Some years ago my husband, Jack, and I bought a domaine in France. It came with an assortment of unusual buildings, most of which we didn’t need, but we weren’t about to hire a ball and chain to demolish the ‘unnecessaries’. They included the shell of what must once have been a splendid 16th century courtyard.
Although much of the domaine history has sadly been lost in time, we know the courtyard is part of an old fortification, the remains of which lie under our lawn. I’m convinced it’s riddled with old coins, arrow heads and other thrilling treasures and, one day, I’ll get my trowel out and start exploring. But, right now, there’s more than enough to occupy our time.
We’re very rural here so I didn’t bat an eyelid when Jack recently announced, “The bees are back in the courtyard.” This was nothing new, a band of stripy regulars pop in each year. Ages ago they’d established squatting rights in a minuscule space between the roof overhang and the apartment window below. I know, it sounds strange to have an apartment there, but there’s a history to it.
The previous owners built the apartment on one side of the old shell as a means of accommodating extra visitors. Being a person who prefers his own company where possible, this was one of the things that immediately attracted Jack during our first viewing. The potential to have house guests without them actually being in the house was manna from heaven for him.
As for our bees, by and large they mind their own business, as do the human visitors who occasionally stay in the apartment. The only problem arises when a team flyby occurs at the same time our pals open the window. Nobody likes a cloud of bees in their face. We have since taken the precaution of suggesting to our summer-visiting chums that they might want to check for signs of loud humming before embarking on a fresh air campaign.
A couple of days after Jack’s first observation, I sauntered into the courtyard to clean out the dovecote. Two steps in and I came to a jarring halt. Of course I expected to see our bees, but this was very different.
The sound was like walking into a motor-bike workshop with several two-stroke engines running. The original scouts had relocated, and there now seemed to be thousands in the air. Some were zooming around in circles whilst others were flying in above my head. Then I saw the main cluster.
Masses of bees had set up a construction site in a corner of the courtyard, right next to the dovecote. This wasn’t just our usual mob, they’d brought family, friends, and enough energy to develop a colony. I decided to investigate further.
Previously our bees had never shown signs of aggressive behaviour. But I was heavily outnumbered so caution was required. I tentatively crept over to have a closer look.
To my amazement I realised how wrong Jack and I had been with our original bee ID. These were not masonry bees, as we’d previously thought. They were honey bees and I was looking at what seemed to be an extraordinary series of honeycombs absolutely covered in stripeys, diligently and rapidly extending the structure. Clearly, action was required.
I rushed back to the house to find Jack and Nathan, (our French forester colleague and all-round top bloke), sitting outside chatting.
“We’ve got a huge bees’ nest in the courtyard,” I squeaked.
They both looked rigidly unimpressed with my exclamation.
“Yes, there are one or two,” replied Nathan – master of understatements – courteously humouring me.
“No, really,” I persisted, “there are absolutely loads of them.”
Jack was looking decidedly sceptical, so I insisted they come and have a look. That did it.
“Bloody hell, where did that lot come from,” he said, with a sharp intake of breath. “We’ll have to remove them somehow.”
Nathan regarded the seething, buzzing mass, and reluctantly conceded there were a few more than normal. Being a lifelong local he assured us he knew just the man to sort it out.
Within seconds Monsieur Decaunes was on the other end of Nathan’s mobile phone. Nathan said he’d be happy to do the removal, but he couldn’t arrive until the following week. He added that monsieur had issued an instruction that, in the interim, the bees must not be upset in any way.
“OK,” responded Jack, dryly. “I’ll speak to them very nicely and take them coffee and croissants each morning. What on earth does ‘not upset them’ mean?”
“Well, for one thing, darling, it means not trying to asphyxiate them with that dreadful powder you sprayed underneath the eaves last year.”
“Harrumph! It was just to get them to move away. Obviously it didn’t work. Anyway, what about the poor doves? While we’re becoming best mates with the insects, they’re having to cope with the noise of a motocross event and the arrival of yet more flying invaders.”
