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  • Martin Castle

"Handle a book as a bee does a flower, extract its sweetness but do not damage it!

Back in the autumn we were given two hives of bees and as part of the routine we have to make a weekly inspection. Currently the main point of that is to check to see if there are queen cells as their presence creates a risk of swarming. Once the queen has laid in queen cells she will up and off taking most of the hive with her. Due to the lockdown we have been unable to have our mentors with us for guidance. Being shown is far more powerful than reading or watching videos where you can get several different suggestions of how to move forward. However, both hives have many, many bees with both brood and stores of honey so I suppose we must be doing something right.

Honey bees make honey from pollen and nectar collected from flowers. They live in large colonies with one queen, many sterile female workers and some male drones. In the wild honey bees nest in hollow trees.

Queens live for several years, but summer-born workers live for only a few weeks. Those maturing later usually survive the winter by huddling together, with the queen, and eating stored food. I think it is bad form to take all the honey and leave them none although it can be replaced with alternatives. The drones are turned out of the hive in autumn and left to die.

Worker bees are the most familiar-looking member of the honeybee hive, as they make up about 99% of each colony's population. Worker bees are all female, and they do almost everything for the hive. From birth to her death 45 days later, the worker bee is given different tasks to do during different stages of her life. Worker bees are responsible for everything from feeding the larvae (the baby bees), to tending to the queen, to cleaning the hive, to collecting food, to guarding the colony, to building honeycomb. They sting once and then die and only attack when threatened. But, as with wasps, the 'smell' of a bee’s venom causes other bees to attack.

Male bees are called drones. Their job is to mate with queens from other hives. If they do get the opportunity to mate, they die immediately afterwards. If they do not mate, they can live up to 90 days (that's twice as long as a worker bee!) You can identify drones in the hive by their big round bodies and large eyes. Drones are incapable of stinging.

There is one queen bee per hive - she is the mother of all the other bees. She is the only fertile member of the colony, and lays about 1,500 eggs a day during spring and summer. Queen bees have long abdomens and small wings. Soon after birth, queen bees will go out and have a wild weekend, where they mate with 15 or more drones over a three day period before retiring to the hive to lay eggs. The queen will not leave the hive again unless the colony swarms. When the colony needs a new queen, they simply choose a healthy larva, hatched from an egg of the current queen, and feed it royal jelly, a special super-nutritious food, that helps this larva grow into a queen.

A healthy hive may contain up to 50,000 bees so with such a large population all working together, communication is at a premium. Bees do their talking in two ways. Firstly, by scent and secondly by dancing. When a honeybee is warning her sisters about an intruder, or if all the ladies in the hive are particularly happy, honeybees have the ability to release a hormonal scent (a pheromone). The bees can detect these scents and interpret their message. A happy bee pheromone smells a little like lemons, and a warning-smell has a banana-like scent. When a forager bee needs to alert her sisters as to where a nectar source is, dancing comes in handy. She does special turns and wiggles to show where she found the food - essentially drawing a map.

The honey bees produce a food stuff that is varied in taste and is a versatile ingredient: it will enrich and add subtle flavour to dishes such as casseroles, sauces and dressings. Honey can be used as a natural substitute for sugar in most recipes but as it is sweeter than sugar, less is needed. Similarly, as almost one fifth of honey is water, the liquid content of a recipe should be reduced by the same amount. Honey goes with most food types - marinades containing honey and vinegar make meat more tender and succulent;  orange blossom honey when added to a spicy vegetable stir fry counteracts the spiciness of chillies, peppers, garlic and spices; adding honey to salad dressings and sauces can enhance the flavour and give extra body; it is great for keeping cakes and biscuits fresh and moist.

Bees appear in mythology frequently. Two such examples are that in the Kalahari Desert the San people tell of a bee that carried a mantis across a river. The exhausted bee left the mantis on a floating flower but planted a seed in the mantis's body before it died. The seed grew to become the first human. In Egyptian mythology, bees grew from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand.

The Prophet is a book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American poet and writer Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). In the book the prophet, Al Mustafa, has lived in the city of Orphalese for 12 years and is about to board a ship which will carry him home. He is stopped by a group of people, with whom he discusses topics such as life and the human condition. The book is divided into chapters dealing with love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. The Prophet has been translated into more than 100 languages, making it one of the most translated books in history.

At one point he talks about bees:

"And now you ask in your heart,

"How shall we distinguish that which is good in pleasure from that which is not good?"

Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,

But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.

For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,

And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,

And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

People of Orphalese, be in your pleasures like the flowers and the bees."

I was never a lover of honey when i was young but at a certain point in my life this simple recipe was a life-saver



Fresh bread - white but not sliced - maybe a split tin or cottage loaf

Butter, slightly salted and soft enough to spread easily.

Set honey (although I like a local honey where the bees accessed water mint - yep minty taste!

1 knife

1 plate


1. Cut two good sized slices of the bread

2. Butter each slice evenly so that the bread is covered, right to the edges.

3. Using a spoon, place a large dollop of the honey in the centre of the slice and spread over the bread – it should be thick enough to be able to leave teeth marks in it when you bite.

4. Sit in a comfy chair with the bread & honey on a plate on your lap.

5. Serve with a mug of tea – not a cup and saucer.

Robert Macfarlane's Word of the Day is ...

"geoglyph- lit. “earth-sign”; a large-scale design/motif either cut into or embossed onto a landscape, usually using elements of the site.

Eric Ravilious, ‘Westbury White Horse’ (1939)

ps: On a less highbrow note Ogden Nash wrote about honey -

I eat my peas with honey

I’ve done it all my life

It makes the peas taste funny

But it keeps them on the knife!

pps: The quote at the beginning is from John Muir (1838-1914) from East Lothian in

Scotland - naturalist, author,environmental philosopher, glaciologist, and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness. Known as "Father of the National Parks" in the United States of America. The image is of Katayoun's work at the council offices in Haddington E Lothian.


Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. “ - Corrie ten Boom
"The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." - William Wordsworth
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1 Comment

May 15, 2020

I love that poem by Kahlil Gibran - and the whole book. Such wisdom in there. Honey is such an acquired taste, but the varieties depending on where the bees are gathering taste amazing. Have you had your first batch yet?

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