A Year In Beekeeping – The Results Are In

A Year In Beekeeping – The Results Are In

This article was first published in the newsletter of The British Beekeepers’ Association (December 2015).

As the 2015 beekeeping year came to end and I packed away my suit, my sanity and any excuse I had to desert my wife with the two toddlers, it was time to evaluate. Had I succeeded or failed; enjoyed or silently suffered; protected my bees or squashed a few too many? And how, my dear friends, does a beekeeper actually evaluate a year in beekeeping?

Unlike a football manager I don’t have a league of success where I can rate my achievements (or lack thereof). So what do I look for? Is it producing buckets of honey or above average winter survival rates? Is it learning new skills or having more colonies than you started with? Or is it just surviving the year? Well it’s a bit of all of that …

Kick Off

My beekeeping year started with disaster. By April my four colonies had all expired. I can’t be sure, but I think it was due to a combination of the following factors: moving two hives to an exposed location in the middle of winter, an old queen and possible nosema.

Lesson learnt: don’t listen to some of those old knowledgeable dudes. Not feeding the bees or not insulating their hives might work for them but not for novices (three years in and I still count myself as one). Hefting hives and colony insulation is the way to go for beekeepers like me.

The Transfer Window

In April, I bought two nucs of bees from a Mr Bee. As the name suggests he’s a bit of a don so I was happy with my new team and confident they would lead me to beekeeping glory.

I was optimistic. Some might say overly optimist. I was the Jose Mourinho of the allotment; talking about the strength of my team, the buzz of the crowds and the perfect conditions. My coat wasn’t quite as swanky as his but I perfected his arrogance and knack of talking nonsense – without the threat of an apiary ban.

I regularly visited the bees and all looked good. From a distance at least as I was trying the ‘hands off’, observe the bees, theory of beekeeping. I realised I quite liked my beekeeping visits now that they consisting of simply having a coffee.

Unexpected Attack

They came from nowhere. I didn’t see it coming. Then all of a sudden the wasps were on the attack. They were like the Bayern Munich to my Bristol Rovers. No hope …

And of course it wasn’t just the bees feeling the imminent threat but the neighbours and more hysterically, my wife. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have better sealed the winter syrup laden supers I decided to leave in the garage. Yes, perhaps that didn’t help.


In some ways the bees have been kind to me this year. Only one sting and I caught a swarm that went on to become a strong colony. (I highly recommend swarm traps and the pheromone lure by the way).

However… and it’s a big however… the hives only produced 5 x ½ lb jars of honey. Yes, that’s the total result from 4 hives, 50 hours of effort and about £500 spent on nucs and equipment.

I also had to let my toddler know the plan for a pop-up honey stall at the end of the garden might have to be put on hold. That was a toughie. I had to agree with her, they were indeed ‘naughty bees’.

The Final Minutes

I started my countdown to winter in August, as me and my bees were not going down without a fight this year.

I firstly treated the colonies with Apiguard and then started feeding in September. They still had a high varroa count in October and it was warm enough to use MAQs strips. I then tried to be more scientific measuring the weight of the hives to ensure they had enough stores to see them through (each side of hives hefting at 15Kg by the end of October). I made sure the hives had minimal air space and wrapped them up in an insulated, waterproof and breathable jacket. Looking proper snug I regained a certain smugness.

Beekeeper With Insulated Hives
Beekeeper With Insulated Hives

The Final Result

So in conclusion – me and the bees have SURVIVED. And that’s the real test of a beekeeping year.

With two kids under three years of age and a full time job, often the beekeeping can become a bit of a “to-do” list. There’s loads of parts of it that I don’t actively enjoy (you know the tidying up, sterilising equipment, carting loads of hive bodies around) but I know I’ll have had a successful beekeeping year when I get a bit more time to do the bits I do enjoy (the inspections, the honey extraction, the ‘watching them sessions’!)

And it’s because I’m hunting down some more quality time with my bees that I’m biding you farewell for a bit. I’m not sure when I’ll next write for this lovely BBKA magazine but please keep in touch through my blog. And wish me luck.

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BBKA News: Which Is More Complex – Keeping Bees Or Children?

