There she was, in the dark sticky crevice between the wooden frames. She moved slowly, surrounded by her retinue delicately cleaning and feeding her, whilst others stood guard – alert and attentive. I reached slowly into the gap, asking with my bare finger. She obliged, and I gently lifted her long, delicate body – revealing a regal beauty.
The day was warm and the clouds still, so I knew she wouldn’t get chilled. She seemed quite content resting on my finger, looking intently back at me with her dark orb eyes.
There is something deeply spiritual about holding a Queen honeybee. Here is a creature who can lay up to two thousand eggs a day in the height of the season. Her abdomen vibrated on my finger and I felt a tingling deep in my chest. I prepared for a heart to heart.
“Hello, beauty” I said. “Thank you for keeping forty thousand bees happy. Thank you for creating thousands of workers; all females, of course! Oh, and then you lay hundreds of unfertilised eggs to produce those loud, hairy males.” I paused glancing at a passing drone. “Why do the boys make so much noise?” I smiled as she cocked her head and brought her front leg over to clean her antenna.
“You are such an incredible creature. The female workers do a great job, but you are amazing, with your perpetual egg-laying ability and strong pheromones that keep the colony so content.”
She lifted her front leg, wiped her orb eyes and then danced around my finger looking for her home. I gently placed her back on top of the Hoffman self-spacing wooden frames, waited until she crawled down the crevice, into the waxy combs, and then closed the crown board. “Have a bee-autiful day,” I said, replacing the roof firmly on the cedar wood hive. With the Queen back in amongst the bees, I heard the colony’s tone deepen to a contented hum and smiled.
Looking at the entrance, I checked the foraging bees. Some had bellies full of nectar and struggled with their Zeppelin-style landings, loaded with carbohydrates for energy. Some had hind legs full of pollen balls securely packed into their corbiculae – otherwise known as the bee’s knees. I counted five different colours of pollen, which meant that the developing larvae were enjoying a varied diet. I made a mental note to try some different protein sources and vary my own diet.
With plenty of pollen coming in there would be lots of young brood and the Queen would be laying well. Watching the hive entrance and observing the colony’s behaviour is informative but also meditative. The constant movement of bees arriving and departing is an intricate circulation system coordinated by vibrations, touch and pheromones. The heart valves are guard bees at the entrance with forelegs raised and antennae alert. Workers regulate temperature both inside the hive and at the entrance. On a hot day, they are clearly visible, standing facing the hive and fanning their wings to produce an air conditioning system for temperature regulation and moisture reduction.
Recently, a swarm arrived in the apiary, blackening the sky, before finding a larch branch to hang from. Scout bees buzzed back and forth looking for a suitable home. Finding an empty brood box, they rushed back to perform their waggle dance, up and down the surface of the clustered swarm. Suddenly, thousands of bees exploded from the branch and blackened the sky. For a few minutes, I was honoured to witness the incredible sight of a swarm murmuring. Soon they descended, following the pheromones of the scout bees intensely fanning their tail glands in the air at the hive entrance. The Nasonov gland, in between the last two tergites, has a scent that draws bees home like an old school bell calling children in from the playground. Soon, I could see the sky again as the swarm descended into their new home.
“Thanks for the delicious honey,” I called, whilst loading the supers into my van. I only take away a little from each hive, leaving plenty for the bees to eat. For me it is only right, as they have done all the hard work, foraging and processing nectar from millions of flowers.
Spring honey from Ayrshire is like a fine wine. Its aroma is intoxicating and draws your nose to the jar. Once your tongue reaches the golden liquid, there is a strong, deep and rich taste of malty honey, followed by a tangy, floral dandelion hit and finally the combination of dark, nutty sycamore nectar with a light, delicate almond finish from the hawthorn (otherwise known as the May).
The creation of honey is an alchemistic process that we cannot replicate. Nectar collection is followed by the bees adding enzymes and reducing the water content until it’s less than 20%. Finally, the honey is sealed with beeswax cappings. Each floral source has its own unique nectar that influences the taste of the honey. In addition, this nutritious liquid contains minute grains of pollen from all the flowers visited. Pollen is rich in protein, full of amino acids and honey has anti-inflammatory properties as well as being high in antioxidants.
In the honey house, I start uncapping each frame of honey with a long knife. The golden liquid seeps out and I quickly place each frame into the extractor. I watch the wagon-wheel effect of the frames spinning backwards, as thin strands of fresh liquid gold are forced to the inner walls of the extractor. A golden river flows down, pooling in the base, desperate to get out. I open the tap and a cascade of raw honey forces its way out through the filter and down into the ripening tank.
Two days later, the honey house is filled with jars of liquid gold – labelled and ready to share.