Over the last few years many more people are aware of the environment, and of the plight of the honeybee, which is under threat from disease, mites from abroad, loss of habitat and pesticides (both garden and agricultural). Bees are absolutely crucial for the pollination of crops, flowers, fruit and vegetables, as well as wild flowers and trees. In the current environment colonies will probably only survive if there is a beekeeper to look after them. Most of our wild or feral colonies have died out.
There are many ways you can help honey bees but one of the most effective is to become a beekeeper yourself.
Will I like it? You’ll never know till you try it. If you’re not sure, then come along to our winter meetings (they’re 50% social events as well as teaching you about the latest skills) for the background, and to one or more of the apiary visits. If you want to come to an apiary visit you will need correct protective clothing: if you don’t have a bee-suit available, we should be able to arrange for you to borrow one. Contact the events organiser and see if there’s one available for that meeting.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; most beekeepers will be happy to let you know when they’re working their bees, and would welcome a second pair of hands.
How much time will it take? It varies a lot: in the winter each hive will need one or 2 visits which should only take a few minutes each; spring and summer reckon on one visit every 5 -9 days, lasting up to half an hour for each hive. Most beekeepers are fascinated by their bees and will visit the apiary at the slightest excuse. And of course there’s cleaning and preparing equipment over the winter, extracting honey, melting down honeycomb, making candles, creams and potions…
What about getting stung? You’ll almost certainly get stung: the anticipation is usually worse than the event. You can minimise the risk by wearing protective clothing: a bee-suit with veil, gloves, and suitable boots. Many beekeepers find that if they are stung regularly then they develop partial immunity to the venom. I rarely get stung more than once or twice a season.
A very few people have an allergy to bee venom, so if you know that you do have a severe reaction, then seek medical advice if you wish to keep bees. Epi pens should be available from your doctor if you have a major allergy; otherwise anti-histamines, ice etc will ease the discomfort for the necessary day or two.
What kit will I need? Protective clothing; a smoker, bees, one complete hive (2 hives of bees is better if you can get them). Thorne’s and Fragile Planet, for example, sell several starter kits which are good value for staring up: see their websites.
What does it cost? Bee-suits cost from £45; complete new hives from about £100 if you buy them flat-pack and build them yourself; second hand equipment and bees are also occasionally available locally – ask at meetings. A small starter colony of bees (probably not enough to produce much surplus honey in the first year) will cost about £150, depending where you buy them from. If you can, buy a local strain of bee, which will be used to local conditions. If you really want to splash out, a new hive with all the fittings, made up and ready to use, will cost you about £300.
How can I learn? Go to as many of the local beekeeper’s meetings as you can: you benefit from local expertise as well as sessions presented by Graeme Sharpe, from the Scottish Agricultural College. Summer meetings at apiaries are also very helpful – tell the demonstrator you’re a beginner and he’ll make sure you get a good view of the hive and the techniques used. Ask local beekeepers if you can help out next time they work their bees.
There are a number of beginners’ classes organised – check out local websites such as SBKA, Edinburgh Midlothian BKA, Fife BKA etc. The Scottish Beekeepers Association has a series of graded exams and certificates, so that you can constantly improve your expertise and gain the certificates to prove it.
“I’d always wanted to keep bees since I was five, and watched my next door neighbour extracting honey from his hives. He was in his nineties and had learnt beekeeping from his father. Beekeeping remained just pie-in-the-sky but 3 years ago I saw a notice in the local paper about a PBKA meeting, thought well, don’t just think about it, go and do it – went along, got chatting, found it even more interesting than I’d reckoned, and started asking around to find where I could get bees and hives. I was lucky enough to buy some from a local retiring beekeeper. I love it – there’s a huge amount to learn, you do make some mistakes of course, but beekeepers are a great bunch and they’ll always help out with advice and even a quick visit in a crisis. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
How long does a worker bee live?
Essentially a worker bee lives about 6 weeks during the summer months. After emerging from the cell it spends about 3 weeks in the hive where it does various tasks such as feeding other bees, moving honey, cleaning the hive and guarding the entrance. After 3 weeks the bees starts to fly from the hive and forage for nectar, water and other products which they bring back into the hive. The bee dies after this period, having essentially worked itself to death.
Can all bees sting?
There are 3 types of bees in the hive
- the queen
- worker bees (females)
- drones (males)
The queen has a sting but only uses it to kill other queen bees. The queen can sting repeatedly. However it is rare for a queen to sting out with the hive. Worker bees have a large barb on their sting and can only sting once. Drones do not have a sting.
Do bees die after they sting?
The queen bee does not die after using her sting. However, when the worker bee stings the barb causes the sting to remain attached to the victim along with the poison sack which was part of the bee’s abdomen. The bee dies shortly thereafter as a result of the damage caused to its abdomen.