Everyone likes Morgan Freeman. And now everyone likes him a little bit more because we learned recently that he’s turned his 124-acre Mississippi estate into a sanctuary for honeybees.
We have it in our heads that honeybees are important. And we are right. Being kind to bees is even more important than not throwing a plastic bottle into the sea, or not buying a Range Rover.
There’s an impressive documentary called The Serengeti Rules, which explains that in each tiny ecosystem there is always one keystone species. You remove the barnacles from a rock pool in the Pacific Northwest and nothing happens. It’s the same story if you remove any of the other things in there, except the starfish. If you get rid of them, pretty soon all you have left are mussels, because they are no longer prey.
The documentary-makers take us on an odyssey round the world, showing how this system works everywhere, until they end up on the Serengeti, where it turns out that every single thing owes its existence to the vast herds of wildebeest. Unless these are maintained, in huge numbers, nothing else can survive.
Which brings us back to the honeybee. If it becomes extinct, pretty soon you’ll be killing your neighbor for a half-eaten tin of cat food and licking the moss in your cellar to stay alive.
Being kind to bees is even more important than not throwing a plastic bottle into the sea, or not buying a Range Rover.
Honeybees are responsible for about $25 billion worth of American crop production a year. The bee is the cornerstone of everything. It is the planet’s keystone species. And for the past few years, in Europe, its numbers have been dropping at an alarming rate. Which is why I have stepped in and done a Morgan. I’ve decided that my farm should be bee-friendly.
That’s why there are now 150ft-wide strips of wildflowers growing in the middle of my spring barley fields. And it’s why, three weeks ago, I took delivery of a quarter of a million bees.
They were delivered by a Ukrainian man called Victor, who said I must check on them every two days. So that’s what I did. I stood about in the woods where I keep the hives, watching the bees whizzing hither and thither. And after a short while I realized I had no idea what I was looking for exactly. It was like checking my prostate. What’s normal and what’s not?
I read many books and was interested to learn that the bee that finds a large amount of nectar will return to her hive to perform a “waggle” dance that lets the other bees know which direction they should fly to find it and how far away it is.
The bees calculate how much energy they’ll use to cover that distance and therefore how much food they’ll need for the return journey with the extra weight of all that pollen in the baskets on their back legs. This, of course, is just the lady bee. The gentleman bee does nothing. He sits in the hive all day with his mates, waiting for the queen to say she fancies a shag.
If it becomes extinct, pretty soon you’ll be killing your neighbor for a half-eaten tin of cat food.
Life inside the hive is almost impossible to understand, but one thing’s for sure: these guys have a society that makes the Austrians look sloppy and disorganized. They even keep the hive at precisely 95 Fahrenheit on hot days by stationing themselves at key points in the structure and beating their wings. But not too much, as this dries the air, and they know honey can be made only if the moisture content in there is 17%.
Ah yes, honey. The superfood to beat all superfoods. Hilariously, commercial beekeepers are told by the government’s food standards people that they must put a “best before” date on their jars. My Ukrainian friend Victor is getting some labels printed that say “best before the end of days”.
But he’d still be wrong. Because honey never goes off, ever. They could have buried a rack of it with Tutankhamun and it would still be as delicious today as it was then.
I read about bees solidly for a week and worked out they were definitely the inspiration for the Borg in Star Trek. So then I had to watch that. And afterwards I realized I still didn’t know what I was supposed to be checking for on my visits to the hives.
So Victor came back to explain. Like Morgan Freeman, he doesn’t wear any protective clothing. Morgan says that if you are on the bees’ wavelength, they won’t sting you. Victor says he is stung all the time and doesn’t mind. I, meanwhile, was dressed up like Neil Armstrong.
Honey never goes off, ever. They could have buried a rack of it with Tutankhamun and it would still be as delicious today as it was then.
We opened the first hive, and I’m going to be honest: I was staggered. Weak-kneed with amazement and joy. I’d read that in its entire six-week life a bee will only make a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, and that to make 1lb it would have to travel 90,000 miles. Which is why, after just three weeks, I wasn’t expecting much.
But just the top drawer of one hive was so heavy I could barely lift it. With Victor pumping smoke into the swarm to keep it calm — I don’t understand that either — I pulled out a single frame from the drawer, or “super”, as it’s called, and there was easily 2lb of honey in there. This meant 20lb in that drawer alone. And there were four drawers and five hives. So 400lb of honey. And they’d done all that in 21 days. As well as making all the honeycomb and producing enough wax to polish the floor of a Scottish castle.
I then learned I had to examine the honeycomb for unusual developments. It turns out that this is impossible, mainly because one unusual development looks exactly the same as all the others. We were hunting for evidence that another queen was about to be born, which would cause half the colony to swarm, which is a polite way of saying “bugger off”.
I couldn’t even find the existing queen. Victor said she looked completely different from all the others, but when he located her, it turned out she wasn’t completely different at all. A Volkswagen and a pencil are completely different. She was just a bit bigger and whoa …
As I examined her, one of her workers had noticed there was a 2mm gap between the bottom of my spacesuit and the top of my shoe. It was quite literally my Achilles’ heel and she’d dived in there for a kamikaze attack.
A honeybee does not last long after she has stung something because, to get free, she has to pull her own arse off. So why had she stung me? I have no idea.
What I did know is that the scent of her poison sent the entire 250,000-strong army into a frenzy. As I hopped towards the car for cover, whimpering gently, my documentary cameraman was stung twice in the face and the director got one in the nostril. And now, three days later, I still can’t really think straight because my foot hurts so much.
It’s a price worth paying, though, partly because I’m now an eco-warrior, but also because since I started eating all the honey my bees made, I haven’t had any hay fever at all.
I’ve also learned how to stack a dishwasher properly and how to say “no” to a second glass of wine. I may wash my car later and tidy my bedroom. Resistance is futile.