The bee house

I used to keep bees.

It was my favourite hobby when I was at school.

The other day, as my mother and I were looking at old albums, I re-discovered two photos showing myself, as a teenager, in full bee-keeping gear.

The bees lived in the back of the garden, in a wooden shed painted green, with red roof tiles. We called it the bee house. It was built with an open front, like a veranda, with a long shelf for the beehives.

The shed faced south-east, for the bees to get much sunlight in early spring, when they woke up from hibernation, keen to search for nectar and pollen from the early bloomers: hazels, crocuses, and willow trees.

A bee-keeper from the village had given me some colonies and taught me what to do with them. His name was Bernd, he worked as a farmhand, and he truly loved bees. The instant he opened the lid of a beehive he would start talking to them, in a calm tender voice.

“My girls” he called them as he inspected the combs. “How have you been? Nice honey you got there.”

Bernd never wore gloves and sometimes the bees would, vexed by the intrusion, attack him and sting his hands. It did not bother him though. After decades of hard field labour, the skin on his palms and fingers was so calloused that the bees had trouble driving their stings into it.

“Come on girls, you can do it”, Bernd would tease them. They pushed and pushed, increasingly exasperated, searching for a soft spot – but to no avail. 

That was actually for their better. His callous saved their lives since the stinger of a bee is equipped with tiny barbed hooks, which are useful when fighting other insects like wasps. But in human flesh the stinger gets stuck inextricably so the bee ends up ripping out her intestines, and dies.

When I started bee-keeping, at the age of 14, I was not exactly a hard-skinned boy. Terrified of getting stung, I would wear a full protective suit, a masked hat and gloves. I looked like a snowman, all white.

A bee-keeping teenager

Once a bee somehow managed to slip under the mask and crept up my neck. In panic, I stupidly tore off the hat, only to get attacked by several bees at once who stung me all over the face. The next morning, my school mates had a good laugh as I resembled a boxer after a pub brawl.

The trick was to use a pipe, filled with special home-grown herbs, and blow the smoke into the beehive when opening it. This calmed the bees down, and they would surrender the combs without a fight. Inspecting the breeding cells and honey reservoirs would take about ten minutes each hive. If I inhaled some of the smoke myself, it took a bit longer.  

After the work was done, I would sit in the grass next to the bee house and watch the bees fly in and out.

In the spring, the returnees’ legs were laden with little lumps of pollen and their bellies so full of nectar that they often had trouble hitting the landing-pad at the hive entrance. I observed them for hours, endlessly fascinated. Sometimes I would invent dialogues between the bees.

Returning bee: “Hey ladies, I just discovered a patch of clover, just two miles from here, following the ditch.”

Bee taking off: “Why fly so far? I am going back to the dandelions around the corner – yummy!”

So on and so forth. It was an adolescent’s soliloquy dressed up as dialogue – a style that, I fear, has stuck to me ever since.

In the summer, with a bit of luck, I sometimes witnessed the absolute highlight in the bee society’s calendar: the maiden flight of the young queen bee. Around noon, she would take off with the drones, the few male bees in a colony, for a tumultuous mid-air sex orgy.

A drone, twice the size of a working bee, is basically a flying penis.

His genitals make up eighty percent of his body, at the expense of the brain and other organs. A drone does not even have a poisonous stinger. He is dumb and docile like a koala, eating all day. His sole job in life is to inseminate the queen bee, who can have up to a dozen lovers during her maiden flight.

At the end of each romp, the queen bee shows her gratitude by killing the drone. She squeezes her vagina tightly around his penis and, at ejaculation, cuts the organ off entirely and sucks it inside. What looks like a female orgasm gone too far, is actually the queen’s method to get as much semen out of the rendezvous as she possibly can. As for the drone, or what is left of it, he drops to the ground and dies – in painful bliss, I always imagined.

For bees, stinging a human and bonking a queen comes at a high price – and yet they might at times consider it worth paying, who knows.

In the autumn, I watched the so-called drone battle. Before going into hibernation, the working bees rounded up the surviving drones, useless eaters by then, and drove them from the hive. Outside, the helpless males would crawl in the grass until some blackbirds flew in to eat them. If the drones attempted to return, pleading with their sisters for mercy, the bouncer bees would sting them senseless and throw them to the birds.

Contemplating the goings-on at the bee hives over the year’s seasons, I suspect I received much of my sentimental education.

When I later graduated from school and left for university, I gave up bee-keeping. Though I returned home sometimes, I never stayed long enough to pick it up again. Other things seemed more important by then.

Ever since, the old bee house has been in decay, its wooden beams tilting forward a little more each year. Some tiles have already fallen off. Bugs and ants have moved into the hives.

I have never thought of repairing the bee house.

Maybe I should do it now.

The bee house today
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