Thursday, 8 September 2016
Living in the bee-loud glade
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
I've always loved W B Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. It's a love song to Lough Gill, in his native County Sligo and anyone who feels homesick for woods, or water, or countryside will identify with it. It has a special resonance for me, because Yeats wrote it after walking down Fleet Street one day, and seeing a small water feature or fountain in a shop window which reminded him of the lake water lapping on the shore.
I spent 35 years working in Fleet Street, both in the street itself, and in the metaphorical Fleet Street, as the national newspaper industry is still known. During that time, I would often sneak out of the office for half an hour or so in search of grass and trees and a bit of peace and quiet. Now, of course, I live in the country and keep bees, and live in my own bee-loud glade.
I've never quite been sure where my interest in bees comes from. When I was a child, I had a book about a bee called Buzzywing (by Edith Ellen Ellsworth), which I adored. It was basically the story of the honeybee's life cycle, and I found it fascinating.
During my 12 years on The Independent, my colleague Mike McCarthy was one of the first national newspaper journalists in the UK to highlight the problems facing honeybees, and challenge the claims of the big agri-chemical companies that their products were bee-safe.
As a gardener, I was shocked by his stories about the spread of varroa, or colony collapse disorder, and the various claims and counter-claims regarding neo-nicotinoids. Every single major problem that honeybees face today seems to have its roots in human intervention of some kind, even if it's just people throwing honey jars away without washing them out, which is one of the most quickest ways to spread two of the most serious bee diseases: American foulbrood (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB).
I currently have three hives - two at home (or rather in my neighbours' paddock, the other side of the wall from my garden), and one at the Cirencester and District Beekeepers Association apiary.
I've also just passed my beekeeping Basic Assessment, one of the exams and modules organised by the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA). Not that this makes me feel like a real beekeeper at last; beekeeping is a bit like gardening in that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know.
I'm not a natural beekeeper. I'm impatient and clumsy, and I really admire the experienced beekeepers I meet at C&DB, because they all seem so calm and unhurried. And they are all so good at woodwork! Being handy with a hammer and nails is a great asset in beekeeping.
Needless to say, I've learned a lot. I would really recommend joining your local beekeeping association if you are thinking seriously about keeping bees, because if things go wrong (as they invariably do), you'll find other people have had the same experience. This is very comforting if you have just lost your hive to wasps, for example, or your bees failed to make it through the winter.
And when things go right, you'll have honey from your own hive. W B Yeats knew a thing or two about what really matters in life.