maybe I should have tried tanging the swarm

images of tanging from medieval times

Last year I had a colony swarm within a few weeks of it arriving on the allotment. I wrote about this in The Day the bees Left, with a follow-up post After the bees swarmed. If I’d known about tanging, I might have given it a try. Tanging is to hit a metal object, loudly and with enthusiasm. This is alleged to encourage the bees to return to their hive, or settle in a cluster above the head of the tanger.

image of tanging in Victorian times

There’s lots of references to tanging, both historical and contemporary. Search ‘tanging bees’ on YouTube for videos of beekeepers trying it out, such as the one below where the practice seems to make the bees change their minds about leaving.

This year I was determined to avoid another swarm situation, but determination was not enough. The swarming instinct is strong. Once it’s kicked in, it can be hard to persuade the bees to change their minds. Fortunately, my bees seem to have found a new first-stage swarming spot on the allotment behind me. Even more fortunately, Walter, my plot neighbour, loves them.

This is part one of the swarming story for 2021.

I met the first swarm on a warm sunny Sunday morning at the end of May, after several weeks of poor weather. I’d just arrived at the plot when Walter called for me. There was a cluster of bees, up the side of a fence post, and extending out onto the lower branches of a tree. Here it was, my first swarm of the year.

I did what most newbie beekeepers do and panicked. Mentor Patrick was having a cup of tea, Sunday morning style, but in the best mentoring fashion, was soon driving down the allotment road, booted, suited and ready to go. He loves bees!

Walter was fascinated. He said they’d arrived the day before. He’d filmed them and posted the clip onto Facebook.

He knew the queen was in the cluster, and that the bees would follow her, so was watching our every move with interest. Patrick cut back some branches and sprayed the cluster with water to help them bond together, before laying a white sheet out on the ground while I fetched a nuc to catch them in.

The nuc was my first mistake. It was too heavy. The roof was a tight fit and the floor separate so, like all things in beekeeping, I learned by doing that a lighter box with an integral floor was a better option. In the role of assistant, I held the box as best I could under the base of the cluster, as Patrick tapped the branch and down it fell., covering me in bees. Patrick flipped the box over, stood it on the sheet and propped one end up so the other bees could walk in and join their queen. At least, that was the theory.

You know when you get a bee on the outside of your veil, and for a moment it looks like it’s on the inside?

It took me a moment to realise it wasn’t an illusion. The bee really was inside. When the cluster fell and covered me, there must have been the tiniest of gaps somewhere and this bee had found it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bothered but I decided the best option was for us to part company.

Immediately!

Meanwhile, the bees continued to find their way into the box.

Patrick was full of swarm-catcher tricks such as having a queen bee suspended in a jar of pure alcohol and lemongrass so he could transfer her pheromones onto the swarm box.

After a while, we noticed the bees were reclustering on a branch above the original swarm spot. This could have been a sign we didn’t have the queen, but as the bees were walking into the box, it might have been some stragglers who’d detected a smell of her. Maybe she’d rested on that branch during the initial flight.  Patrick brushed them in with a feather saying he preferred feathers because bees can get caught in the hairs of a bee brush and they don’t like it. The last thing you want is to upset a bee, especially a calm, happy one.

We also smoked the tree as this can disguise any lingering queen pheromones. Some beekeepers suggest using a deodorant spray or air freshener, but smoke feels more natural and, as you’re likely to have your smoker with you, it’s one less thing to carry in your swarm kit.

Finally, there were more bees in the box than were buzzing around, so Patrick wrapped it up in the sheet and carried it back to my allotment. As it was hot and sunny, we put it in the shade by the side of the shed, and I returned that evening to transfer them into their new forever home.

I got everything prepared, unwrapped the sheet, opened the lid and – nothing. The box was empty. I don’t know how they got out. I’d been working in the apiary later that day and saw no sign of escapees, plus the entrance was shut. However they’d done it, they were gone. I’d lost my swarm.

It had been a textbook collection. The cluster was reachable and close by. My plot neighbours were delighted to see the bees up close, and collecting them had gone well, but I’d lost them all.

Bees swarm in two stages. The first is where the queen and her attendants leave the hive and gather somewhere relatively close by, while scout bees determine their final destination. The colony then agrees on their new home and during the second stage, they fly off. The whole process from hive to new home can take several days.

Where they went, I’ll never know but the act of collecting them had been a new learning experience. This was useful because the following week, I received a call from Walter to say another cluster was forming, this time on one of his apple trees. I booted and suited up on my own, ready to go solo collecting for the first time.