BBKA News: Which Is More Complex – Keeping Bees Or Raising Children?

Raising a fully functioning child who isn’t addicted to Peppa Pig, Hula-Hoops and screaming ‘no’ to perfectly reasonable requests not to engage in life-threatening behaviour is undoubtedly more stressful than managing a bee colony. My two kids are to blame for my overly salted hair and not the bees.

Beekeeper & Baby
Beekeeper & Baby

However, as I look at the two books currently residing beside my bed (Toddler Taming and Beekeeping: A Seasonal Guide) I realise each of the disciplines have a claim to being the more complex.

Both bees and small children refuse to follow the rules and often fail to understand that we are trying to help. That said, they are usually happy to get on with it whilst we observe.

Still, we-who-love-them hope that one day, by reading the right books, talking to the right people, finding the ‘secret’, we will finally get them sussed.  Yes, one day we will get them to sleep through the night and to produce lots of honey.

So as I continue to research the theories behind child-rearing and bee-keeping, I wonder which is taking more toll on that grey matter of mine. And to work that out, I devised a completely non-scientific comparison study.


Bottle or breast. Baby-led or purees. The blue spoon or the impossible-to-find pink one. Feeding a child can be tricky, with militant campaigners on either side. The older generation seem to think us lot are insane with our Annabel Karmel recipes books (yes, she teaches us how to mash broccoli) but we need to put our £30 baby sized food mixer to good use. My mum says it wasn’t that complicated in her day but now of course we know how dangerous food can be! Whole grapes (choking hazard), nuts (allergy) – quite frankly the kitchen is a danger zone for the first 18 months.  Child Brain Toll (CBT) rating: 3/5

Ideally bees won’t need any feeding but weighing the hives and calculating how much stores they need for the winter does take a bit of thinking.  Making the fondant or syrup is my kind of cooking.  I might have over-fed bees my bees last autumn and I’m sure this contributed to my dismal survival rate. Bee Brain Toll (BBT) rating: 3/5


With kids you get them vaccinated and try to make sure grandparents don’t get them addicted to chocolates and ice cream. At the first sign of illness, the wonder drug that is Calpol comes out. We now buy magnums of the stuff.  CBT: 1/5

Bee health is extremely complex.  We have to be the doctors and nurses. We have to diagnose and treat.  Ideally – even a general inspection should be done to the same hygiene standards as open heart surgery. BBT: 5/5


This is when rituals can become complex.  A lot has been written about getting babies to sleep and it’s a hot topic.  With our eldest, we had 12 months of “bouncy time”, involving up to 30 minutes of jumping on the bed between bath time and reading, followed by a song and rocking.  She never slept in the cot during the day meaning that when we were exhausted we still had to take her out in the pram for her daytime naps. Luckily our second child read the instruction manual and has been much more compliant. Nine months in we even get the odd night when he actually sleeps through the night.  CBT: 4/5

OK, bees don’t sleep, but I’m going to include over-wintering in this comparison.  This activity involves a varroa treatment in August; in September checking the bees are disease free, have a laying queen, are a strong colony, have enough stores and fed as required; in October providing insulation and a mouse guard.  You only need to do this once per year per hive (compared with 3 times a day per child) but it’s more complex than “bouncy time”. BBT: 5/5

Development & Play

I must have said “da-da” to my children 10,000 times before getting any reward.  I definitely wore out a pair of jeans with each baby as I helped them toddle around the house. And play – they got that all by themselves!  Not complex, just repetitive. CBT: 1/5

Bees go through the cycle of house worker to forager all by themselves without any input from the beekeeper. I’m not sure if bees play, perhaps the drones, but they do dance! BBT: 1/5


If my eldest does any more moaning, I’m going to sign her up to the next series of Loose Women.  Whilst child experts on TV can make improving behaviour look simple, it’s an issue for all parents.  From trying to get your infant not to drop the spoon again for you to pick up, to the benefits of sharing, these are difficult messages to get through. Persistence and a firm voice is key – as are threats of a CBeebies-ban.  CBT: 5/5

Bee behaviour is fascinating. Preparing to swarm, swarming and the social aspect of storing honey for the winter for future generations.  But they get on with this all by themselves.  I can’t train them not to swarm, or to lay comb in straight lines. In a way it’s easier knowing we cannot take responsibility. BBT: 1/5


So, the unweighted “Brain Toll” totals from above are:

  • Children: 14/25
  • Bees: 15/25


Bees might have just won this complexity battle but both disciplines are equally worth the effort. Both bring me joy, challenge, a smile and pride.  And with all this external focus, they might even be helping me to “regain my sanity”.

