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FORTY YEARS WITH THE BEES

The first encounter with my grandfather’s bees was at the age of 7 years when my mother made for me a bee suit and allowed me to assist my grandfather working on the hives. Somehow I was not afraid of buzzing insects on my veiled head, nor of the many stings that I received when bees somehow managed to get under my supposed to be beeproof attire.

Grandfather had to look after 32 logs of bee colonies. We did not know the framed hives we have now. They were already available to beekeepers in the West, but had not somehow reached Eastern Europe [Poland], where ancient pines and sequoias provided the materials for hives that lasted for generations.

The log hives were about 1½ metres high, almost a metre in diameter, hollowed inside with walls about 10-12 cm. thick – VERY HEAVY. They were kept in orchards and gardens, on huge single trees scattered in the fields and on the trees at the edge of the forests, where platforms were built on the trees to accommodate 4-5 log hives. Horses had to pull the logs to be placed onto the platform by rope. Below the platform, which was 2 metres from the ground was nailed a metal “collar” with spikes , about 20 cm. long, to prevent BEARS knocking the logs down and consuming the honey and the bees.

Harvesting honey in August was quite a procedure. One had to climb up to the platform and another person on the ground held the ladder and, with a shotgun beside, watched out for bears that, attracted by the aroma of the honey, could not resist giving a hand at the harvest

The main sources of nectar was fruit trees in the Spring, then flowering fields of buckwheat, poppies (grown for seeds), tobacco fields, blue flax flowers (grown for linseed oil and all sorts of linen material) as well as hemp – Cannabis Sativa – grown for oil and for making ropes and string for fishing nets. I don’t think that hemp was used as a recreational drug then. There were known to be some who were serving in the army of the Far East during World War One who sampled opium there, and so used to scrape the heads of poppy-seed plants to smoke with their home-grown tobacco.

To make a log hive one has to have a special chisel – a long and hard process. Grandfather did manage to make one each year to add to his collection.

The events of the Second World War made changes in peoples’ lives. Fate has thrown me, like many others, to various parts of the world and to many fronts. Our 2nd Corps was part of General Alexander’s 8th Army. On a troop carrier (the Empress of Australia) we arrived in Liverpool docks in November 1946. From there we were transported by army trucks to Norfolk where we had to wait two years to be demobilised. During that time we, “the young ones”, had a chance to finish our disrupted secondary education and take various courses. All together there were 130,000 men in uniform scattered in various parts of the country.

All the time the bee-keeping was on my mind. When demobbed it was war work, then for 30 years running my own business. In 1953 we moved to Potters Bar where my dream of working with the bees materialised. After retiring in 1989 I’ve started battling with Varroa mites and practising selective breeding to produce a healthy, better race of honey bees. It’s not all for the taste of honey. My main aim was to produce a hard working bee as a pollinator, specially because government figures claim that bees are responsible for 30% of extra crops on pollinated fields, and one colony of bees gives to the local economy £900 per annum. That’s SOMETHING! I breed my own Queens and use some imported from abroad., working to defeat the “Varroa destructor” mite, and trying to make bees self-grooming to dislodge the parasite from the bee’s body.

For the first few years I had hives at home, on a nearby farm amd in a bee-keeping resident’s garden a mile away. Then I was told about the “oasis” at Greyhound Lane. I approached the owner. They were customers of mine at my business in Whetstone. They were so nice and helpful: I’ve been there now for 26 years. It is a sheltered place, and has a micro-climate for bees foraging from early Spring to late Autumn. First in bloom are wild plums and cherries, then hawthorn and sloe, bird cherry, acacia, lime trees and blackberries. There must be several varieties as they flower for two months. Farmers get benefit on their nearby rape seed fields. It is lovely nectar, but enzymes in flowers causing liquid nectar to set (i.e. crystallise) quickly. If the beekeeper does not get out the honey within 3 days it will set hard, and, left in the hive, will provide food for the bees during the Summer.

Bees also collect nectar from the plants in local gardens. They fly 9 miles foraging. It is lovely to see congregations of drones in the air above, about 10 metres from the ground, circling and waiting for the young May/June Queen to fly in her maiden voyage, with the assistance of her maids. The drones chase her. Up to 14 will reach her first to inseminate, and afterwards to die. What a way to go! That’s life.

I feel at home here. Friendly people see me at the gate and ask “How are the bees?” I always have a chat. Some have offered space for bees in their extensive gardens. I love the Church and often stop there to say a prayer. No matter what is your religion, God is one and the holy building is the house of God. One feels so much alive inside. At Halloween (All Saints in our calendar) we go to the cemetery in the evening. We walk around praying for all those resting there. It is so peaceful and tranquil. Then at the wooden cross by the conifer we light a candle and pray for all our family and relatives. We leave the candle there to burn out before departing, protected from the wind.

In Poland at All Saints there is a holiday-like atmosphere. People for several days before prepare for it, tidying family and strangers’ graves. On Halloween evening the cemetery is like a big oasis of light, hundreds of candles all alight. It is daytime at night! The Romanies (gypsies) come to the cemetery in groups with food and drink and make picnics there, celebrating the lives of those that are no longer with them. They offer food and drink to those near them, or just passing by. It is very hospitable.

