A Busy Weekend

As a new venture I involuntarily became a lecturer. It must have been ok because the lady who tricked me into it wrote: “Thank you so much for your help and support – it was invaluable. I had so much very positive feedback from staff and customers about your talk – everyone loved them.” 

The Gardens Group who run garden centres at Sherborne, Yeovil and Dorchester decided to have a Bee Week and wanted beekeepers to attend at talk about bees. I passed the word around the local BKAs and raised it at a Council meeting but nobody was interested so I agreed to do it myself, attending each centre for a couple of hours to talk bees on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

The impression I had was that I would sit around with a few props and engage passers by with bee-talk. I was rather shocked when I arrived at Sherborne and was told that I was to be in the greenhouse. I went there and found it was set out like a class room with rows of chairs.  It was to be a formal lecture!  I was unprepared except for a list of random beginners’ questions, a few bee pictures and my ballad on the life of the worker bee.

The first thing I did was to re-arrange the chairs into a horse-shoe shape as it is far more friendly and informal than rows. I fetched my props and dressed in my new, shiny white bee-suit (in which I sweated heavily!). Then I talked and answered questions for getting on for 2 hours to 15 adults, 3 kids and a dog, ending with the survivors singing my ballad.

I must have been very high on adrenalin as I was very dozy as a reaction for the rest of the day.  I was more prepared the following days, hanging the suit up rather than wearing it. Numbers were greater on Sunday and Monday and I got them singing sooner rather than later. The mainstay of the talks was my list of questions which was a handout.  It is copied below.


Here, in random order, is a list of questions that beginners might ask. This is just the index. The answers come later. There will be quite a bit of overlap between the answers and maybe some contradictions.

1. How do I get started?
2. Can I keep bees at home?
3. What if I’m allergic to stings?
4. What protective clothing do I need?
5. Should I wear gloves?
6. Will I need to buy an extractor?
7. What type of hive should I get?
8. Can I build my own hives?
9. Where can I get more information?
10. Can I keep bees on the allotments?
11. The family/neighbours don’t want me to keep bees at home. Where else can I keep them?
12. What do bees produce apart from honey?
13. How long do bees live?
14. How do I find the queen?
15. Do I need to find the queen?
16. How should I handle bees?
17. Will I get stung?
18. How many bees are in a hive?
19. How often do I need to look at my bees?
20. How much time will they take up?
21. How long does the queen live?
22. What happens when they swarm?
23. Do I need to buy bees to get started?
24. Can you recommend any good books?
25. Can I keep bees in a town?
26. Where can I buy equipment?
27. How long does it take a hive to produce honey?
28. Why do beekeepers open hives?
Those are the questions. Here are the answers in the same order:

1. How do I get started? Join the local beekeepers’ association. Attend their meetings, especially apiary meetings where you will have a chance to handle bees. Let people know that you need bees/ equipment/ a site/ a mentor and something will turn up. Dorchester & Weymouth BKA has an excellent auction every April.  If you’re rich and impatient, then you might consider buying new stuff, even bees, but bear in mind that the people who make money out of beekeeping are those who sell things to beekeepers! Don’t buy bees from outside the area. Local mongrels are fine.

2. Can I keep bees at home? That depends on what your home’s like. Consider your neighbours. Sooner or later you will make a pig’s ear and the garden will be unliveable-in for a couple of hours.  You’ll be ok in your junior moon-man suit, but the kids playing in the garden next door will be vulnerable. You won’t be popular if they get stung! If you think you can get away with it, consider flight lines: bees follow highways in the sky and it would be as well if the postman didn’t have to cross their road every time he goes to your front door.  By your back door might be good as you could watch their comings and goings while you’re doing the washing up, or you could put a bench there and observe them over a cup of tea. It’s good if you can get your bees to fly above head-level by siting them behind a hedge, a row of beans or a net.

3. What if I’m allergic to stings? You are allergic to stings!  That’s how stings work.  Some people are more allergic than others and allergic reaction may vary with the degree of exposure. The first stings of the year always caused me to take 2 days swelling up and another 2 going down again, but by August, 5 minutes after being stung I would have difficulty in remembering on which hand I was stung.  Having learned by this, nowadays I try to get a few stings during the winter to keep the immunity up.  Stings still hurt just as much at the moment of being stung, but there are no after effects.

On very rare occasions (not every decade) you may get ‘hives’. This is a strange reaction to a sting or two which makes you come out in a rash all over, have a hissing in the ears and a pounding of the heart. The first time it happened to me, over 30 years ago, I went to the doctor. He sat me down in the corner of of his office for half an hour while he got on with some work. After that time, as I hadn’t collapsed, he gave me some anti-histamines and told me to give up beekeeping.

