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Bees are brilliant

Mornings were challenging enough getting four kids up for school plus Tom and myself to work. Then the animals started to arrive. Days are now kicked off by Dame Zeta, my feline alarm clock, frying bacon lardons for the chickens, cutting carrots and lettuce for the guinea pigs, watering of stick insects, ferrying of rabbits from bedtime cages to the garden and popping out seeded balls for the wild birds.

A veritable day’s work done even before my 9 to 5 starts.

What a grand idea having all these pets! Except none of them — apart from the cat ― are mine.

The creation of our incidental menagerie falls squarely at the door of others: the Indian stick insects were a thoughtful gift from my sons’ teachers (two different teachers to two different sons), my daughters saved up their hard-earned pocket money for Nutmeg and Charlie the guinea pigs, dwarf rabbits Cappuccino and Pluto were my sons’ bright idea; they also involved a rather long road trip to Barcelona.

The egg-laying ladies ― Shadow, Brownie and bossy Alpha ― were my husband Tom’s plan, as was the purchase of two beautifully-crafted pine beehives; a Christmas present to himself.

They have pride of place in the back garden, but remain quite silent, for now. The queen and her honeybees that had been earmarked as the new occupants swarmed unexpectedly one hot April morning, too quick for us to make the journey to the farm some 200 miles away.

A good omen perhaps given that the only family member with any beekeeping training was Tom, who recently secured a job in Kuwait.

Of course the kids look after the animals; just not all of the time. They clean their enclosures, check for any medical problems (the last being a nasty abscess on Shadow’s left foot ― she currently parades around the garden doing the military goose step), not to mention the high-profile neighbourhood hunts for any escapees (in the form of those mischievous tunnelling bunnies). And it is quite special to open the fridge and see a Post-it on a plastic container scrawled with the words “Leave! Food for rabbits”, or watch them stroke and feed them with neatly sectioned Pink Lady apples just before bedtime.

The pets are, in fact, quite remarkable for being the one thing guaranteed to draw my tribe away from screens.

It’s still an exhausting and expensive venture keeping a zoo though. Not sure I’d recommend it... cleaning up soup-like chicken poo from the steps before the clouds of bluebottles descend, chasing off the neighbourhood nasties ― four thuggish magpies who have evil designs on our young Cappuccino ― and learning how to deal with a broody and moody Shadow who sat on a clutch of (unfertilised) eggs for days on end in a steaming hot coop. Or, the hasty purchase from a local florist of 25 lavender plants, cunningly presented as a Father’s Day gift for our future bees

In reality, they were sorely needed to police our flowerbed borders and stop our hens from kicking shed-loads of mud onto the garden patio in their search for earthy edibles.

Rows of lavender to control the chickens’ mud dance and entice the bees! ― Picture by Helen Hickey

Bees. It was going to happen sooner or later. Ridiculous given that my other half is potentially allergic to their sting (an EpiPen is on the list for the next medical visit). Plus, our garden is not that big; what will our neighbours say? Hardly an obvious addition to a garden... yet, the world of homely beeswax and delicious, runny honey has a certain draw to it, even if they end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or perhaps the bee-that-broke-the-zookeeper’s-sanity!

It also makes sense because our bee populations — both wild and domestic — have been declining dramatically for decades because of a host of horribles like the use of neonicotinoids insecticide, the Israeli acute paralysis virus (sounds hideous) or the ominous presence of the Asian hornet.

This nasty invasive species apparently entered the port of Bordeaux in 2004 in boxes of pottery from China. We’ve seen a couple scouting our garden: these yellow-legged sizeable creatures apparently linger outside beehives until a bee pops out, bite its head off, then literally desiccate the poor bee by sucking out its internal organs on the spot. That’s Nature's way, “red in tooth and claw” as the saying goes.

Fortunately the European Union recently passed a total ban on the use of neonicotinoids from all fields in Europe by the end of 2018. Good news given the vital task our bees (together with other insects) perform by pollinating three-quarters of all the world’s crops.

I’ve recently found myself taking clips of any articles about bees that cross my path and soaking up new terminology like Colony Collapse Disorder, black queen cell virus, and apitourism (like the popular bee holidays in Slovenia).

Or, learning about the solemn funeral held by beekeepers dressed in protective suits in Paris this June to mark, in front of neat rows of ghostly-white beehives, the deaths of all bees who died last winter from insecticide poisoning. How our “buzzy new best friends” with their royal jelly, pollen and honey are the latest trend in health and beauty. Or that recent study in England that points to British bumblebees favouring cities to the countryside; the latter with its modern monoculture farming perhaps proving too stressful for the bees.

Anyway, the simple truth is that against all better judgement and reason, I am falling for those little balls of fluffiness with their heavy yellow loads that hover generously over our new lavender bushes.

Perhaps next spring our morning chorus of meows and clucks might be punctuated by the gentle hum of our honey-making friends just below our bedroom window. All calling out that the day has started, and there’s work to be done...

Perhaps next spring, I myself might quietly find a job in the Middle East, leaving sanity intact and the zoo-caretaker chores to the husband and kids.

Either way, we shall most definitely have our brilliant bees.

The honeybees at their beehive. ― Picture by Todd Huffman/Wikimedia Commons

organs on the spot. That’s Nature's way, “red in tooth and claw” as the saying goes.

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