If I had a hero , Sir David Attenborough might fit the bill. It certainly wouldn’t be a politician.David Attenborough has been the voice of reason for the better part of his ninety years on earth and in that time he has helped expand our knowledge of the world as it really is ,in front of our sometimes denying eyes. It is a violent, beautiful , extraordinary place to live in and he has spent all of my lifetime explaining its raw complexity and simple wonder to me and anyone else who cared to watch and listen to his series of fascinating films about all the varied life that exists on our planet and how and why it came to be there.
I thought of him today as I gave my honeybees an inspection on this rarest of sunny days . The politicians of Norneverland may have just fought an election in tooth and claw and this very morning are in the process of setting up their stalls again to plan their next five year plan, but in the real world other dramas of life and death are happening just outside our doors. The honeybee, potentially the most important creature for the pollination and success of our planet’s foodstuffs and the survival of every other creature whose survival depends on that little fact , lives under increasing threat. Arguably more important than any of us humans to the continuing success of our entire world, this feral ancient colonial insect, older than even dinosaurs, is living a life of increasing risk . I have been shepherding honeybees in my own small way for some years now because I think they are such important creatures. I say “shepherding” because they are still a very wild animal at bottom and they’ll do whatever they want to do. Over the years David Attenborough is one of the people from whom I’ve taken my cues before i decided to invest some of my time and money.
Today I opened my hives for the first time in about a month, having left them to their own devices throughout an especially damp and rainy Springtime. Five hives had survived the worst of the winter’s blossom dearth and I hadn’t taken any of their Autumn honey. When I lit my smoker and puffed the first cooling clouds into the initial hive to calm the inhabitants, I knew that this first one was in trouble .There was little activity at all , except for a few odd bees crawling across some very empty cell frames.There was a damp fustiness and several slugs and earwigs had taken up residence in the grimy corners of the top box. Something like this would never be allowed to happen in a healthy hive . The smell emanating would then be of warm flowers and perfumed honey. The worker bees are much too fastidious to allow slimy interlopers or scuttling roaches such an intrusion. They would have been hastily killed and bundled out as so much baggage in a flurry of house-keeping.
In the middle frame any bees that were still there were already dead. That colony was completely finished. It was much the same story when I opened the second hive .The damp weather had taken its toll here too.The bees lay in a dead clump across the crossed wires of the bottom board .Both these hives had very obviously lost their queens as their numbers, food and warmth gradually fell away. Birds had poached incoming workers as they fed their young nestlings and the rains and damp had done the rest.When something likes this happens , you’ve got to be fatalistic about life .The fact is that the other three hives seemed to be robustly healthy and growing stronger. As I opened them they were teeming with new life and activity. The colony that had always been aggressive hadn’t changed its demeanour in any noticeable way either . They came at me in a cloud for having the effrontery to disturb their business on such a fine , sunny day.I couldn’t puff smoke quickly enough from the recalcitrant smoker to confuse them and they approached me as hostile hooligans. This hive always had issues with anger management . I had to believe that their queen was an obstreperous ould bitch or had been sired by a particularly nasty local Irish hellion because she and her offspring were always up for a ruck. That said , their ancient genetics were very obviously of a more robust nature than most and that had stood by them.Maybe they’ll produce just a little honey for me ….
So there you have it .Three hives going into summer this year. If I am fortunate enough to grab any of their swarms and corral them into new nucleus hives I might be able to build back up again.That’s the nature of life in the wild. I found myself thinking again of David Attenborough and his film about the Indian sloth bear who lost one of her cubs possibly to a group of baboons or a preying leopard .She just had to walk away and get on with it .Fatalism , you see…red in tooth and claw….
Happy ninetieth birthday Mr Attenborough .One of life’s true heroes, surely .