Dan Cullen-Shute

We say 'Night Night' to our lovely bees

Dan Cullen-Shute
We say 'Night Night' to our lovely bees

Jennifer Smith, Ringmaster and PA to the Partners at Creature, arguably already has the best email signature you’ve seen in a while. Six months into the role, and it was suggested Head Beekeeper should also be added to the list. As Creature closes its beehive for the end of the honeybee season, Jennifer recollects her experience with the agency’s bees over the last half a year.

There’s no doubt about it - the bees have become one of the greatest joys of my life. As my friends and family will tell you, I’m utterly enamoured with them! And I never would’ve thought it. Although, as a kid, I used to sit in the garden and play with worms and pick up bugs, as soon as I went to primary school, I picked up the fear of insects and creepy crawlies from my classmates and never looked back! I appreciated their place in the world and my dad taught me to respect the work of bumblebees in the garden but, honestly, I never thought I’d come to love an insect, let alone a whole colony.

IMG_4844.jpg

It was in the spring, when we did the first beehive inspection of the year. Throughout winter, inspections had stopped to help the bees maintain the temperature of the hive over the cold months. Along with our experienced beekeeper, Eugene, an eager team of Creature beekeepers climbed to the roof, keen to see the bees. With a mixture of curiosity, fear and excitement, we fanned out around the rooftop, keeping an overly-cautious distance away from the hive. Eugene urged us to come forward as he prepared to open the hive. He’d asked for two volunteers, who were then stood bracing themselves, two apprehensive figures in bee suits. The trio dismantled the outer parts of the hive to reveal an inner wooden box, measuring about a foot in each dimension. I couldn’t discern a hum, as I suspected there’d be, but inside were around 15,000 honeybees.

 

As Eugene removed the lid, there wasn’t a great, solid swarm, like most of us had expected, but a loose cloud of bees soon began to buzz around the trio. The rest of us tested the distance we could stand, wanting to see as much as possible, but fearful of getting stung. The trio took it in turn to carefully lift out the inner chamber’s wooden frames, each covered thickly in bees, and Eugene talked us through what we could see. Bravely, the trio finished their task and with that, the honeybee season at Creature was once again underway.

 

Not long after moving into Curtain Road, in true Creature style - making brilliant things and having fun - the agency decided to start beekeeping. We launched our own honey brand, Amazing Stuff, and put our understanding of managing a brand into practice. As well as making a small effort in the fight against the declining honeybee population in the UK, the bees reflected what the agency wanted to be – busy little creatures making amazing stuff.

Bee Pic 8.JPG

To make sure the bees were happy and healthy, we began to do weekly hive inspections with Eugene. Eugene holds a real wealth of information about bees and it’d often become a scene of Creature “storytime” up on the rooftop as we’d learn about the world inside the hive. We’re a curious bunch and we’ve asked a lot of questions, and Eugene has never failed to give us an answer - needless to say, we would not have been able to take such good care of the bees without him.

IMG_9482.JPG

 Guided by Eugene, we learnt what to look out for in the hive. It really is an experience, lifting a frame out of the hive, covered thickly in bees and examining the structures of it. It’s remarkable how quickly the bees can transform the plain wax sheets inside the hive box, drawing out comb and starting to make use of the space for the colony. You can imagine, a frame can be surprisingly heavy to lift, with each one holding a combination of comb, eggs, larvae, thousands of bees, nectar, pollen and honey. Several of us have donned the bee suit and approached an inspection with varying levels of confidence. Although I was fascinated with the bees when I first saw them and felt ownership over them akin to how a child feels about their class pet, I waited a couple of weeks before I got into the bee suit. It was a relief to have an experienced beekeeper leading the way and Eugene has always been very calm and nurturing. He’s encouraged all of us and I’ve found his interest in bees to be very catchy. Carefully following his instructions, I dismantled the outer and inner parts of the hive. As is often the case, I had to prise open the lid to the inner chamber with a hive tool (think of it as a large, metal letter opener) as the bees usually build comb between the top of the frames and the lid. We then took turns to lift out (then re-insert) every frame, carefully inspecting the contents of both sides and noting any changes, all the while keeping a keen grip - one thing sure to rattle the bees is dropping them! We then took care to reassemble the hive, trying our best to leave it as we found it.

