Bees on frame

Keeping Bees: my experience

A year before we moved to African Bliss, our farm in the Kouga mountains, I decided to do a course in bee-keeping. I knew that after the move to the farm, I would finally be able to explore my interest in the little creatures.

I travelled to Cape Town for the course run by Dom Marchand and his wonderful wife, Jenny. The course, held over a few days, covers everything that an aspiring beekeeper needs to know, as well as the history of beekeeping.

By the time we moved to our farm in the Kouga at the beginning of winter last year, which is supposedly not the season to catch migrating swarms, I had already purchased a number of empty hives. A migrating swarm is bee reproduction in action: when an existing swarm becomes too large or there is a shortage of food, part of the colony sets off with a newly-made queen in search of a new home.

The day a migrating swarm makes one of your vacant hives their new 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 busy insects.

When I see the bees pollinating my flowers or collecting nectar from my orchard or veggie patch, I get such a warm feeling from thinking that while I am providing them with pollen and nectar with the plants I grow, they, in return, are ensuring our continued existence by making sure plants produce 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.

I would like to share with you the events of a week not too long ago which 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 roll over and look 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. No bee-suits or gloves. You may think this is dangerous, but when bees are swarming they do not readily sting, as 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 showed 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 hand with the single purpose of getting the queen in safely and then getting busy 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, 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 front of a few of the hives, some of the bees were very busy on the ground (my hives are only 30cm off the ground).

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 use any poison, and knowing that ants are acidic and do not like an alkali environment, I decided to try 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 above-mentioned 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 to work very well. 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 halleluja! the ants were gone and the bees were busy 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 still pretty new to horse riding and had learned that bareback riding at a trot is not suitable for the male of our 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, to cut a long story short, I fell off!

Nothing broken, just scratched and feeling great — and grateful — for not being dead. So, day four and another injury. While my wife tended to my wounds, she suggested that I should just go and lie down for a while. I nearly took her advice, but there were things that needed to be done in town. So, after my wounds had been patched up I made my way to my bakkie when I felt something crawling inside and up the leg of my shorts. I absent-mindedly 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, took one look at my wife’s flabbergasted face and promptly went to bed, where I remained until the next morning.

On a final note, the following day I went to the local co-op to buy some more bicarb (just in case). An old farmer stood next to me at the counter. 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 I had very strong-looking arms, until he noticed that only one of my arms looked like that! With that, everyone in the queue burst out laughing.


Dom Marchand offers bee-keeping courses, books, videos and equipment and can be contacted by email to [email protected]

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