November 4 2013
We have our bees, thanks to Martin’s intrepid journey to Maitland and back via bumpy winding roads in the dark, dodging bushfire and a tricky petrol gauge. A few were sacrificed to the god of travel, but the rest are out and about this morning, exploring their new surroundings.
We did our first lesson in beekeeping on Saturday. I think I’d expected a lot of talking about bees and honey, but instead we were marching up to the apiary along a sandy track in the sun and straight into watching how you start and stoke a bee smoker – a bit of paper to start it then pine needles, stringybark or paperbark, packed in loosely at first then stuffed in so you’ve got enough fuel to keep it smoking. Smoke calms the bees when you open the hive as they try to load themselves up with honey rather than attacking you. Our instructors – all generous, kind amateur beekeepers – told us that it needs to be cool smoke, not hot smoke that might harm the bees, and demonstrated what cool smoke is by puffing it onto our hands. It was cool. Once the smokers were puffing nicely we got kitted up – Martin and I (and quite a few others) in conspicuously white new beekeeping jackets with built-in hoods. Even manoeuvring into the jackets was a feat that needed assistance. We divided into small groups with an instructor to open each hive and almost immediately I had a frame of bees in my (gloved) hands.
Like many firsts, there’s nothing quite like the first time you hold a frame of bees. There in front of you is a multitude of bees, crawling all over the frame and indeed on your hands (gloves). You’re not running away from it, but you’re standing still, watching the bees get on with their business. Alarmed at first, I moved to actually seeing what they were doing in their busy wanderings. I saw a drone, briefly, before it flew off – the larger, male bee who serves a purpose once in its life (if it’s lucky, as our instructor said, chortling) – but the rest were all field bees, females who tend the hive and the brood and manufacture the honey by some alchemical process we may learn about next week. Sweat ran down my back in the heat, in the jacket, but holding bees, observing bees, learning how to swing the frame around to inspect both sides, seeing how to lever the frames out of the box, scrape the propolis off the edges and ensure that the frames were clean and adequately spaced – made for an exhilaration, a freedom from ancient fears that completely overcame my discomfort.