A Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the Needs of the Many

Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the
Needs of the Many

As regular readers will know, I am the proud keeper of four hives of
honey bees. I studied bee-keeping at school;  because I refused to do
needlework or cookery and wanted to do woodwork or metalwork, the school compromised and allowed me to do rural science instead. That afternoon lesson was the saviour of my third year at high school,
because I could enjoy doing something practical, and I loved working
with the bees. My husband does a lot more with the bees, being more
confident than I, but usually our weekly bee inspection is split
between the two of us. One smokes while the other inspects frames and then we swap over.

This week we did our usual routine, and this morning, on the stairs I
spotted a stowaway. One of the bees had come home with us. Now, our hives are over three miles away and clearly this was one tired and
disorientated bee. I put her in a jar with a blob of honey and left
her to feed. When I came back, she’d nearly drowned in the honey so I had to rescue her with a pen she clung to. Some hours later, she’d
cleaned all the honey off herself and was ready to go home. I put her
in my water bottle with the cap on loosely so air could get in and
she’s gone off with my husband to be dropped off at the farm on his
way somewhere else.

Now I can hear what some of you are saying. All that fuss for one bloody bee? I know. Every time we open a hive for inspection we kill a few bees no matter how careful we are; a hive at full strength has over fifty thousand bees in various stages of their bee careers, and there are casualties all the time. We even managed to kill one queen, so some of yesterday’s work was reducing the thirty or so queen cells
the bees had produced down to one good one so we didn’t end up with lots of new queens each flying off with a retinue, taking our hive
down to nothing. It hurt me to destroy those half made queens but for the sake of keeping a healthy colony thriving, it had to be done.

Bees are the ultimate social creature; theirs is an almost perfect
society. Each worker is born knowing what to do; the first thing they
do when they hatch is clean out their cell so it is ready for the
queen to lay another egg in. They go through various stages as they
live, starting out working in the nurseries first, tending to eggs
and grubs, then making wax and building cells, then finally going out
to forage for nectar and pollen. A worker bee in her days as a
forager might make a scant teaspoonful of honey. One bee makes little or no difference; it’s the sheer numbers that make them successful. A solitary honey bee is a lonely thing; she is lost without her sisters and her function. The chances are they will not even notice her missing. And yet, I grieve for every bee I accidentally kill, for
those that have stung me and will therefore die (fact: human skin is
the only skin that bees cannot withdraw their sting from. Bears and
badgers can be stung repeatedly without ill effect to the bees;
humans cause the stinger to die, ripped more or less in half)

There are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet. Seven billion individuals. It’s an astonishing figure. Imagine: that many people all with needs and wants and thoughts and feelings and dreams. Some are starving to death, others dying of diseases caused by excess. Each and every one has the same value as another, and yet, when tens of thousands die half way across the world, we cannot
comprehend it. It takes a single human interest story to engage us;
we cannot relate to thousands, or even hundreds. We can barely relate one-to-one.

The gift of that single bee I found on my stairs is to remind me that
each is precious and worth saving, and that if I make no effort at
all with one, I cannot hope to care for thousands. It might make me a
slow bee-keeper, unfocussed on harvesting the golden glory of the
bee-people’s hard labour, but I think it might make me a better human being.  




I posted this also at The Wild Sheep Society  

Make of it what you will.




Once upon a time there was a flock of rather wonderful sheep who lived in the lowlands. Each sheep was quite distinct from each other so that while they were all sheep, they all had their own special qualities. One quality they are shared was the desire to win at the annual agricultural show, and come home with a nice big ribbon rosette.

“How can we make ourselves into perfect sheep?” they asked each other.

They spent a lot of time wondering about this and it occurred to one sheep in particular that they ought to ask those sheep who had come back with rosettes what they had done to make themselves the ideal that the judges sought.

So this little sheep wandered round the flock until he began to realise that there wasn’t a single member of the flock who wore a rosette any more.

“Oh they don’t let us keep them,” said an older friend. “We might lose them or get them dirty. All the rosettes are on the wall in the shepherd’s cottage.”

“Well, then who of the flock has won a rosette so I can ask them,” said our little sheep.

The older sheep smiled at the little sheep’s naivety.

“Bless your heart, they don’t stay on in the flock once they have won,” he said. “They move on to bigger and better things.”

“But where?” persisted out sheep. “And what do they do?”

The older sheep could give no answers, so the little sheep decided that he would investigate for himself.

