You know what really makes a summer? Being besieged by flying insectoid life forms with venomous stingers. As a child, I discovered a wasps’ nest in the shed while trying to retrieve a lawnmower and it didn’t end well. Now a grown man, I’m terrified of anything airborne. The list of things that have triggered freak-outs includes flies, butterflies, poplar fluff and falling leaves, as well as the hair on my own neck. So, I am uncomfortable to be at Black Bee Honey, an apiary in Woodford, east London. I’m here to face my fears by putting my face next to things I’m afraid of: insects with wings and stings.
The company’s co-founder, Chris Barnes, is swinging a smoker around like a Russian Orthodox priest, attempting to pacify the bees, or me. He explains that bees sting only to defend their hive, that stinging a human will kill them, that these bees have been bred to be docile. The thing is, he is wearing a full protective suit, as is everyone else around. “That sounds great,” I say. “But can I wear what you’re wearing? And you mentioned gloves. Where are they?”
Bees are ecological heroes. As pollinators, their survival is linked to ours. When colony collapse disorder made news in recent years, the campaign to save them was something we could all get behind. From Berlin to Brooklyn to Birmingham, urban apiaries in particular have seen a huge increase. I can see another reason why: the esoteric skill set, funny clothes and one-upmanship of beekeeping make it a honeytrap for hipsters. Surely, though, honey from urban hives must taste like pigeon-flavoured diesel syrup?
“Actually, city biodiversity gives honey a beautiful, complex flavour. Far richer than the monoculture of the countryside,” Barnes says. Inside my suit, I start sweating with excitement.
“So … what you’re saying is that immigration works?” Barnes can’t hear me. He is extracting a slide of honeycomb, across which a noticeably larger bee is stumbling. “A male. As far as we can tell, they don’t work, or serve any purpose other than reproduction.” Maybe the hive isn’t as woke as I thought.
My moment comes. Barnes hands me a wax honeycomb, crawling with workers. I feel fear rising, which he tells me they can smell. Some crawl over my hands. Yet I’m drawn in by the alien geometry of their home and bodies, the mechanistic buzzing. I watch one waggle dancing, shaking its hind-quarters, telling others where the nectar is. Barnes shows me the dot-marked queen looking for free cells to lay eggs in, the sex of which she can control. In another cell, I watch a bee being born, throwing new limbs from the hexagonal chamber like a swimmer hoisting herself from a pool. I find observing them strangely calming.
Barnes later tells me the suit doesn’t eliminate the risk of stings – you have to trust the bees. I think I do. I’m intrigued by this year’s hipper-than-thou hobby. Maintaining a colony only takes up an hour a week, and you get to watch bees twerking. Plus, free honey – nectar points in the bank right there. But being an ally is easier still. Some argue that urban apiaries are now too popular, leading to competition for resources. The best help for our heroes is to grow wildflowers and brambles; in other words, STOP MOWING THE LAWN. If someone could inform 12-year-old me, that’d be great.
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