It came as a bit of a shock to find that a swarm of honeybees had set up home in the top of one of our compost bins which clearly provided ideal conditions: at least 15 litres of space, well protected from the elements, warm, and not infested with ants. Whilst we value bees, and garden to encourage them, we didn’t actually want any of our own, and so while the bees were apparently pretty happy, we were not. However, a call to the Wiltshire Beekeepers Association did the trick, and the next day saw the bees off to a good home, leaving us with a palm-size honeycomb slightly oozing our very own honey.
In truth, the honey was rather bland, but then the bees had hardly started before they were interrupted, so it doesn’t do to be ungrateful. And anyway, as Emily Dickinson noted …
The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Had we wanted to keep the bees, the timing would probably have been propitious, if this old beekeeping proverb is anything to go by …
A swarm of bees in May
is worth a cow and a bottle of hay.
A swarm of bees in June
is worth a silver spoon.
But a swarm in July – just let them fly.
Although July is still warm (sometimes), it seems there’s no longer enough nectar and pollen around for a new colony to make honey.
John Clare published his Shepherd’s Calendar in 1827. It contains 12 long poems, each about country life month by month, and the shepherd’s part in this. June begins …
NOW Summer is in flower, and Nature’s hum
Is never silent round her bounteous bloom;
Insects, as small as dust, have never done
With glitt’ring dance, and reeling in the sun;
And green wood-fly, and blossom-haunting bee,
Are never weary of their melody.
Round field and hedge, flowers in full glory twine,
Large bind-weed bells, wild hop, and streak’d woodbine,
That lift athirst their slender throated flowers,
Agape for dew-falls, and for honey showers;
These o’er each bush in sweet disorder run,
And spread their wild hues to the sultry sun.
The shepherd’s leisure hours are over now;
No more he loiters ’neath the hedge-row bough,
On shadow-pillowed banks and lolling stile;
The wilds must lose their summer friend awhile.
With whistle, barking dogs, and chiding scold,
He drives the bleating sheep from fallow fold
To wash-pools, where the willow shadows lean,
Dashing them in, their stained coats to clean;
Then, on the sunny sward, when dry again,
He brings them homeward to the clipping pen
Of hurdles form’d, where elm or sycamore
Shut out the sun – or to some threshing-floor.
Summers never seem to me as wonderful as Clare describes them, though everything he writes about is still hereabouts, if you look for it. However, whilst the essentials of shepherding remain, the society within which it was embedded has long gone.