The sex life of flowers

forget-me-not flowers ‘tell’ bees about the amount of pollen they have by changing colour

The weather this April and May has been dire, both for bees and the early flowering plants they rely on for food. It’s the end of May and I’m still feeding my hives. The nucs are getting 1:1 syrup while the colonies are chomping through the last of the fondant. Pollen and nectar are not as plentiful as they should be and the bees are hungry. I’m trying to prevent them from starving to death.

Bees building comb up through the crown board and into the fondant box

Last year was a steep learning curve. This year continues to pose challenges. My primary aim was to prevent another swarm so as soon as swarm cells appeared, I started to make splits. Bad weather is not conducive to virgin queens having successful mating flights and there’s only a narrow window for this to take place.

It needs good weather and time to open up a hive and spot eggs in the cells

I have four nucs with open queen cells, which suggest hatching has taken place but haven’t been able to take a good look inside so can’t confirm the presence of eggs or larvae. These would indicate the new queen is up and laying. It’s also been too cold and wet most days for the foraging bees to venture out and the unseasonable weather is affecting the availability of pollen and nectar. I’m crossing my fingers the predicted spell of good weather in June will help restore the balance.

The situation means I’ve had to take a closer look at the production of pollen and nectar. Like almost everything to do with beekeeping, I knew less than I thought I did. It’s been a useful opportunity to do some background research about the sex life of flowers.

Bees need pollen for protein. It’s collected and stored in pollen ‘baskets’ (corbicula) on the bees hind legs. When a foraging bee finds a good source of pollen, it returns to the hive and performs the ”waggle dance’. This shows other bees how far to travel, and in which direction to go.

I bought a selfie stick and the photo above shows a bee returning to the hive with a basket of pollen, its body drenched in golden pollen grains. The photo below shows some of the cells where the pollen baskets have been dropped off. They’re waiting to be mixed with saliva and honey to make pollen-bread for feeding bee larvae.

Different coloured pollen at different stages in the pollen-bread production process.

Nectar is the bee’s source of carbohydrate. They have a tongue like a straw which allows the foragers to suck nectar up and out of flowers, before storing it in a stomach sac called the crop.

Back at the hive, some of this nectar is used as food for young bees and the rest is put into cells for future stores. Nectar is easy to spot as the light usually reflects on it. The water content of nectar has to be evaporated so it thickens into what we call honey. it’s passed around from mouth to mouth and the bees also create a breeze by ‘fanning’ their wings. A beekeeper will use a refractometer to determine when the moisture content is between 16-18%. This is the optimum measurement for preventing fermentation once the cells are capped with wax.

Store cells showing both different coloured pollen and liquid nectar with light reflecting on its surface. 

Bees need pollen and nectar, but the plants themselves are dependent on insect pollinators like bees for fertilisation to ensure the reproduction of seeds. Plants have male and female anatomies; the Stamen’s Filament and Anther are the pollen-producing and storage parts, with the Pistil containing the Ovaries.

Parts of a flower from the Open University free online Open Learn course UK Pollinators https://www.open.edu/openlearncreate/course/view.php?id=5143 

Different flowers store nectar in different places, some being easier to reach than others. The length of the pollinator’s tongue determines which flowers they prefer. For example honeybees like open, flat petals where the pollen and nectar are easy to access, such as Poached Egg Plant, Calendula and Cosmos. Bumblebees have longer tongues so find it easier to reach into flowers like honeysuckle, foxgloves and snapdragons.

Forget-me-not flowers showing different coloured central rings

Pollen is generally easier to access than nectar. In many species, it brushes on and off the insect bodies as they fly from one flower to another. Some plants, such as the forget-me-not, change colour to signify their available pollen levels, as shown on the inner rings in the photo above.

Pollen comes in a fantastic range of shapes, colours and sizes. Seeing it magnified always reminds me of grains of sand on the beach.

Grains of sand (left) and pollen (right) magnified

The scientific term is Palynology, while Melissopalynology is the more specific study of pollen in honey. You might find more different types of pollen in an average jar of allotment or orchard honey than you’d expect. The National Honey Monitoring Scheme will tell you what’s in your honey. A beekeeping friend keeps bees on his allotment and the data he received from them is amazing.

