Toughen up: bee disease is nothing new

Tom Hodgkinson
Tom Hodgkinson. Photo by Chris Floyd
There's no great conspiracy around bee deaths - hive diseases have been with us for millennia. No one who keeps livestock should expect an easy ride...

Protinus aerii mellis caelestia dona exsequar.
[Next I will discourse of Heaven’s gift, the honey from the skies.]
- Virgil, The Georgics

Books of advice on beekeeping go back to Virgil and beyond. The fourth book of the Georgics, his great farming poem, is devoted to bees. Honey was felt to be a magical substance that was the product of the bee’s union with the sun. The bee’s great gifts to humankind were sweetness and light: the sweetness of the honey, and the light of the candle made from beeswax. There are pages and pages on bees too in Columella’s De Re Rustica. Three centuries before them, Aristotle also wrote extensively about bees in his History of Animals.

The subject continued to fascinate through the Middle Ages when monks kept bees, and indeed every smallholding was encouraged to keep a few hives out back. Before the arrival of Messrs Tate and Lyle on the scene, honey was of course our principal source of sweetness.

Hive mentality

So when a friend offered us an unwanted hive two years ago, we leapt at the opportunity. Victoria took on the mantle of chief beekeeper, and enthusiastically threw herself into the local beekeeping scene. She went with her beekeeping group to London in her bee kit to protest against the Government’s seeming lack of investment in the world of the bee. She read dozens of books on this impossibly complex subject.

She acquired a second hive and caught a swarm. Occasionally I would enquire whether all this labour was going to lead to any honey. I was strictly reprimanded for asking such a stupid question: the bees themselves would need their honey to survive through the winter. I was beginning to wonder what the point of all this was. There seemed to be a lot of money going out on this project, but no consumable resources coming back in. At the very least, though, I knew that we were contributing to pollination.

Over the summer it was a great delight to stand next to the hive and watch the busy creatures whirling upwards towards the heavens, and to wonder at the impossibly complex scene that was going on inside the hive. Sometimes Victoria would go over to the hive with her smoker and mollify the bees so she could take a look. Once or twice she was badly stung by them. They are quite easily annoyed, and will defend their territory if they feel they are under attack. I have been chased down the lane by a little group of soldier bees, and the spectacle of our friend Alan leaping around, hands flailing around his head, as two tiny insects buzzed around him, is a memory I will cherish. Did you know that the Latin word insecto means to pursue or attack furiously? Virgil writes of the angry bee: 'Their rage is beyond measure; when hurt, they breathe poison into their bites, and fastening on the veins leave there their unseen stings and lay down their lives in the wound.'

The toll of winter

The long, cold winter came and in mid-March, spring finally arrived. It was time to check the hives. Victoria went out last week and opened them up. Every single bee was dead. There were whole masses of them clinging to the combs they had made over the previous eighteen months or so. Victoria guesses that a combination of factors conspired to kill them: the bees were weakened by the Varroa mite; they suffered from dysentery which was caused by a virus called Nosema; the cold winter meant that they were unable to go out for cleansing flights and were further weakened; they died.

Bee disease is nothing new, and one wonders in fact whether the panic of the last two years may have been out of proportion with the reality. Virgil, Columella and Aristotle all comment on the susceptibility of bees to disease. When the bees appear weary, says Virgil, you should give them honey flavoured with thyme. Columella says that you can bring bees who have suffered dystentery back to life by covering them with fig-wood ashes, and he recommends feeding them honey flavoured with rosemary. The upside of our colony collapse is that we have been able to collect about twenty pounds of the most delicious honey.

As with all aspects of husbandry, improvement is only possible over years of failures and setbacks. It ain’t easy: there is a lot more to keeping bees than just bunging a hive in the garden, just as there is a lot more to growing vegetables than bunging some seeds in the soil. Those who attempt these things need to be aware that they demand a huge amount of hard toil and learning, not to mention frequent disappointments.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler

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