A Wednesday morning in early June. The sun rose about ten minutes ago. Just outside the window, always open on fine summer nights, there's some unusually busy buzzing going on. (If you say 'unusually busy buzzing' to yourself several times over yo
A Wednesday morning in early June. The sun rose about ten minutes ago. Just outside the window, always open on fine summer nights, there's some unusually busy buzzing going on. (If you say 'unusually busy buzzing' to yourself several times over you'll get the idea.) I open a sleepy eye. There are half-a-dozen honey bees. Josephine wakes. Wary about insects, she thinks they're wasps, which are always trying to find somewhere to build their nests at this time of year. We've had them in the letter-box, under the compost box lid, even inside a cowbell which hangs beside the front door. They must be deaf, these wasps. Anyway, we would rather not have them in the bedroom.
I get up, go over to the window to investigate. Insects, like birds, are black against the sky, but their mode of flight tells me they're bees. I close the window to murmured approval. We go back to sleep.
An hour and a half later, after breakfast, they're still there. I go outside to work out just what they're up to. There must be about fifty by now, and they're all nosing about the eaves, investigating the open ends of our ridge-and-valley tiles just above the guttering. A determined bee could crawl all the way under a course of tiles up to the roof ridge if it wanted to. It's dry and sheltered under there, ideal for insects, although there isn't much room and it must be blisteringly hot in high summer. Do we want hundreds, thousands of bees in our roof?
We think of Hector, our friend and neighbour, who keeps bees. Maybe they're his, a breakaway group trying to found a new colony. We telephone, and he says he'll come up straight away. He takes a single glance and says with great assurance, yes, they're scouts. They're looking for a place to swarm, he says. I remember the old rhyme:
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm in July isn't worth a fly.
Well, June's only a few days old, as you can see by the date on the photos. Maybe this swarm's going to be worth something. I try to put this into French, but the word for swarm, essaim, escapes me for the moment. Maybe the values are different in France, but given the prices that French honey sells for at the moment in the bee-scarce UK, we could be in for several loads of hay and a shower of silver spoons. Hector goes upstairs and looks out from the bathroom window, where the greatest concentration seems to be. They're not his, he says. These are black bees. They'll be massing somewhere in the woods behind the house. There'll be scouts all over.
A man of decisive action, he says he'll go home for a bee-box. Presently he returns with a stout cardboard box, much used by the battered look of it. It's set up like a hive inside, he says, with frames and everything. The carrying slots near the top are protected by a fine mesh. The front door is a circular hole near the bottom. Will they go in? we ask. Certainly they will, Hector says. It's heavily scented with residual honey, wax, propolis and bee-feet wipings. It'll be home from home for them.
Upstairs again. Hector, ever resourceful, has brought planks and wedges to keep the bee-box level on the sloping roof. A breeze is blowing: he recommends putting a heavy stone on the box to prevent it blowing away. We tie it to the shutters for extra protection. We go back downstairs again and watch from outside, passing binoculars back and forth.
Clearly they're very interested. It doesn't take long for one to go in, then another, then another, until there must be about twenty bees in there. Some fly out again and disappear. Word will get round, Hector says. You'll know when there's a swarm, the air will be thick with them. It may take an hour or two. Keep me posted.
Hector goes home, having told us that we're lucky. If he hadn't been available, and if they'd swarmed and set up house and hive in our roof, we would have had to call the sapeurs pompiers, the fire brigade. They exterminate them, he says, they spray them with strong insecticide. The idea horrifies me. Uninvited guests they may be, but I'd rather put up with honey dripping through the roof timbers than have their blood on my hands.
In the middle of the afternoon it is as Hector predicted. Photograph No.2 tells it all. There's a tremendous crush round the door, they're all pushing and shoving to get in. There must be standing room only inside.
By arrangement Hector appears again at sundown, this time dressed in his white beekeeper's suit, complete with headgear and veil. In the meantime the bees have either settled down for the night or have buzzed off somewhere else, but in either case everything is quiet outside the bathroom window. He climbs out on to the roof armed with a pair of scissors and a length of Gaffer tape. A quick snip and the deed is done: the door is sealed and the bees are safely coralled inside.
Your correspondent leans out of the bathroom window, unties the security cord, removes the anti-breeze stone and lifts the sealed bee-box inside. It's quite heavy, and it vibrates slightly, as though there's a gently purring cat inside. The last we see of our swarm is it disappearing down the drive in Hector's blue Beemer. (Actually it's a Panda, but you know I can rarely resist a play on words. Very sorry.)
The next day we ask Hector for news. Clearly nothing is straightforward in the beekeeping world. With the mystery of his craft he has managed to find the queen, but she's a virgin, so the colony is as yet small. If it's small it's vulnerable, because bees are desperate bandits and will steal anything they can lay their mandibles on, honey, eggs, larvae. The colony may be too small to be viable, but to give it a chance to establish itself he's going to take it a long way away from his own hives, several kilometres. There's also the question of disease: he would like to quarantine them before integrating them with his own.
Honey? We'll just have to wait and see. I'll keep you posted.
Bequel: We discovered next day that about thirty bees had missed the bus. They must have been on patrol, or scouting, or thieving somewhere in the half-light when the bee-box was lifted. Like castaways on a desert island, they gathered in a huddle on the bare tiles where the box had been, braving wind, sun and storm for more than a week. They've all gone now. I don't know where, but I suspect that where they've gone is where you don't come back from.
Cherryquel (oh, what have I let myself in for?): After last month's story of the cherries sent by post from France to the UK, several readers have asked what happened. Posted on a Monday, the cherries sent to Essex arrived the following Friday. The recipient said they'd gone 'winey', and there was nothing for it but to throw them out. A shame. But those sent to the north of Scotland arrived the following Saturday, and were fine apart from one or two. There's no accounting for these things.