Data from the National Honey Monitoring Scheme

I’d expect to see brambles and dandelions but was surprised at there being so many vegetables on the list, in particular turnip, and cabbage, but this is exactly what beekeeping has been like for me; one long and continual journey of discovery.

out of the strong came forth sweetness

Lyle’s Golden Syrup brings all my life interests together. It’s not about the sweet sticky stuff though. For as long as I can remember, the image of a dead lion, bees pouring out of its body, has fascinated me. Why was it dead? Where did the bees come from? What did it mean?

No one could answer my questions and the words underneath the picture made nothing clearer. Out of the strong, came forth sweetness.

I’d seen dead animals in the woods; fox, badger, rabbit. The only creatures to come out of them were maggots. A corpse discharging a swarm of bees made no sense to my six-year-old self. It remained a solitary interest. We weren’t a Britannica home. There was no library and this was long before the internet.The Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Recently, researching ritual in ancient Greece, I came across the term Bugonia, the emergence of bees from a dead animal. Memories of golden syrup were triggered. A few more clicks and I discovered the motto connects to the biblical Book of Judges where Samson killed a lion, and later discovered a swarm of bees had colonised the carcass. Long story! Detailed explanation here.

Samuel poses a riddle which, depending on the translation, goes something like this:

Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet.

The answer is honey. Sweet to eat, while a lion is both the eater and something strong. Problem solved.

Only it didn’t stop there. While this remains the common explanation for Abram Lyle’s tin design back in 1885, the relationship between bees and dead animals has older and deeper roots.

Bees and humans go back a long way. A cave painting in mid-eastern Spain shows the collection of honey over 8000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians left numerous stone references to honeybees in their tombs and temples, while beeswax was a treasured commodity in the old China of emperors and royal dynasties. It seems the relationship between humans, bees and honey is universal. You don’t have to scratch local history or culture very deep to find a reference.

Bees also appear in a number of ancient Greek myths. Aristaeus was the god accredited with introducing beekeeping, and poet Theocritus tells the story (in Idyll XIX) of how Aphrodite‘s son Eros was stung after stealing honey. The incident, alongside his mother’s less than sympathetic response, was later shown by Cranach the Elder in his painting Cupid complaining to Venus (c.1526-27).

Greek sky god, Zeus had an early relationship with bees.  Each time his mother Rhea gave birth, father Chronus ate the babe but when Zeus was born, Rhea tricked Chronus with a swaddled stone. Tiny Zeus was taken to a cave on Mount Ida, where a group of nymphs, led by Melissa, fed him goats milk and honey. When Chronus discovered the deception, he punished Melissa by turning her into an earthworm. The adult Zeus, realising what had happened, transformed Melissa into a honeybee. Stone bas-relief showing Rhea deceiving Chronus with swaddled stone (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Bees were connected to Apollo and Artemis but – leaving the best till last – one particular story has close connections to Mr Lyle’s tin. It involves Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvest, probably best known for losing her daughter Persephone to Hades, god of the underworld. For six months of the year, Hades allowed Persephone to return to Demeter, but for the other half of the year, she was confined to hell, thereby explaining the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.


Hades abducting Persephone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622)

Demeter was a powerful goddess with her own temples and rites, and initiation into her cult was always a closely guarded secret.

Once upon a time, there was an elderly priestess called Melissa. She had been initiated by Demeter herself and, as rumour of the connection between mortal and goddess began to spread, Melissa was put under pressure to reveal details. Refusing to speak, the new priestess was attacked, and eventually torn to pieces. Furious to hear what had happened, Demeter sent a swarm of plague-carrying bees. They burst out from Melissa’s dead body, carrying Demeter’s revenge on all who had dared to harm one of her own priestesses.

There may be other examples, but this is the oldest story I’ve found so far with connections to golden syrup. The same image and motto was used for Lyle’s black treacle, launched later in 1950, a continual use of design which has been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest branding and packaging in the world.

To finish with, here’s a moment of slow-motion bees. It was taken using a camera phone with a macro lens, which shows high-end professional gear is not always necessary to capture the beauty and grace of bees at work.


If you want more, here’s 11 minutes of similar footage by beekeeper Frederick Dunn from his YouTube Channel.



The next post will look at beekeeping in Medieval times, and how this in some of the illuminated manuscripts of the period.


On Archetypes and Poetry

image showing coffee beans and musical notation
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/assembly-coffee-aroma-mood-figure-1001158/

Sometimes I think an archetype is another word for poem.

Successful poems have resonance. The reader ‘feels’ something which connects them to the words on the page or spoken poetry. This can be a similar reaction to the idea of universal archetypes, in particular the way Carl Jung described them.

