The Bees

or

'A sting in the Tale'


30th August 1989

(originally a letter to, and following one of, my mother's visits to St. Kitts).


Life's full of surprises. Were it not, what a Morrysome lot we'd be (author's license - try: morbid, sorrowful and worrisome)!

We are now in rather a dry patch of weather, although it was very hazy for a week or two recently and we could not see Nevis at all from up here (sic. at Upper Spooners, a thousand feet up, in St Kitts). At such times the word in the village is usually that it is 'Sahara Dust coming over' - its certainly very dusty but I put that down to the roads and the heavy Sugar Crop traffic, tractors and the like - who knows?

I guess it was the monkeys who found my Mung Bean crop so ‘morish’ as there were little piles of empty shells neatly opened along the seam all along the top of the back wall at the top house recently. The runner beans having ‘taken-off’ so well upon germination burned out into wispy plants and came to nought - not even flowering as did your planting.

I suppose the soil really is rather impoverished and at present I have built two big composting bins near the Hen-house which has become the overnight sheep-pen for my new lawn-mowers - two sheep, ‘Meggie’ and her lamb, bought through the agency of Levi from his father (at what Grade and Dowell think an exorbitant price $150 EC ); Levi having left and gone to work in ‘Construction’ - the first week apparently, so he told me later, - a plank banged ‘im in the ‘ead - and the doctor gave him a week off 'to settle the brains!' - such is life - down on the farm !

One of the things about living in old houses, especially old West Indian Wooden houses is that they’re full of history. Now, believe it or not, to a bee 'bee history' is very important, so much so that whenever there is the need for new quarters for a dividing or 'swarming' hive, the bees scout around their very large district and can usually find an old but currently unoccupied place to set up the new nest by ‘sniffing out’ the long ago remnants of an old location. Apparently there is some residual scent detected by the bees who then bring the new group back to an old site.

This happened a couple of times in the small house I was living in up in the ‘mountain’ in St Kitts. The first time I was not actually the tenant but the neighbour, and the unsympathetic ‘radio-ham’ occupying the house had merely had them ‘smoked out’ unceremoniously and had the access hole into the cavity between the wooden side wall of the house sealed....bad idea,....for a couple of years later, by which time I had acquired the house and was living in it, they came back. Finding no difficulty it seems in gaining new access, very soon there was a constant flight of bees in and out of a small hole just under the gallery floor, which like the rest of the residence was of wood.

Eventually I decided that if I was to be surrounded by bees, I’d better get them into a proper home and invoked the assistance of Doug Llew-wiss, our vereey Welsh - "south act-uallly, Swanseee to be truuthful - well - Mumbles - (the place, not him) - see?" - local Apiarist, together with Ralph Vanier our 'sort-of-retired' bee-keeper, both apiarists extraordinaires, who came complete with smokers, veils, suits, and crow-bar to prise open the wild nest within my wall and set it up in an empty hive brought with them for the purpose.

Some time later, Doug, brought up a second hive-full of bees to go with the 'first set' we had extricated from the house that quiet afternoon in April - quiet that was until they started meddling with the bbbbb’s, who were by now well ensconced in their new quarters but in need of some added ‘strength’.

This second hive he had obtained as a 'swarm' somewhere 'in the country' and he reckoned they were a strong colony and would add to my interest in 'Bee-Keeping' as opposed to just 'bee-having' as the books say. He recently went back to Wales for his son's wedding and a vacation, having said that he would visit Bayfords next upon his return to put another 'super' on top of this strong hive. That's a sort of upper-deck, and with a screening device with which one can exclude the Queen from going up there to lay and so, consequently, just have Honey stored there by the diligent workers.

"You shooould 'ave honeey by Chriss-mass" Doug had said, enthusiastically, before his departure - that was early last month.

Well, all went that way, until last Sunday when two 'bees' were 'abuzzzin' round my head as I sat in my room at 'this machine' writing a couple of letters - "why don't you two buzzz off?" I'd said, a trifle irritatedly by that time. Later passing through the living-room on my way to the Kitchen, imagine, 'fully 150 bees' in there buzzing round inside. I thought perhaps they were trying to find, or maybe had found, new nesting quarters about the house. I opened all the doors and windows and shut myself back in my room. Then, after a brief shower of rain, bingo - no more 'house-bound bees'.