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BBKA News: Is Beekeeping The Perfect Hobby?

BBKA News: Is Beekeeping The Perfect Hobby?

This article was first published in the newsletter of The British Beekeepers’ Association (No. 222 – February 2015).

In my twenties I thought a hobby involved spending money I didn’t have, embarrassing myself and waking up with a hangover.  I called it ‘socialising’. As I entered my forties it was obvious I needed a different sort of hobby; one that didn’t raise an eyebrow from the doctor or leave me eating leftover curry for breakfast.

I don’t know where the beekeeping idea first came from but I was immediately attracted to it and three years on, it’s safe to say it ticks all the boxes.

As I watch my middle aged mates squeeze into their lycra outfits to go running, spend far too much money supporting their football team or get injured playing golf (yes it’s true!), I bask in knowing I’ve found the perfect hobby. Obviously I don’t tell them, but seeing as you already know, here’s a reminder why Beekeeping Is The Perfect Hobby.

People think we’re brave

For many, beekeeping is the stuff of nightmares.  They can’t believe we seek out something that’s essentially a weekly Bush Tucker Trial. They think of us as brave masters of our hives; the Bear-Gryls of the allotments.

The truth is obviously somewhat different.

For me, well, let’s just say beekeeping challenges my fears and is more akin to a white water rafting experience.  With the roar of 50,000 bees at close proximity, insects inspecting me and trying to find a good spot for a hot stinger, my heartbeat doubles and I sometimes come home a quivering wreck (I have a particularly aggressive hive at present that I will requeen in the spring).

But while it’s obvious to me and my wife that I’m far from brave, there’s no way I’m telling my motor-biking mate Mark that I’ve spent good money on two layers of impenetrable material to protect me from my hobby.

Me and an aspiring beekeeper
Me and an aspiring beekeeper

We make something wonderful

We produce one of the most delicious, indulgent products in the world. No wonder some varieties are sold for up to £70/lb. On toast, on porridge, dribbled or guzzled. Honey is the Ferrari of foods.

And of course a by-product of this is that we can actually sell our honey. Admittedly this may be some way down the line once you consider the cost of hives, protective gear and numerous accessories – but eventually, we can be in profit – unlike my friends who spend several hundred pounds a year on a Man U season ticket.

Environmental smugness

I’ve always been a bit of a recycling hard nut and enjoy doing my bit for this planet of ours. To find a hobby which makes me happy and makes the world a better place is a result!

When I find myself go-karting on yet another stag-do, I console myself with the fact I’m a beekeeper.

We get to be our own boss

In my dreams, I’d like to run my own multi-million global conglomerate. So far I remain a small employee in a very big company but at my apiary, I am boss, officially in charge of thousands of little workers.

And I don’t mean that flippantly. Here my decisions actually matter. If I don’t feed the bees at the right time, they could die and that’s genuinely upsetting. If I protect the hives from varroa, then I’m more likely to have a high yield and I’m very pleased about that.  The bees need the beekeeper.

So far, I’ve been a caring boss (if somewhat incompetent) but at least I know I won’t embarrass myself at the Christmas party.

People are interested in beekeeping

Someone once said, “hobbies of any kind are boring except to people who have the same hobby” and I can relate to that. I tune out when my friend Russell talks footie scores or my wife updates me on Jennifer Anniston’s engagement (she considers reading Grazia a hobby).

Beekeeping, however, is a hobby that people do want to talk about. Even the blokes down the pub want to get involved in a chat.  Everyone has so many questions (some of which I can actually answer). ‘How many bees are in a hive?’ (50,000), ‘How many types of bee are there?’ (lots), ‘Do you get scared?’ (I give an ambiguous response).

