I am going to write about some things which I have found surprising since taking up beekeeping. It could be that I did not talk to the right people or read the right books, but for whatever reason, these are things that were either unknown to me, or maybe they just weren’t stressed strongly enough:
Beekeeping is Expensive
Seriously. There are ways to cut costs, but let’s not kid ourselves, getting started is going to set you back more money than you probably expect. Some things like bee hives can be made if you happen to be a carpenter, but unless you have a workshop fitted out with a router, nail gun and all those power tools that bemuse the likes of me, then the costs of setting one up are high too. When starting out you need a minimum of two colonies of bees, not one. If you only have one you are in a precarious situation, for should anything go wrong with your singular queen bee you are very quickly an ex-beekeeper.
Lets look at some typical set up costs:
2 complete bee hives £500
Frames and foundation £150
Bee suit with veil £100
Sundry essential equipment £50
2 nucleus colonies of bees £400
That’s £1,200 for starters, and you will very quickly find out that you need more and more bee boxes, nucleus boxes and later on if you are lucky enough to get honey, all of the honey extraction and storage equipment. There’s also sugar syrup to consider, and of course treatments for varroa mites…it never ends.
Finding an Apiary isn’t easy
Most people in the UK live in cities, which means a high population density with neighbours on all sides of your garden, assuming you actually have a garden. If you set up an apiary in your back garden you may be biting off more than you can chew.
Many bumble bee nests contain about 300 fluffy inhabitants but honey bee colonies grow very big, often up to 50,000 worker bees per colony by late June, and that means a lot of potentially stinging insects flying in and out. When they fly after being cooped up for a while, due to it being winter or just prolonged rain, they do a “cleansing flight” which means they all rush out and do an enormous poo. This can leave yellow streaks on the neighbours’ clean washing, cars, swimming pools or whatever, which won’t be welcome. Also, the air will sometimes become thick with great clouds of bees swirling like a storm as they either swarm or accompany a queen on a mating flight. Some people get freaked out by this. So when choosing an apiary, choose wisely. I found a friendly farmer and use a corner of his field. It is far from the city which means I have to travel but I don’t get any complaints or law suits.
Beekeepers rarely agree on anything
It’s always amazed me how people who all share a love of bees can be less than loving to fellow beekeepers, particularly on internet forums. There seem to be different factions. On any given topic many people have formed fixed views and anyone with a different view is a fool, or evil, or doing more harm than good. Beekeepers have fights online about all sorts of things, although I have generally found them to be very friendly face to face.
Beekeepers disagree on many things and get very heated about them. Here are some examples:
– what type of bee to keep (Buckfast, hybrids, black bees, Italians…)
– what type of box to keep them in (wood, poly, National, Langstroth, Dadant…)
– treatments for varroa (thymol, oxalic acid dribble, oxalic acid vaporised, formic acid, amitaz, no treatment at all…)
– over wintering conditions (ventilation vs. insulation, feeding syrup vs leaving honey…)
– queen bees (how often to change, whether to clip wings, buying vs. breeding your own…)
– pesticides (useful tool of farmers vs. evil poison from money grabbing corporations)
And so on. Humans, eh?
Nobody seems to stress strongly enough just how useful duct tape is in beekeeping. It is marvellous stuff. It can block up holes, hold robber entrances in place, keep nucleus colonies intact when transporting them by holding the bits together, seal up clothing at ankle and wrist if needed, the list goes on. I tape wasp traps to stands so they don’t blow over. I copy Mike Palmer by sticking tape on the hive roof and writing notes on it in marker ink. Put around the inside of a shaker box at the top it seems to deter bees from crawling out over the sides. I love it, and use lots.
Hive tools and smoker
Until you actually go through a hive you don’t fully appreciate just how important these things are. Without a hive tool you literally can’t get into a bee hive because bees stick the boxes together with propolis. They also stick the frames together inside, so again the hive tool is absolutely necessary to prize them apart so that they can be inspected. When I occasionally lose my hive tool by dropping it in long grass for example, I panic. That’s why I keep spares.
The thing about smokers is that you only really need them sometimes, but when you do, you really do. The idea is to use gentle whips of smoke to keep bees calm rather than fumigate the colony, as this will have the opposite effect to the one desired. Each beekeeper has his or her own formula for what to burn to make the smoke. I use a mixture of wood chips, egg cartons and shredded paper, and I light it with a small kitchen blow torch – the type used for making creme broulée. The bigger the smoker the longer it stays burning, so I favour big ones.
The queen bee is the mother of the colony and its single most important member. The difference between a good queen and a not so good queen is vast. When you first start out you don’t know the difference, but once you have seen what a good queen can do, you will only want good queens. There is a lot of rubbish out there. Poor queens are not very prolific, or they are prolific at the wrong time, their brood pattern is patchy, and their offspring have undesirable traits such as bad temper or they are not calm on the combs, or they don’t bring in as much pollen or nectar as other colonies, or they are less hygienic. Many people use swarm cells to make a new queen and this can lead to breeding bees that tend to swarm easily, which is not how you get a good honey crop.
Wasps and Hornets
In my part of the UK at certain times of the year wasps are a nightmare. Many books just gloss over this, saying a strong colony will look after itself, but the reality is that from late August to October I have to deal with a lot wasps. They gang up on a colony and relentlessly rob it so that even if it survives you won’t get much honey, but often it will become too weak to make it through the winter. I put robber screens on the entrances to nucleus colonies and block off any upper entrance or holes. I use wasp bane traps (another expense) which are very good. I try to find wasp nests and when I do I destroy them. It’s a dog eat dog…or should I say wasp eat bee…world out there.
Normal European hornets don’t seem to be much of a bother to me but I am well aware that Asian hornets are on their way from the Continent, and these will need a whole new set of defensive behaviours and equipment modifications.
Peace of Mind
It may be expensive to get started, and there may be difficulties along the way, and sometimes even if you do everything right the weather goes against you, but despite this I think keeping bees is a truly wonderful pursuit. Time spent inspecting colonies of bees on balmy summer afternoons are the best meditation there is. The world stops; there is nothing but this fascinating universe of eggs and larvae and workers and drones and pollen and honey…it is almost spiritual. Since taking up beekeeping I have become a very happy walrus with a more serene and peaceful mind than ever before.