All those years with the bees at Greyhound Lane we had no problem, except last year when someone, sick in their mind, pulled over the stand with two hives from the breeze blocks that the stands were on. The hives with 80,000 bees in each fell down. Bees, frames and the honey in them were destroyed. The police could not do anything as they had no evidence.
Michael Boki

Editor’s note:
Mr. Boki kindly sent this account of his work and life with bees, asking that it be published in the Parish Paper, in order to let local people know who it is who works with the bees in Greyhound Lane. He said that he gives talks on Bees and Bee-keeping to create an awareness of these remarkable insects, and the good they do to the environment. He calls them pollinators necessary for our survival. One of his neighbours wrote to the Parish Paper in February to protest about the damage done to his hives. Hopefully if more people are aware of the goodness that comes from bees, such mindless attacks can be prevented. If you want to obtains some of his honey, he can be contacted on 01707 658910.

A TIME CAPSULE

In South Mimms Village Hall there is a memorial plaque on the wall opposite the doors, to the men who fought in the Great War (i.e. the First World War), and to those who did not return. The plaque is headed “South Mimms Mission Hall”. It is all that remains (in public) of a building erected to provide a place for proper and fitting religious worship in the village – as opposed to St. Giles Church which was far too Catholic for some people’s taste. And maybe still is!

Older people in the village remember the Mission Hall, but most will not know where it was – or is. It stands behind 62-64 Blanche Lane, once the village Shop and Post Office. It had been built on the initiative of the village postmaster, Mr. Hollis, who lived in no. 60, and ran the shop and post office next door. It ceased to be a Mission Hall in 1955, when it was sold by the Baptist Church. (It was run earlier on by the London City Mission). The terms of the sale included restrictive covenants: it should only be used for domestic purposes, and should never again be used as a place of worship. Nevertheless it was used in turn as a workshop, a recording studio and a store for the stock-in-trade of a shopfitter. He sold it, and his cottage, 60 Blanche Lane, to me. We created a home for my Mother, and a flat to let out, with garages below.

I had known that Mr. Hollis, the Postmaster, had persuaded Captain Trotter, of Dyrham Park, to put up the funds for building the Mission Hall. But when was it built? Here’s where the time capsule comes in. A time capsule is a container (box, bottle or whatever) containing something which tells the finder about the date and context of something. When Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on London’s Embankment, a time capsule was buried in the foundations with artefacts from the mid 19th century. Space probes sometimes include information about our planet and our era (assuming any alien could decipher it).

Recently work had to be done on the roof and guttering on the south side of the Mission Hall, from the garden of no. 58: the Mission Hall’s south wall is the north wall of that garden. In the process of removing some tiles a bottle was discovered. Inside was a rolled up piece of paper, with beautiful handwriting.

It reads: “April 13th 1915
This Building was erected during the great European war and the following countries were engaged in it. England, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro and Japan on one side and Germany, Austria and Turkey on the other. It was stated in the papers yesterday that a big battle was believed to be going on in the North Sea off the coast of Norway as very heavy firing had been heard for some time. [not Jutland, as that was 1916]
The Following workmen were engaged on this Building
Harry Dalton Carpenter Dyrham Park
Tom Peck Bricklayer Barnet
Ernest Peck Do. Do.
George Brown Do. Dyrham Park
Alf Smith Labourer Do.
John J. Chesher Painter &c. Do. Since May 4th 1891
Joseph Russel Plaster Barnet
J.J. Chesher was the son of John Chesher of the Roe Buck Inn Lemsford and grandson of James Chesher of the Red Lion Digswell Hill Welwyn Herts”

I have kept the original capitalisation and punctuation. The writer must be Mr. Chesher, because he gives so much circumstantial information for that name. There are several Cheshers buried in St. Giles graveyard, in 1874, 1876 and 1886, but whether they are related to the person who wrote the note is unclear (as his people came from near Welwyn, it is unlikely).

It’s a fascinating document. The details about what we now call the Great War; the names of Captain Trotter’s staff who he employed on building the Hall; and the decision to leave a record of the building’s construction hidden away in the roof. And that is where it has been returned to, along with another bottle, with a note about what happened to the Mission Hall subsequently.

This was not the first Mission Hall (or rather, room) in South Mimms. At the back of the Shop and Post Office is an extension, which some remember as a butcher’s shop. In about 1990, shortly after I bought the house (the Shop and Post Office had closed in 1975), an elderly, but spry and active man came through the archway into the back yard. It turned out that he had come to Mission Meetings before the Hall was built, and they had been held in this extension. So clearly Mr. Hollis had offered an alternative to St. Giles from the late 1890’s, and with the building of the Mission Hall in 1915 he was able to expand the venture, under the auspices of the London City Mission.

Although it is no longer a place of worship I have two relics, a notice board headed “South Mimms Mission Hall” and a larger board for times of worship, including a Women’s Bright Hour, on Thursday afternoons!

William Marsterson