Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Boxing High Fliers

Sometimes life really doesn’t go according to plan – I feel a bit as though I’ve had one of those weeks.  I had intended to write this blog on Saturday: most of the family was out and, after getting the weekend chores out of the way, I had some time to myself to look forward to (a real luxury in my life).  As it was, I was sitting in the study, contemplating my tax return (that’s the exciting kind of woman I am) when suddenly the light dimmed and I looked out of the window – it resembled a scene from the Bible.  The sky was darkened by thousands of insects, like a plague on a Pharaoh; everywhere I looked there were bees, almost as if a cloud had descended over the garden.  At almost this time I received a panicked phone call from a neighbour two doors down, who had been sitting outside reading the newspaper, when she noticed an almost tangible hum and then the sky darkened, she called to say that she thought my bees had swarmed.

Almost as swiftly as the apocalypse-like gloom descended, the sky cleared. My neighbour called again, she had spotted a huge cluster of bees hanging from the branch of our mutual neighbour’s apple tree. She was right in her initial observations, the bees had swarmed.  Bees do it when their hive is thriving and the colony is strong enough to survive splitting, amoeba-like, into two groups.  A new queen stays in the original hive and the old queen departs, with a significant number of the hive, to establish a new colony.   I called my co-beekeeper and she dashed round.  We did not want our bees to inconvenience others, nor did we want to lose them.  The intermediate neighbour was away, but we needed to act swiftly.  Dressed in full bee-keeping outfits, we climbed over the wall between the two properties and, with the help of a step ladder, some pruning shears and a large cardboard box, commenced to catch the bees.  Swarms are surprisingly docile (probably because they are gorged on honey and have no brood that they need to protect).  Just as we were in the process of knocking the swarm into the box, actually easier than it sounds, the owners of the garden returned.  Their arrival surprised us (it was like a scene in a sitcom) and we had to make a couple of efforts to get all the swarm into the box.  It was with a degree of embarrassment that we explained what we were up to.  Fortunately they had even less interest than we did in the swarm taking up home in their tree – they have small children and prefer an insect-free environment.  We taped the bees into the box and then our troubles began...

We were not prepared for housing a new swarm.  We had much of the kit, but not enough to create a suitable new hive.  Leaving the bees gaffer-taped into their box, we set off on a wild dash around south London to get all the things that we needed.  Praise has to be given to Park Beekeeping Supplies ( who remained open for nearly an hour to enable us to come and collect some urgent kit.  Returning to my home, we built the new hive and then tipped the contents of the box into the cedar wood box.  The neighbour who had alerted me came and helped and when we had finished, (mid afternoon), we had a Georgian lunch of dressed crab, Jersey Royal new potatoes with garden mint and fresh salad to celebrate our achievements.

The following day was our local festival celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  I am a member of our Residents’ Association Committee and months of planning had gone into arranging celebrations.   We had games for the children - an “Olympic” torch race, a pet show and an art competition – and a lunch for all in a closed off street, with stalls and traditional fete games such as Thwack the Rat and tombola.   People clustered like bees around the drink stall and I soon joined the team serving to help assuage the thirst of our neighbours.  It was fun – a great chance to catch up with old friends and to make new acquaintances.  It was almost dark by the time I returned home and I just had time to inspect the bees.  The old hive had a number of stragglers making their way home after a day in the sun (a bit like the attendees of the Stockwell Festival) but the new hive was suspiciously calm.