Some time ago 'Grade' (sic. my one-legged master gardener - who when I'd hired him some years ago, had told me that his 'nickname' referred to "Top Grade" not First ! ) had informed me - "One load'a bees outsi' de 'box'" - and sure enough, upon inspection, there did seem to be quite a lot of 'them' around the entrance of the hive. I put it down to the heat and a degree of 'strength' in the hive, as Doug had intimated was the case, and concluded that obviously a 'top floor' would soon be needed. Well again, today I was up for lunch a little earlier than usual, soon Della (sic. my house-maid cum overseer) called out, "Doc, Grade 'a wan' t'you!"

I went to the gallery and my faithful 'one-foot-man' called up "Doc, y'know 'bout tha' set'a bees dung deer?" Pointing with his crutch and balancing on his one-foot - The crutch, you see, is for pointing far.......away, and the stick is for pointing out near things - close to his one foot.
"No" says I, "what set?"
"Dung deer!" he says. I followed with my eye along the line of his extended crutch and espied a 'swarm' hanging in the Oleanders over the 'lawn'. It was certainly a big swarm, situated about 10-12 feet up and hanging with a clear space beneath to the grass. A good situation for 'capturing' them.

"Plenty 'a dem dung by 'Jimpey' dis marnin'" Grade volunteered, "I'd a' heer' dem dung de road 'aBarlin' (= bawling, = crying out, = making a noise) a' cum up - an' now a' see dis load'a 'Brown-ness' in de tree - an' a' carll yuh".

No time to lose. Previous study of Ralph's Bee-Keeper's Encyclopaedia informed me that a 'swarm' thus situated in the middle of the day will likely fly again before dusk....a quick call to Ralph...."Yes, by all means" I can go down and get an empty hive and some honey to put in it to capture the swarm. At this stage I'm still not sure if it's 'my' hive swarmed or another - a 'wild' one.

Having given instructions 'not to trouble dem' I quickly head down to Fortlands to get another 'box' - as Grade calls the hives - plus frames, plus a supply of honey of course. 'Reaching' back, I 'Don the Veil' - Bee-Keeper's - that is, and proceed to set the open hive beneath the high-up 'swarm'. Once all is set, a good shake of the branch should drop the mass 'one-time' as 'we' say, into the waiting 'quarters'.

But not quite so, - big swarm, high branch and novice shaker, equals - one third of swarm into the hive and one third each into the grass on either side; which as any infant school grandchild will tell you is just 'Two into one don't go' and I am left with a biological 'no-no'. It doesn't take the 'one third' in the hive to realise that 'two-thirds' are without, and also without the honey enticement as it happens, but the latter doesn't seem to have the same attraction it seems and very soon there is another swarm 'growing' before our very eyes further-down the slope and higher- up, in a Guava Tree this time, and without a clear 'drop' to the ground below.

Nothing daunted, calling up Dowell the old 'Bosun', we quickly rigged up a 'wire expanded sack atop a long pole' and prepared to 'bag the swarm' in proper fashion. Remembering I'd read that - 'swarming bees have first completely gorged themselves on the old hive's honey reserves and so are not aggressive' - only noizzzy I guess, - I omit to 'redon' the 'gear'. Anyway, as Dowell is going to help this time (like it or not) by giving the branch 'a good quick shake' at the right moment, I feel that for me to be 'protected' more than he, is just not quite 'the thing' - British fair play and all that, don't y'know! Now, both in position, good, "Ready?" I raise the 'open' sack up to the soft vibrant 'swarm' 12 feet overhead. "Now!" - Dowell shakes the limb vigorously. Nine thousand bees drop into the sack - nine hundred and ninety-four don't know what the hell's happened - again! - and the remaining six dive straight for my head! - they sure as heck know what's going on - and they're not having it! I drop down the 'pole-sack' upon the instant, remembering to turn the sack's mouth down to retain the 'several pounds' of live contents, and take-off in a long diagonal run uphill across the sloping meadow which passes for the front lawn, arms flailing.

