A brief, beautiful time with Manjimup’s beekeeping couple, Curly and Jean

Curly flipped a latch and slid open the shadecloth door. Breathing in with pleasure, I looked around. The air was richly scented with beeswax. Old hand-made frames and brood boxes were stacked to the side, some with loose wires needing repair. There were also some plastic tubs and a bookshelf I could have “for $15 today”.

Curly and Jean have been keeping hives in our orchards for years and years. I called in unannounced after work on Friday, keen to see if Curly and Jean would be willing to tell me, and maybe others, about beekeeping. They asked me if I had to be somewhere. I said no, so as I’d hoped, they suggested a look down the back at the hives.

Jean said she had been forgetting things. It was a problem. Curly, Jean pointed out while we looked over the brood boxes and frames, is quite messy. Curly agreed, but added that he wasn’t dirty messy, and there is an important difference. Dirty messy isn’t good at all. Jean had been sick recently, and said regretfully that she hadn’t been able to tidy the shed to her usual standard.

Curly said, “I just go here and do this, then I go over there and do that.”

I remarked that Curly sounded a bit like “my Simon”. And if he was, I’d likely be right in thinking I had a pretty fine man by my side. Jean nodded.

“There’s a lot worse things a man can be than messy.”

After a chat in the honey processing room, we went to see the hives. It was late but the sun was still hot. Never walk in front of a hive, they said. Where’s the front? See there, where all the bees are going in? Oh. Ok.

Digressing from bee-talk, Jean pointed out her ginkgo tree. She planted it from a seed six years ago. A mythological tree of hope, or grandparent-grandchild tree, so called for taking three generations to mature. Hers was flourishing, small, but ever so lush. There was also a giant wormwood bush in the tidy yard, and plenty of veggies. Most of the out-buildings and things around seemed to have been fashioned by Curly.

He was chuckling about the queen bee’s ability to have babes for five or six years after one single session with a drone.

“She flies up and up and up,” he said, “and gradually the weaker drones fall away. The strongest wins her. That’s pretty much all the drones hang around for, every few years they get a chance to have the queen. You start with a super, then a brood box, then a lid”.

“That’s the sugar-water, for feed when we go on holiday in winter,” Jean added.

To my delight, Curly invited me to come and “suit up” and collect honey with him on Monday. Jean said I could wear hers. So 9am it was.

9am it was meant to be.

But I didn’t see Curly or Jean today. Soon after I left them on Friday, Jean had a stroke. Curly went with her to Bunbury to the hospital. Then, Curly himself had a heart attack, I was told. I’ve tried to find out how they are. I’m wondering, too, how are the bees? Jean and Curly said noone was keen to take them on.

We were just there, on Friday afternoon, chatting away in the little kitchen, and I thought to go right at that time. But I never go there. I’d only ever dropped by once, to buy some honey.

Curly had explained you need to take good care of hives, it’s very important. You can’t just leave them out the back and think they’ll take care of themselves.

Maybe Friday was the only day for me and Curly and Jean. Whether or not it turns out that way, I know I have to think; what a precious afternoon, then, was Friday. How privileged am I, to have had a chance to spend two hours with Curly and Jean? To have been able to see them together like that, to sit and listen and learn. To observe their love and passion for each other and their bees, in that dwindling late arvo sun.

That’s where I used to boil the wax, in that tiny shed, Curly smiled, pulling the door closed.

And even now I can smell it, rich, natural, mixed with the heavy fragrance of jasmine by the old gate.

_______________

“Undo the hive,” he said.

I remembered how from last time, on the failed “queen bee assassination mission” in early January.

“Now loosen the lid, that’s right.”

I wedged the tool in gently at each of the four corners to break the waxy seal. Curly puffed a little more smoke through the vents into the hive. At a quick glance, we could see there was no honey, thanks to the “lazy, unproductive” queen who still reigned, but Curly wanted to check the frames and replace any dirty ones before moving on.

I glanced down. Frowned. My hood zip and velcro zip “lock” had somehow come undone at the front, leaving a gaping hole. And lo, an opportunistic bee had come along. It buzzed nonchalantly about, five centimetres from my face and major airways. Gulp.