If you get anaphyllactic shock you won’t know anything about it. You’ll just collapse. The nearest first aider should treat you for shock while dialling 999. Having been around beekeepers for over 30 years I have met very few who are as sensitive.  One lady, Margaret from Motcombe told me that she would have about 30 seconds before collapsing, but nevertheless she and her husband still kept a few hives in their garden. It tends not to be the beekeeper who gets so sensitive, but members of their family who get homoeopathic doses of venom indirectly from the beekeeper’s clothing or hive debris.  It is a thing to be aware of but not to worry about unless you have a special reason to do so.

4. What protective clothing do I need? It is unwise to open a hive without eye protection as eyes are vulnerable, irreplaceable and are likely to be targetted by angry bees as they are the darkest features of the face and the blinking eyelids will be noticed. When I started beekeeping, most people used a simple net veil with an elasticated top that fitted over a broad brimmed hat from a jumble sale.  Nowadays you can spend a fortune disguising yourself as a spaceman.  So, you NEED a veil, but you might WANT something a little more substantial until you gain confidence.  The better protected you are the less sensitive to the ways of the bees you will be.

Cycle clips are useful as it is difficult to maintain concentration while feeling a tickling sensation making its way up your trouser leg.  Similarly, elasticated/ Velcro cuffs are helpful.  Beekeeping can be a grubby and sticky business and a pair of cheap overalls from an agricultural supplier will mean that your smart clothes aren’t ruined.  I did, for the first time, buy a top-to-toe suit recently, having got carried away on E-bay.  I’m keeping it for best!

5. Should I wear gloves? That would be sensible if your hands are cold, but not for beekeeping. You see gloves on sale that are more suitable for laying hedges or for thatching than for beekeeping.  I started off with gloves such as those. They make you clumsy and insensitive, thereby making the bees much worse tempered than otherwise they would be.  To gain confidence while retaining some protection, I cut the thumb and first two fingers off a pair of old leather gloves.  That meant I could handle the frames without getting the end of the gloves jammed and causing jolting and so was a great improvement, but the gloves retained the smell of old stings and so provoked more.

Gloves can be useful for keeping sticky honey and propolis off the steering wheel when you’re driving home.  Washing-up gloves of the ‘Marigold’ type are popular but I have still seen people wearing them get the finger tips stuck at the end of frames, so, if you use them, cut off the finger and thumb tips. Bees can sting through most gloves but are less inclined to do so if they don’t smell of old stings and if they hide the smell of the mammal wearing them.

6. Will I need to buy an extractor? If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought an extractor early on in my beekeeping career. It is a drum about as big as an oil drum that sits idly taking up valuable space in your shed for 364 days in a year.  If you are a member of your local beekeepers’ association it is likely that they will have one that you can borrow if you want to go to all that trouble.  Simpler is either to go for cut comb or else to use an ice cream scoop to scrape the combs down to the mid-rib or even to cut out the whole comb, bash it about and put it in the fruit press.  The threshold for making an extractor a ‘must-have’ item is about half a dozen hives.

7. What type of hive should I get?  That depends. Don’t go for the WBC pyramidal type except a garden ornament to house compost. The most popular hive by far in this country is the National (about 80%). This means that there is a good second-hand market in them.  They are pretty good to use and have the advantage of being square, so you can have one box at right angles to the one below, which can be useful at times.  The disadvantage, as with all hives of the ‘stacking boxes’ type is the weight when they are full of honey, as well as being glued down by the bees. A super can weigh about 30 lbs and a brood box full of honey can be half a hundredweight.  Life being as it is, the heaviest ones are set at the most awkward angle. This all give rise to the well-known condition: beekeeper’s back!

What is the alternative? Think laterally!  Instead of having everything stacked vertically, arrange the combs in a horizontal row, the top bars being at about waist height.  If you want to do it the expensive way, you can buy a ‘Long, Deep Hive’ which has frames deeper than usual and which has half sized supers which are half the weight to lift. Otherwise you can dispense with frames and have a top bar hive of the type used by the million in Africa but are scarce over here.

I made my first top bar hive from scrap pallet wood in 1999 and it cost me nothing. It is now due for renewal and I am making a similar one also from scrap wood. My design has top bars the same length as those in  National hives so they are interchangeable. The 17” long top bars form the diameter of a half cylinder so the combs are semi circular, the shape bees produce combs naturally. Other designs are available commercially using plywood and a trapezoidal design that is not, to my mind, as good as mine.

