Living in the land of honey

By Martin Kirby

There’s a buzz in the air and honey still for tea, thank goodness. And as if to acknowledge the wonder of it all, the dusky mountain bathes in nectar light. Spain may be Europe’s largest producer of honey with more than two million hives, but the dying is happening here like everywhere. My heart sinks when I look across at our neighbour’s broken land every spring. I close my eyes and send two wishes into the heavens. The first is for the 70,000 bees that live with us. The second is that in all gardens and on all farms devoid of chemical interference there stands a hive (or five); that, for the wellbeing of all things vital, for our survival and for the sheer majesty of nature, bee wisdom is taught in schools. Most people I have met along my many miles sort of know that bees are important, if not to what vital degree. Mention that you keep bees and they take two steps back. Hard as one tries to get across how the number of colonies across the globe continues to plummet at an alarming rate, that horrible fact has no sting among the catalogue of seemingly more pressing materialistic catastrophes the populous is told to worry about. Or so I thought until I talked to new keepers. I mentioned my neighbour. He’s a retired pig farmer with about five acres. Across the lane, 25 feet from the edge of our wild flower meadow, is the entrance to his land where, every Easter, he trundles back and forth on a toxic tractor annihilating everything. Whatever it is he is spraying the concoction wilts everything within 24 hours. But never for long. By June his fallow land is always green once more - a forest of stout, grim thistles with a couple of outposts of indefatigable poppies - so his sprays yet again, and tries and fails to plough the debris away. Ugly is too weak an adjective. It’s an utter mess. It is as if he is trapped in cyclical Armageddon and doesn’t know what else to do. Can you believe people like that? I despair, because every time he leaves his farm, getting out of his car to chain the gateway, he must look out over our tapestry of flowers to the hives on the far terrace, and still he cannot see. Maybe I should give him some honey and offer to cut grass for him: Either that or widdle in his tractor tank. Meanwhile we work towards having four humming hives. Two are active, and beside the barn I have cobbled another out of the serviceable parts of two wrecks. The fourth? With sizable glee we have just treated ourselves to a brand spanking new one for our seventeenth wedding anniversary . Cost? Just €40 including the 12 wax sheets for the frames. This is a basic pine box, I stress, not your cedar wood English craftsmanship, and it won’t last many years, but it is so pleasing to the eye all the same, and we know the design works. We also bought Joe his first veil, smock and gloves, for the little man is calm, fearless, fascinated and eager. Not that I intend to teach him everything. Like how we fix the wax sheets to the wire, for example. When I first kitted myself out about six years ago I bought a quaint little brass roller that you heat and run along the wires in the frame. The wax melts and bonds with the wire. But it takes an age, which we don’t always have. So we use the decidedly dodgy, do-not-attempt-this-at-home Jaume method. Friend Jaume, who has 30 hives, a man of many parts with an easy smile and boundless patience, pieces together a living growing grapes, driving lorries and selling a little honey and vegetables in his wife’s village shop. Some of you may remember he came to our rescue when a colony of African bees moved into our bedroom chimney. All village families here have their agricultural plots with little buildings, and Jaume’s is down by the railway line, a minestrone of agricultural machinations that’s always brimming with life and piled high with things that will come in handy one day. My kind of guy. Old chairs circle a grand barbecue that resembles a fireplace in an old manor house. Ten feet away a hive right next to the track dances with life, at the start of a line of acacia saplings that had self sown by the roadside and Jaume had retrieved with the promise of feasts for the bees. Of the many tree blossoms we have at Mother’s Garden – almond, apple, pear, quince, persimmon, cherry, medlar, plum - acacia is a glaring omission, an invaluable and gorgeous flowerer, so to the verge I will go this autumn, fork in hand. We found Jaume’s mum in the hot kitchen preparing lunch, with three large noisy buckets around her ankles. Two had chicks in them of varying sizes, the third was home to three goslings. By the time we had returned from a quick tour of the hives all the birds were out basking in the sunshine and Jaume’s father and son had rolled up for their meal. We said we should take our leave, but Jaume wanted to show us how he fixed wax into his hive frames. No time I said. He tutted and guided me into his workshop. He laid a wax panel on to the frame and using a car battery charger sparked heat through the wire. It took about 20 seconds. Back at Mother’s Garden we took our first honey of the year, 17lbs, including one delicious frame where the bees had made comb without the need for wax.


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