I suppose five stings wasn’t too bad , all things considered.I blame a momentary compulsion on my part. I could have simply been patient and waited. Two honeybees managed to sting me twice on the right arm, just above my gauntlet.It’s funny how they know exactly where to strike the most vulnerable areas. Another angry one stabbed me in the middle of my chest through the heavy cotton material of my suit and the final , most sensitive strike was just beside my left-nipple.The dear knows what it would have been like had I not been wearing my veil and bee-suit.
The first week in September is traditionally the time for the honey-harvest and I’d been holding out for that particular tick to tock.It’s only another few days , I was thinking.If the bees haven’t capped their white wax over the honey by then ,that’ll be my last chance.In that one particularly big, thriving hive they appeared to be slowly working towards that end over four “super” boxes, above the “brood” boxes, when I looked last week.Today it was August Bank Holiday Monday and the fuschias were abuzz with every kind of bee.” The sun was as high as a(n) elephant’s eye” as the mellifluous Gordon MacRae once goldenly emoted ,while sitting astride his big dun horse ,parting and wading through some mighty ,corny but delightful ,corn while the rising music stirred up rhapsodies in his beating heart. So I thought it might be a good time for a bee-inspection before the harvesting time , proper .There was just that stretch of fencing to finish painting first and then I’d suit- up and light the old smoker.
When I opened the big hive, standing some seven feet high, it was quickly evident that the honeybees had been really very busy in the past seven days, somehow possibly knowing that the season was drawing to a close and this might well be their last honey-gathering hurrah before the season turned and the leaves began to wither.Bees are obviously very attuned to the intricacies of nature, the movement of the planets and seasonal change. They are the original sun-worshippers and they know exactly where that shining orb is even when the skies are lambent or heavy with cloud. They’ll know how the days imperceptibly and subtley , shorten ,as the earth spins further from the sun. They’ll always know how to orient themselves to its perpetual gaze and use it to geometrically steer a homewards course. They were doing it a billion years before sailors figured it out.
The boxes were even heavier than last week.White , sweet-smelling wax gleamed across the frames and these were heavy with honey and black with still hard -working motile bees.I noticed that the bees’ colouring was gradually getting darker and their yellow stripes seemed more subdued .The original Buckfast bee-strain was obviously mutating gradually with prolonged contact with the local Irish bees.Maybe that was why this particular queen seemed stronger and possibly more adjusted to the local environment than any of her predecessors. At this point I could have said to myself that I could fit a clearing -board and wait for a day or two and simply lift off those boxes and carry them off. A “clearer board” is ,just as its description describes,is like the normal top-board under the hive -roof ,which has two holes in it to allow air -circulation and possibly feeding . In the clearer-board version , into those holes are fitted two one-way “bee-valves”. These little spring-loaded implants allow the bees to leave the honey boxes but do not let them back in…they can waddle through the narrow entrance much like going through airport security, but they can’t return so they will be isolated below-stairs.This is fitted below the honey box .A day or two with a clearer-board leaves you with a honey- box, empty of bees ….in theory …There may still be the odd lazy little beggar who doesn’t want to leave.
That might be the sensible thing to do but sometimes my compulsiveness gets in the way of the sensible action.As in this case.
There were a few things on my mind anyway: would the weather be as good later in the week? ; would the rains come back for another week or more? ;what about that delivery of blocks , sand and cement I had ordered and that little bit of bricklaying I wanted to undertake beside the oil-tank?; then there were the fellows coming around to inspect the solar- panels….so many things…? Why wait? , I thought. Do it now and get it done and gone!! That’d be the ticket. I knew it would take the better part of a day to harvest the honey so I made the immediate decision to get on with it there and then .I already had my breakfast, hadn’t I? That was the start of a particularly intense two days.
To begin with , I had to separate the various boxes as quietly and as carefully as was possible, hopefully not getting anyone too excited . So each time I took a box off the main hive, I initially covered each exposed box with my home-made “manipulation” cloths. I’d made these a few years ago from a couple of old towels with a dowel -rod attached to each side by a row of tacks to weigh the sides down . I hadn’t used them much in the past but they were perfect for this job , keeping the sunlight off the opened boxes and hopefully fooling the bees into thinking that the roof was still on their particular section of the hive .The cloths kept everything dark and the heat inside fairly constant . Well….that is the theory!!
