Essential guide for beekeeping in Britain

Written by nicole kauffman
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Starting a hive and keeping it going

Essential guide for beekeeping in Britain
Hives can have up to 60,000 bees in the summer. (Getty Premium images)

It is not an easy hobby. It's work. A lot of people just aren't up for that.

— Tim Tucker, 20-year beekeeper

The number of honeybees in the United Kingdom have been declining at an alarming rate since 2006, and all 250 species of bees in the UK are believed to be at risk. Studies have shown that sustaining bee populations is essential to ensuring the survival of Britain's plants and crops. A decline in honeybees can have serious consequences: Bees pollinate 80 percent of all plants, including about 90 food crops. The decline has been largely attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), the indications of which include the presence of a live queen, immature bees and a low number of adult bees but no visible dead bees. Scientists don't know what causes CCD, but they think it's a perfect storm of pests, pesticides and stress on the bees. CCD essentially is a drastic weakening of bees, and it commonly has affected colonies that are moved cross-country repeatedly in large trucks for pollination. However, all is not lost as a resurgence in hobbyist beekeepers is keeping the industry buzzing.

The plight of the Honeybee

Tim Tucker, a 20-year beekeeper says the bee industry was in decline long before CCD arrived. Since the 1950s, the bees' natural habitat — wooded areas featuring hollow trees — has been disappearing. In the past 20 or so years, mites carrying viruses have caused hive problems. But CCD is the biggest threat yet.

That’s where hobbyists come in.

Keeping bees in a backyard gives them a habitat, and it usually allows them access to a variety of trees, flowering bushes and white clover and ornamental plants. Bees are general pollinators and can thrive in many settings.

"They do really good in an urban environment," said Tucker. Indeed, Conservation watchdog Natural England has been actively encouraging people to install hives in urban areas and grow "bee friendly" plants and flowers.

Busy as a beekeeper

Essential guide for beekeeping in Britain
A hive basically is a layered box in which a bee colony lives. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

A novice beekeeper may start with a single colony, which has 15,000 to 60,000 bees, depending on the time of year. First, however, he must become familiar with the local restrictions on beekeeping, which dictate where and how many hives he may keep and whether he must provide water for the hive — to discourage the bees from drinking from a neighbour's dog bowl, for example.

It is recommended to get bees from a local source because they will be acclimated to the region and tolerant of the area's pathogens and parasites. The British Beekeeper's Association (BBKA) have very good information on where you can source bees locally.

When the bees arrive in the mail with the queen separately packaged, the beekeeper empties the box into a hive, which consists of a bottom board, two hive bodies, three medium honey "supers" — the parts of hives where the honey collects — and an inner and outer cover.

In addition to a hive, a beekeeper needs a smoker, which burns wood chips or burlap and puffs smoke onto the bees to keep them under control when tending them, as well as a hive tool, which Brackney likened to a crowbar. It is used to pry open the hive, which becomes glued shut with plant resins.

Bee safe

And, of course, beekeepers need proper attire: coveralls, a hat, a veil and gloves, known collectively as a bee suit. The suit helps protect against stings, although nothing can prevent them completely. Stings are part of the business, and you should make sure you aren't allergic to bee stings before you become a beekeeper. Bees sting only when they are defending their hives, and over time, beekeepers become "desensitised."

A bee dies after stinging, but its jagged stinger remains in the skin and releases pheromones that incite the other bees. If one stings, many more will sting. Scraping the stinger off the skin in the same direction it is going instead of pulling it out will keep the remaining venom in the stinger sac and out of the skin.

Work on the hive is seasonal, with the busiest time during the spring and summer. The BBKA says it generally takes about ½ an hour per hive per week from mid April to August. In addition honey is extracted twice a year. Most beekeepers check their hives every two to four weeks, making sure the queen is alive and that the bees have enough nourishment, which can be a problem in the winter months.

Sweet rewards

What do bees do all day? That depends on the caste of bee. Female worker bees divvy up tasks, some coming and going from the hive up to a dozen times a day as they forage for nectar and pollen. Other workers tend the honey and beeswax, while still others feed the brood or tend the queen, feeding her "royal jelly" — a mixture of B vitamins, sugar, amino acids and trace minerals.

The queen's job is to mate with the males, called drones. She then lays eggs in honeycomb cells, with each cell's size determining the caste fate of the particular baby bee.

When worker bees have removed all the excess water from the honey and capped their production with wax, it's ready for consumption. After a hive is well-established, the beekeeper may harvest honey several times a year.

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