THE GOOD LIFE
PRACTICAL IDEAS AND ADVICE FOR WOULD-BE SMALLHOLDERS
Advice for smallholders
HOW TO KEEP BEES
LITTLE IN LIFE RIVALS THE TASTE OF FRESH HONEY – sweet, golden and oozing from its honeycomb. But ask beekeepers why they keep bees and few will say it’s for this reason alone. No, the joy in beekeeping comes from the creatures themselves – seeing bees fly in with ‘bloomers’ of pollen; listening to the contented hum from a hive on a warm summer’s day and marvelling at the precision of their hexagonal combs. Beekeeping needn’t take up huge amounts of your time – but it’s hard not to spend hours just watching them.
The jerky movements of a flustered beekeeper are guaranteed to make bees grumpy. The best way to stay calm is to know what you’re doing, so find a course near you through The British Beekeepers Association (bbka.org.uk). Books such as Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees & Honey (Northern Bee Books, £12.99) are invaluable. Theory is important, though nothing beats hands-on experience. Many local clubs have their own apiaries and will let you help out with hives.
Before you’re ready for your bees to arrive, you will need some equipment (try thorne.co.uk and beekeeping.co.uk). There are several types of hive but most popular in the UK are the National and the traditional-looking WBC (named after its inventor William Broughton Carr), which is a bit more fiddly to handle. Inside, bees build up wax comb on frames. Most beekeepers use a queen excluder to separate the ‘brood frames’ at the bottom – where the queen lays eggs – from the ‘supers’ at the top, where honey is stored, so that they’re left with wonderful, clean frames of honey.
To inspect the frames, you’ll need a smoker (a puff of smoke calms the insects) and a hive tool to prize apart the various sections. Bees have a knack of getting into any opening, so an all-in-one suit with elasticated cuffs and a veil will provide you with the best protection.
A colony contains a single queen (who lays all the eggs), a few hundred drones (male bees) and, at the height of summer, up to 50,000 worker bees (infertile females). Bees can be purchased as a ‘nuc’ (a small colony on five or six frames) from reputable breeders – find these through the BBKA or your local club. Later in the season, you might be offered a swarm – a colony of bees looking for a home. The trouble with this is that you don’t know what sort of bees you are getting. Colonies differ in temperament and, as a beginner, it is best to have docile, gentle bees, which a breeder should be able to locate for you.
LOOKING AFTER THEM
The busiest time is spring and summer, when you will need to check inside the hives once a week. In addition to looking for health problems such as the varroa mite, which sucks bees’ blood and makes them more prone to infection, beekeepers also need to look for signs of swarming – where the queen flies off with half the workers to establish a new colony. Although she will leave a new queen to emerge, swarming means you lose half your bees and much of your honey crop. For this reason, beekeepers may try to trick bees into thinking they’ve swarmed already by shaking them onto a comb in a new hive – a ‘shook swarm’.