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The darling buzz of May

Spring, when the earth tilts closer to the sun, runs a strict timetable of flowers. “The first ones out are snowdrops and crocuses, then you move into celandines in March. In April you’ve got dandelions, then all the tree blossom starting. Obviously there’ll be apples but right now it’s blackthorn and plums, then holly and laurel and sycamore . . .” (This is the bee-keeper speaking. All those flowers, with their distinct characters, are sampled by his bees and recorded in honey.)

“Late summer is bramble and clover, which makes a light-coloured, low viscosity honey. But the spring honey is darker and thicker. I prefer it . . .” A spring is the starting place of a river. It’s a quick convulsive movement. It’s a coil that, when stretched, jumps back to its original position. It’s a high tide, a dance on the bagpipes, a waxing moon, a trap, a twig, a joint of pork, a leak, a hawser.

When you step outside in March and think “spring”, all those minor meanings haunt the word, so that everything suffers a shade of something else: the flowers are spirally constructed, like interlocking springs, the leaves leak out like drips trickling off a branch, crops come up like a rising wave. You might be standing at the door describing all these things but if someone put a spoonful of honey in your mouth, you’d stop talking and taste the word exactly.

“But the farmers will keep planting these huge fields of oilseed rape. I’ve just noticed it’s coming into flower the other side of Cornworthy. It’s a good producer of nectar and the bees almost overfly other flowers to taste it. The trouble is the honey it produces is bland and it crystallises too quickly, plus it has an oily texture. The only hope is if the fields flower early enough then the bees will use it for raising their brood and the flavour won’t dominate the honey.”

Do beehive

The bee-keeper, working in his garage in the rain, is the servant of ten queens. By the end of May, each queen could be the mother of about 50,000 children and if the weather’s bad, they’ll need to be drip-fed with sugar solution. Equipment must be washed, new bedrooms built.

There are five hives in his orchard and five in the woodland above. Spring, for him, means hard work. “Starting now in April, I’ll inspect every colony every week. I’ll give them a waft of smoke, then open the hive and have a look at where the bees are. I get right down into the bottom. I take the frames out and make sure the queen’s laying properly and also see if there’s any sign of swarming.

“There’s a sense of however prepared you are, you suddenly find yourself trying to catch up, because things go so quickly in the bee world. Even back in February, the weather might be horrible outside but, inside, the bees are going for it. The queens are starting to lay eggs, ready for when the blossom comes out, because if spring comes and the bees haven’t started expanding, they’re going to miss it . . .”

This particular spring is a rainy one. The nectar is being washed off the flowers and the bees are stuck indoors like bored children. But if he keeps them fed, there’ll come a morning when they’ll set to work again, plugging their equipment into the lime trees, so that it sounds like an engine when you walk under them.

“Yes, I’ve heard that with the sycamore. I’ve been walking up from the orchard to the house and I heard what I thought was an aircraft but it was just the noise of them working in the florets, the whole tree was buzzing . . .”

With particular thanks to Bob Bowles

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis