Beekeeping Information Centre

SHOULD I KEEP BEES?

By Mike Forster

beehives,

A typical apiary with National hives with plenty of supers ready for the honey harvest.

 

I keep bees for the pleasure they give me. I admit it; pain is also involved but their beautiful organisation is a wonder. Their industry is astonishing. The honey they produce is absolutely delicious.
The whole subject of keeping bees is a wonderful way of learning new things. That is not only a good way of staving off Alzheimers, but also of breaking the ice at parties. Overall the pleasure wins out, and that’s why I keep bees. But why should you keep bees?

Pollination

Are you a gardener? Honey bees are good pollinators of your apple trees etc. Do you know why? Bees are proverbially busy but they do not waste energy dashing all over the place. Actually, most individual bees are relatively unadventurous. Having made the effort to discover how to find the sugary nectar in a particular flower, forget-me-not or an apple for instance, they will go on visiting forget-me-not flowers or apple tree blossoms until the supply of nectar is no longer worth collecting. That way they carry the right sort of pollen to the right sort of flower thus ensuring that your apple trees provide you with well-developed, shapely apples and your few forget-me-nots provide a green manure covering of your beds through the winter.

young beekeeper

Young beekeeper handling bees

Children

Do you have children? They can help you keep bees. If they learn when young how to deal with honey bees and other insects they will be free of fear for the rest of their lives. Most children adore the taste of honey, but the child who helps harvest the honey is exceptionally happy. It is exciting work, sticky, and a break from the normal pattern of life. Watching the honey which your bees have produced flow into the jars is a heart-warming sight.

Hobby

Do you lack a hobby? Keeping bees is the hobby par excellence in that it fills as much time as you are prepared to devote to it; it allows you to spend your money on what you enjoy doing; it even, eventually, covers its costs.
There is, obviously, a capital outlay involved when you keep bees. To keep bees effectively you need the tools to open and inspect the hive. You need protective clothing to minimise the risk of stings. (Stings are inevitable but the pain and swelling are worst at first; later stings should have less impact. As a side-effect stings are meant to stave off rheumatism. I am not old enough yet to confirm that!) You will need the stand, floor, a deep box for the nest, a queen excluder to keep the laying queen bee out of the shallow boxes on top used to store the honey, and a crown board and roof on top of that.
You will also need some bees to keep! They can be bought from a dealer; this can be costly but they will be healthy and in good condition. You can capture a swarm, which is cheap but runs some risk that they are infected with one or more of the many bee diseases. You can even leave your hive in the hope that a swarm will find it and adopt it as their new home.

beekeeping training coursWhere?

You also have to decide where you will keep bees. The back garden is fine provided the bees are gentle and are not prone to following you and stinging. Flat roofs can work if you have easy access. (Struggling down ladders with full honey boxes (‘supers’) is no fun at all.) Many farmers are keen for you to keep bees on their land; you just need to go visiting and strike up a good relationship.

Storage

Keeping bees also requires storage; when boxes and feeders and extractors and buckets are not in use outside then they have to be stored somewhere. I found, and you probably will too, that it is safer to keep three to five hives of bees so that if through neglect or mischance one of your colonies loses its queen, starves to death in winter or is overcome by varroa mites and their associated viral diseases then at least you have not lost all your bees – as you would if you only had one colony. The more colonies (hives) you have the greater the storage problem and the greater the initial capital outlay required.

The Varroa Mite

Mentioning the varroa mite brings me to a very important point about keeping bees. The varroa mite in its native habitat is a parasite of the Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana). The varroa mite has now managed (with man’s help unfortunately) to afflict the European bee (Apis mellifera). To our honeybees the varroa mite is not a parasite so much as a pest in that it kills its host. If its numbers are not kept down by bee keeping the afflicted colony is doomed. It is hard to be sure, but there are very few long-standing wild bee colonies now. If you keep bees you will be looking after them.
Just ‘having bees’ is no longer an option. Keeping bees is an active pursuit. By keeping bees you will be doing your bit to maintain the species long enough for them to evolve a way of living with this parasite. Well, we hope they will. They have been around for millions of years so this should be just a hiccough.

Join the Club

Training course for new beekeepers

Training course for new beekeepers

One tip in closing. If you want to keep bees, or if you think you might want to keep bees, then get in touch with a local beekeeping association or club – they are easy to find on the internet. They will provide you with theoretical and practical training, mentoring and advice. They might even lend you much of the equipment you will need for the first year and even give you a starter pack of bees. Even more than that, they are all interested and interesting people and will provide a wider social circle for you and your family, should you so wish it.
By learning through the local Beekeeping Association you can back off without significant financial impact if after a year you find it is not for you.

I hope this article will encourage you to read more about keeping bees and ask people about it and, who knows, take up keeping bees yourself. You will enjoy it.

Websites for some beekeeping associations:
British Beekeeping Association(BBKA)
Welsh Beekeeping Association (WBKA)
Federation of Irish Beekeepers Association (FIBKA)
Scottish Beekeepers Association (SBA)