I soon found as I pulled out each frame that I had fifteen very heavy frames of prime ,cured honey all neatly sealed .The problems began when I began to shake and brush the bees off them to fall back into the hive .They were very reluctant to leave their hard-earned loot and were irate that I was separating them from it. Reasonable enough , you might think , given the hundreds of bee-hours flown and ragged -winged deaths spent in the accruing of this golden liquor; not to mention the work inside the hive spe fanning the water vapour away and fermenting this nectar into such treasure.They had every right to be angry.Once committed , I had to continue anyway. When they realised that a huge alien white bear was disturbing their peaceful endeavour they began their attack.As I slipped the full frames into three nucleus boxes and closed the lids, they came at me en masse, stinging at my suit .Several managed in their anger to pierce the thick cloth.I could feel the sharp pricks as they gave away their venom and the suit stained and blossomed with their yellow ire.The brownish yellow spots appearing here and there were themselves an attraction to encourage them even more. It got even more interesting when two bees somehow managed to breech the defence of my hood-veil. They’d entrapped themselves within the space between the a second veil my sister-in-law had added over the original damaged one.Somehow two invaders had managed to squirrel their way through a tiny hole into my personal space and there they were , buzzing inches from my face.Trapped and angry and fit to be tied, like Backstage -Johnnies trapped between the curtains. That was the moment when I thought it sensible to walk away momentarily and sort the immediate problem out.Of course , I was followed up the garden by an angry grist of guards who’d already sensed that there was an attack pheromone in operation. Never mind a “murder” of crows…this was an assassination squad of bees. My suit fairly reeked of combat and like sharks scenting blood across a hundred miles of ocean, they were on a war-footing.Bees are excellent communicators in that respect. While I was busy with this little problem , my wife’s female curiousity took this moment to click in and she appeared in the kitchen doorway just in time to catch a bee in the tresses of her thick, luxuriant hair. If you’ve ever experienced it , a trapped bee buzzing somewhere near your scalp or in close proximity to your ear, is not one of life’s most pleasant experiences. So it proved for my wife. As she screamed blue-murder, I gradually seperated her hair until I found the culprit and shook her free, but not before she’d left a calling call on my wife’s hairline . “It stung me!”, she screamed before running inside and closing the door.
For most of us , a bee-sting is no more than a pin-prick to the skin.It’s easily shucked off. It’s the aftermath that is unpleasant ….when that itchy irritation kicks in and wakens your nightime slumber with a flurry of scratching. Usually a day or two elapses before your system adjusts to the venom. In the meantime there was still honey to be harvested.
I returned to replace any frames that had been taken out and closed the big hive up .They were still angry of course but I moved to inspect the other four hives.A cursory glance proved that that it would be simple greed to deprive the weaker hives of any of their hard-won gains, given that I had already made a substantial harvest, so I puffed out more smoke to confuse and cover my escape and headed housewards with my three boxes of booty.
I have a honey-spinner which I bought some years ago but rarely use. It can prove destructive if a frame is weak and the centrifugal force can sometimes separate more than just honey.My preference is for the old-fashioned method of simply uncapping that lovely white wax by drawing a serrated knife across the length of the frame and then scraping the unctuous honey with a spiked uncapping tool and letting gravity take it throught he strainer and into the collecting tank or ripening bucket. One thing to remember is to cover the strainer with a muslin cloth.This makes the eventual clean-up much easier because it keeps the wax and any unwanted bits away from the metal and from the final product. This can be time-consuming depending on how warm the room is.All the while I was aware that some bees had discovered the source of their lost riches and were investigating my smoker still fuming slightly on the windowsill outside. Other bees were testing the edges of the windows for any gaps.I’d already made sure that all the windows were closed tight. They were persistant ,though. When all the honey from that one hive was in the bucket it was half -full and weighed around twenty five to thirty pounds in weight. I left it closed up to settle overnight.By the next day there was a scum on the top which when scraped off, revealed the bronzed glory and perfume of my bees’ labour . One more pass through the double sieve and it was time to bottle -up. The jars were warmed in the oven and I filled about thirty five of them.This was my best hive ever. It goes without saying that the most productive bees appear to be the angriest but the unique taste of your own unpasteurised honey is reward enough for all the hassle. It’s a bit like producing your own wine ,I’d imagine…..Now there’s a thought!
There was still that waxy honey- mulch in the muslin to drain .When it was done there was the final cleanup .As you can imagine the sticky stuff finds a home everywhere , no matter the precautions. It’ll get on the work-surfaces and the floor so before you know it you’ll be walking it all over the house.The only advice I’d give is to use cold water initially to clean it , much as you’d imagine otherwise. The cold water simply dissolves honey much better than the hot stuff. All that remained was to wait until the following day to return the empty frames and carrying boxes back to the bees for their own particular clean -down . Even the discarded scummy stuff goes back to the bees .A thousand lapping tongues can make short work of that.They can do that very efficiently in their own time.It might only take a few days and the frames will be pristine clean .I’d pick up the boxes next week but I’d have wait until their anger subsided , though ….