So I am still in London and tonight I am taking you all somewhere very special... I hope you have best frocks ready because we have been invited to the launch party for Carol Ann Duffy's latest poetry collection The Bees, so it's time for a Bee post.
I think I probably go on about it a little too much. In fact every time bee-keeping is mentioned by anyone I just can't stop myself saying it...
'I did a bee-keeping course you know, just never kept the bees.'
But I did and I would recommend a course to anyone who doesn't want to keep bees, as well as to everyone who does. The Tinker gave me the course for Christmas several years ago, and for ten winter weeks I trekked out to Duchy College for a course that taught me more than I could ever have imagined about a subject I didn't even know I was interested in.
I dug out my notes because I always take notes at evening talking things in order to stay awake, but in fact this was too interesting to fall asleep, and all over again I am captivated by the division of labour amongst the worker bees within the hive...
Age 0-6 days they clean the hive. From 3-9 days old they feed the brood... then they attend the queen feeding and grooming her, then they move onto honey processing. Between 15- 25 days they move onto hive ventilation (it's all in the wing action as I recall) and then guard duty, then onto nectar collection until death at about 6 weeks of age in summer. All 60,000 of them.
Then the queen, genetically identical to the workers but more developed because of the consumption of large amounts of 'royal jelly' in the larval stage. If the queen is lost from the hive the workers will sense the absence of her pheromones within thirty minutes, become agitated and start rearing a new one.
Easy come, easy go royalty.
As for the drones... their sole job is to mate with the queen and they will be ejected from the hive each autumn.
Then moving onto the beekeeper's year
January ~ leave alone
February ~ check if need supplementary sugar
March ~ remove the mouse guards, feed with syrup if necessary
April - July ~ main activity of the season
August ~ remove the crop
October ~ the bees will be bringing in a lot of stores mostly from ivy, time to settle them down for winter
Sadly I seem to have the most notes on pests and diseases and then you realise how near we have come to losing something so precious in the past, and how near we could come yet again right now with the potentially disastrous Colony Collapse Disorder. In the 1920s it was the monks of Buckfast Abbey who saved our bee bacon with their hives way up on Dartmoor and out of range of infection.
I have been welded to Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees. It is as rich and as golden as you would expect and I'm reading it daily, often the same poem several days in succession, and slowly working my way through a very beautiful book and identifying powerfully with the Poet Laureate's suggestion
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.'
So all this shoud be leading to an appraisal on Carol Ann Duffy's collection but it's not because it is way too soon, her poetry takes weeks to sink in, absorb and surface for me, let alone write about, so instead it's about the email I received from Sean Borodale asking if I would be interested to see a copy of Pages From a Bee Journal, a sample of extracts from a poem-journal of beekeeping kept by Sean for two years after he took up beekeeping for the first time.
Well yes of course I would, I'm in bee-mood, and by return my copy arrived. What a wonderful evening I had with this little collection, just sixteen pages, hand stitched together (I think) and after reading the poems then digging back through all my bee books.
Based in Somerset, Sean chronicles the lives and work of the bees and the relationship between keeper and bees from the moment he collects the nucleus of his new colony from a farmer...
He wears a veil, this farmer, no gloves
and lifts open a dribbly wax-clogged
We in our whites mute with held breath.
And I imagined them in their embarrassingly pristine brand new bee suits and that moment a week later when they pluck up the courage to have a look at their new bees for themselves...
Lifting the heavy brood frame weeping with bees
we are wax, translucent-feeling
The weight already promises.
Into June and using the bee smoker which stops the bees 'bubbling over' so Joe, our bearded, be-hand-knitted-jumpered, bee teacher told us.
Sean has doubts about the smoker...
Smoke language drifted unsaid. Will not
use the smoke again; it seems unkind
And then the swarm. Now swarming is fascinating. Inevitable with most colonies according to our man Joe and most commonly from the third week in May to early June and usually at about midday to 2pm. Always collect a swarm in the evening he told us (as if, I thought to myself) find the queen and the rest will follow.
For Sean it's his poem of 14th June : Swarm?
...I did not expect that they would do this: go
a thick slab of bees pouring out of the slot
They went south...
False alarm, what next?
Well I was riveted and perhaps my mind is also attuned to the whole bee thing from all those Sylvia Plath bee poems, and what about all the patchwork hexagons. I tend to spot them wherever I go and they surely have their origins in honeycombs, so I wasn't likely to miss the little growing motif after each of Sean's poems as another hexagon is added.
Everything is conspiring to sit me down with a good session of hand-stitched English patchwork over papers this winter, I can feel it coming on..once I get back from this London jaunt.
But back to the launch party... OK stick with me everyone, let's go find the canapes and the Poet Laureate.