One night, after moonrise, he slipped through the gap in the hedge and went to the cottage where their shepherd lived. The shepherd had fallen asleep in his chair and the little sheep could see all the rosettes and certificates on the wall, so he pushed quietly through the door and went inside. Along with the rows of rosettes and certificates, there were newspaper articles too. Now, as I have said before, these sheep were rather wonderful and could read. One article caught the little sheep’s eye and it said,

“Our gold standard for sheep is a thick even textured fleece, free from parasites and burrs and well washed in running water, evenly distributed fat(which comes as a result of grazing on good lush grass and feed supplements in the colder months), neat well trimmed feet, clear bright eyes , a tail of no less than three inches in length…..”

Being a clever sheep, he had the whole list of specifications and recommendations memorised in a trice and he ran back to the flock bursting to tell them all the information that would make them all prize winners.

The secret to being a perfect sheep went round the whole flock in less than a day and each sheep concentrated on perfecting their physical form and appearance. Hours were spent nibbling hooves to trim away excess horn and each sheep competed to find the best patches of clover and lush grasses. They would ask questions like, “Is my rear fat spread evenly enough? Should I graze a few more hours a day?” and of course, they all began lying to each other. After all, there were only so many rosettes awarded each show. “Yes, darling, you are looking perfect already.” “I’d vote for you if I were one of the judges!”

The little sheep spent as much time as anybody at first trying to perfect himself but a growing sense of unease began to keep him from concentrating too hard on his self improvement. What was it all for, really? The winners went away and never came back. He didn’t want to lose his friends and family and all he’d ever known if what he might be going to wasn’t massively better than what he had here.

So he resolved to go and have another look around the shepherd’s cottage to see what he might find out about where the winners went and what they were doing now. Under the gap in the hedge again (getting harder because he was now fatter) and into the cottage. In the kitchen, remains of dinner were left out on the counter and his eye was caught by the picture of a sheep on a box. Rearing with some difficulty onto his hind legs, he looked more closely at the box:

“Premium Shepherd’s Pie,”the box announced. “Made only with the very best cuts of prize winning lamb meat, from grass-fed rare breeds. Only the best for your dining pleasure.”

Despite his woolly coat our little sheep went cold with utter horror.

“They’re going to EAT us!” he whispered. “The prize winners get eaten!”

Then he noticed the picture on the tin left empty on the counter. It was a tin of dog food for the jolly border collie who herded them from time to time. It too had a picture of a nice fat sheep on it.

“Best cuts of lamb mixed with spring vegetables and rice, keep your dog at peak form” the tin read.

Very, very quietly the young sheep got down and crept away from the cottage and back to the flock., to tell them what fate awaited those who achieved the standards he himself had set them all aiming at.

But his words fell on deaf and even scathing ears. No one believed him.

“Eat us? Don’t be so silly? Why would they do that? They spent a lot of time looking after us. Why would they eat us when there’s so much wonderful grass and vegetables to eat?”

Horrified at what he had done and very frightened for the future as the show was coming close, the sheep sat down in a corner of the field and tried to think what to do. No one would believe him, no matter what he said. They were all so focussed on coming back(briefly) with a rosette that they never once thought what might happen afterwards.

So one last time, he slipped through the gap in the hedge. It was a terribly tight fit now and he felt sure that he’d never fit back through, and he left great white gobbets of his own fleece caught in the thorns and twigs. And he ran for the highlands.



The young lambs were playing happily in the spring sunshine while their mothers snoozed or ate the new grass. As they came close to the hedge a voice whispered to the nearest lamb,

“Hey kid!”

Despite the fact that he was a lamb and not a kid, the youngster was curious and came closer. Through a gap in the hedge a strange face appeared. It was a sheep but like no sheep he’d ever seen. Lean and muscular, his fleece roughly shorn and with eyes brighter than any of the flock’s, the strange sheep was oddly compelling.

“You’re a wild sheep,” said the lamb, awed.

“I used to be tame like you,” said the strange sheep. “I used to live here. Now I live in the highlands.”

“What do you want?” asked the lamb.

“You need to hear something very important,” said the sheep. “You know the sheep that win prizes at the show?”

“Oh yes,” said the lamb, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “I want to be just like them when I grow up!”

The strange sheep gave a rueful smile.

“Yeah, kid, so did I,” he said. “Have you ever asked yourself where they are now?”

“No,” said the lamb.

“Then I’ve got some bad news and some good news,” said the strange sheep.