Few occupations can be as soothingly pastoral as beekeeping. A handful of hives gently humming with activity at the bottom of the garden. A year of tending and nurturing, with, at the end of it, your own supply of honey, rich with goodness gleaned from the local flora. Little wonder, then, that the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) has seen a 30% rise in membership over the past seven years. However, beyond the garden gates, the bee has a far greater role to play within the wider ecosystem. Defra estimates that the economic value of crops grown commercially in the UK that benefit from either honey or bumblebee pollination is between £120 million and £200 million per year, which makes the recent news headlines of falling bee populations a real cause for concern. Although Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has seen hive populations decimated across the US for no discernable reason has yet to reach our shores, developments there have served to highlight unusually high losses suffered by UK beekeepers.
The National Bee Unit, the body responsible for monitoring disease, estimates that British beekeepers lost 14% of their colonies last year. This has been blamed on the increased proliferation of the varroa mite, which is now endemic throughout England and Wales. A blood-sucking parasite, the mite will also spread disease throughout the colony and, if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy the hive. One reason that we have managed to escape the horrors of CCD so far is perhaps because, unlike in the US, where beekeeping is a primarily commercial concern and beekeepers shuttle their charges up and down the country for crop pollination, here, more than 85% of colonies are kept by small-scale beekeepers. Although there are things that we can all do to help the honeybee, such as cultivating bee-friendly plants, number one on the list is to take up beekeeping yourself, and there has never been a better time to start.
Before you begin
Martin Tovey, the general secretary of the BBKA, keeps two hives in the Lancashire garden belonging to landscape designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd. A beekeeper with 40 years’ experience, his advice for any budding beekeeper is to contact their local association for advice on beekeeping courses. ‘The best way for anyone to get started is to get some practical experience. From this time of year onwards, the meetings are at someone’s apiary, so you can go and see the hives in action and talk to the experts.’
A beekeeping course will cover every aspect throughout the bee season, and this is one of the busiest times of the year. ‘Throughout the winter, the bees more or less look after themselves,’ says Mr Tovey. ‘From May to September, however, to get the maximum honey crop, beekeepers should look at their colonies every 10 days. They need to make sure there’s enough room for the bees to store honey, and look for queen cells, which may suggest they’re going to swarm.’
The hive Once you’re certain that you want to keep bees, you’ll need to invest in some basic equipment. The average hive will produce 40lb–50lb of honey, so one hive will be plenty to start off with. Most beekeepers use one of two established hive designs: the more recognisable WBC hive, with its distinctive slatted sides and sloped roof, or the box-like National. The key difference is that the WBC hive, so called after its inventor William Broughton Carr, is a double-walled hive, in that the exterior parts are a shell for the interior components of the hive itself, and must be completely removed before the beekeeper can tend to his charges.
The plus side is that the outer wall provides significant protection from the elements. For its lower cost and simplicity of use, the National is perhaps a better hive for the beginner. A starter kit from National Bee Supplies (www.beekeeping.co.uk), consisting of a cedarwood (ideal for its weatherproof qualities) National hive, protective clothing, a smoker and a hive tool, costs about £400, but you may be able to find second-hand equipment at first. After this start-up cost, beekeeping is relatively inexpensive. Next, consider carefully where to place your hives. ‘Bees generally don’t need a lot of space,’ says Richard Bache, who keeps his hives at the bottom of a field in Somerset. ‘If they’re well fenced, so they fly upwards, they won’t be a danger to livestock or footpaths.’ An ideal spot for a hive is one that’s sheltered, both from the elements and from prying eyes, but not in a dark, dank corner. Alison Benjamin, author of Keeping Bees and Making Honey (David and Charles), suggests siting the hive in an area that catches the early-morning sun. ‘This warms the hive and lets the bees know that the day has begun: getting them out of the hive early will increase their foraging time.’
Buying bees Once that you’re ready with equipment and experience, you need the bees themselves. Most bees found in Britain are likely to be a mongrel breed of the various sub-species of Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, and there are several ways to acquire a colony. A bee ‘nucleus’ can be passed on from one beekeeper to another, although as the foraging distance of bees is about three miles, your hives will need to be sited further away from the original than this to prevent them going back home. If you’re a member of an association, you can put yourself on the ‘Swarm List’, which means you’ll be contacted if there are any unclaimed swarms in your local area. Alternatively, you can buy your bees from a supplier such as Thorne for about £150 for a nucleus. Some companies will even deliver your bees by post.
There are bees at many famous locations, including the Natural History Museum and Lambeth Palace. A hive on top of the Royal Festival Hall, shaped like a miniature version of its namesake, even has its own blog (www.royalfestivalhive.typepad.com). ‘Beekeeping actually thrives in places such as London,’ says Julian Lush, secretary for the London Beekeepers Association (www.lbka.org.uk), where membership has grown
steadily over the past five years. ‘Cities can be 5˚C warmer than in the country, and have a great variety of plants, trees and shrubs that flower nearly all year round, so the bees have a far longer season. The diversity of plants lends a wider range of tastes to the honey.’ One city-dweller inspired to take up beekeeping is photographer Janie Airey. ‘I wanted to keep bees for several reasons,’ she explains. ‘I’m not likely to have a pension, so I plan, in 20 years or so, to be a self- sufficient old lady living in the country growing my own vegetables, and having bees to help pollinate and give me lots of crops and honey.
Keeping bees in London gives a taste of country living without actually dashing for the hills just yet.’ Having done a beekeeping course in south London, Janie was assigned to a mentor for a year to learn the practicalities. For the past four months, she’s been keeping a hive jointly with a friend in a community garden in Clapham. ‘We didn’t have any problems getting permission to install the hive,’ she says. ‘In fact, the community was delighted. Most garden-and allotment-owners are keen to have bees for the benefits they provide to the plants and flowers.’ For further information, contact the British Beekeepers’ Association (02476 696679; www.britishbee.org.uk) or the National Bee Unit (01904 462510; www.csl.gov.uk)