The following day was an early start – I was speaking at a Strategic HR Network conference on the enabling power of Technology.  It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up on how organisations are utilising technology to enhance their effectiveness.  I enjoyed learning more about the benefits of The Cloud (thank you Fergal from Rentokil) and agreeing with Karan Paige from Pearson that HR needs to be able to analyse data and make commercially grounded proposals based on evidence.   I was on a panel discussing Technology Trends along with the Head of Organisational effectiveness from Crossrail and Mike Thompson from Barclays.  It is striking to hear that Pingit was only conceived as an idea in February of this year but, with the right enabling support, the product went live in May.  The pace of Technology often leaves me speechless – only five years ago most of us did not have smart phone and yet now we take them and their apps for granted.  YouTube celebrated its seventh birthday this month – currently three days of video are uploaded per minute (an increase of  24 hours per minute compared to a year ago) and users are watching 3 billion hours of video each month (that’s 1,000 times greater than the amount users are uploading to the website) .  I used YouTube as an example in my talk, increasingly Learning and Development in organisations is using social media techniques and technology to encourage employees to enhance their skills.  Immersive gaming is used from recruitment into customer facing roles in banks to learning how to pilot a fighter plane.  I told people about a leading white goods retailer that is encouraging staff to share knowledge and skills by creating videos of themselves which colleagues vote on for both entertainment value and ability to impart valuable knowledge.  Employee engagement can now be measured in real time (a software business in Australia enables employees to touch a red, amber or green face as they leave at the end of the day and the information is fed back to management to tell them if employees are enjoying their work or finding life stressful).  Colleagues no longer have to wait for an update after an off-site they were unable to attend – tweets on Twitter will probably have told them much of what they need to know and they can commence taking appropriate action to achieve objectives before the call to arms.

With my head buzzing with thoughts I returned home.  I arrived only to be greeted by a phone call from my neighbour – the bees had reassembled in the apple tree.  All credit to my eldest son who, until yesterday, had not as yet helped me with the bees.  He donned a suit and veil and helped me catch the pesky things for a second time in a box.  We sprinkled them with sugar – to give them something else to contemplate - while I re-established their home.  With the help of an experienced local bee keeper, we cut the branch on which they hung and transported them back to the hive in my garden.  Taking care to ensure that the queen was inside, we lined a number of pristine wax frames into the box – as he said, the bees must have thought they’d arrived in heaven. 

I had another early start this morning but went to look at the hives before I left at 6.30.  Again, the old hive was active but few if any bees emerged from the entrance to enjoy the early morning sunshine and inspect their new location.  On arrival at work I received a fresh text notifying me that a busy cluster of bees seemed to be reassembling in the apple tree.  My heart sank, but there was little I could do during the day.  Late afternoon, I participated in a round table discussion of UK HR Directors hosted by Changeboard (  We discussed the pros and cons of Social Media .  I didn’t get home until nearly sundown and I was bracing myself for a repetition of last night.  However, when I went to inspect the hives there was a healthy cluster of bees guarding the entrance to the new hive as well as the usual steady stream to and from the old one.

I have learned much from the past four days.  I’ve always known that life does not always go according to plan, but I now have a greater appreciation of the importance of perseverance and preparation.  If I had not got a new hive in readiness for occupation, last night would have been a much more troublesome affair.  Clearly, I did not do quite the right things on Saturday – I suspect that, when we were startled by my neighbours’ return we knocked the swarm and that in doing so we dislodged the queen.  Without a queen bees will not linger in a box, no matter how nicely prepared – the power of a good leader is greater than the superficial comforts of immediate surroundings.   I used Technology to help me to solve my problems – satnav on my phoned lead me to Park Beekeeping and advice via texts and twitter was very helpful.  However, it was the companionship and shared learning that really made the experiences memorable for me (as it was at the conference and the roundtable session).  It was good to celebrate this evening, knowing that the job had been well done – I shall have to make some mead in preparation for next time.


  1. I am impressed you had the presence of mind to take photos of the bees amongst the variety of action you had to deal with. A very good read, thanks Kate.

  2. What a great story. Having heard you talk about the bees so enthusiastically I admire you being able to pause your concern for them during the day after you'd heard they were on the move, again!

    I've often wondered about the happy/sad face idea, clearly I should have wondered less and done more! Mind you, I'm unsure that the responses are a measure of engagement in the workplace. I might well be hitting the happy face at the end if the day because I'm escaping! Did you get to hear what action was taken based on any happy/sad trends?

  3. Brilliant Kate! Thank you for sharing so eloquently! Sounds like Hive 3 might be a go-er?

  4. Awesome post! Brings back memories of beekeeping as a child...

    Made me wonder if there are also lessons to be learnt from bees swarming and taking the old queen to the new hive, with a new queen left behind with the original hive... An idea for planning spinning off?

    Love the engraving at the end - "men swoon in presence of bees"

  5. Interested to learn the source of the last engraved image ~ the people drinking mead on the right and the bee hives to the left.

    1. It is a great picture - I am sorry however to report that I have had it stored electronically for a while and I cannot remember where I got it from - I think it was sent to me by my aunt.