‘Without bees, there is no life,’ said Albert Einstein and the point is certainly a valid one. One in every three mouthfuls of the food that we eat has made it to our plate thanks to bees and their vital role as pollinators in our ecosystems. Despite this, bee populations have been in a state of steady decline over the last couple of decades, thanks to intensive farming, the destruction of wild flower meadows and pollution. Worse, in Britain, populations have been decimated thanks to the accidental introduction of the aptly named mite, varroa destructor, 20-years ago. Today the 20,000 people who keep their own bees are playing a vital role in maintaining the natural balance, as well as benefiting from a steady supply of lovely organic honey. Here’s how to get started.
A is for Africanised Bees
Colloquially known as ‘killer bees’, this aggressive breed is responsible for giving bees worldwide a bad name. They are currently only found in the Americas and are not kept by humans. Although they have a reputation for deadliness, they are responsible for only two deaths a year in North America. Except for a few breeds, such as the rare black honeybee, most of the UK’s bees are comparatively placid.
B is for Beebase
Despite sounding like an awkwardly named military installation, Beebase is a vital beekeeping resource provided by the National Bee Unit [part of DEFRA]. The website includes maps showing the regional concentrations of pests and diseases, legal advice relating to beekeeping and contact details for regional bee inspectors in your area.
C is for courses
‘Keeping bees without doing an introductory course is like driving a car without having any lessons. You’re a menace to yourself and others,’ says Chris Deaves of the Twickenham and Thames Valley Beekeeping Association. The majority of courses are run by local beekeeping associations but are also offered by private companies and individuals The BBKA has information on the local branches offering classes in your area.
D is for division
Bees naturally split off from their hives to form new ones as part of the reproductive cycle. During swarming, the old queen and about half the hive’s bees will leave the hive and attach themselves to a handy nearby branch (or, if you’re unlucky, your BBQ, hen house or garden shed) while scout bees locate a new home. It’s possible to coordinate the process of division yourself by separating the queen and some of the worker bees into a new home around the time your bees start producing new queen cells.
E is for entrance
Bees are similar to planes in the regularity of their flight path. When they return to the hive having stuffed their faces with pollen and nectar all day long, they tend to be fairly immobile and so keep a direct line of flight. To prevent your bees from flying directly through a neighbour’s garden, angle the entrance of your hive towards a wall, so that the bees descend only once they have entered your garden.
F is for feeding
If you harvest your honey intensely, particularly during autumn, you will need to supplement your bees’ diet during the winter months. Bees aren’t fussy eaters, and plain old sugar water will do for them. The main concern is making sure you have a container that your bees won’t drown in and that is sufficiently protected within the hive so that marauding bees from other colonies can’t gain access to it.
G is for guard bees
Bees will defend their hive both by patrolling the surrounding area, and by inspecting any bee that enters the hive to make sure that it isn’t a robber from another hive. When they attack an intruder, guard bees release a pheromone causing other bees to rush to assistance. The use of a smoker helps to mask this pheromone, which will allow you to inspect the hive without serious risk of attack.
H is for honey
Honey can be harvested the old fashioned way, using a scraper and a sieve, or with a modern honey extractor; prices for which start £200. The taste of your honey depends on what your bees have been eating. The variety of flowers available in the carefully manicured gardens of the city means that it is often urban honey which has the best flavour. In a good year, a carefully managed hive will produce 60lbs (or jars) of honey.
I is for Italian bees
The placid, unaggressive nature of this breed of bees makes them well suited to beginners. Italian bees do have weaknesses, however. For example, they are less robust than breeds such as the Carniolin and more susceptible to diseases. ‘The Italian bee in not as well suited to our climate as others - especially in the northern areas of the UK,’ says James Dearsley, amateur beekeeper and founder of the blog, Surrey Bee Keeper.
J is for Jenter kit
A Jenter kit allows you to rear queen bees without the need for clumsy grafting of the larvae by hand, which can often result in accidental squashing. Queen rearing can be used to create a large amount of colonies in a short space of time, and as a commercial way of supplying other beekeepers with fresh swarms.
K is for Kashmir Bee virus
In the USA, Kashmir Bee is major contributing factor to sudden colony collapse disorder (CCD). Once infected, bees often die within a few days. Although incidence is lower in the UK, it still needs to be properly managed. ‘These viruses can be transmitted by varroa [see below] and the main strategy to minimise their spread is the effective monitoring and control of varroa,’ says David Aston, a technical committee member of the British Beekeepers Association [BBKA].
L is for L.L. Langstroth
The father of American beekeeping, Langstroth gave his name to the most common form of hive used throughout the UK and the Western world today. Before Langstroth, beekeepers were forced to tear apart their hives in order to access their honey. Langstroth developed removable frames for hives, so that beekeepers could remove and replace different segments of the hive without playing Godzilla.
