The recent sultry, heavy weather has been perfect for swarming bees. And they have been swarming. Last week I helped collect a swarm from an apple tree in New Road. And then two days ago, an empty hive in St John Sub Castro cemetary near me was suddenly inhabited by a swarm. I wasn’t there to witness it, only came upon it late in the day when the queen had already entered and the bees were outside the hive, abdomens in air, fanning the pheromone scent that calls the other bees to the queen.
That makes fours swarms I’ve been involved with so far this year. Every time, it’s an incredible honour. It’s a strange experience, one that involves total trust in the bees and some courage, especially as my intention is to gradually stop using the veil and other protection for most bee work. In fact the two seem to go hand in hand; many beekeepers, with protection, can be quite clumsy and inconsiderate of the bees. Being vulnerable makes one far more gentle and observant.
When I collect a swarm I feel like a midwife, and try to be someone who is simply observing, supporting and there to help in case of any problems. The ideal midwife, to me, is someone who is both invisible and very present.
I read today that bees have existed for 45 million years (dated from a bee preserved in amber). Compare that with humans who have been around for at most half a million years. Yet, in one human generation we’ve managed to bring 45 million generations of bee to the brink of their own existence. Or, if you think of the bee as one organism, we have brought the bee being who has lived for 45 million years, to near death. And, according to some, when the bees go, our days are numbered.
Clearly humanity has gone very, very wrong and the bees (and most other beings) are telling us this. Yet society’s response to the bee collapse is more funding and research involving genetic and physical manipulation of bees to help make them varroa resistant and so on: more focus on the symptoms rather than the cause.
My belief, and that of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, is that honeybees need to be left alone to do what they have been doing for millions of years. We have got to start understanding their needs, not ours. They simply need a healthy environment – both a (natural) hive environment and also biodiverse, non-toxic air, water and food/foraging, which is what we need too. The bees are our greatest teachers, and I deeply hope that we can start to learn from them.