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Hardening of the Heart - the task of the modern beekeeper

Like Macbeth we are killing our king, our sacred self, for the values of the ego, for our own power and gain, not knowing what this really means until the light goes out, and we are left with only the wasteland of the inner and outer worlds.

Lewellyn Vaughan Lee

Beekeeping, conventional beekeeping as taught by the official purveyors of beekeeping training, has some really interesting martial qualities. It is a kind of war, a righteous war that must be fought bravely to secure the nation’s need for honey. Beekeepers are really knights in shining armour, except that the armour is usually white and the shiny bits are the smoker, the scissors and the hive tool. There is lots of preventing to be done in the course of a season, and beekeepers need reminding, again and again, that the bees must on no account propagate naturally.

Sweet honey for toast and tea, cakes and face masks, for our health and wellbeing. Sweet honey demands sacrifice. Wings must be clipped. It goes against the grain, cutting off some piece of the wing of a winged creature, but it must be done, or else the bees, in their fervour of propagating the species, will literally take to the wing with half of our honey in their larder.

Actually, clipping a queen bee’s wings can be very satisfying - so they say - it takes dexterity and skill and if one can do it without hurting her legs one is very nearly a master beekeeper. The good thing is that it’s only the mother’s wings that need our attention, because her 50 000 daughters are just workers, and they won’t go anywhere without her. We call her the queen. Sometimes we have to really harden our hearts and kill her and replace her with a younger more productive queen. We call it culling. It is not nice to do, but must be done in the service of proper beekeeping.

The queen is, after all, just an egg-laying machine, that is a fact. Many veteran master beekeepers who have written great books about these fascinating creatures explain the activity of the mother in those terms. 2000 eggs a day, more than her own bodyweight, just like a machine.

It takes a while to learn to manage the creatures, and a long while to break their will, and it’s a serious investment. It costs a lot to be beekeeper, so it’s vital to learn how to get the bees to pay back. For example, they create havoc when they reproduce, utter chaos, and we must take measures to prevent that.

The inconvenience of swarming, so it is said, is not something we should have to put up with nowadays. After all, thousands of queens are imported into this green and pleasant isle, 10 306 to be exact: oh my, where are they all?

Back to beekeeping now. It is so important, and today, when no living thing can cope without help from the superior and greatly refined armoury of man, it is more important than ever. These bees provide about every third mouthful of the food we eat, so we better keep them going at all costs. Keep them going, but under our control, because natural reproduction of bees is problematic and messy. Letting bees swarm carries the risk of being considered an amateur beekeeper. There are better ways.

Bees need us, so we are told. They’ve been around for aeons, true, millions of years, and they went through their trials and tribulations, but were essentially fine. However, and this really is a modern mystery that science has not yet got to the bottom of, the bees have started to decline.

This has happened more or less in tandem with the ascendancy of our intellectual powers, our accelerating abilities in mastering the vagaries of nature, of farming in better, more efficient and clinical ways.

Oh, the unpredictability of the living world in all its messy facets! Despite all the ingenuity we are directing at the bees’ welfare, they are still threatening to leave us.

Year after year we offer them fabulously engineered filing cabinets to live in, and year after year we spend our summers taking them apart like highly skilled surgeons.

We manage them as best we can.

We take exams in bee management.

We are exhorted by those in the know to free them of the queen cells they are wont to build with abandon.

We feed them sugar to help them through the winter.

And yet they die on us in ever growing numbers.

Or grow so sick that there would be no future were it not for man-made medicines.

We persevere in the face of adversity. But sometimes we wonder, sitting quietly by the hives and observing the purposeful coming and going, whether this all has to be.


The lines in the above text images were found in conventional beekeeping magazines and represent seasonal advice. The words written represent a natural beekeeper’s efforts to understand the mindset which underlies such advice.

Top photo: A selection of beekeepers who have not done “all they can to prevent their own bees from swarming” because they consider it important for bees to reproduce by swarming.

Bee guardian's blessing for dark times:

'May the bees weave their golden magic and may our hearts for ever be softened...'

Thank you to Alberthe Pampa for sharing this with us.

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