Keeping Bees in Gardens
Plants cannot mate with one another the way animals do, so they create male flowers, which produce pollen to fertilize female flowers and make seeds.
Bees are major carriers of pollen between plants. Those little flying helpers buzz from flower to flower collecting it, but each time they visit a flower they also leave some behind. When each bee has finished her daily collection there will be a trail of fertilized plants in her wake.
Although bees are not the only insects that aid pollination, they are an essential part of the global agricultural ecosystem. Without them, crop yields would drop to apocalyptic levels. Many people are deeply worried that bee populations are falling each year in the UK and they don’t know exactly why. You could have a well pollinated garden and help stem the decline by keeping a beehive.
But bees don’t only visit flowers for pollen, they actually prefer the sickly sweet flower nectar. They suck up as much nectar as possible and carry it back to their hives to make it into honey. The bees eat the honey, and so do we, so we keep them close to hand so we can easily steal it. That might seem a little mean, but the honeybee species produces an excess of honey and we only take what they won’t need.
The average beehive will produce around 11kg of honey or 50 supermarket sized jars each year. That’s almost a jar per week. That is even more amazing when you think that each hive of honeybees has to fly a collective distance equivalent to three global circumnavigations to produce each kg of honey. Astonishingly, the bees need only consume 1.5 grams for aviation fuel to make it through those world tours, which is extremely efficient. Imagine if you could put 1.5 litres of petrol in your car, drive around the world three times and get 1000 litres back! It is easy to see why people want to employ these magnificent flying machines in their service.
Honey is the only food to contain all substances necessary to sustain human life. It is packed full of vitamins and minerals, carbs, water and catalysts. When ingested, it acts as an antioxidant, prevents diabetes and reduces cancer risk. It is a natural anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial agent and can heal wounds. Scientific studies have even shown that it is as effective as synthetic morphine for calming coughs!
Keeping bees will reward you with quantities of amazing quality honey, and you will gain an education in behaviour of these fascinating creatures. So let’s take a look at how you can get into the world of bee farming:
Is it Difficult to Keep Bees?
It is not excessively difficult to keep bees but it is not ‘easy’ either. With a little education and dedication you will have a lot of success. However, this article is only intended to be an introduction to how you might begin keeping bees and you should engage in much further research.
Is Keeping Bees Right for You?
You should ask yourself some common-sense questions before you rush out and buy shed loads of beekeeping equipment:
Are you squeamish about insects? Because there is no getting away from the fact that beekeeping requires plenty of close-quarters interaction with them.
Are you responsible enough to keep up your hobby? Bees do need quite a bit of looking after and you will need to dedicate regular amounts of time to them.
Do you have young children who are likely to get into mischief with a beehive, or do your neighbours? Remember that a swarm of bees is quite dangerous to have around. Although bees are not aggressive animals, they will protect their queen and hive to the death. Consider that a lethal dose of bee poison is around 1100 stings in non-allergic adults, and the average hive contains 20,000 bees. So you would not want to find a curious child (or pet) with their head in the hive. However, with sensible behaviour and the right precautions any risk of a mass bee attack is actually very low. Many people keep bees for years and never have a major incident.
But even without a massive attack you can expect to get stung many times during your beekeeping career; it just goes with the territory. So obviously if you are afraid or allergic then beekeeping is not for you either.
How Much Space Will You Need?
The good news is that bees don’t require a large amount of space. You can keep them in gardens, allotments and even rooftops or windowsills in urban areas. But you need to decide whether you can put your beehive a comfortable distance from land you frequent. You may not fancy a hive full of bees constantly buzzing outside of your kitchen window, and your neighbours might not either.
What Will You Need?
Let’s look at the primary equipment needed to get a beehive up and running:
First and foremost you will need a beehive; a home for your bees made from wood or plastic. You can buy beehives online and in some garden centres. If you are good with carpentry you could even make one, although beehive constructions can be quite complicated.
There are three major designs that have found favour with beekeepers over the years:
Top-Bar Hives are long, rectangular chest-like hives. They are amongst the oldest hive designs, their usage going way back to ancient Greece. In a top-bar hive, the bees hang their honeycomb from bars (slats) that fit along the top of the hive.
Many beekeepers like top-bar hives because their honeycomb bars are relatively light and easy to move at harvest time. Some also say top-bar hives are closer to how bees would live in the wild, so they provide a less stressful environment for them. The downside is that top-bar hives require more frequent maintenance than other designs.
You can expect to pay around £200 for a decent top-bar hive made of good wood in the traditional style.
Langstroth Hives are wooden boxes with wooden frames that slot into them. The bees build their honeycombs into the frames, so you can lift out each frame as needs be.
Most commercial beekeepers use Langstroth hives. They require less maintenance than top-bar hives and are quite easily moveable. The downside is that Langstroth designs can appear a slightly boring from the outside, although complex within. Expect to pay around £300 for a good one.
Warre Hives are like little bee ‘houses’. Many even have observation windows for watching the bees within. They are designed to be permanently situated and contain boxes that the bees build honeycombs inside.
The problem is that when the boxes have to be lifted out at harvest time they can be very heavy. But Warre hives require little maintenance and need only be opened once per year to collect the bounty. Expect to pay around £200 for a Warre hive.
There are many other types of hive available too. There are micro and hobby hives for people who just want to keep bees for fun, or to help their plants. And there are special hives for urban environments such as rooftops or apartment blocks. You might pay anything from £5 to £50 for smaller-scale beehives.
