A year in beekeeping

Oh dear, it’s been a whole year since I last updated – and what have I done?

Not ticked much off the list to be honest… although I did get VERY into beekeeping.

Last you heard, I was starting the winter course at Twickenham and Thames Valley Beekeepers Association. This was a 10-week course to give us all the basics, and a good introduction to beekeeping and bees.

I took lots of notes

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Come April, and the season began so all us beginners attended a taster day – and I was put into a a suit with a big silly grin.

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I was a little nervous that when I actually saw the bees I’d freak out or give up, but it was the exact opposite. I fell in love. Bees are bloody great, guys. And beekeeping is amazing.

After the taster day, due to some bad timing, I missed the first week’s meeting and by the time I got there everyone knew what was going on. I joined a group, and we looked after 2 hives towards the back of the 12-hive apiary. That first day my first nerves hit. I felt a bit behind the curve, one of our hives was a bit grumpy and there was a point when it started getting darker and cooler that the pitch of the buzzing changed – there’s something about 20,000 bees all deciding at once that they’ve had enough that can really make you stop and think.

Also, I got my first ever bee stings. Three in one go. Which is my fault really for wearing black skinny jeans and forgetting everything I’d been told about thick denim and loose fitting clothes. But on the back of a lecture about severe allergic reactions I found that although the sting sites themselves only slightly swelled and turned red, I woke up at 3am with a faster heart rate and upset stomach that I’m sure had about 80% to do with worry about dangerous reactions, and 20% bad reaction at most. (I did have a chat with my GP afterwards who told me to stay away from bees – cue hysterical laughter.)

But I went back, wearing a full suit, and fell in love all over again. I learned how to spot an unmarked queen (although I missed the week we marked her), how to squish queen cups, how to use a tool to count varroa mites on a drone sacrifice (very gooey but endlessly fascinating), which flowers produce the prettiest pollen (and that there’s an app that you can use to find out) – and most importantly, to ask questions! I’ve heard that if you ask two beekeepers a question, you get three opinions, and that’s 100% the truth – but it’s really lovely to be with such a nice group of people who are really passionate about beekeeping. There’s so much knowledge and interest in bees, honey, and the community. It was really lovely.

That’s not to say that we didn’t have our hairier moments. Hive 4 were notorious grumpy bastards, but when it got to midsummer we started extracting honey and so our group of 5 at this point was split. 2 of us went with our beekeeping guru Carl into the extracting room to slice the wax cappings off the honey cells and put the uncapped frames into the extractor, a large drum that spins, acting as a centrifuge, so all the honey is spun out and falls to the bottom of the tank where it can be tapped into a settling tank (so you don’t get bits of wax and bee in your honey jar)*.

This left the 2 other members of the group to deal with one of our hives. They chose nice and friendly Hive 3 so by the time we were sticky with honey and enjoying ourselves, we swapped. And opened up Hive 4 to do our duty. It was getting darker, and windier, and they were already a bunch of gits as bees go. So we went as quickly as possible, pulling out the frames “Yes, those are bees” “So are these” “Good” and putting them back in. At this stage, you’re really checking that they have enough space, and enough eggs and brood, as the likelihood of swarming is quite low.

At some point my fellow trainee turned to me and said ‘that’s 8 stings’. And I thought ‘oh, shit’. I’d been trying to use the smoker to keep the bees away from him, but once they got wind of that a bunch of them sat on the smoker so that I couldn’t use it! Crafty buggers. So we quickly packed up, while the sting count rose. By the time we were done he was being stung just walking through the apiary, not even with his hands in anyone’s hive, and the final count was 14, I believe. He went home ok, but sent an email the following Monday to say that he’d spent the Friday night in hospital and was now carrying 2 epi-pens incase of another allergic reaction.

Another chap also spent a little time in hospital after a bad reaction (incase you’re interested, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and a rash or redness around your lymph nodes – underarms etc – are the things to watch out for), and a lady was stung on her forehead and brought in photos of her very swollen face a few weeks later. So in our group, there’s a lot of allergy testing and resistance going on – beekeeping is not without its dangers! Although apparently we were a rare and unlucky group.

If you didn’t jump to the photo earlier, enjoy something nice after that story.

*This is one of the most beautiful tranquil things I’ve ever seen.

honey extraction

Oh, and the honey was delicious! It’s very stupid of me, but I was surprised how little it’s actually tampered with. When you’re cutting the tops off the cells, you could just dip your finger in and eat it if you wanted (obviously not if you’re selling it for food hygiene reasons, and you might want to watch out for bits of bee). Once it’s been extracted, it goes into a settling tank with a series of filters, so that at the bottom you just get honey, and all the bits and pieces are left above. Then you can bottle it up, and away you go! Very addictive, and therapeutic to do – goes for the whole thing, really.

So in spite of all of the danger, it was a really great experience, and I’m keen to get started on my own! I had a little plan sorted in the summer, and even went to try on beesuits, but now that I’m going to start a new job in April, I’m just not sure how I would go about keeping them. I did drop the ball somewhat over Winter, but hopefully I’ve made some good decisions in other areas of my life so that’ll be a focus for a while! But this beekeeping thing isn’t over yet, and so I’ll be doing some investigating where I can, and if they’ll have me back, I’ll try to go to Twickenham weekly. I do know a London beekeeper, so who knows! Watch this space for more beekeeping action 🙂

 

 

 

Thing 3: Keep bees

Beekeeping in Romania

I don’t remember when I first decided that I’d like to keep bees, but it’s pretty high on the list of things I’d like to do – not least as it appeared at number 3 on my 30before30 list, well above buying a house, or a dog, for example.

I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I think that beekeeping is a fascinating tradition, and bees are fascinating creatures. It’s not that I’m desperate to make and sell my own honey, although I’m more than happy to eat it until I fall over, so perhaps it’s some kind of romantic ideal that I’ll be relaxing in my garden surrounded by my bees.

So point number 4 on the list of 5 ‘essentials’ of beekeeping, as I learned on last night’s beginner’s course was ‘You will get stung’. Now, that doesn’t sound too relaxing, does it?

I have started attended a Beginner’s Beekeeping course/lecture series at the Twickenham and Thames Valley Beekeepers’ Association, or rather I started last night. Huddled into a lovely, warm and friendly shed with a low roof and full of bee-themed items and an intriguing case of books on one side of the room, around 40 of us listened for 2 hours to the first lecture: Introduction to beekeeping in Britain. We learned the 5 ‘essentials’, including ‘Don’t try to out-aggress the hive, they will always win’, and ‘bees are not pets’; watched a video on the hive itself, complete with futuristic, computer-keyboard style music every time a bee moved; asked stupid questions; learned about the evolution of bees (wasps learning to socialise apparently); and numbers in the hive.

A fact I found fascinating: a beehive can be considered a single organism, and each bee a cell within in – this is referred to as a superorganism and one of the books on our reading list (yes, there’s a reading list) deals with this topic. I’ll probably end up reading it, although I might need a biology degree to understand it all.

Next week is The Community of the Bees, and covers the hive and all the roles within it. I’m very excited!

On a boring personal note; I can’t tell you how nice it is to be doing something I have wanted to do for what feels like ages! This feels like I’m now free of formal education and can choose to educate myself as I see fit – I can become the kind of human who keeps bees.

Hooray to that.

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Image credit: Beekeeping in Romania by Charles Roffrey CC BY-NC-ND. Flickr.