Shall I keep bees?

A new year and some of you will be thinking of taking up a new hobby. For some people they will think of taking up beekeeping. Imagine putting a hive of bees at the bottom of your garden then watching all summer from your deck chair as the little workers go back and forth collecting nectar and pollen. Come the autumn you imagine you will be collecting the honey, putting it into jars and then selling it at a vast profit leaving you enough for your larder and possibly some to give as Christmas presents. You might even take some of the bees wax and make some candles.

Well beekeeping is not like that. It is far more difficult amd far more demanding but it is also far more interesting. I know I have been keeping bees for at least six years.

First there is the fascination of housing such a complex colony. A single bee is not very well organised but look inside a hive and you see a level of organisation which is quite amazing. It starts when you place a swarm on a board in front of the hive and watch as they march steadily into the hive. Then you open the hive some ten days later and they have organised themselves and the hive with areas in which to raise more bees and areas where to store food for themselves and the new brood. Later in the year there is honey extraction when you get your first jar of honey. Perhaps you get two harvests of honey in the year and you discover how different the honey is at different times of the year even though it comes from the same hive. What is more all your honey will taste so much nicer than that from a squeezy bottle bought at the supermarket.

I have never tired of keeping bees. There have been good seasons and there have been bad seasons. There have been colony losses , there have been swarms that have left and years when there was almost no honey. I see each setback as an opportunity to learn more and even after six years there is still plenty to learn. If you talk to beekeepers who have been doing it for more than sixty years they will tell you that they still have more to learn and every year still brings surprises.

Then there is the bigger picture. It is estimated that up to a third of the food on our plate comes about as a result of insect pollinators. Think of that when you next sit down to a meal. Every third mouthful is as a result of an insect pollinator – quite likely a honey bee or a bumble bee. As a result of a variety of factors there is a serious risk to our insect pollinators. By keeping bees you are making a very positive contribution to the population of insect pollinators

So what does it take to be a beekeeper?

From the spring to the autumn you need to be able to spend at least one afternoon a week in the apiary. If you have more than three or four hives then this may extend to a full day or two afternoons. What is more you cannot say you will go every Tuesday afternoon. Nature is not like that and you could find that Tuesday afternoon is thundery and bees do not like thundery weather and can be very cross if disturbed so you have to find another day that week – and then that turns out to be a really wet day and bees do not appreciate it if you take the roof of their home when it is pouring with rain. You have to be available and flexible.
During the winter it is quieter but that is the time when you get on with learning more about the subject and clean and repair equipment you have used that year

Looking after bees can be physically quite demanding. An empty super is easy to carry but at the end of the season when you are lifting a full super it is much more taxing. This is not something you can tuck under your arm but has to be lifted at arms’ length and a full super can weigh as much as 60 pounds or 27 kilograms.

Allergies are something you do not want to have. There is the risk of being stung. For most of us a sting is painful for a short time but for others it can be life threatening. Alas if you are one of those who has an allergy to bee stings there is little that can be done about it and my advice is to keep well clear of bees.

Bees will not be hurried and nor will they do what you want when you want. Not only that but sometimes they seem to know exactly what you do not wish them to do – and still they do it. There are the days in the summer when you need to do a full hive inspection. It is hot and you would like to be sitting in shorts and a tee shirt in the garden. Instead you have to put on long trousers, a long sleeved shirt and on top of that bee suit including a hat and a veil. If that were not hot enough you now have to light the smoker.

Few hobby beekeepers make any money bit unless you are very lucky you will have sent up to £400 just setting up your apiary. So what does that money get sent on? That I will leave to the next section.

You need somewhere to keep your bee hives – the apiary. This may be in the garden and it may be somewhere else – but you need somewhere. This is a topic I will be covering in my next article. In addition you need space to keep the equipment. This may be a dedicated garden shed or it may be a corner of the garage but you do need somewhere to keep spare empty supers, the made up frames, the smoker, the spare queen excluder…..

So you have got this far through the article and therefore still interested. What do you do next?

It is January as I write this and though many local bee groups run courses for beginners most of the courses are now full. But that does not prevent you making a start. Join the local bee group, go to their meetings be they socials or talks. Get to know the members and hopefully someone will invite you along to see their bees. The first time you look into a hive you will probably be fascinated and even more determined to become a beekeeper. For some they do find the experience of looking into a hive of 50,000 bees an intimidating experience and they never want to go near a hive again. Better to find out before you get the bees than after!