8. Can I build my own hives? Of course you can if you can do woodwork. Manufacturers sell hives ‘in the flat’, ie not yet assembled, cheaper than those ready for use. I bought one in the flat when I was a beginner and, before I assembled it, placed the parts on sheets of paper and drew round them so I had the pattern to make my own from scratch.  There are also plans available from the BBKA and also on-line. The late Dave Cushman’s web site : Beekeeping and Bee Breeding is particularly good for plans you can print.

9. Where can I get more information? The Library has, or can get, plenty of books.  Or there’s the internet!  The Dorset BKA has a web site and so do most of the local branches and the British BKA, the umbrella body of English beekeepers.  Google ‘Beekeeping and Bee Breeding’ to find the best beekeeping web site in the world.

10. Can I keep bees on the allotments? That depends on the owners/managers and whether you ask them or heed a refusal.  I have had bees on my corner plot with permission since 1978.  I know somebody who kept bees on his allotment on Portland without permission. They were kept in a roofless garden shed so they were out of sight and flew above head height. All the other allotment holders knew about the bees, were supportive and kept their mouths shut.

If you do decide to keep bees on your allotment, take care with regard to flight lines and also keep them out of sight to avoid theft and vandalism or other people being frightened of them. Don’t open them when people are working close by.

11. The family/neighbours don’t want me to keep bees at home. Where else can I keep them?  The allotments; somebody else’s garden; orchard; farm.  Now that there has been so much publicity regarding the benefits of bees, many people who don’t want to become beekeepers themselves are happy to offer sites to people who do. Some BKAs have communal apiary sites where you can keep a hive.

12. What do bees produce apart from honey? Food for the table by pollinating many of the vegetables we eat, except spuds, rice, wheat and cornflakes.  
Pollen can be trapped and eaten or sold. It is said to be very nutritious and health giving. I know a very youthful looking pensioner who buys it by the kilo!
Propolis is composed of resins collected from plants to which bees add a little magic of their own. It is anti fungal, anti virus and anti biotic and forms a major part of the bee colony’s immune system.  It can be used to make tinctures for healing cuts and grazes, boosting the immune system, local anaesthetic for sore throats, toothache etc. Stradivarius used it in the varnish for his violins.
Wax can be used for candles, modelling, polish, waterproofing or for art work.
Venom is collected by some specialists for medicinal reasons, there being a school of medicine known as apitherapy.
Royal jelly is exported by the Chinese in hundreds of tons, mainly to Japan.  The bees produce it to feed infant queens, one of which might consume getting on for a quarter of a teaspoonful!

13. How long do bees live? That depends on the time of year. In the height of summer they work themselves to death in 6 weeks, half of which is spent as ‘house bees’ cleaning up, feeding the babies, wax work, relieving foragers of what they bring in and in guard duty. The remainder of their lives is spent as foragers. Later in the year they don’t have to work as hard and so a worker hatched in September might live until the following March.

14. How do I find the queen? Adjust your spectacles to the best position; go through the hive very slowly and gently using the minimum of smoke.  Look at the face of each comb as you withdraw it, running your eyes first around the perimeter and then towards the centre before turning the frame over and looking at the other side. Queens tend to move way from light and so holding the side of the frame away from you towards the sun might send her round to your side. Once you have found her you can mark her with a blob of paint to make the job easier next time.

15. Do I need to find the queen? Usually, no.  If you can see eggs, you know she was there within the last three days. Sometimes, when making an artificial swarm for example, it is important to know where the queen is, but by the time you are advanced enough to do that, you will have your queens marked anyway.

16. How should I handle bees? Very gently and slowly.  When moving your hands over a hive, do so at half speed.  Because of their multi-faceted compound eyes, bees are very much more sensitive to movement than we are and will investigate things that attract their attention in that way.  Be careful not to squash bees.  They are very sensitive to scent and the smell of the decaying corpses of their squashed sisters from the last time you closed up the hive won’t put them in a good mood!

17. Will I get stung? Yes.

18. How many bees are in a hive? Ten times as many as there are millimetres in piece of string.  It varies from colony to colony and with the time of year, and state of activity. A strong colony at the height of summer might have 40,000. The same colony would be reduced to maybe 15,000 in January.  In May it might swarm, sending off the queen and a retinue of maybe 15,000, leaving as many behind. It might then, a week later, send off a secondary swarm or cast with maybe 5,000.  Some strains, like the Italians, are more prolific than our native bees and potentially might get more honey if the conditions are right, but unfortunately they also tend to eat their heads off and swarm a lot so the beekeeper either has to leave them more honey or feed them a load of sugar and also have a lot more spare equipment handy.

