You might imagine beekeeping to be a peaceable activity - a pleasant, bucolic pastime suitable for retired philosophers and poets. Not so. It's a cutthroat business full of heartbreak, rivalries, ambition and despair. I know this because my husband is a part-time beekeeper, and next week is the honey competition at the Royal Winter Fair.
The Bee Boyz, as they call themselves (they think the "z" gives them a certain youthful edginess), run a vast honey co-op consisting of four hives. For the past few years they have been clawing their way up in the honey hierarchy. The first year they entered the honey contest, they finished ninth. That was good enough to get a ribbon, which they took turns wearing, and to light a fire to their unquenchable ambitions. The second year they finished eighth. Last year they soared to fifth. They insist they were robbed. This year, they're going for gold.
Beekeeping is the ideal form of animal husbandry for part-time amateurs. Unlike, say, cows, or even chickens or hamsters, bees can pretty much look after themselves. They don't smell, or take up too much room. If they should succumb to some mysterious plague, they are not expensive to replace. The operating costs are low, and the returns are delicious. Best of all, apiculture is not particularly complicated. The basics haven't really changed since 8000 BC.
Last year the co-op did invest in a new centrifuge, a low-tech contraption that whirls the honey from the combs. The centrifuge is set up in a shed, where the Boyz like to sit around and plot their strategy. Dressed up in their bee suits, they look like a nuclear decontamination squad. Sometimes they get stung, but they bravely insist they don't mind, even when their necks swell up like a balloon and they faint from shock and have to be jabbed with an EpiPen and rushed to the nearest hospital. Secretly, I think, they're proud of getting stung. It allows them to act stoic, to demonstrate that they are able to bear discomfort without a whimper. One day my husband pulled a stinger out of his cheek and explained that the act of stinging eviscerates the bee. He dangled the stinger in front of my nose. There was a tiny blob on the end of it. "See?" he said. "That's its abdomen."
Everyone's been worried about the bee blight, but in our neighbourhood the bees are doing fine. The Boyz's big worry this year was whether the new queen would catch on. Thankfully, she did. Last spring she ventured out on her first (and only) voyage, had sex with 10 or 12 lucky suitors (who instantly dropped dead), then flew back to the hive to spend the rest of her life laying eggs. It seems like a high price to pay for a fleeting bit of pleasure, but no one ever said Nature was benign.
In fact it's been a tough season in the country. The drought hit everybody hard. People's wells ran dry and potato crops withered in the sun. The pastures turned to straw. Our pond sank and our pet duck disappeared, much to my relief. She was scenic but messy, and the pond wasn't really big enough for the three of us. We felt slightly guilty at her no doubt ghastly fate. But you can't be too sentimental about these things. Sex, violence and untimely death are just facts of country life.
My husband is constantly trying to improve on Nature, in defiance of all the odds. For several years he has fruitlessly laboured on a meadow-enhancement project, transplanting countless grasses, wildflowers, fruit trees and shrubs into our field of impenetrable clay. So far the survival rate is around 1 per cent. But he refuses to give up. In the summer of the record drought, he decided to transplant another 500 wildflowers, which he had purchased the year before and toughened up in a nursery bed he'd made. So he dug 500 holes in the rock-hard dirt, filled them up with high-class dirt, placed the plants and watered them in. They shrivelled up and died in a matter of hours.
The giant-pumpkin project fared just about the same. By last week, after a summer of faithful watering and the application of 100 pounds of manure, we had produced a pumpkin the size of a golf ball. If only the Royal Winter Fair had a miniature-pumpkin competition, we'd win.
So you can see why my husband has so much riding on the bees. Nothing else is coming through for him.
This fall, despite the drought, the bees produced a record harvest of honey. The Boyz have no idea why, but they are bragging as if they'd done all the work themselves. They centrifuged and strained the honey, and now we have a zillion bottles of the stuff. My husband goes around with a few bottles stuffed in his computer bag, in case he runs into people who might like some. They make great hostess gifts. People always say they love it, but you never know. Recently we dropped in on some friends, and I noticed that they had several bottles lined up on a shelf, untouched. We felt hurt.
But the real test is what the judges think. The honey competition is next week, and the Boyz are psyched. They know that superb flavour by itself is not enough to win. They have to score high on the technicalities, too. They have consulted experts and borrowed special equipment to measure the moisture content, the viscosity and the colour. They have triple-filtered it and let it rest to get all the bubbles out. They have left exactly the right amount of space between the honey and the lid of the jar. They even considered offering a certain emolument to the judges, but they decided that's beneath them. They know they can win this thing fair and square.