 

With every inspection, my confidence grew. I remember the first time I had to re-insert a frame, I was absolutely terrified of putting it down on a bee! I cautiously nudged at them, through gloved hands, and actually started asking them to move aside so I could re-insert the frame. With time, I grew to understand the temperament of the colony and was able to handle them comfortably, minimising bee casualties while replacing the frames and pushing them closer together again, reinstating the structures of their home after an inspection. Honeybees are incredibly industrious creatures and I’ve been able to witness some special moments with them, such as a bee hatching from a capped cell; a worker bee with huge packs of pollen on its hind legs, quivering and shaking amongst the others, “dancing” the location of where other foragers can find more of the pollen it has returned with; and the bees’ ability to reattach a piece of comb about the size of a blackboard rubber to a frame overnight, which had fallen off during an inspection.

IMG_0029.JPG

 At the beginning of August, we began to do hive inspections by ourselves and I went up every afternoon to water the plants as well, heading up into the world on our rooftop was the favourite part of my day.

The colony had developed to around 30,000 strong and there was a lot of activity in the hive. The queen was laying as expected, honey stores were at a good level and the colony was continuing to establish itself.  

Eugene once said the easiest way to connect with the bees was to view them as a single entity – “the colony” - rather than as thousands of individual bees. The queen bee’s pheromone, which spreads throughout the hive, gives the bees their collective personality, which I began to understand the more I saw them. On several occasions, Eugene has described them as “lovely bees”, and they are; we open the hive and they have a tame, gentle demeanour – they certainly don’t rush at us and attack! If the bees ever seem agitated or start to show signs of aggression, it’s towards the end of an inspection, roughly 10 minutes into opening the hive. They grow livelier and the sound of buzzing is thick in the air. As a healthy cloud of bees buzz around us, I understand: they’re being defensive; although we’re helping them, we’re a bit of a pest, disrupting their home, lifting frames out. Although we do our best to put everything back as we found it, I’m aware we’re shifting the delicate structures inside the hive, exposing everything to broad daylight and Shoreditch air, and we affect the temperature of the core cluster in the hive, who’ll then have to regulate the temperature back to around 35 degrees celsius. It’s amazing to me that they are so calm, and I often find myself thanking the queen bee for the colony’s nature. As of yet, I have not been stung by any of our honeybees.

 

When I’ve been in the bee suit, perhaps foolishly, I’ve felt a little invincible to the bees – having said that, I’ve heard of people who have not been so lucky, and for swift hands, some of us have been stung. The day came, when I did get a little wake-up call, though, one afternoon during an inspection, when a bee managed to get inside the veil of my suit. I was suddenly zipped in with a bee! To any person who has ever advised me to keep still around a bee, thank you! I did exactly as you said and you saved me from getting stung. With no word of a lie, as the poor bee walked across my face, I played the best game of musical statues in my life, very slowly passed the frame of bees in my hands to Eugene and started to walk very, very slowly towards the others on the rooftop to help me unzip my suit. Both the bee and I got out of the experience unscathed and after that, I felt very comfortable around the bees – on the other side of my suit!

IMG_9800.JPG

Eventually, the cooler weather returned and we had our first downpour in two months. For the first time this season, we had to delay our weekly inspection. We’d got used to opening up the hive every Thursday, but suddenly, waiting a few extra days for the weather to clear up felt like forever. It was then, I realised I could miss the bees.

Bee Pic 7.JPG

Moving into September, our bee numbers began to decline (at the height of winter, it’s estimated there’ll only be around 3,000 bees in the hive). To help them prepare for the colder months, when foraging would no longer be an option and they’d have to depend on food stored in the hive, I started to feed the bees with syrup. During the cold weather, the bees will tend not to leave the hive, and the honeybees’ activities will decrease and their main duty will be to maintain the core cluster’s temperature so they can survive until the weather warms up again, when foraging and normal life in the hive will resume.

IMG_4853.jpg

Generally speaking, I’m still not a massive fan of bugs. However, after a season with Creature’s honeybees, I’ve developed a particular soft spot for these wonderful creatures. I’ve spent a while watching them closely, and maybe it helps that they’re furry little things, and furry things tend to be able to be described as “cute”, but I do think our bees are very cute! I’m really happy I’ve had the chance to get to know them, take care of them and study their world, as well as how they fit into ours.

Last week, we did our final inspection of the season and secured the hive for winter. I know I will miss the bees. Although there’s still so much for me to understand about them, I feel like I’ve developed a really close bond with them. As I’d been discussing with Eugene, taking care of them gives you an awareness of nature, and the subtly of it, watching out for the weather and considering the ecosystem. The bees have become a source of fascination to me and I’ll be reading up on them over the coming months while I don’t get to do weekly inspections. I really, really look forward to seeing them when weekly inspections will resume in March.