After Sherlock Holmes’s last client had been shown out of 221b, Baker Street, the great detective retired to a farm on the South Downs. There, he devoted his days not to chess or crosswords, but to beekeeping. The idea of fiction’s finest mind pottering around contentedly in gloves and a veil might seem far-fetched, but only to those who have never tended a hive.
Beekeeping is livestock management at its most cerebral. Bees are industrious, democratic and efficient; they work as a team. As the 1st-century naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote: ‘Bees belong to neither the wild or domesticated class of animals. Of all insects, bees alone were created for the sake of man.’ Of course, there’s nothing quite like spreading hot, buttered toast with your own honey, but as any apiarist will tell you, the real thrill lies in the mental gymnastics nurturing a colony requires you to think like a bee.
Membership of the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA), which has done a great deal to raise awareness of bees’ contribution to the food chain, has more than doubled in the past six years. This is a robust figure, but, sadly, the same can’t be said of bees themselves. Colonies are collapsing at an alarming rate, with the varroa mite, insecticides, diseases, mobile phones and, lately, diesel fumes all being blamed for the decline. Never has it been more important for people to do their bit. Emma Hughes
The aspiring apiarist should start with BeeBase (https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/beebase), a free online resource. It’s full of helpful hints for first-timers and can link you up with a local training course. Established beekeepers can also request a visit from their local inspector and keep an eye on disease outbreaks.
Next, book yourself onto a course.
A good one should cover the different types of bees and hives, pests, essential equipment, swarms and honey extract-ion, as well as bee-friendly planting.
Beginners are welcome on the Dean Forest Beekeepers’ Basic Beekeeping Course (www.deanforestbeekeepers.co.uk), which costs £85 for six evening lectures and four practical weekends. Elsewhere in Gloucestershire, Mickleton-based Cotswold Bees Ltd (07799 897425; www.cotswoldbees.co.uk) offers weekend introductory courses, plus half-day sessions and training for smallholders and Oak Tree Cottage Apiary in Lydbrook (01594 862965; www.oaktreecottageapiary.co.uk) runs tailored one-day courses, costing £95 per person or £150 for a couple.
Beekeeping has become enormously popular in cities. If you’re in London, make a beeline for Urban Bees (www.urbanbees.co.uk), which schedules a taster day each month, priced at £65, or Thames Ditton, where Kingston Bee-keepers (www.kingstonbeekeepers.org.uk) has a well-regarded part-time course comprising eight weeks of theory and eight weeks of practicals, which all costs £100.
Once you’ve managed a colony for a year, you’ll be eligible to take the BBKA (www.bbka.org.uk) Basic Assessment, which can act as a foundation for professional bee-husbandry qualifications.
Give it a try
Before you splash out on a top-of-the-range hive, why not spend some time in an apiary? The National Trust recruits volunteer beekeepers at a number of properties, from Dunham Massey in Cheshire to Standen in West Sussex and Castle Drogo in Devon. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.
uk/get-involved. The National Beekeeping Centre Wales (01492 651106; http://beeswales.co.uk) is also on the lookout for volunteers-full training is provided.
What to buy
Thorne’s deluxe national beginner’s kit, £544.72, includes a ready-assembled cedar hive, plus a copper smoker and cartridges, protective clothing, a bee brush, a stainless-steel hive tool, an English feeder, a subscription to Bee Craft or The Scottish Beekeeper and even a ‘Honey for Sale’ sign (01673 858555; www.thorne.co.uk).
Orange-peel honey jars, £12.76 for 35, Freeman & Harding (01322 351315; www.freemanharding.co.uk)
Wildflower Honey Bee Flower Mixed seed mix, £1.99, Thompson & Morgan (0844 573 1818; www.thompson-morgan.com)
Bee brush, £4.25, Modern Beekeeping (0844 888 0573; www.modernbeekeeping.co.uk)
Stainless-steel double strainer, £29.95, Modern Beekeeping
Make a weekend of it
Huntstile Organic Farm, Goathurst, Somerset
The Quantock Beekeepers run an intensive two-day course for beginners in the idyllic grounds of this West Country farm. Topics covered include buying bees, honey-harvesting and the pros and cons of different types of hives. Participants also take a comprehensive ‘What to do and when’ guide home. B&B accommodation is available in the farmhouse or you can bed down in a bow-topped gypsy caravan. £195, including lunches.
(01278 662358; www.huntstileorganicfarm.co.uk)
Assington Mill, near Sudbury, Suffolk
This 70-acre organic farm, where you can learn anything from sign-writing to butchery, is a hive of activity. The two-day queen-rearing course, scheduled for June 7-8 and led by Clive de Bruyn, author of excellent beginners’ guide Practical Beekeeping (The Crowood Press, £24.95), is ideal for those already au fait with the rudiments. Book early to bag accommodation in the converted watermill. £185, including lunch and refreshments but excluding B&B at Mill Cottage.
(01787 229955; www.assingtonmill.com)
Tips from the expert
Tim Lovett of the BBKA gives advice
* Don’t rush into anything. Before you invest in expensive equipment or bees, do your research-attending practical beekeeping demonstrations organised by a local association is an excellent way of finding out more about what it takes
* Consider the commitment carefully. Beekeeping is a seasonal activity and the amount of time it will take up varies. In the summer, a new bee-
keeper can expect to spend an hour each week on just one colony, plus an extra 30 minutes for each additional colony
* Find a mentor. Having an experienced beekeeper on hand is invalu-
able when you’re faced with a problem
Read all about it
Teach Yourself: Get Started in Beekeeping Adrian and Claire Waring (Teach Yourself, £10.99)
Collins Beekeeper’s Bible Philip McCabe (Collins, £30)
Plants for Bees W. D. J. Kirk and F. N. Howes (International Bee Research Association, £25)
April 4-6 The British Beekeepers Association Spring Convention, Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire (0871 811 2282; www.bbka.org.uk)
May 10, June 28 and September 13 Get the Buzz: Sustainable Beekeeping, Humble by Nature, Penallt, Monmouthshire. A hands-on introductory day. £95, including lunch (01600 714595; http://humblebynature.com)
September 7-8 Bristol Open Honey Show, University of Bristol Botanic Garden, Bristol (www.bristolbeekeepers.org.uk)
September 26-28 Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association 50th Anniversary Conference, The Pavilion, Llangollen, North Wales (07812 518822; www.bibba.com)
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