By Joao Albano
At the bottom of our garden are several beehives and, since Spring, they have never failed to capture the attention of my gaze and my mind as I watch the bees either rocketing skywards as they leave the hive in search of pollen and nectar or descending just as quickly in haste but with method to return to the hive. It is astonishing that they never collide.
To look inside a beehive is to glimpse something remarkable. It is to glimpse one of the clearest signs ever of a living architectural purpose which is the foundation of nature and the created world. For atheists, a beehive should be a problem of massive proportions.
When I use the word ‘purpose’, I am using it deliberately, as anyone who reads this column will automatically understand.
For me, a purpose springs from an intention; an intention can only emanate from a mind.
At about this time every year I find myself preparing to rob the hives of the honey the bees have so frenetically stored since early Spring. I have a veil and a smoker which is basically a tin can with a nozzle for the smoke to exit as it is drive by a hand-operated bellows.
The children are always excited. The robbing of the hives is something of a ritual which also means several things: honeycomb in large chunks dripping with freshly stored honey, the turning of the hand-operated separator into which we put three uncapped frames at a time so that the centrifugal force will spin the honey out of the frames to eventually run out into several buckets, the collection of beeswax and its melting into large blocks which we give to an uncle who makes candles for our parish and as gifts for friends.
Before preparing to rob the hive I put on thick socks which I wrap around the bottoms of my trouser legs and then put on large heavy rubber gloves to protect against stings.
I wear a thick, long-sleeved shirt or a jumper (unpleasant in summer) and then finally put on a plastic helmet which looks very much like the sort of pith helmet you would see on a sahib somewhere in the Punjab in the 1870s.
It is covered with a veil which keeps the bees away from the glint of the eyes and the possibility of stings about the head.
But I do not mind all that much. Stings are painful, certainly, but those who keep bees become used to the sudden sharp pain which signals that a lone bee has breached the defences.
A sting can be quickly scraped away with a fingernail or a knife, lessening significantly the pain and annoyance. As Americans would say, bee stings come with the territory.
The hive is a matrix of perfection, in its own way. It is also, chillingly, the perfect totalitarian society, built and maintained on the very best principles of utilitarianism, far better at achieving the purpose for which it was designed than the philosophy (in either its ‘act’ or ‘rule’ variations) originated by John Stuart Mill. Inside the hive, there is no love at all.
Within its confines, every life has a purpose; when it no longer satisfies that purpose it is ejected from the hive or killed. To be ejected from the hive, in any case, means certain death.
The Queen controls her hive with her own distinctive pheromone which, as long as it is being emitted at normal levels, is the sign for the other bees that she is healthy and productive.
But when she gets to six or seven years of age, after having laid more than her own body weight in eggs every day of her life, she begins to fade. The bees detect the fatal sign in the weakening of her pheromone and begin to raise a new Queen.
When she hatches she will either fight to the death with the ageing Queen or leave with a majority of the hive for a new home. This is when bees swarm.
A hive is also a petticoat dictatorship. Almost all the bees are female except for a tiny number of stingless males – drones – who are, by comparison, fat, lazy and do no real work.
Drones leave the hive each day and gather in what is called a ‘drone zone’ (lovely name) to wait to detect the pheromone of a virgin Queen. When they do, they take off in pursuit en masse.
When they catch her as many as 20 or so will mate with her in mid-air but the act of mating is fatal and, one by one, each drone falls away from the Queen and dies.
Every bee in a hive, each of which has an average population of 7,000 or so, has a purpose.
Some clean the hive, others guard it, others collect pollen and nectar, others act as scouts, others regulate temperature and humidity using what we would call evaporative air-conditioning, others again attend to the Queen, feeding and cleaning her.
The scouts and collectors can range within a radius of about 6km and, mysteriously, always return unerringly to the hive to let the others know to within inches where they have found pollen and nectar. The whole thing functions like a perfect mechanism.
That bees can create honey from the nectar they collect throughout the Australian bush never ceases to amaze me. Mainly, we are surrounded by jarrah and marri so the honey reflects which of these are flowering at the time.
Looking into a hive and working with it, I feel a real sense of reverence at creation that I can’t really define. But I feel closer to the purpose and meaning of things nevertheless.
I toil over the hives. They are all Langstroth design and I use the smaller-framed boxes, referred to as WSP-size, named for the Australian manufacturer – apparently – Wynn Pender.
To give some idea of what is involved, every hive is made of several boxes. The bottom one or two are the brood chamber where the Queen lays her eggs. Above these are the boxes, usually called ‘supers’, where the honey is stored.
Every super holds eight frames. Each frame can hold as much as 2.5 to 3 kilos of honey. That’s about 20 kilos of honey per super.
If a hive has three supers that works out to about – very roughly – 50-60 kilos per hive and about 250-300 kilos per robbing of the hives.
We spend the day with an old curtain spread on the kitchen floor, the separator being worked – usually far too vigorously and with many arguments as to whose turn it is – as the honey thickly flows out of the bottom tap into the waiting plastic buckets.
There are numerous interruptions to the production schedule, mainly for tastings, so that our little family is hardly what you might call a model of industrial capitalist order and efficiency. We are, after all, a cottage industry and therefore un-Australian.
But that doesn’t matter. Our bees are un-Australian too and also appear to be strongly Roman Catholic.
The latest hive, collected from a rabbit hutch in Willetton, is also – interestingly – Franciscan. Strange, I know, but true. They were prayed over late at night in the middle of the street by a general practitioner.
I have no idea what the neighbours thought. Another hive is made up of Italian bees, whose appearance is more yellow in colour than the Caucasian bees who are much darker and far more aggressive.
Whenever I open their hive I half expect to see them drinking red wine, kissing each other, shrugging and saying ‘eh!’
Witnessing this unceasing marvel of perfection and purpose never leaves me indifferent. I can see why monastic life and beekeeping seem to go hand in hand. John Paul II was right: work dignifies man.
Together with our bees, our little family tends the bush, so to speak, reaping the benefits of the mind of the Creator. Sometimes, bent over a hive, I straighten up, look at the sky and ask “What are you?” But, of his existence, I can have no doubt at all.