Summer-drunk: on the keeping of bees and the saving of souls

beekeeping natasha kindred

To keep bees is to make a pact with yourself and the land, to discern the secret hymns of the hive, even as the colony feeds your own lost voice back to you.

Start at the moment of greatest sweetness. When the office floor is freckled with drops of runaway honey, slow-flowing from fingertips and wooden frames. When the blade is used to uncap the wax like lifting the slab on a tomb full of gold. Outside, the colony are a hurricane of hard sound, their drone edged with rage, zipping low over the hot grass. There are several collective nouns for a group of bees, a swarm, a grist, a drift. I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of addicts is; a clusterfuck, perhaps. It doesn’t matter here at the city hives, flaws in the soul float away with the smoke, the earthy smoulder of kindling leaves.

This heatwave is cracking the throat of the land, drying stream beds and blasting the lawn peroxide blonde. They say it will continue for another two weeks. We sweat inside our white suits, eyes blurred with it, backs slick with it, hands sticky in their gloves. Easier to shuck them off to remove the frames with our naked fingers, sing to the mass of humming women within and hope the melody turns aside their stings. We squint into the cells looking for brood, larvae curled up in their hexagonal beds like pearlescent ammonites. What do baby bees dream of? Pollen, maybe, drifting across the blue sky in wisps of cloudy gold. Wildflowers dipping their heads to the zephyr.

We retreat to the tiny shed to discuss the happenings of the hive like parishioners gathering round the tea urn after Mass, like nosy neighbours at the fence trying to whisper out of earshot. There is an old custom called Telling The Bees in which your hives must be told the important events of human life, with baby rattles and wedding cake and black ribbon. A polite and essential formality, even if they do already know each tremor in the domestic web, and probably long before you do. God knows, there’s nothing we say that escapes them. Today we are on a different mission, and we dart into the sanctuary of the office to escape the aerial bombardment, arms heavy with their industry.

beekeeping hive inspection

When you slice slowly through the cap, the honey flows out like lava and collects at the base of the tray. You can eat the drowned wax, just chew it like gum as you load the frames into the extractor. Turn the handle until your wrist is a line of fire, until the plastic of the bin rattles, as you roll Eden around your mouth and swallow. Eating fresh honeycomb is like eating every one of your favourite childhood summers at once; all bobbling white cotton and candied air. It is transubstantiation, it is to ingest a heavenly body. It is, fleetingly, to understand everything.

The bees are peering through the glass of the office doors. Their eyes are thousands of miraculous lenses with the fastest colour vision of any animal on earth, able to distinguish each individual flower at speed where we would just see a blur of colour as they seek out their sugar buzz. They are actually better at reacting to moving objects than they are to stationary ones as they tumble through the air, summer-drunk. This, in fact, is how I landed here in this peculiar paradise round the back of the clinic headquarters. Twenty years of tumbling, gills full of nectar, through the back streets of life. My name is Tash, and I am an addict, a handful of days a week I join my own colony in the pastel rooms of service user centres and church basements and we hum together our hard-won serenity. The eyes of addicts too are peculiar; we see in Hubble deep field, the black holes of our pupils sucking in the light and colour of microcosmic iris. We can spot another addict in an otherwise blurred group of humans. We can distinguish individual highs at speed.

beekeeping hive inspection

I’ve found a small and secret peace in many places since finally submitting to sobriety’s trial by water. In the curious limbo of my first move-on house, colourful scarves tacked over the windows, glowing in ruby and emerald cotton. In the well of silence sunk deep in my favourite church. In the cold garden of the retreat house where I pressed my fingertips into patches of springy green moss surrounded by the holy perfume of candle smoke. In long nights of deep sleep without my veins thumping fucked gunpowder all the way to the dynamite box of my brain. Here, at this living altar south of the river.

Sometimes my attempts at levitation above the seance of my old life fall flat and I remember the days without peace. I’ve led a life I figured only something brutal would fix, so I crept up on my sorrow in the dark, listening to the jingle of wasted years in her pockets, and smashed a thousand bottles right over her head. When memory swarms, I need the smoker to roll its grey magic over the sting of those days. That’s why you smoke a sting, because they release pheromones that draw more bees to the site. Neutralise it, because if you’re not careful, one bee could domino into the death of you. You don’t need me to draw you any parallels.

I wish I could drag you by the collar to that afternoon in the office. We are standing around wearing idiot grins, our lips smeared with orange silk. The treacly handles of the tea mugs have to be prised away from our fingers. The laughter is almost as bright as the day. In the coming months, the hives will go silent and slow, and we will feed them between scraping the thin bones of old frames. Beekeeping in the winter is a chilly business, swelling the knuckles with cold in place of their sharp venom. The wax will be melted and strained, melted and strained, until it’s as pure as can be. We will end up with a handful of fine candles that burn like lighthouses for the lost, standing in luminous towers smelling of heaven.

For now, the bees return grumbling to their home. Our bees are relatively calm and even-tempered. From other keepers I’ve heard affectionate horror stories as their colonies dish out tougher love, but here, as small as the tip of my finger and wiser than the sea, they are kinder doctors than me and my primitive soul surgery. They tell me their medicine doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar and not every cure must be bitter. Our suits lie like snowdrifts in the corner as someone pushes a bottle of cold water into my hand, it’s the loveliest shock in the world to a throat like a dry reed. I have to go and wash the honey from my hair or I’ll be mobbed by Our Ladies. Making my way to the sink with dancing steps, because we have managed to spill the sun all over the carpet.