diseases, intensive farming: all have been blamed for the demise of the bees. But I can’t help wondering whether the main problem bees have is the beekeepers.
It’s easy to tell if a pig is sick – its symptoms are very like ours – but bees’ symptoms are alien to us. An individual bee can be perfectly healthy, even when its colony is on the verge of collapse. Indeed, a bee isn’t really an individual: the colony is the individual and it’s extremely difficult to read. So far, I’ve been lucky. The two hives I took to London yielded 30 lb of honey each last year. I could have taken a lot more, but I left them with an extra-full honey box, or ‘super’, because I don’t feed my bees with sugar syrup. It may make economic sense to force bees to eat manufactured sugar rather than the honey they’ve produced because honey has a higher retail price, but it doesn’t make any other kind of sense.
I was dismayed last summer to read that beekeeping had become so fashionable in London that ‘there is simply not enough forage to go around.’ That at any rate was what the secretary of the London Beekeepers’ Association said. I was intrigued by this Malthusian theory of bee populations outgrowing their resources. It seemed theoretically plausible, even if my own experience didn’t match it. I wrote asking for actual figures but it turned out that there weren’t any. Indeed, the scant figures they sent me suggested that total honey production in London had increased substantially with the wave of new beekeepers.
When I met the secretary of the LBKA she said they simply wanted to start a debate. Well, here’s my contribution. According to the information the LBKA sent me, average honey yield per hive in the South-East was 36 lb in 2009, 46 lb in 2010 and 31 lb in 2011 – a fluctuation you would expect from weather conditions and other variables. At the same time, the number of registered hives in Greater London rose from 1740 in 2007 to 2225 in 2009, 3120 in 2011 and 3337 in 2012, with an extra 25 per cent or more unregistered apiaries and an unknown number of registeredbut defunct colonies. According to these data, total honey production in London was nearly 80,000 lb in 2009, going up to 100,000 lb in 2011. In 2012 London’s yield seems to have been even lower than that of the rest of the country. But we can always blame the weather or, as the LBKA would, novice beekeepers like me.