While weeding the food forest on the street with Victoria, a SWAP from Argentina, Meg yells out to us, ‘Swarm at Melliodora!’ I quickly load up the bike trailer with a Warré box, bee jacket and hood, a whitish bedsheet, a cardboard box and ride down to Hepburn. In my rush I can’t find my bee gloves so when I arrive I fossick around in Dave and Su’s workshop and find a solitary garden glove. It’ll have to do. I also spot a ladder in the workshop. I’m going to need that too.
Swarming bees are so laden with honey that it’s difficult for them to sting. Their main focus is on protecting their queen, transporting food stores, and awaiting the several hundred scout bees to return from seeking out a place to build a new hive.
The combination of bee-offending perspiration from my rapid 5 km bicycle ride, a humid spring day, lack of adequate gloves, and my general impatience to catch the swarm before it takes off is not ideal. Rushing bees is idiotic at any time, but especially rushing bees swarming high up on a tall, flexible oak sapling only reached by a ladder.
My plan is to make multiple trips up the sapling, gently sweep honey-laden bees into my cardboard box with my gloved hand, descend the ladder and tap the bees out of the cardboard into the timber Warré box, which I’ve set up on a flat knoll on the slopey ground with the whitish sheet used as an illuminating runway for the bees to navigate their way inside and join their sisters.
As I begin my labour, my uncovered hand is stung. It instantly becomes inflamed with stings, then my stomach, which is now exposed as I reach up to sweep the first thick pad of bees into the box. Stings then make their way to where the glove isn’t covering. I come down the ladder, angry bees following me. I tap the first lot into the Warré and take off to find Su or Dave to ask to borrow their bee gloves.
I return to the tree, suitably gloved up now and immediately bees start flying at me. I climb the ladder and reach up to sweep another pad of bees into the box. My exposed stomach is set upon again. What an absolute debacle this is. I have rushed my first swarm of the season. It’s obvious I haven’t as yet stepped into my bee care mind and I have come to do this work with all the stupidity a human can muster. All my knowledges about catching a swarm have eluded me. I’ve forgotten what I’ve learned in previous years. I am too cocky and too eager and these bees are aggressive, a trait I don’t ordinarily mind because it means the colony is generally robust to predators. It certainly is.
I pedal home with my tail between my legs, kicking myself for being such a fool. You cannot rush bees, and tonight I have a hundred swellings over my body as appropriate feedback for my foolishness.
I work from home today and sit near the fire with my laptop and a bottomless cup of tea: wild fennel, mugwort and stinging nettle.
It rains all day so Victoria, our lovely SWAP, is doing inside jobs. I am not sure how I’m going to go working from home while overseeing Victoria but it’s easy. I explain things once and she’s away.
Blackwood is supposed to have a friend over but his friend is unwell so he works with Victoria, telling her stories, asking her questions about her native home of Argentina, bringing her ingredients and utensils she needs.
They measure the seeds; sesame, linseed, chia, sunflower, then add almond meal, and the psyllium husks we collected from plantain seed heads, mix them with water, salt and herbs, roll them out, score them and bake them as crackers.
They harvest, peel and chop the last of our onions, blitz them with salt in the old food processor I inherited from my grandparents and make an onion kraut.
Next they make hummus, bland, the way Blackwood likes it. And then they scoop the yoghurt I strained last night into a jar and add greens from the pots on the deck to make a creamy herbed labne.
‘I like being a volunteer in my own house,’ Blackwood says, when we sit down for lunch.