A year before we moved to our farm, African Bliss, which is situated in the Kouga mountain range, I decided to do a course in bee-keeping in preparation for our big move to a farm where I could finally explore my interest in the little beezy creatures.
I travelled from Plettenberg Bay to Cape Town for the course and spent a few days with a colourful little gentleman by the name of Marchand and his wonderful wife, Jenny.
The course covered everything that would set one up for being an aspiring beekeeper, such as, hive management, honey extraction and different types of hives, as well as the history behind beekeeping. We also briefly touched the topics of apitherapy and the aspects of beekeeping as a commercial trade. All in all it was a fantastic and extremely enriching course.
By the time we finally moved to our farm in the Kouga I had already enthusiastically purchased a number of empty hives, some new and others second-hand. For those of you who have been following our stories, you will remember that we arrived here in the beginning of winter last year, which is supposedly not the season to catch migrating swarms. A migrating swarm is one that is formed when an existing swarm becomes too large or there is a shortage of food and so part of the colony sets off with a newly made queen in search of a new home.
Now, I must just tell you, after doing the course one feels pretty confident to handle just about any bee situation you can think of until you get your first swarm. The day a migrating swarm flies into one of your vacant hives and makes it their home, you just feel so honoured. I now have obtained 11 swarms in this way and I still feel so special and lucky to be landlord to these little beezy insects. Also, when you see bees pollinating your flowers or collecting nectar from your orchard or veggie patch you get such a warm feeling from thinking that while you are providing them with pollen and nectar with the plants you grow, they, in return, are ensuring your existence by making sure plants bare seed and continue their existence. Of course, there is also the huge bonus of getting their honey which, along with beeswax, we use in the making of our 100% natural soaps and body bars.
From my whole experience with the bees so far, I would like to tell you about a particular week of events that led to me taking a day off.
It all started when I awoke one morning as the sun was rising. I looked out my bedroom window as I always do, to see the colours that the new day has brought, but what do I see lying on the ground below the jacaranda tree? A swarm of bees all huddled into a tight ball around a branch that had fallen out the tree! The swarm had obviously stopped on the branch overnight, but had been too heavy and with a bit of wind in the night, the branch had snapped and fallen to the ground. It was not a big swarm but I was excited! First I woke my wife and begged her to role over and peer out the window at our new tenants-to-be. Then I went to fetch my youngest daughter, Rain (who does not get grumpy at being woken up too early) so she could come and share the experience with me.
Out we went, myself still in my long-johns, and she in her pyjamas, to fetch an empty hive. As you may have gathered, we had no protection on in the form of bee-suits or gloves which some of you may think has to bee dangerous, but when they are swarming they do not readily sting, so long as you are gentle and non-threatening towards them. To hive them, you put the box in front of them with a ramp leading up to the entrance, then they all start to move up the ramp into the box. To head in an upward direction is something they just naturally do. I then demonstrated to my daughter, Rain, that you can gently stick your hand in the swarm, or let them crawl over your hand as they head up the ramp and you won’t get stung. It is amazing to feel these little buzzy balls of energy, all with the potential to sting you, moving over your hands with the single purpose of getting the queen in safely and then getting beezy with “setting up house”.
This is the morning when all the unfortunate events started happening. Because I never got stung when I first brushed my hand through them , I become more daring and with the carefree attitude of Jamie Oliver, I swooped my hand through the upward migrating swarm and ZAP- ZAP, I got stung on the arm! Then and there, I learnt that when dealing with a swarm on the move, there are still boundaries to be kept at all times!
Later that day, I went to go and check on my other hives and noticed that some of the bees were behaving rather oddly. In from of a few of the hives, some of the bees were very busy on the ground (my hives are only 30cm off the ground on cement blocks). Upon closer inspection, I noticed some of the little guys were wrestling with ants and I realised that I needed to help them urgently. Not wanting to introduce any more poison into this world of ours, I found out that ants are acidic and do not like an alkali environment. Off I went to town and came home with a large bag of Bicarbonate of Soda. I cautiously approached the first hive from behind, (wearing no protection again) and sprinkled the powder around the entrance, very carefully, so as not to upset the bees. Later that afternoon, I went to do another check on the hives and although the situation was much better, the ants were still around. So, now highly irritated on my bees behalf, I fetched the bicarb and poured a nice fat stripe across the entrance to the hives, all caution thrown to the wind! This I had to do to four hives and on the fourth one, ZAP, I got stung on the back of the head. The abovementioned exercise got carried out while the bees were flying in and out of the hive, so naturally some of the powder landed on them! I decided then to stay away from the hives for the rest of the day. The next morning, I was out early inspecting the hives and I saw that the bees, obviously not impressed with the powder across their landing strip, had removed it and the ants were still a bit of a problem. I then came up with the bright idea of dissolving the bicarb into water and wetting the ground in front of the hive with a watering can. This seemed successful and only the hive in the veggie garden got slightly agitated and I ran into the house for cover with miraculously no stings! About an hour later I ventured out to go and water my vegetables and in a state of utter contentment, focusing on the water droplets leaving the nozzle, travelling thought the air full of love, beauty and life, soaking into the soil, down to the roots of my veggies… when the whole blissful moment came to an abrupt halt with a buzz and a ZAP to the eyelid. Again, I ran for cover, waving my hands around my head. I guess not enough time had passed for them to have forgiven me!
Three stings in three days in a row, I was starting to think that maybe I should stay in bed and take the day off. By now the whole family are standing in the kitchen and laughing at me while Rae, my wife, removes the sting from my eyelid. That night it rained and the next morning was a glorious sunny day. I went outside and hallelula, the ants were gone and the bees were beezy as always. I felt safe again in natures playground. It was with this happy feeling, looking a sight with my swollen head, eyelid and forearm, my daughters and I decided to go and move our horses to new grazing We decided to ride 800m down the road, bareback. As I was pretty new to horse riding and had learned that bareback riding at a trot is not suitable for the male species, I was not keen but my daughter assured me that cantering was the answer, as it was a much smoother pace. So, off we went at a canter and she was right, it was easier but the horses all cantering together, got a bit excited and to cut a long story short, I fell off! Nothing broken, just scratched and feeling great for not being dead. So, day four and another injury and while my wife tended to my wounds, she advised that perhaps I should just go and lie down for a while. I nearly took her advice, except there were things that needed to be done in town. So, after wounds being patched up and a change of clothing , I was strolling to the bakkie when I felt something crawling inside and up the leg of my shorts. I absentmindedly swatted it…... ZAP! Yes, it was another bee and I got yet another sting. I turned around right then and there, went inside and removed the sting, saw my wife’s flabbergasted face and went to bed, where I remained until the next morning. It was great and the spell was broken!
On a final note, the following day I went to the local co-op to buy some more bicarb (just in case). While I was standing at the counter, there was an old farmer standing next to me. After a while, feeling his eyes on me, I greeted him and raised my swollen forearm and told him that I’d been stung by a bee. He then replied (in Afrikaans) that he’d noticed my arm and had thought what strong looking arms I had, not noticing that there was only one that looked like that! With that, everyone in the queue burst out laughing.
I must just say, that I have been stung again since those four days but you get used to it and I don’t swell as much as before!