To Bee Or Not To Bee

12 February 2020 Ben Walter

To Bee Or Not To Bee

We’re standing on the edge of the Derwent River north of Hobart and the trees are busy nodding. “Yep,” they seem to be saying, “it’s windy.” They’re right. The squalls are pumping up clouds that swell over the hills. Not a great day for much at all; definitely not for working with bees.

Bees like the clear, still, sunny days when they can potter outside and sniff the flowers. I know how they feel. This should be an inside day for both of us. But here I am, dismantling a hive frame by frame as the bees drone around me.

The work is much heavier than you’d think. Each box in the hive can hold about nine frames, and the frames can weigh two or three kilos when the honey is running. I’m slow, useless, learning. I lever the frames out, scanning the comb. My hive tool stabs into capped honey; it comes away sticky. I use too much smoke, or not enough. There are plenty of awkward movements – the bee suit and gloves are unfamiliar, and they make me feel disconnected, like I’m working underwater or repairing a satellite. It even looks like I’m in a spacesuit; my kids giggle when I first put it on at home. Then they quickly ask me to take it off.

The boxes build up next to the hive, each stacked at an angle on top of the last. A couple of hundred bees are perched on my suit; most of them, I’m told, on my back. I could ferry them away without noticing and stroll into a cafe, the supermarket. Later, when I take off my gloves, I count the stings pressed into the goatskin.

There’s pleasure in working with living creatures, of learning new techniques and working with tools in a different way. I want to hurry back into town and buy a hive, paint it up, build some frames and wait for the bees to come knocking. That’s pretty much what I thought would happen; my wife had made me a birthday card, a chipper insect in black and yellow: “Let’s Get Bees!” She paid for me to take a course and I was very keen.

Bees seem to fit our life – we’re tucked on a patch of the Huon Valley, growing as much of our food as we can. Maybe they’ll help pollinate our fruit trees. Maybe we’ll make up jams with the honey, blending it with blackberries plucked from the roadside and plums dangling from the trees along our fence lines. 

Maybe the bees will help me feel a little less scared of the future. I don’t know what will happen with all the climate stuff, and it seems wise to be prepared with knowledge, skills, and, well, food, if things go bad.

There aren’t so many bees about this year, partly because of all there is to be scared of. It’s been a bad season in Tasmania – the leatherwood failed in the hot and dry last summer, amid all the forest fires. Flowers didn’t open up; hives burned. Leatherwood honey tastes something special, but it’s not just that. It’s the most important honey crop down here, producing great quantities of nectar at a time when the rest of the bush is done flowering. So the bees have been doing it tough. Beekeepers have still been building up their hives.

I always swore I’d never get livestock. My grandmother had cattle, sheep, goats, a Welsh mountain pony stud, and it tied her to her farm. It can be strange, this longing for a connection to the land; maybe I don’t want to feel too connected. There’s a lone chook wandering about our yard; the others have died over the past year, by age or violence. 

Letting them free range is a calculated risk. Chooks fend for themselves pretty well, but even they need to be checked regularly to make sure there’s enough water and backup pellets for food, to collect their eggs, and confirm they’re doing okay.

Bees are a little like chooks, especially in the warmer months – you should open up the hive every few weeks to make sure they have enough food, to check the queen is laying as she should, to watch for signs of swarming and make sure there’s no disease. You need be responsible. There’s the wiring of the frames, the extraction of honey; you have to be careful with stings, and there’s the matter of bee poo on winter washing lines. Apparently, this is a thing. Keeping bees is not a set-and-forget project.

We’ve got a baby due soon, and honestly, I don’t have space in my brain for another set of responsibilities. My head feels crammed; there’s enough buzzing going on as it is. But I wonder: how much stress is based on the sense that something has to be done right now? I don’t need all that honey just yet. The bees can wait a year.

Article first appeared in The Big Issue edition #605

Ben Walter’s latest book, Conglomerate, was shortlisted in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. He is the fiction editor at Island magazine.