Beginning back garden beekeeping
My interest in bees started at an early age. One of my childhood memories is of being stung by a bee on a train on the way to the beach with my grandma. I had crossed my ankles and trapped a bee and apart from the shock and pain, quickly learned that I needed to show respect to bees and that they will only hurt you if in danger, unlike wasps! As an adult I have always enjoyed gardening and whilst pottering in the flower beds have often talked to the bees without ever being stung since (until more recently that is but more about that later!).
So when, at the end of last year a friend asked me if I would go with her on a 20 week Beekeeping Course, I jumped at the opportunity. Having a hive of my own one day was high on my lifetime “tick box” list.
We started the course in January (the cost was £125), 10 weeks theory and 10 weeks practical, at a local apiary. The introductory course was for people of all ages to find out more and help decide if beekeeping was for them. The course is held every year in my local area and run by a division of Surrey Beekeepers Association, a part of the British Beekeepers Association and is one of 26 county beekeeping associations around the country. The course included learning about all the different types of bees, types of beehives and bee equipment, bee anatomy, bees and plants, colony management, bee diseases, swarming, queen raising and hive manipulations and honey – hive to jar. Plenty of notes were given (as well as even tea and cake!). We also received monthly copies of BeeCraft magazine.
Each week we found ourselves listening to our speaker, mouths dropping in amazement at all the amazing interesting facts about these incredible species some of which are included throughout this article. Needless to say we loved it.
Interesting fact no.1: Honeybees don’t see flower colours as we see them, their vision is on a different wavelength – towards the ultra-violet end of the spectrum. Bees seem to have a preference for flowers that to us are blue/purple/reddish-purple/mauve.
After the 10 week theory was complete it was time to get hands on. This started on a Saturday morning in April (which is the beginning of the honeybee season) at a local apiary where we were split into 4 groups, each on a different hive. We were provided with bee suits each session, but were advised to wear loose fitting trousers, wellies and beekeeping gloves or kitchen gloves. Unfortunately the spring/early summer was slow starting this year, cold and wet, which made opening up the hives difficult as the temperature should be at least 15 degrees C. There wasn’t so much early on for them to forage for either. Gradually as the weeks progressed the weather improved and we were able to observe the queen in each hive, eggs and larvae, young bees emerging from their cells, and honeybees returning to their hive with their little pollen baskets full of pollen. It was a very satisfying sight.
Interesting fact no. 2: Foraging honeybees need to visit 5 million flowers to produce 600 g of honey. They forage a 4 to 5 km radius from the hive in search of food.
During the 10 weeks of practical we had learned how to do a full hive inspection, monitor for signs of swarming and disease, how to keep weekly records, raising queens, assembling frames, transferring bees and swarm collection.
Some of my colleagues on the course were taking over hives from other people or were various stages of ordering bees, hives etc. I chose not to start anything until I had finished the course and felt more confident.
As soon as the course finished I was very keen to get started so went ahead and ordered my hive from a company called E.H. Thorne, who have a wide range of hives and accessories (there are many other companies stocking equipment too). I ordered a “budget” bee kit, which consisted of hive, frames with wax, hive tool, bee suit, gloves and honey bucket.
Left to right: box containing wax scrapings, hive tool for opening hive, leather gloves, bee brush, for helping gently removing bees from frames whilst inspecting and lastly a magnifying glass to help check for eggs
In the middle of June I was lucky enough to find a nucleus of bees from a local lady who was splitting her hives and reducing the numbers ready to move house. A nucleus consists of 5 or 6 frames of bees with a marked queen (easier to find!). She also gave me a frame of honey to give them enough food to get started. That cost me £100, but you can pay up to £150. I also joined the British Beekeepers Association which will give you advice and public liability insurance.
There are no legal restrictions on keeping bees in Britain, but local by-laws may affect certain urban areas. Some local authorities allow you to keep bees on allotments, some don’t, so it’s best to check. If you don’t have room in your own garden, local farmers or garden centres often have space for a few hives on their spare land for a small fee. Placing a hive in your own garden needs careful consideration.
I had made sure I talked to my neighbours before starting, and luckily they were all interested and encouraging. You would need to place your hive away from neighbours pathways and drives, facing towards the south-east with easy access, dappled sunlight and minimal wind.
Bees fly up and away as they leave the hive. After they’re 5 metres from the hive they’re way above head level. You can keep bees just about anywhere, you don’t need a great deal of space, nor do you need to have a garden full of flowers. They will happily travel for miles to forage for what they need. There are hundreds of hives in cities placed on top of high buildings.
Transferring my new bees to the hive was easy, I collected the nuc of bees in the evening and placed them on top of my prepared hive, and early in the morning inserted the frames into their new home. Before long they were off foraging. It is also necessary to have a water supply nearby. I’m not lucky enough to have a gentle flowing stream cutting through the garden, but have a couple of bird baths and I also placed a shallow ceramic dish nearby with pretty marbles of different sizes in, enabling the bees to stand and drink without falling in!
Interesting fact no. 3: The Queen honeybee is the largest bee in the colony and the only one with fully developed ovaries. She is an egg-laying machine capable of producing 1,500 eggs in one day!
Gradually during my weekly inspections I could see my colony growing larger and busier. Pollen of various shades were being collected and nectar placed in the cells in the super (this is the part of the hive which collects the surplus honey). There were plenty of larvae found each week, although spotting the eggs was always much harder. The queen was doing a great job! I did unfortunately get one bee sting eventually. My fault, I hadn’t worn thick enough trousers as advised. Generally the bees are very calm as long as you don’t spend too long on inspection.
Interesting fact no.4: Foraging honeybees can perform a “waggle dance” on returning to the hive to share information with the other bees about the direction and distance of a source of nectar and pollen.
The end of August is the end of the honey season and time to harvest any surplus honey, leaving plenty in the hive to feed the bees during the winter. Luckily for me a very experienced member of our local association invited people who had been on the course to witness extracting his honey. There are plenty of beekeepers out there who are happy to help and advise. It’s now the beginning of September so I will be doing this for the first time this coming week.
If you are interested in keeping honeybees yourself I would recommend getting as much information as possible beforehand going on a course, researching costs, watching YouTube videos and talking to other local beekeepers where possible – there are almost certainly more than you think. I have found that getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and spending time inspecting and watching your honeybees returning to the hive and the gentle murmur of the bees very relaxing and calming.
I’m not sure how much honey I’ll be able to harvest in this, my first year, but they do say that even if you get just a couple of jars, honey from your very own bees is the best tasting. Wish me luck!
The 85th National Honey Show in 27-29th Oct 2016 at Sandown Racecourse, Esher, Surrey where people can buy all sorts of honey, see honey and hive products, beecraft lectures and more. The 2015 lectures show on YouTube channel
Lead image: Checking for honey in the ‘supers’
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