Spreading the Bee Buzz #11 – Starting Beekeeping

The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.

Beginners usually spend some months reading, learning about different appraches, and training, before choosing a hive type and getting bees in Spring. As with anything in life, it is wise to begin by considering why you want to do something and what you hope to get out of it, before investing time and money; there are different types of hive optimised for different purposes. Your primary interest may be honey; pollination; conservation; or you may simply be fascinated by the behaviours of such alien creatures. I know people who just unwind by watching their bees.

The preparation through reading books and web articles, watching YouTube videos, and actually being present when hives are opened (through a course or mentor) is essential. There are horror stories about people buying a hive of bees and not knowing how to manage it. Like any other creatures, they react badly to mishandling, and fear!

You need to understand that it is a commitment of time and money. You can save hundreds of pounds if you build your own hive and catch a swarm, but you’ll also need protective gear and some tools. But more significantly, it is a long term commitment of time, and very seasonal. It helps to know other beekeepers who can cover for you during emergencies when you are at work or on holiday.

As bees forage up to 3 miles away, a large garden isn’t necessary; the corollary is this means most UK honey is not ‘organic’ as it is likely they have foraged on sprayed crops! Legally, as they are not contained, they are classified as wild animals and neighbours cannot legally stop you keeping them in Britain, but it is only polite and considerate to discuss the idea with them and educate them about the harmlessness of swarms.

I was recently at a meeting where people interested in starting beekeeping, aka ‘newbees’, could gain some guidance as above but also ask questions directly of other beekeepers. One intriguing question was “can I keep bees on a narrowboat, which is sometimes moved?” The answer was “not advisable” – firstly and fundamentally, the strong vibration from the engine when either charging the batteries or moving will make the bees very alarmed and defensive. Secondly, bees memorise the location of their hive and return precisely to that spot after a foraging trip. If the hive (boat) has moved they will be left behind and die.

Another very interesting point came up about keeping bees near Hook Norton. Normally, it is best to use local bees to avoid which can occur when two strains of bee cross-mate. But ‘Hooky’ is a centre of Buckfast breeding, an artificial race bred for honey yield. Their genetics swamp the area and any bees you keep near there are likely to end up crossed with Buckfasts. But in our experience, Buckfasts do not thrive unless continually dosed with chemicals to kill parasites – which is not ideal, in my opinion. There was no good answer here.

As one newbee observed insightfully, no rigid methodology can ever be completely right and everyone comes up with their own style of beekeeping, blending ideas that work for them and their bees.

If you live in Oxfordshire and would like to learn more about keeping bees, and perhaps confirm you are comfortable handling them, we can be contacted through this blogsite.

Previous articles in this series are:
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