We get a cool outfit

There’re a few hobbies that demand a certain look from their followers. Golf for example. Now I quite like the idea of wearing loud, checked trousers (I also like the idea of a bone through my nose) but my wife insists I couldn’t pull it off.

The beekeeping suit, however, makes us look like we mean business. It makes us look like we’re entering some futuristic alien convention. And it’s surprisingly forgiving … not like those skin-tight shorts some of my friends wear to ride their bikes.

It’s better than a week in the Maldives

Yes I’m sure the Maldives are rather nice, but nothing beats being elbow deep in bees to make you forget your week at work or the list of ‘to dos’ waiting for you at home. It is the ultimate distraction, and it’s often found in a lovely countryside location (or at least a bushy bit of the city). It’s also a lot more convenient and cheaper than the Maldives, though I must admit, you’re less likely to get a tan or a cocktail when you’re beekeeping.

Other beekeepers are rather nice

We don’t have to interact too much but when I’ve needed guidance, other beekeepers have been very helpful with their varied advice. I’ve found the community to be passionate, opinionated but generally lovely. There’re also a few mad characters out there and some very impressive beards, both of which I appreciate.

I write short posts about my latest beekeeping exploits on my blog, www.talkingwithbees.com, and I’d love to hear more about why you think Beekeeping Is The Perfect Hobby.

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5 Things That Improved My Sanity This Week

It’s been a good week and this is why – in order of what cheered me up the most:

  1. I discovered the bees were alive (phew)
  2. The sun has started to make an appearance
  3. I got into the allotment, did some digging and planted some seeds
  4. I bought an assembled brood box and stand (and saved myself a day)
  5. I bought some new work shoes …
    1. for £21 – half the price I though I’d have to pay
    2. from my local corner shop – so I didn’t need to go into town
    3. and they’re synthetic – meaning I don’t need to polish them
    4. and I no longer need to try and hide my old work shoes behind chairs and under the desk as they were not polished for the five years I have been wearing them
Spot The Difference
Spot The Difference!

So that £21 bargain brought me a lot of pleasure. Is this my equivalent to shopping therapy?

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Hive Three & A Confession

Life is pretty busy at the moment – that’s what I told myself as I succumbed to the temptation  of buying an ASSEMBLED, yes, yes, yes, ASSEMBLED hive.

I’m ecstatic at the relief of allowing myself to buy an ASSEMBLED hive.

I saved a day and the stresses of hammering, gluing and generally bodging flat packs.

I blamed the fact that buying an assembled hive was only an extra £25 (brood box and stand assembly charge).

My Guilty Pleasure - Assembled Hive In Box
My Guilty Pleasure – Assembled Hive In Box

Now, I just need a swarm or I’ll split my current hive into three hives.

I’ve written quite a lot about building hives:

PS. I did a Varroa count today (counted 5 mites over 14 days) and the count has dropped to less than 140.  The previous count was 980 and I haven’t done anything in the meantime.  Strange. More info at Hive Two Record Card.

The Bees Are Alive

It is definitely a huge relief and good for my sanity to see my bees flying as we enter Spring. Now, they just need to survive until April when there will be more forage available. Here they were at the weekend, busy bringing in pollen:

Spring Bees
Spring Bees

And it’s lovely to just sit and watch them:

So far so good. I removed the mouseguard. The hive is still heavy with stores. When the temperatures reach 15C I’ll treat the varroa with Apiguard and open the hive to find out if the old Queen is alive or if they have superceded her. I just need to think about my strategy to expand to three hives this Summer (an artificial swarm and a real swarm would be ideal).

I even managed to find 30 minutes to sit on a bench in the sun with a coffee.  My wife tried to get me involved in tidying up the house but I said “pah” to Spring Cleaning and bring on the Spring Dreaming. It definitely did more for my sanity (if not my marital relations).

