So. How's Mrs P.?

The question ‘How’s Mrs P.?’ Has been asked of us by many people since our article “Taming the Wild Hive” appeared in The ABK (Feb 2013).

Well, frankly, we were wondering the same thing after our last visit. We’d been caretaking a DPI/Biosecurity sentinel hive located in the back yard of Mrs P since October 2012 and it had been about 4 weeks since our last visit. The house was locked up (not so unusual), the car was missing (understandable if she lost her licence... at age 93!), the yard was clean (quite unusual – the meals-on-wheels packaging always got chucked in the general direction of the bin, but never made it in! As beekeepers, it was our job to clean up the yard occasionally!) and, there were no pigeons or ibises hanging around (even more unusual as these were her pets which got fed chook pellets every day!).

We finished our inspection of the hive, accompanied this day by Rob from Biosecurity Queensland. This left us perplexed and somewhat despondent just like the bees here! In four months, this hive had basically done nothing. Not a gram of extra honey, much of the new foundation we gave them five months earlier was still not drawn out, but the queen was still laying a reasonable amount of brood. The brood looked really nice on some frames, on others it looked a bit dark and patchy.

Activity levels out the front of the hive were also definitely on the low side. Alarm bells! AFB? Plenty of this going around recently...! Rob readily agreed to take a few samples and have them tested. We closed up the hive and investigated the house a bit better. Front and back doors were locked and she did not answer our repeated knocking and calling out.

It was at this time we realised with some guilt that we had actually never nailed Mrs P down for her next of kin details, nor those of the nephew, whom we knew visited regularly. Eeekk..., we hoped nothing bad had happened to her! We didn’t think she came to grief inside the house because the place looked too tidy. Someone had been here recently, but that in itself implied trouble...!

After two weeks we ventured a door knock and according to a neighbour Mrs P had taken a fall and broken her hip! Apparently, some of her family had also come up from Newcastle and cleaned out the house. No other details! Lindsay rang the hospitals and eventually tracked her down. TGH, Geriatric Ward 5 was her temporary new home...!

Mrs P had come to grief at the front steps of her 1930’s Queenslander house – normally a critical injury and often leading to major life-changing outcomes for a single elderly person living alone. “I was lucky because I didn’t fall all the way down to the ground” was her characteristically optimistic outlook. Following with: “I called out and the neighbours came and got me”. Sitting near her hospital bed, Mrs P looked healthier and brighter than we had seen her in all the time we have been caretaking her hive. No despondency here!  It’s probably the regular meals, good care and grooming she gets from the Townsville Hospital staff. She showed no signs of the damage she had done to herself.

But what of the future? – for Mrs P it will almost certainly mean the tragedy of leaving her home of 60+ years (“The Americans camped at the front of my house during the war – nice fellas, they were” and “Did I ever tell you how Jim proposed to me? He didn’t have two bob to rub together but he said: If I get a pub, will you marry me? Three days later he came with the papers, what could I say?”).

For the hive, it will probably mean finding a new location – that’s easy. For us it will mean missing on the dried-out rock scones (more honey needed!), humorous and entertaining interaction with an absolutely delightful local treasure who has seen it all, and who has an opinion and a smart comment on all of it. Even from her hospital bed, they kept coming: “Those hospital people came and asked me a whole heap of questions today. I couldn’t be bothered answering them, so they told me I’d have to stay in hospital for a while longer!”. And another classic: “Do you know I’ve never tasted beer in my life? My father was an alcoholic so I never touched it! I like a sherry though. The bastards (an aged-care service provider) took it off my shopping list, you know!”

But there’s a more subtle and important experience in all of this. Rooftop, suburban, amateur European and native beekeeping is becoming much more popular for whatever reasons - health, organic living, natural curiosity, big industry rejection etc. What we have found is that amateur beekeeping is a way to connect with neighbours and strangers and to interact on a co-operative basis. The lack of our suburban communication and connectedness is touted as being one of the evils of modern society. Maybe beekeeping is an inclusive community activity that ticks all the boxes for “social interaction in a close knit community” (sounds like a beehive to us!). Beekeeping has provided us with the means to meet a wonderfully optimistic and positive lady in particular, and more generally, to access knowledge and advice from some wise and experienced local beekeepers, and meet interesting locals. What a great way to re-engage with our community – and our reward has been more than the precious jars of honey that our hard little workers pump out.

Long live Mrs P... and our bees!

Author: Ray Berkelmans and Lindsay Trott (Townsville and District Beekeepers Association)