“Jack, that’s nature! The doves’ instincts will cope with things for a few days.”
Nevertheless, just to be sure, we dutifully observed their behaviour from a discreet distance.
A constant stream of incomers and out-goers worked tirelessly. More and more arrived each day. We were fascinated by their activity, and their gradually developing honeycombs. The poor doves, less so. The flightpath to their home had become an air traffic controller’s nightmare. It now required highly skilled aeronautics to weave their way through the stream of workers, which they fortunately managed without ‘upsetting’ any of the newbies.
It was a boiling hot day when our bee man finally arrived. A very tall, slim man, Monsieur Decaunes, gradually unfolded himself from his car. He shook our hands and took gangling, heron-like strides towards the new squatters.
“Oui, vous avez les abeilles,” he gravely announced, stating the blindingly obvious in that especially French understated way.
“It’s always best to get a professional in,” remarked Jack. “There I was thinking it might be a flock of small starlings.”
I ignored Jack’s unwelcome quip and beamed supportively at monsieur. He assured us that we mustn’t be concerned as he’d have everything under control very quickly. These were reassuring words from one worryingly covered in so many lumps, which I’d naturally assumed hadn’t been caused by a ghastly skin disease.
The game plan involved removing the bee-covered honeycombs, and placing them in a temporary hive. The whole lot would be transported back to his farm where they would be homed in permanent equivalents and live to pollinate the surrounding fields.
With the battle tactics agreed, monsieur disappeared into the back of his car to kit-up. First out was a wooden beehive. Then a white apiarist’s outfit made of extremely thick material and, finally, a strange metal can with a spout at one end and bellows at the other.
Fully clad, and looking as though all he needed was a skinny sword to complete the look, he paced over and scrutinised the colony. We all did.
“Avez-vous une échelle s'il vous plaît?” Despite his great height, even he wasn’t tall enough to access this lot.
A set of ladders were quickly produced while monsieur started a fire in his metal can. This seemed odd. I asked him what he was doing. He explained that it would create special smoke which would cause the bees to become sleepy and docile. Since it smelled suspiciously like marijuana I felt sure it would do the trick in seconds. However, closer inspection revealed the mixture to be a collection of substances more akin to wood chips.
Amid billowing smoke, monsieur ascended the steps and started puffing his bellows at the bees. To my untrained eye it seemed that his technique was having the opposite effect to the one desired. Bees started zooming around, bashing into his veil and sticking to his gloves. Meanwhile, Jack and Nathan were gamely hanging onto to the bottom of the ladder to stop it swaying. Totally unprotected, they grimly swatted away the angry guards that zig-zagged around the courtyard and their heads. Things weren’t going awfully well at this point.
But, for monsieur, it was merely a temporary setback. Various sounds could be heard from inside his helmet, none of which were remotely intelligible. It turned out he was unhappy about the effectiveness of his smoke generator. He clambered down and disappeared back into his van for more chips.
Meanwhile, the bees were working themselves into a proper tizzy, and seemed to be preparing for a full-scale counter-attack. I felt certain that he should be doing something quickly before they opened fire.
However, monsieur was not to be panicked into unnecessary haste, at least not until his equipment was fully re-stoked. He finally nodded at his device and re-ascended the ladder. Rung by rung he poofed, billowed and puffed at flying buzzers, this time causing many of them to calm down – a bit. Back in position at the top of the ladder his head emerged through a cloud of smoke,
“Maintenant j’ai besoin d’un couteau s'il vous plaît?”, he coughed.
This caught us all off-guard. We had no idea why he needed a knife – it wasn’t lunchtime. Fortunately, Nathan, a man who always has an interesting selection of weapons about his person, produced an extra-long sheath knife. This was handed to monsieur, who made its use obvious by carefully cutting off a slab of honeycomb. Gentle removal revealed several distinct slices, each seething with the little critters. I was absolutely fascinated.