Archetype comes from the ancient greek for original pattern and Jung identified 12 universal images and symbols found in cross-cultural myths, legends and fairy tales. The twelve are Ruler, Creator/Artist, Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Rebel, Hero, Wizard, Jester, Everyman, Lover, Caregiver. They represent instinctive understandings and recognition.

image showing a full moon in the mountains
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/painting-knight-night-oil-paints-3995999/

Poems work when they tap into something inside of us. A poem can shock or surprise, or simply resonate on an individual level. It might remind us of an experience or someone we once knew, and until that moment, the recognition may have existed unconsciously, only rising to the surface in response to stimuli. When this happens the effect can be powerful.

Jung proposed the deeper part of the psyche had two layers of unconsciousness, the personal and the collective. The personal unconscious was a unique collection of personal experiences, while the collective unconscious contained the archetypes, a set of universal emotions surrounding the characteristics of, for example, mother, child, trickster or expectations around life events such as birth and death.

Today. much has been written about the social construction of reality and how individuals are products of their environment. However, I think most people are aware of experiences which suggest something deeper may be going on. For example, seeing a bonfire at night, a full moon or the sound, sight, and smell of the sea, often seem to tap into something primeval and universal which can’t always be easily explained.

image showing a fire at night beside a river
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/bonfire%20at%20night/

A successful poem can have a similar effect. It touches us but we’re not always sure why while suggesting a link between poetry and archetypes also raises the often asked question – what is a poem?

This week, I read poet Wendy Pratt’s reflections on the writing of her new collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse. Wendy shares some thoughts on poetry as a process of trying ‘to locate the thing that is beneath the words‘. This sounds to me a bit like another way of saying there could be a relationship between the poem and universal concepts such as archetypes.

image showing the front cover of Wendy Pratt's new book When I think of my body as a horse

Wendy describes poetry as a ‘translative process’ and writing a poem involves trying to

‘…locate the thing that is beneath the words….poetry is the thing that emerges from between the lines, from between the thoughts that are created out of a need to define or rationalise life.

We need creativity to ‘manage our thoughts, we need that translative device to make sense of the instinctive animal part of us which sits below the higher thinking, problem-solving part of us. Poetry, then, sees the animal that is the instinct beneath the skin that is higher thinking self, it sees the truth beneath the words, the truth of ourselves. That’s how I see it.’

Reading this reminded me of a piece I wrote about the nature of poetry several years ago, which used the analogy of Avicenna’s thought experiment known as the Floating Man. This imagines human existence beyond the senses. The person floating in air is disconnected from touch, hear, taste or smell but still has consciousness. For me at that time, a poem which achieved resonance spoke of universal experiences. I aligned this with the concept of floating and being forced into the different type of awareness. This comes when we’re removed from the crutch of day-to-day reality, to be jolted into the recognition of something we didn’t see coming.

image showing a man in a parachute flowing in the air
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/floating%20man/

I also included a connection to the oral tradition of poetry, such as Homer, which tended to be fluid rather than fixed. Every time the Iliad and the Odyssey were told there were changes in style and detail, but the core message always survived. I suggested this idea of an unchanging core lay at the heart of poetry today, when it speaks of the universal aspects of life which readers recognise and identify with. Compared to the oral tradition, fixing a poem as text on the page is probably a damaging thing to do. The challenge for poets is to make their words light enough to float and create space where the reader can slot in their own interpretation.

Here’s a final analogy of poetry connected to beekeeping.

image showing honey bees on a frame
image showing honey bees from https://pixabay.com/photos/honey-bees-insects-hive-bee-hive-401238/

A primary form of contact between honey bees is the waggle dance.  On a bright sunny day, I watched a bee use its body to tell other bees where a good source of food could be found. The message had movement and shape and in a moment of insight, I realised the dance was usually performed in the darkness of a closed hive. These bees were using a different form of communication, a bit like poetry does.

I think we read poems in darkness. They exist as text, but the response we feel when a poem ‘works’ is something internal. It can’t be seen, only felt in the way a waggle dance exists without sight, and works using different stimuli such as vibration. To return to Wendy’s post, we need a ‘ translative process’ and maybe this is can be understood as interpreting a message received from the darkness of the subconscious where archetypes still survive.

The next post will look at how tarot cards use archetypal symbols and how their images can be a useful source of inspiration for poets and writers everywhere.

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/
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