the intrepid bee-keeper

Submitted by sproutscout on Wed, 2011-10-05 11:36

Peter Clarke demonstrating different types of honeyPeter Clarke demonstrating different types of honey

“It’s been my experience that beekeepers grow old”, says 90 year old Peter Clarke to the crazy folk who have decided to attend his bee-keeping course. He can’t explain why it happens, all the stings , all the goodness of propolis and raw honey, but most of the beekeepers Clarke knows live well into their 90s. And thus he introduced to us one of the many things we could look forward to by the end of the class in May next year.

For now I’ll tell a story to illustrate a few safety tips. I think this should be the beginning of every beekeeping course – though my class learned these lessons the hard experiential way. This is the story of our first ever ‘suit-up’, after weeks of talking and learning about it – our first ever interaction with the bees:

I’d bought my outfit in a hurry the day before, and eager to save a buck had brought the white overalls from a hardware instead of a specialist shop. I sewed the pockets of my overalls closed, ensured I had the right shoes, and sufficient layers between myself and the suit, and didn’t spend too much time thinking about the experience of being with the bees.

Putting my suit on for the first time, now at the apiary (the lot where hives are kept), I noticed that, by trying to save a buck, I had made a grave mistake: I’d bought a button up overall. For those of you who don’t see the problem; the holes between the buttons provide nice crannies crevices and pathways into your suit in which bees like to explore. Something one should definitely avoid. After consulting Clarke and his assistant Mike, I remained at the apiary, a little nervously, not quite convinced of their assurances that all would be fine.

We were learning how to spring clean the hives that day (look out for the next blogpost on this), taking out old frames, putting in new ones, making sure that no black beetle or other such problem causing mites had made the hives their home. We smoked the bees to make them less aggressive, and opened up the hives, one by one.

Spring Cleaning - bees everywhereSpring Cleaning - bees everywhere

Within the first five minutes there was an almighty hum that filled our ears and surrounded us. With my arms struggling to keep the holes down the front of my suit covered, a slight feeing of claustrophobia grew over me. There were thousands of bees swarming around us, and no way to avoid them. I had no idea that the experience would be like that! I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that we would be dealing with swarms and swarms of bees, and what that would entail.

There was no escaping the hum that grew with the opening of each hive, and all we could do was listen to Clarke’s repeated utterances: “if you don’t bother with the bees they won’t bother with you”. The only thing one can do in a situation like that is remain calm. If you run or walk away the bees will follow, if you swat and fuss they will sting. As I remained at the back of the group, furthest away from the hives and the action, I knew one thing: I would never be a bee-keeper.

With the continual buzz around me I started to take deep breaths. I went with my only option. My arms, still attempting to cover my button-holes, relaxed. I started to enjoy the buzz around me. I was forced to enjoy the swarm and its presence- what else could I do? I started to hold out my gloves for bees to land and crawl on. A couple of bees had crawled into a fellow class member’s suits, but there was nothing he could do but acknowledge their presence and carry on with the spring cleaning.

At once I had the most profound experience of being within a swarm. A swarm that was none-too bothered with me – but I was with it! I marvelled at it, being at the centre of it. It was as close to nature, with her dangerously threatening beauty, as I think I have ever been. By the end of the day I was snapping photos, walking around, happily examining the bees crawling on my legs and arms. Perhaps this beekeeping thing was for me after-all.

Smoke Well

The African bee is a particularly aggressive bee, and it is essential to smoke the hives should always working with them. We approached the last hive that Clarke wanted to demonstrate to us but we didn’t smoke the hive enough. As we opened it up the tone of the buzz changed. The collective buzzing became higher, whinier, it sounded more aggressive. I suddenly noticed that the bees were flying into my hat and veil more often, as if they were angrily trying to get in. We each walked calmly to separate corners of the apiary, with our own cloud of bees around our heads. It took about half an hour for the small swarm around me to lose interest, and I left as quickly as I could. Looking behind me I saw many of my classmates standing and waiting for the bees to leave off.

A bee smoker in actionA bee smoker in action

Despite the last little hiccup I left the lesson feeling invigorated and inspired to continue bee-keeping. The class demonstrated to me how beekeeping allows one a peek into the inner-workings of some of the most natural processes, a peek at mother-nature herself. There’s a quiet melody in the hum of an undisturbed swarm, and it’s a privilege to be privy to that.

The End of the Class

It was not until the following month that I discovered how the class had really ended. A class-mate who hadn’t headed Clarke’s warnings to remain calm, had been stung so many times that he had collapsed from shock. They’d dowsed him with water (to keep him cool), loaded him onto the back of the bakkie, and rushed him to the nearest hospital, by which time his veil was full of bees. He was swiftly seen to and recovered, but it taught all of us, including Clarke valuable safety lessons. Bees are a wild untameable beast that should be handled with respect.

This left us all with valuable the valuable lessons of kitting up properly and taking the necessary safety requirements.

Peter Clarke's self-improved kitPeter Clarke's self-improved kit

Kitting Up

You will need:
- A hat and veil. Always check that it is on properly, and there’s no space for the bees to crawl in.
- A white overall. Ensure it is zip or Velcro-up (as I quickly learned). Make sure to sew any open pockets closed. Coloured overalls attract bees (think colourful flowers) so ensure that your overalls are white.
- Gloves, preferably that cover your elbows. Find a way to ensure that they fit tightly to your overalls – with elastic or Velcro. Leather gloves smell of animal which the bees will immediately target, so go with non-leather gloves.
- A tight shirt to absorb your sweat. Bee-keeping is a hot job, and bee’s
- Layers of jerseys etc to provide padding between you and the edge of your suit, so you won’t get fully stung
- Thick socks, not woollen, again the animal smell attracts bees.
- Above ankle – or higher – boots
- A smoker, as I realised, is essential
- Any other hive equipment you will need (to come in the next blog post)

Safety Tips

- Always keep water with you, to cool yourself down if stung, and bee-keeping is just generally thirsty work
- Park near the entrance of the apiary, your car is your escape route . If the swarm should become up set, get in your car and close all the windows. The swarm will stop focussing on you, and try to get out the car.
- Work from the farthest hive from your car to the nearest hive. Avoid walking past hives that have already been worked with or disturbed
- Never work in the heat of the day, always before 9am and after 4pm.
- Always know where the nearest hospital is.

A barrel full of honey - the rewardA barrel full of honey - the reward

We have to recognise that bees are wild natural creatures that need to be treated with care and respect. Once this is learned it is certainly a rewarding job. I hope this post will encourage a few more people to find a mentor, suit up, and get bee-keeping.

Look out for posts on spring maintenance, building hives and broodboxes, the South African bee industry to come