Suffice to say, the bees were then all 'abed' whilst I sat there looking as if I'd just done a couple of rounds with my old prep school boxing coach 'Bombardier Billy Wells' - one ear thick and 'sticking-out' and a right eyebrow and cheek that could have made Mike Tyson look like Adonis. But all in all c`est la vie. As I tried to remember as always - 'No pain, no Gain!' Incidentally, the swarm was 'me one' (my own) as we say hereabouts, the strong hive having split itself. There still remained a small colony in the 'old quarters' with a newly emerged Queen one hoped - in which case they should have remained and would have needed what was left of the jar of honey to provide some energy while they built back up to the strength of a working hive.

Jubilation was short lived however for upon returning for lunch the following day Grade informed me "Bees dem, aa' gone! - Ah heer'd one loada noise, an' ah see aa' dem goin' back dung de road". Sure enough the hive was empty save for a couple of bees probably 'robbing' the remaining honey for one of the other hives. The 'feeder' filled with honey the previous day was by then quite cleaned out - dry in fact.

I put the empty hive adjacent to the hive whence the swarm had originated, though by then they had settled their over-crowding problem. Nothing was expected to happen, and a little over a week later both my established hives appear to be healthily progressing viewed from without. So time to investigate within perhaps.

I placed the empty hive body upon the top of the hive that didn't 'swarm' - they seem to be well up to strength judging by the numbers of bees staying outside the hive entrance on 'guard' and on 'fanning' duties. As there is no queen excluder between the layers, I expect the healthy queen of this hive to establish her brood chambers in both layers of this enlarged hive. Later the upper layer can be set up separately from the bottom 'super' and so, by the process of 'Queen Rearing' in the half which at that time is 'Queenless' - a process which is initiated upon young larvae by now 'Queenless' worker bees - a second colony can be established.

Now to the hive which had given out last week's 'swarm'- adequately protected I feel, mostly in 'white' as the book dictates - white shoes and cotton socks, Light weight light-grey slacks, white cotton shirt, and of course wearing the 'Bee-Keeper's Veil', I gently lift the hive cover being careful not to 'jar' the bees as the lightly 'glued' hive top lifts away - and 'bingo' - b--- h- I'm attacked from all directions through my clothing. I leave the area in a direct straight line remembering the fact that once a bee has stung a 'target' (in this case yours truly) pheromones are released that stimulate others to 'attack' the same 'target'. Whilst trying to 'capture' the one that had somehow got inside the 'veil' - too late! it did it's dutiful 'thing' behind my left ear - I am comforted by another wonderful fact of 'Bee Lore', namely that 'only 0.5 percent of a hive's occupants will attack and sting a victim even if the hive is greatly stimulated by careless manipulation!'. Aha, 'weak hive' I think, rapidly computing the 'attack force' and allowing for some protection from my 'clothing'. Back in the house - after a complete tour of the garden precincts - it is painfully obvious that there were 'nine hits' to the attack squad! - Weak hive? - only about 1800 - minimum estimate on 100 per cent strike capability - judging perhaps 30 per cent getting through the cotton fabrics and that's a hive strength of about five and a half thousand bees! - and I was trying to be gentle with them!

I'm going back to a 'smoker' after that little episode. That's the bee-keepers' friend. A few puffs of smoke at the bees from smouldering corrugated cardboard in a spouted metal can with bellows in the side, and they become quite docile. Back in the days of bee-keeping at school in the Zoology Sixth - class of '56 three of us used the assignment as an excuse for smoking a quasi-legitimate 'fag' or two in the school-garden when manipulating the hives, searching the frames for 'swarm cells' which had to be removed before a strong hive split itself with half the population leaving when a 'New Queen' was produced to take over from an aging one - of course that was when we weren't in the gardener's shed perusing his amazing calendars - Long before Hugh Hefner 'went pub-l-ic' with 'Playboy Magazine Centrefolds' the school gardener had somehow been able to adorn his sanctuary with a selection of quite 'Magnificent - to a trio of hormone driven adolescents - Pin Up calendars' each of them twelve months to a year! Then of course we looked after the Bees as well, when time and the weather permitted!


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