Apiary apprentice from Addiscombe who gets a buzz from work

Croydon resident SUSAN OLIVER is a beekeeper and believes that the process, rather than the product, is the thing

Tending for bee hives assists local gardeners, allotment holders and farmers who own orchards

The cover of this year’s Thorne’s catalogue looks like a family photograph of beekeeping: Papa National Hive, Mama Rose Hive, Brother Honey Tank, Sister Suit, Lil’ Baby Nucleus and some other bits.

The photo reminds me of how much there is to the story of beekeeping; that along with the main plot of looking after the hive, several sub-plots are also going on such as swarm-prevention and collection, queen-rearing, making hives, splitting hives. There are so many varied activities to do during the year that it’s easy to forget about the main product of the hive: honey.

In fact, if you start beekeeping with a zealous concentration with honey, you quickly out-grow it. We don’t make honey nor do we instruct the bees to. How much and when the bees make honey is pretty much a crapshoot over which we have little control. Our concentration is on the bees, and we soon realise how much work, time and organisation goes into taking care of bees.

Weekly checks, ordering and building equipment, cleaning, reading, record-keeping, moving hives, looking out for disease, travelling to the apiary, discussing problems with other beekeepers, looking at the weather, as well as plenty of worrying and wringing-of-hands are some of the things we undertake – for the good part of a year.

The family of possible hives displayed on the cover of the latest Thorne catalogue, bee-keepers’ essential reading

We learn patience, humility, honesty, tenacity. If we were in it only for the honey, we probably give up because the honey usually only comes after several months of hard graft – if it comes at all.

In 2004, I was inspired by an article in The Guardian about keeping bees on roof-tops in London.  I didn’t really start keeping bees until 2008.

This is my fifth season keeping bees and now we have about 20 hives in Beckenham, Bromley and Westerham.

When I first started beekeeping, I had a strong attachment with the amount of honey we produced. I was proud of the buckets of honey in the kitchen and became somewhat peeved and disappointed during inspections when I saw that the cupboard was bare.

But over the years, I see that my obsession has gradually mellowed. “Honey? What’s that? And who cares?” I realise now that this is how beekeeping traps you in its clutches for life.

There is a kind of maturity that happens when you gradually put your focus not on the end-product of honey but on the process. You gradually fall in love with all the various tasks involved and then, ultimately, you realise that is where the ultimate value is.

We become apprentices to the bees and develop a devotion to the craft – and the satisfaction is to be found in this devotion.

This is in contrast to the consumer culture which is centred around getting things now, and willingly going into debt for it. The emphasis is on ownership rather than the devotion. The human ego wants things without the messiness and distraction of actually having to make them. There is a disdain for process; the focus is on the end-result and often about the monetary value of the result.

Susan Oliver’s hives arrayed at one of her bases near Croydon

Croydon suffered from the “getting things now” culture on the terrible night of August 8 last year, when that philosophy was fully celebrated. Here was an evening devoted to product triumphing over process – and the looters didn’t even have to go into debt. This is the price we pay when we have when our culture values getting more than doing.

Sadly, this philosophy de-values work of any sort because work is about the process. No one smashing the windows of store-fronts on George Street stopped to think about the energy that went into creating those businesses, or about the years of dedication that a family put into the Reeve’s furniture store.

By its very nature, beekeeping teaches us to respect the process first and foremost. We know we won’t get any honey (or the bees may die, swarm, become drone-laying or whatever) if we don’t respect the process. There is an integral pay-back system if we disregard our weekly tasks. Even worse, our neglect may even affect other bee-keepers if we don’t take care of an infectious disease.

It’s also interesting to think that when the focus is on the process, there is nothing to steal. Another person cannot steal the desire to beekeep. They can steal everything else but they can’t steal the sweetest part of beekeeping, which is the beekeeping itself.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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