“Um. Curly. There’s.. a bee.. inside my hood!”

“Alright, just take it easy and walk over here,” Curly said. His cool as a cucumber attitude rubbed off. I carefully moved away from the hive.

“The most important thing, is not to panic.”

OK. I was doing pretty well. But couldn’t he now hurry up and unzip my hood and get this bee out of my face?

“We’ll just… see if we can… ” he mumbled and circled around me.

What was he doing, I wondered? I held my tongue, inside my mouth so it was safe from the bee, and stood very still.

“There’s two in there.” My friendly sidekick for the day, Cassidy, offered me a comforting update.

“There. Got it.” Curly sandwiched the bee.

“Dead bees in your bonnet’s better than ants in your pants!” Curly roared with laughter as we surveyed the damage.

Next, off came the lid of the second hive, revealing dripping honeycomb, stuck to the lid and bulging out of the full frames. My mouth watered. The aroma was enough to make me almost forget there were upwards of five thousands bees within 50cm of my body.

My task was to lift a frame, gently brush several thousand bees off each side, then pass it Cassidy, who was to brush off the rest and place the frame into a plastic tub on the ute, for transport to the honey processing room. Soon enough we had fifteen frames to process, so after a quick break for a cuppa with Jean and her daughter Rainie, we got to it.

Removing the wax with a hot electric knife, to expose the honey. Somewhat like peeling an orange, albeit tricky.

Oh no, I have honey on my finger, what to do?!

Why, hygiene of course! Wash our hands just like the Food Safety Act says!

Back down to business. Curly placed the capped frames in the centrifugal honey extractor, spinning two frames at a time for five minutes each side. The honey sprayed off onto the stainless steel machine tub and dripped down to the bottom, where there’s a valve to let it out. Through a strainer to filter out any stray wax, and there we have it!

Some time later

We’ve been out of town a few weeks, and you know, the thing I really needed to do, that I hadn’t done yet, was go catch up with my lovely beekeeping friends, Curly and Jean. Thought I’d take them a few apples. I nearly went a couple of times, but something or other got in the way.

Today in passing, my sister said, did you hear about Jean?

Jean who?

Curly’s Jean. She died. I thought someone would’ve told you. Monday or Tuesday.

A few moments earlier, I’d been high-fiving Simon with joy. He’d brought in the Stellar Violets Inc certificate of registration; it had finally come through in the mail. Now this. If I’ve ever had a bitter sweet day, it’s today. My love to darling Jean, now at peace, and her family. She was as lovely as the honey she and Curly harvested together all those years.

Then, only a couple of weeks after Jean passed away, we said farewell to our dear bee-keeping mentor, Curly, as well. At Curly’s funeral, we learnt a lot about him that we didn’t know. He had once fancied himself a deer farmer in Rocky Gully, spending all his money on setting up high, secure fences to ensure he’d be passed and approved by the Ag department. Boxes all ticked, the deer arrived and were freed into the paddock. Can you imagine Curly’s heartbreak then, as they immediately escaped not over, but under the fence? The Ag department denounced him and pursued him for damages, but eventually the case was dropped, because no-one ever found any of the escaped deer.

Curly was also a fabulous ballroom dancer, we were told. I’m inspired to hit the old-time dance halls around Manjimup and learn to hone some skills.

We waited a couple of weeks after the funeral before contacting Curly’s son, Eddie, to see if he had decided anything about the bees. I thought perhaps someone in the family might be inspired to take them on. I also figured I could at least offer them some support or help to call on anytime, if they needed it. And if no-one wanted the bees, I’d do it.

I had a chat to Eddie and he has decided to take on the bees. Living in Perth and fly-in fly-out might pose some challenges, but he’s keen to try. So I said if he needs any help any time in the future, I’ll be around and happy to lend a hand. And so our first tale of bees draws to a close.

When we’ve decided on a location to begin Placemaking for Stellar Violets, we’ll look to keep bees, or perhaps invite someone to keep their hives on our little garden farm. In the meantime, when I breathe in the fragrance of beeswax, and when I hear the sound of bees abuzz, and dip my spoon in honey, I’ll always think fondly of Curly and Jean.

Jean’s ginkgo.

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