19. How often do I need to look at my bees? That depends on how ‘hands on’ and ‘managerial’ or just plain nosy you are inclined to be. During the swarming season, it is as well to look in about once a week unless you/they have arranged things so that swarming is unlikely. Most openings are to satisfy natural beekeeper curiosity and are not really necessary. I have a couple of hives in darkest Cornwall that I see only about three times a year and they do very well without me.

20. How much time will they take up? Be warned: beekeeping starts as an interest, develops into a hobby and ends up as an obsession!  I spend far more time talking and writing about bees than I do playing with them.  I know professional beekeepers, to whom time is money, who allocate 3 minutes per hive including travelling time.  The amateur beekeeper, however, could easily spend 20 minutes pleasurably browsing through an open hive. Examining a hive is almost akin to meditation in that everything else is shut out of mind when the bees are in view.

21. How long does the queen live? I have seen one of my queens pass her 4th birthday. Other people have known older ones. Generally they tend to swarm in their second and/or third year and so are lost to the beekeeper unless he takes preventative measures or catches the swarm. Some strains of bees tend to supersede their queens without swarming and this a useful trait worth encouraging.

22. What happens when they swarm? When you were at school you learned about the amoeba that multiplies by dividing itself in two. That is just what colony of bees does. The workers persuade the queen to lay eggs in a number of queen cells they have especially prepared for the purpose.  When these are developing well, so that succession is ensured, about half the workers stream from the hive, persuading the queen to come with them. They fly around in a whirling mass until they can find a convenient place, say a branch, to settle on.  This is convenient for the beekeeper who can then contain and re-home them.

While they are clustered on the branch, the swarm sends out scouts to find suitable cavities for a new home and report back. The scouts recruit others to inspect their finds. Eventually they form a democratic consensus as to the best new home and all fly off to it.

23. Do I need to buy bees to get started? No. You can catch a swarm or persuade bees to hive themselves in a bait hive you have set up, using scented attractors (a bit of old brood comb being best).  If you can persuade a beekeeper to make an artificial swarm or a nucleus to get you started it will probably cost you something in the region of £100. This is reasonable as it represents the value of the honey his bees would have got if the colony had remained intact.

24. Can you recommend any good books?
E.B.Wedmore’s ‘Manual of Beekeeping’, which was first published in 1932 and is still in print.
Ted Hooper’s ‘Guide to Bees and Honey’ which is very readable and contains some good advice, particularly on what to look for every time you open a hive but is unfortunately tainted by the fashion for imported bees that prevailed at the time the book was written. Ron Brown’s ‘Beekeeping,  a Seasonal Guide’ which takes one through the beekeeping year with sections in each chapter for beginners, improvers and experienced beekeepers. When you’ve got your bees, you might like to buy a copy of ‘Getting the Best from Your Bees’ by me, Chris Slade, co-authored with Dave MacFawn of S. Carolina.

25. Can I keep bees in a town? Yes, many people do, tucked away in corners or on rooftops. As everybody with a garden takes pride in something being in flower at any time, bees very often do much better in towns than in the countryside, especially where agriculture is on an industrial scale.

26. Where can I buy equipment? Dorchester & Weymouth BKA’s auction in April; e-bay; National Bee Supplies at Okehampton; Thornes who have  branch outside Stockbridge.

27. How long does it take a hive to produce honey? Just a few days. They do it all the time the weather is suitable for flying and there are flowers yielding nectar.  If the question is re-phrased to ask when a honey crop may be taken by the beekeeper, the answer depends on whether your bees are near a substantially yielding crop like oilseed rape that needs harvesting early; what your philosophy is regarding feeding sugar syrup as a substitute as opposed to allowing the bees to winter on their own stores: whether you are a beekeeper for love of the bees or for love of honey money.

28. Why do beekeepers open hives? To see whether they might be getting too crowded; to check that they are queenright (by the presence of eggs); to compare with other hives; to look for swarming preparations; to look out for pests or diseases and to see whether they have enough stores. That’s what the book (Hooper) says. Really, as often as not, the beekeeper opens the hive for the sheer pleasure of playing with the wonderful creatures within. It’s always good to watch others at work!       © Chris Slade 2011

I took my replacement top bar hive along on the Sunday and Monday and it attracted some interest from those who heeded my warning about ‘beekeeper’s back.  Photos and measurements were taken so maybe they’ll become fashionable.


About chrissladesbeeblog

I have been keeping bees since 1978 and currently have about a dozen hives. I am a member of the BBKA where for many years I represented Dorset at the Annual Delegates' Meeting. I am the co-author (with Dave MacFawn of of S. Carolina) of "Getting the Best from Your Bees" and am working on a book of my own poems : "Bee People".
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