Three square miles

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May, June, July…

The same busy little colony, gathering from the same 3 square miles.

From the crying, thermal-riding Buzzard’s view it would appear as just a tiny pocket in the rolling patchwork of textures and oft repeating patterns that weave together the dips and curves of rural Sussex. But from our bees’ perspective it perhaps represents their equivalent of a supermarket aisle, and hopefully a fully stocked one.

In the month of May, a farmer decided to grow a twelve acre carpet of oilseed rape, the bees’ quick-fix equivalent of Macky D’s…and our crabby tree was also a popular meeting place in late April. Each bee met the apple blossom of her eye, becoming almost incapable of leaving the floral feast for overloading her luggage rack with pollen and her tummy with nectar. The field began to fill with cow parsley, and the occasional cowslip, while the hedges became lined with white clouds of Blackthorn. The rich sweet honey they made has set like concrete, and wherever it’s spread it stays put, resolutely immovable until in the mouth where it melts with the texture of grainy tablet fudge.

As May slipped into the blowsy pocket of June, pink pillows of field mallow called out to passing bees to perch, rest a while and feast. In the vegetable garden pea and broad bean plants offered up their their bounty barely hidden amongst the pastel folds, and the nearby dappled cool of forest paths became lined with parades of trumpeting foxgloves. But the overwhelming flood of temptation came from the huge outcrop of Broom that offered up it sunny flanks at the top of the field… It became such a go to place that eventually all three hives made this their restaurant de jour and a daily tide of bees would rope their way to and fro, across the field. We learned to duck and dive beneath this visible highway, marvelling at their enthusiasm, and mithering at possibility of an occasional collision with an unaware human. The honey they conjured tastes like a holiday in the tropics, a gentle sea breeze, the soft fleshy fruit of a cocoa pod laid open, almost toffee…

Then came July and the honey turned the colour of straw. With the field a Jackson Pollock canvas of cheerful splashes, walking through was no longer a quiet affair. Competing with the raspy chirping of grasshoppers, the bees could be heard happy-humming from all corners, with white and pink Clover and Birds Foot Trefoil being the most popular hangouts. In the vegetable garden late flowering courgettes and pumpkins enticed scouting bees to change their dance on returning to the hive, and the hedges became rammed with bramble flower. July’s honey pours like unpastuerised cream, and tastes like a summer pudding… intensely, deeply floral.

Each jar is like a window into another time… it holds the unadulterated essence of a month of flowers. And of course, these aren’t calendar months… because flowers don’t dance to our tune and our need for organising and scheduling every minute, hour, day and month of the year. They don’t bloom for us, they bloom for the bees, gardeners in the truest sense. For the last four years I’ve been lucky enough to observe this extraordinary relationship close up. And the more I see the more I realise how fluid this alliance is, but how vulnerable too. Since caring for bees our rhythm of cutting, pruning, sowing, protecting and harvesting has changed dramatically. Everything is done with the bees’ welfare in mind. What would make the bees (and by extension all pollinators) happy.

I suppose taking a little of their honey could be seen as just rewards for ensuring they’ve a full and varied aisle to gather from. But in truth it still feels a little like robbery. As such we only take enough to enjoy for ourselves… and if there’s any spare I give it away. I’m often asked if I sell my honey to ‘the public’. I don’t think I could. Honey should be seen as unique and of inestimable value. The minute it has a price tag, it makes the work of the bees a commodity. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were rated as highly as oil or gas, but sadly for all the newsworthy rallying that goes on in efforts to ‘save the bee’ we’re still a long way from that. I would rather it didn’t have a commercial value… to give it to friends feels good though… the lady with hay fever at the post office, the phlobotemist who patiently waited while I did star jumps to get the blood pumping, the friend who’s three little boys value their pots as we might in possession of the winning lottery ticket, the dear friend who grows things to find peace and joy and understands the rhythm of such things.

These moments sit well in my heart.

As August gathers pace and Summer begins to fade, the bees are now gathering up the last of the nectar and pollen to store in their larders and sustain them through the cooler, darker months. The 3 square miles of foraging becomes a little emptier, but the flowers have been pollinated and with a fair winter, the larder will be full again, come Spring.