Monsieur was now completely covered in bees. Despite being inside and outside his helmet, up his arms, and across much of his back, he stoically continued with only an occasional expression of disquiet. The first segment of honeycomb, together with its occupants, was finally placed in the temporary hive. One down, several more to go.
Slice by slice the extraordinary structures were removed. Each was a sumptuous colour of rich yellow. Perfect hexagons, some filled, others not, dripping sweet natural honey that glistened in the hot sun. I watched in wonder at this stunning work of nature.
The bees, relatively orderly now, clung to their segments. Like master gymnasts they hung on to one another in their efforts to retain contact, I couldn’t help but admire their tenacity. Monsieur explained that part of their drive was to protect their queen who was within. There is one queen to each hive, he said, which has been developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed royal jelly in order to become sexually mature. No wonder she’s such a popular gal.
I watched as monsieur continued his painstaking labour in the boiling-hot, sun-trapped, corner of the courtyard. Despite his lanky awkwardness he handled each honeycomb with extreme dexterity. As each piece was delicately removed it revealed hordes more of these amazing creatures. I had no idea a hive was constructed in this way.
I tried estimating their numbers but very quickly ran out of zeros. I didn’t have a clue how many there might be. Monsieur explained that a healthy hive has between 20,000 and 60,000 bees, of which the female worker bees outnumber the male drones around 100 to 1. Whilst I was still trying to compute this enormous number of animals he chipped in that ours was a very healthy hive.
The last puff of smoke dispersed as the final segment was sawn off. A few tenacious workers remained in situ, but the vast majority of the colony was now buzzing sleepily in its temporary accommodation. Monsieur looked extremely sorrowful about the stragglers and expressed regret at leaving them behind. No apologies needed as far as we were concerned. Short of scooping them up and stuffing them in his pockets I couldn’t see how he could possibly transfer them from the top of the ladder to the hive below.
It had taken over two hours for monsieur to complete the job. The poor chap looked thrilled to bits with his new bees, but totally spent. He removed his protective gear. First the helmet, which revealed a beetroot-red face, pouring with sweat, plus a suspicious-looking new weal on his cheek. His fat gauntlets and heavy top gear came next and had to be peeled off, leaving his dripping T-shirt beneath. Finally, it was the not-at-all technical-looking wellies. As he pulled those off out came a few more bees which, shame though it was, presumably counted as collateral damage.
As he started stowing his kit, Jack, full of thanks, asked how much we owed him. Monsieur almost bashed his head on the door of his car in surprise and reappeared looking confused.
“Mais non, monsieur, c'est moi qui vous remercie!”
He didn’t want payment. Instead, he produced a very nice bottle of wine for Jack and, for me, a huge container of honey from his own apiary. I was thrilled.
Jack, on the other hand, was completely taken aback. The last time we’d had a swarm of bees removed – from our garden in England – it cost us something like £15.
But monsieur was insistent. Thanks to us he now had another colony of bees to add to his apiary and he hoped we would call him the next time this happened.
“Oh, monsieur, thank you so much,” I cried, adding, “but I’m so sorry you had to work in such difficult conditions today. Does it always take so long to remove a hive?”
Monsieur looked at me, slightly crestfallen and, speaking partly in English, replied, “Normalement it is une heure. But that is when my father does it. In this case I hold the ladder. This is why the many bites I have. My father he has the hip prothèse three weeks before. So, you see, I am the bee trainee.”
Jack, mightily impressed with the man’s honesty, pressed a 20 euro note into monsieur’s palm urging him to have a few glasses of nice red wine that evening to help his father’s healing process.
Monsieur, totally abashed, was unable to defeat Jack’s offer and eventually re-folded himself into his loudly-humming car. As he waved goodbye we could see one or two escapees buzzing out of his window. His journey home was going to be sporty, to say the least.
“What a wonderful young man.” Jack said as we waved him off. “Perhaps next time we’ll see him with his father and, even possibly, with his own knife!”