You will need a full-body bee suit with veil to keep the bees from stinging you when you open their hive. These can be had for as little as £25 online, but there are various levels of quality.
Some experts use no gloves at all, but beginners will want a decent set of leather gloves. Expect to pay around £15 for specialized beekeeping gloves, although even a pair of thick marigolds will do the job.
A strong pair of rubber wellies with trousers tucked in will keep the bees off your feet, you can also use riggers or walking boots.
A smoker is a little metal tin you burn stuff inside. Smokers are used to prevent the hive going crazy when you open it. The tin also has a mini-bellows attached to push out smoke. The smoke is usually just wood or paper smoke devoid of any chemicals but it stops the bees communicating attack orders by masking their pheromones. It also makes them think there is a fire near the hive, so they start gorging on honey in case they need to flee. The honey calms the bees and stops them being able to sting so easily. Smokers can be had for less than £10.
Bees make a kind of glue which is used to cement honeycombs to the hive. A hive scraper is a metal tool used for scraping away this glue and cleaning up any other unwanted bee deposits. You can buy one for less than £10.
A Swarm of Bees
Yes, in order to start your hive you need a swarm of bees! And they need to be honey bees, not bumblebees or some other variety (bumblebees actually do make honey, just not enough of it for us).
There are two main ways to get a swarm of bees; either order, or catch them:
You can order a swarm from the internet or find a local person to sell or give you one. A swarm consists of thousands of bees plus a queen and will cost somewhere in the region of £200. After ordering online, the swarm will arrive in the post so you better be ready to install them first.
It can be a good idea to join a beekeeping club or organization and get someone there to sell you a swarm, as they are more likely to be healthy and UK reared. Some people will even give swarms to friends or newcomers in beekeeping clubs for free.
Another way to get a swarm is catch them. Each year in springtime, swarms will be ordered out of beehives to find new hives and then they are up for grabs. People like catching wild swarms because wild bees tend to be better quality than the types you order, and they are free.
Note that new colonies should only be begun in springtime. Swarms caught after June are not considered valuable because bees need a good summer to settle in and build a strong colony before winter.
When ejected from a hive, a swarm will wait around on a nearby tree for an hour or so until the scouts it has sent out have located a new home. This is your big chance to catch the swarm in a cardboard box (yes, for real).
Again, joining a beekeeping club is advantageous here because members will understand where and how to find and catch wild swarms. They will share that information with you and inform you when they see a swarm that looks catchable.
Once you have your swarm you will need to install it in its new home. Getting the bees into a hive is easier than it sounds because they know a piece of prime real estate when they see it.
You can simply dump your box of bees inside the hive and hope that they stay there. Or you can make a ramp with a board and a bedsheet leading up to the hive entrance, then dump your bees at the bottom of the board. It is highly likely that the bees will scramble up the sheet, get into the hive and stay there.
Once you have your bees in the hive you should feed them syrup for the first week so that they can get to work building. After the first week, check your hive. If you see any eggs, you know the queen is settled and laying, so all will be well.
Some hives need few inspections but others will need inspecting once per week during spring and summer. You will need to suit up and get armed with your smoker. The best time to inspect is the early afternoon when all the flying bees are out working. Beehives should never be inspected in winter when the bees are hibernating.
The point of inspecting a hive to keep an eye on your queen and make sure your bee colony is growing successfully. You need to lift up each of your honeycombs or frames to take a look. What you are ultimately trying to do with these inspections is prevent your bees from swarming and going to look for a better hive. Think of it like being a mayor in charge of a miniature city.
You need to make sure that your head of state the queen is present and healthy for the colony to survive. If the queen is happy and laying then that is a good sign. But you also need to check if any new queens are being made, because if the colony is making new queens then they are potentially thinking of swarming and that is bad news.
Your workers must also be healthy and your bees must have enough room to thrive or they will swarm. So you are also looking to see that your colony has not outgrown its living space. If you lift up frames and they are full then you need to add new frames or build an additional hive to hold onto your bees.
Just like a human city, your bee city is also susceptible to famine which may cause bees to swarm or die. It can happen in early spring or at the end of summer when there are few flowers, or if there has been a particularly wet summer. If famine occurs you will need to feed your bees a little syrup or fondant to help them out.
Bees need to build up their colony before they can make decent amounts of the liquid gold. So you should not harvest honey for the first year (well maybe a little taste!).
Honey is usually harvested at the end of summer when the bees have had a solid few months gathering nectar. You need to suit up, check your frames and take a look at the wax cells. If the cells are mostly capped and sealed then it is time to take some honey. Remove the capped honeycombs and put all the other combs back into the hive.
Ok, so you have a pile of honeycombs, now what? Well, you could actually eat the whole honeycomb itself, which is especially tasty and healthy. But if you have had a good harvest you need to extract most of the honey from them and jar it. There are various ways to go about extraction:
One method is to simply slice a cross section of the comb and pour the honey out. You can leave opened combs in a colander overnight and let the honey drain into a bowl below.
Another way is to use one of many heat-based methods to melt the wax and retain the honey. You might cook the comb above a fire and catch the honey as it drains, or invest in an expensive and elaborate commercial extraction machine that performs the whole process at optimum temperatures.
You will likely find your own best methods of extracting honey once you grow as a beekeeper.
Once you have your honey you can store it in jars and it will keep for a very long time, at least long enough until you get your next years harvest!