A natural beekeeper begins to understand the wisdom behind traditional beekeeping protective clothing
Collecting my first bees
After waiting three years to get some bees I was at long last going to visit the bees that were to become mine. You might think three years was sufficient time to get prepared but after a series of false starts it seemed like it was never really going to happen and my initial enthusiasm had waned with a series of disappointments. The sudden phone call to say they were ready took me by surprise.
No bee suit
So what did I do? Had too much bubbly the night before and no protective clothing except a horrid rain jacket that makes you sweaty, hot and bothered, which is just what you don’t want to be around bees.
Why had I not bought myself a bee suit given I’d had long enough to do that a thousand times over? It’s my idealism. I can’t help myself. I wanted to believe that ‘I’ would not need protection or not much, and I would improvise by covering my hair with a wide brimmed hat and get some veil material I could tuck into my jacket or shirt. I didn’t want to spend any cash until I was sure I was getting bees. I thought £300 for the hive was sufficient expense. Anyway the bees would love me and not want to harm me. They’d be saving their venom for ‘other people’ who obviously didn’t have the inner calm and love for them that I did.
Bad tempered bees
I was ignorant on a couple of key points. Queen rearing and breeding was being conducted at the apiary from which my bees were coming and this practice doesn’t predispose the bees to liking people.
My plasticky raincoat was the nearest I had to something with elastic at the sleeves. Bees walk upwards only, so if they’re on your hand they’ll go up your sleeve. People wear wellies or tuck their trousers into their socks. As I said, I had meant to find a piece of veil that I could place over a wide-brimmed hat and tuck in but I hadn’t got around to it and suddenly it was urgent – so I was going to have to wear the raincoat and hope for the best.
Bee handling gloves
I’m not fearful of bees but like anyone am not keen on pain. I had handled bees on the first workshop I did three years ago without gloves and I liked the experience. They were very docile bees and I had no reason not to expect the same (so I thought).
So off I went with uncharged mobile phone and leaving the map on the kitchen table. Half-cocked. After a scout around the area and not seeing anyone resembling an astronaut (beekeepers aren’t exactly hard to spot), we had to return all the way home to get the map and phone the guy. Fortunately he agreed to stay longer until we could get back and find the exact location in the woods.
Bees in rain
By now there was a light drizzle. Bees don’t like the wet, it puts them in a foul mood. In fact I’m going to claim the weather forecast as my excuse for being ill-prepared. I will gather all the excuses I can.
The relief finally to find the clearing and see bees was immense. I forgot my dress worries and just went over to watch what was going on. I had tied my hair back but almost immediately a bee dived into the loose bits on top, and it wasn’t a happy bee. Three minutes later I’d been stung by another bee that I can only describe as furious.
Another bee seemed intent on crawling into my mouth. I stood statue-still feeling not so much threatened as a bit daft for having no veil. I was rescued by the expert who confidently brushed the bee from my lips and lent me a smock.
Despite the fluster of bits of hair in my eyes that I couldn’t reach to push away and of getting my glasses back on from somewhere inside the smock (luckily no one was watching me) I felt much calmer in it. I didn’t mind having no gloves, it’s bees in the hair and face that make me nervous. I would have, however, a huge red ball of fire on my cheek, the stigmata warning everyone I was an incompetent beekeeper.
He got on with the operation I’d come to witness: shook a frame with the queen included into my brood box. The queen had a neon green dot on her so even I could see her very easily and though I’m keen for minimum intervention I wasn’t sorry this had been done for me and I didn’t have to try and find a queen with my untrained eye. I should think her wings had been clipped to but I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask anything much. I was just glad to hand over the responsibility for a while.
I was to leave my box there for a couple of weeks while the brood moved down into it to join the queen. Then I would collect my new colony and take it home by car. The entrances would be sealed at dusk the previous day and I would collect them early and open the entrances as soon as I got home and placed the hive in its new position.
I’ve since ordered a bee suit, beekeeping video and feeder frame and I’m going to do a lot of studying in the next fortnight! What a start to my calm, spiritual approach to beekeeping. D minus – could do a hell of a lot better.