Bees are one of the most amazing creatures on the planet. The organisation and hierarchal structure within a hive is extraordinary. Everyone has a job and it’s carried out with ruthless efficiency. Just ask a drone bee when he is unceremoniously evicted from the hive come winter and left to die on the floor just outside!
Beekeeping dates back possibly to the Mesolithic period but it’s unlikely the people actually kept bees back then but rather stole the honey from wild colonies. The early Egyptians are often cited as one of the earliest examples of actual beekeepers but regardless, it is one of the oldest forms of food production known to man. It became more extensive in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which set the scene for how we keep bees today.
The importance of keeping bees today however can’t be stressed enough. There has been a global decline in bee populations which has been caused by a wide range of factors including the loss of natural hedgerows, the use of pesticides, and other knock on effects within nature where the environment has changed. It has been claimed that Einstein once said “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” Whilst it’s probably not completely accurate it does indicate how vitally important our honeybees are! Furthermore, beekeeping isn’t rocket science and most mildly intelligent people can do it.
So, should you want to take up beekeeping yourself what does it actually entail? Well, first of all let’s look at some of the key parts of beekeeping. Naturally to start with there is the bee itself. We need honeybees not bumblebees as bumblebees don’t make honey! There are many different strains of the most common honeybee (Apis mellifera) but my observations have led me to think that here in the UK most are referred to by their region. Interestingly, these regional attributes seem to also get linked with the bee’s personalities. For example, a Scottish honeybee is often regarded as a feisty critter whereas the Northern Irish honeybee is known to be quite calm and easy to work with surprisingly. A ‘colony’ of bees is the population headed by a single queen that works together to survive and thrive. Honey is simply the food they create to exist. There are three types of honeybee within a colony – the queen, the drone and the worker bee. The queen lays all the eggs. She is the biggest bee in the hive but also regarded as the least intelligent. She doesn’t even feed herself. The drone is male, big, eats and drinks all day and, with his mates, fertilises a new (virgin) queen. This is his most important task in life as without it the queen can’t lay fertilised eggs which can then become female worker bees. He doesn’t have a sting! The worker bees are female and do all the work. These are split into other categories based on their age, such as forager, undertakers, nurses, builders, guards and cleaners. Worker bees do have a sting but die once they have used it.
To give your bees somewhere to live and for you to manage them you will need a bee hive. There are lots of different types but all share the same component parts which include:
- The stand – something for the hive to sit on and keep it off the ground.
- The floor – a thin wooden slat that slides into the base of the brood box (see below).
- An entrance reducer – this simply reduces the size of the entrance to the hive so as to prevent unwanted guests entering it.
- Brood box and frames – this is the main bee creation chamber. It houses a number of frames which are honeycomb terraces (laid in rows) in which eggs are laid, and bees born and nurtured. A frame is also used by the bees to store honey, nectar etc.
- Super and frames – smaller than a brood box but similar to look at, this is where the bees store their food (i.e. honey)
- Queen excluder – this stops the queen getting into the super and laying eggs there. She’s bigger than the worker bees so it’s just a size restrainer between the brood box and super. We want her to lay all of her eggs in the brood box.
- Crown board – this separates the super from the roof. It’s also used to place food (sugar and water mix) for the bees if they need it.
- The roof – used for the same reason as the roof on your house. i.e. to keep the rain out!
Now that you have honeybees and a bee hive you need some tools to help you actually be a beekeeper. By the way, until you have been stung by one of your bees you are only a ‘keeper of bees’ and not a beekeeper! However, I prefer not to get stung so I wear a suit with a hood and face guard, wellie boots and pretty thick gloves. When working with the bees you need to put surgical gloves over your normal bee keeping gloves each time you open a different hive. You destroy the surgical gloves after use. This is to prevent cross contamination of any diseases picked up in a neighbouring hive.
Once dressed to thrill, you will need a few tools to help you open and inspect the hive. A ‘smoker’ is a good start, as once it’s creating smoke it sends a signal to the bees to eat plenty of honey and, by way of a result, get lethargic and sleepy. i.e. less feisty! A hive tool is a small metal tool to help you open the hive and remove the frames for inspection. Bees use a resinous mixture they make called propolis as a glue and this can make it pretty challenging to open a hive sometimes. Finally, a bee brush is pretty useful for moving bees away or off surfaces without injuring, or killing, them. There are other useful gizmos a beekeeper will acquire as they get drawn ever deeper into the world of beekeeping but the items listed so far will get you off to a good start.
After your first bumper season you may have some honey in the hives that you plan to appropriate from your bees. Well, the bees have possibly realised you were going to do this so they have capped the cells on the frames with the honey in it. They actually do this just to make and store the honey but you are then left with the problem of de-capping the cells on the frames in order to gain access to the treasure within. There are a few different tools to do this with. Some resemble cake knives whilst others look like a long-toothed comb. It doesn’t matter which you use as after you have done it once you will be an expert. With the capping removed you need to get the honey out of the cells. This is where it can get expensive as you will need to buy, or borrow, a honey extractor. This is a large metal drum into which you place the frames and then, by turning a handle, use centrifugal force to throw the honey out whilst spinning the frames in the drum. A good honey extractor will have a filter into which the honey runs before draining through to a capture chamber. A sealed tap on the outside is then used to finally fill your honey jars. All that’s left to do is taste it. Enjoy!
Beekeepers and their hives are so very important to our environment. The pollination of our plants, crops, and fruit trees to name just a few depends on them. Without the honeybee working with all the other pollinators our plant diversity would be significantly impacted. Worse still our plants wouldn’t bear fruit which in turn becomes our food. Keeping honeybees will create an immediate improvement in the productivity of the plants and fruit trees in your garden. Furthermore, the bees will benefit areas out to about five kilometers from their hive. The fact that they can give directions to the other bees of the location of nectar that far away is pretty staggering in its own right. It’s a win win situation for all at the end of the day. You look after the bee and the bee looks after you... and occasionally lets you share in their honey store.