The happy hum of bees in blossom
We’ve had wonderful blossom this year, possibly because March and April were so mild. There was no frost to kill the buds (although the wood pigeons tried to make up for that by eating them).
I have two ornamental cherries in the front part of my garden. There is a pink one, which comes into flower first, and this one (above), which is a creamy white. One of my neighbours thinks it might be Tai-haku, or the Great White Cherry, but I'm not sure. What is certain, however, is that it looks absolutely fantastic this year.
These pictures were taken about 7pm, in evening sunshine which makes the tree look slightly pinker than it actually is. What I can't show you is the sound of bees feeding on the blossom. It's a sort of Happy Hum.
I've often wondered if bees like music, or at least respond to the different frequencies of musical notes. I do hope so. I now have my own hive, but I know virtually nothing about looking after bees. If all else fails, I thought I might try playing the piano to them.
My first colony of bees arrived last month, thanks to garden designer Philippa (Pip) O’Brien. I’d already started a formal training course with Cirencester & District Beekeepers, but that involves keeping bees for the first two years at the Cirencester apiary, not in my garden, and we hadn’t got to the hands-on bit yet.
When I met Pip at my book launch in London, she asked me if I would like one of her colonies. She’s been appointed chair of the Society of Garden Designers, and she’s downsizing her apiary, which is on her allotment in West London, from seven colonies to four. I took a deep breath, and said yes.
The colony arrived on a cold March morning. Pip had got up at 6am in order to drive from London before the bees were active, and thanks to the cold weather, it took a few days for them to start getting out and about. Rufus was a bit uncertain about the whole idea.
Pip and I have what are called National hives, which are basically a series of boxes and trays. They are not as picturesque as the old-fashioned beehives, but they are much more practical.
As you can see in the picture above, they have flat roofs, and the beauty of these is that you can put them down on the ground and then stack the various pieces of the hive on top as you go through your inspection.
If you are working in an apiary, this is ideal, but I found that in the garden, the flat roof was a bit of a drawback. I would say to people: "Mind the bees," and they wouldn't really appreciate that what they thought was a tatty old box was actually a beehive. Not until they'd tripped over it and nearly got stung.
Other style-conscious friends would look disappointed when I pointed out the hive, and i could tell that they expected to see a pristine white beehive with the traditional splayed tiers.
So in the interests of safety, I invested in what is called a gable roof (below) and I have to admit I think it looks very attractive.
Bee-keeping, to me, seems an incredibly complicated world. There are so many decisions to make. Do you want this hive, or that hive? A deep roof or a shallow roof? Do you want plastic or wood? Do you want a round veil on your beekeeping suit or one that makes you look like a fencer? Do you want a coloured suit or a conventional white one? A large smoker or a small one? There is no right answer to any of these questions, just lots of different opinions.
This comes as a bit of a shock if you have the romantic idea that beekeeping is all about getting in touch with a simpler sort of life, and doing something that human beings have been doing for millennia, long before the days of self-help books and YouTube videos.
Oh, and did I mention the expense? By the time you have bought a hive, a bee suit and all the other bits and pieces (a smoker, for example), you won’t have much change left from £500.
And that’s before you put the hive together. You CAN buy your hive ready-assembled, complete with ready-assembled frames (the bits that hold the comb), but hardly anyone I know does that. They all buy flat-pack components and put them together themselves, or even make the various bits of the hive from scratch. Not for the first time in my life, I wish I knew less about woodwind and more about woodwork.
I felt the same when I had my children, and when I got my dog. I know it’s irrational, but however much I told myself that people all over the world had children, and kept pets, in far less comfortable circumstances than me, I still agonised about whether I would be capable of looking after them properly.
I’d probably have given up after the first class if it wasn’t for the fact that I find bees themselves so fascinating (and I’ve never managed to work out why that is).
Cirencester Beekeepers runs a programme of films and lectures as well as beekeeping classes and at these meetings, I often cast surreptitious glances at the more senior beekeepers in an attempt to discover the secret of their success. They all seem fairly normal, though there does seem to be a high proportion of people who are competent at making things.
However, there is a certain quiet confidence about experienced beekeepers. They tend not to rush around making a lot of noise, or indulge in heated debates, or spend a lot of time worrying about things they can’t do anything about. Perhaps that is the secret: stop panicking and just get on with it.