At peace with the buzz

2014-06-06 00:00

IN the first part of this series on beekeeping in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, I wrote of our honeybee being indigenous, an important pollinator and a provider of honey as good as you can get anywhere on the planet. And very fierce; you don’t mess with bees. They can and do kill, mostly by virtue of the huge numbers in a beehive.

In Europe and the United States, there is a strong movement using beekeeping as therapy for a stressed nation. There’s something wonderfully relaxing about dressing up in bee-proof gear, lighting a smoker filled with pine needles and slowly making your way through the beehive, frame by frame.

Yeats wrote in a great poem: “Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have peace there …” When you enter the honeybee’s home, not with the intention to rob, but to stand and wonder, a palpable peace overtakes you. Beekeeping is a hobby that enables one to escape from the busyness of life, to switch off and enter a new wonder world. Often it’s a retreat that one makes all alone.

As you approach the apiary, through the bee-loud glade, one becomes aware of the most wonderful scent of myriad flowers. At the entrance to the hive, you’ll see a band of faithful workers madly fanning air into the colony. This dry air passes over the honeycombs filled with dilute, unripe nectar. As the excess moisture is evaporated off, it carries with it the most wonderful scents; tiny phytochemical molecules produced by the flowers in your garden, far finer than the most expensive eau de cologne that money can buy.

Whether it’s taking out a comb, half filled with honey at one end, and being capped at the other, or staring, dumb-struck, at the eggs and larvae that fill the cells in the brood, the peace and relaxation that Yeats wrote of, is profound; it starts to overtake you. Filled with wonder, you start to breathe deeply, wondering if you’ll catch a sighting of Her Majesty. Probably you won’t; she’s a slippery customer.

On your next visit, you harden your heart, and start taking a share of the honey; in one sense it’s good for the bees. A hive filled chock a block with honey leaves little room for the queen to lay her eggs and soon they will swarm. It’s a harmonious relationship in which the beekeeper in a benign way cares for his or her bees, replacing old combs and ensuring the hive is in good order. If you deal with the bees harshly they either leave or produce less honey for the lord of the manor. Beekeeping starts to lessen that feeling of being a knave in this world; instead, you become lords and ladies.

The honeycomb is decapped and the honey extracted in a centrifuge. The empty honeycombs are then returned to the hive for the bees to fill again. In a good season, the beekeeper is able to harvest honey four or five times in this way.

Those living in Pietermaritzburg, and having a secluded corner of the garden, have the great benefit of two crops; one in the early summer from the jacarandas and another in the winter from the gum trees that surround the city. The honeys, like the flowers, are both perfect, but quite different.

In part three, we’ll start to look at how you too could become a lord or lady; a responsible beekeeper.

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