Darwin and bees

Down House was the home of Charles Darwin for almost his entire life once he returned from his world-changing voyage on the Beagle. It sits in a part of Kent that the Greenbelt was designed to protect – just south of the endless sprawl of south London. Its surroundings are much as Darwin knew them. The house is a handsome family house – neither grand nor beautiful – and in it Darwin lived as a virtual recluse as he thought, corresponded, wrote and experimented towards his great theory. He was also a devoted family man with ten children with whom he was affectionate and intimate, the opposite of the Victorian stereotype.

The first floor is arranged as a museum with an effective reconstruction of the poop cabin of the Beagle in which Darwin and Captain Fitzroy lived cheek by jowl for five years with all their books and instruments. It is often forgotten in the modern canonization of Darwin as a secular saint that Fitzroy was equally remarkable. He remains the only naval officer ever to get 100% in the naval exams and is the father of modern weather forecasting. Downstairs, English Heritage have used the photographs of the house by one of Darwin’s sons (who all went on to distinguished careers) to recreate the house as Darwin lived in it. It is very evocative and in Darwin’s study you can imagine the great man at work, pondering his theory that changed the world. You can also imagine his boisterous and happy family around the dining room table.

In the garden there is Darwin’s laboratory in which he bred pigeons, experimented with pollination and observed the behaviour of bees. In it there is a comb of honey arranged under glass so that you can see a hive at work without the necessity of a bee suit.

My bee keeping days are over – but this bought back memories of my first swarm. I had all the kit and a hive prepared – but no bees – and my new bee-keeping friend had told me that there was as swarm in a field of oilseed rape near Stourhead. It was a beautiful May day and the flowers and colours were hallucinogenic. In the hedge-line were a collective of hives and the noise of bees was hysterical. On a branch was a swarm that looked like a pulsating bunch of grapes. I laid a blanket out below and cut off the branch. The swarm rippled angrily on the blanket. I then covered it with a cardboard box and propped it open with as stick and went home.

I returned in the evening. It was a still and perfect evening and the silence was in complete contrast to the morning. I looked under the box and the bunch of grapes was stuck to the top of the box. I took away the stick, wrapped the box with the blanket and put in the car to drive it home. By the time I got there it was nearly dark.

I laid out the blanket next to the hive and pushed its rim against the hive. A bang on the box shook the swarm onto the blanket where it pulsed and hummed. Scouts reached out across to the hive entrance and if they had been human you could have imagined a piercing wolf-wistle and a shout telling their friends that there was a great block of flats waiting to be used. In an extraordinary collective surge, like a river, the swarm flowed into the hive.

The next day, when I returned, the noise was intense and the activity maniac in the urge to make and supply their new home – and I was farming completely wild animals.

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