M is for Melissococcus plutonius
This bacterium is more commonly known by the disease it causes in bees: European Foul Brood. The bacteria compete with larvae for food, starving them to death and preventing the growth of the colony. According to Beebase, European Foul Brood can be identified by the presence of ‘twisted larvae with creamy-white guts visible through the body wall, melted down or an unpleasant sour odour.’
N is for natural beekeeping
Natural beekeeping calls for methods that cause minimum disruption to the lifecycle of bees. The Natural Beekeeping Trust argues that bees should be allowed to ‘express their instincts fully through swarming, the presence of drones, and overwintering on honey.’ Although monitoring is still required, natural beekeepers are encouraged not to engage in routine inspections of the hive.
O is for organic
Honey is one of the most challenging foods to produce 100 per cent organically. Along with banning the use of chemicals in the treatment of pests and diseases; the hive must be located away from heavy traffic areas and landfill sites. The really difficult part is ensuring that all crops, plants and flowers within a three-mile radius of the hive have themselves been farmed organically. These requirements mean that truly organic honey remains a rarity.
P is for prices and profit
Initial set up costs for beekeepers can range from £300 to £800, depending on how much you decide to shell out on a hive. Skimping is ill-advised as second-hand hives tend to lead to higher infection rates for the bees. Making profit from bees through honey production is possible but difficult. ‘Most beekeepers in the UK are simply hobbyists but in the US, Australia and New Zealand many beekeepers manage to make money,’ comments Dearsley.
Q is for queen clipping
A contentious issue hotly debated on beekeeping forums, queen clipping involves cutting one of the queen’s wings short to prevent her from flying. This helps to prevent swarming from occurring. Many beekeepers are opposed to this technique, with the authors of Bees in the City, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum adding that ‘we don’t agree with deforming the queen.’
R is for royal jelly
Royal jelly is fed to queen larvae and is reputed to have numerous health benefits such as combating depression and treating flu. Its high protein content means it is often used as a skin softener in lip balms and hand creams. Harvesting royal jelly is a complex, specialist skill. ‘Beekeepers can really only focus on one aspect. Those who focus on royal jelly will not get a good crop of honey,' says Dearsley.
S is for sting
Most people have experienced being stung at some point, often as a result of prodding something they shouldn’t have as a child. Unless you are allergic, bee stings are unlikely to cause more than minor irritation. The BBKA recommends that if stung, you ‘scratch out the sting with a fingernail or hive tool quickly. Then smoke the area to mask the alarm pheromone in the sting to stop any more bees from stinging in the same area.’
T is for top bar hive
A top bar hive is designed to allow bees to construct their own honeycomb. They are cheaper than normal hives and more faithfully recreate the natural habitat of bees, but they can be harder to inspect in detail. ‘You need to be able to easily remove brood combs from the hives and manipulate and inspect them for signs of diseases and other conditions without them breaking or being damaged’, says Aston.
U is for urban beekeeping
Urban beekeeping has taken off in recent years, with city councils such as Newcastle’s spearheading the movement. Currently there are no legal restrictions on beekeeping in urban areas, but in order to keep it that way, beekeepers in the city must take extra care to avoid swarming (the sight can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated), and to practise Varroa control to prevent its spread to nearby colonies.
V is for varroa
Varrroa is a parasitic mite than feeds on the blood of bees. Varroatosis can easily destroy a hive if not properly managed. The National Bee Unit says that ‘varroa remains the number one management problem for beekeepers and scientists alike.’ Aston recommends ‘sampling colonies on a weekly basis several times a year and using published guidance by the National Bee Unit to decide whether treatment is required.’
W is for winter
The beekeepers’ workload decreases significantly during winter. As the bees retreat into their home to live off their winter supplies of honey, the weekly inspections required throughout summer must cease in order to maintain hive warmth. However, there is still work to do. ‘Beekepers must keep entrances clear of snow and dead bees’, says Aston, ‘and of course, it’s a good time for studying more about beekeeping.’
X is for X-rated
Despite playing their part in one of the most widely used euphemisms in the English language, the intricacies of bees’ mating patterns are not widely known. A young queen will embark on a series of ‘nuptial flights’ in her early years, when she will be fertilised by the most eligible drone bees in the hive. During each flight the queen will mate with between 12 and 15 drones.
Y is for yeast
Yeast is the only ingredient other than honey and water that is required to brew your own mead - provided you aren’t yearning for too classic a vintage. Mead is thought to be the forbear of all fermented drinks, and even predates agriculture. Although few beekeepers choose to brew their own mead, it can be a relatively simple process. As you get more advanced, various fruits and spices can be added to give your mead a richer flavour.
Z is for zoning
To make sure your bees have food year round, try setting up a zoning system. The first zone, your own property, needs to be rich in plants during the early spring, when your bees will not able to fly so far to find food. During the summer you can concentrate on the outer zones, including your neighbours’ gardens and the wider landscape, as your bees look further afield for food.
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