Enjoying Coffee In The Spring Sun
Coffee In The Sun

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  • Beekeepers Anonymous – If you are dealing with the grief of losing a bee colony over the Winter, this Beekeepers Support Group page might help
  • How-To Guides – Includes feeding bees, varroa management, beekeeping calendar
  • Hive Two Record Card – I keep my hive records online

Acid-Resistant Bugs

Bugs In Numbers …

On my last Varroa count on 21 December 2013, there was an estimated 1,700 Varroa in Hive Two.  I was hoping that the Oxalic Acid treatment that I applied on the same day was going to reduce the varroa to about 340 (i.e. a 90% reduction).

On Sunday I did a Varroa count. Over 11 days, 27 mite had dropped onto the Varroa board. This means there has been an Average Daily Mite Fall of 2.5 Varroa mites and an estimated number of adult Varroa mites in the colony of 980.

This means I only reduced the count by about 40% … which, in turn means … I have failed!

Bugs On The Brain …

Perhaps it’s because of the warm winter we are having leading to more capped brood and the oxalic acid being less effective?  Perhaps I could have used more acid? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps …

I may have lost my battle with Varroa but the good news is, I have not yet lost my sanity. In fact, I’m proud to tell you that despite the bad news, I am surprisingly quite calm about it. Two years ago I would have been pulling my grey hair out but I think experience has chilled me out.

A former boss once said to me “just do what you can”. This is based on the premise that we have busy lives and not to worry about all the things we just don’t have time to do. So I’m going to add Apiguard in April and cull the drone brood. Until then, I’ll just sit back and count my Varroa.

Disclaimer: “just doing what you can” is often not enough … it just might make you feel better on the journey.

Further Reading

Batkid – Real-Life Superhero

Every now and then I cut out a newspaper clip for Heidi, that I think she’ll like. This story brought on a few tears, but hopefully it will add a feel good factor to this Sunday.

As reported by the BBC on 15th November 2013:

San Francisco rallies for ‘Batkid’ Miles Scott, leukaemia survivor

Thousands of people in San Francisco have turned out to help a boy recovering from leukaemia fulfil his wish to be Batman for a day.

Miles Scott, five, participated in events across the city including fighting mock crimes and receiving an honour from the mayor. Make-A-Wish Foundation, which organised the event, received pledges from more than 10,000 people to lend a hand. Miles, in treatment for several years, is now said to be in remission.


According to local television, the youngster thought he was just on his way to get a Batman costume so he could dress like his favourite superhero.

Miles nabs villains

But then he heard a broadcast from San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr appealing for help from “Batkid”.

Next, the pint-sized superhero saved a “damsel in distress”, tied to cable car tracks along a major urban street.

A San Francisco Chronicle live blog of the day’s events showed hundreds of people cheering Miles on during the “rescue”.

Miles was ferried from events in one of two “Batmobiles”, or black Lamborghinis with Batman removable stickers, which were escorted by police.

Later, he foiled a faux robbery in the city’s financial district with the help of an adult Batman impersonator.

Authorities who participated in the day’s events pretended to apprehend the villain, the Riddler.

Miles also travelled to AT&T Park to rescue the San Francisco Giants baseball team mascot by disarming a fake bomb planted by another classic Batman baddie, the Penguin.

‘Military operation’

The US justice department even prepared an indictment for the Riddler and the Penguin.

Towards the end of the day San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee gave Miles a key to the city.

US President Barack Obama praised the mini-caped crusader in a video from the White House, saying: “Way to go, Miles! Way to save Gotham.”

An estimated 7,000 people turned up to help make Miles’ wish come true.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation said the event was “on the scale of a military operation”.

In real life, Miles has defeated an enemy even more ruthless than Batman’s nemeses – he is presently recovering from leukaemia, with which he was diagnosed at 18 months old.

Real Life Batkid
Real Life Batkid

His mother, Natalie, said Friday was a “celebration” of her son’s completion of treatment in June.

“This wish has meant closure for our family and an end to over three years of putting toxic drugs in our son’s body,” she wrote in a statement on the foundation’s website.

His father, Nick Scott, thanked the charity and everyone else who took part.

“All the doctors, nurses and all the other parents that have to deal with the same thing we’re going through, I hope they get a conclusion to their illnesses like we’re getting,” he told KGO-TV.


If you are loving this story, here it is as reported by ABC World News:

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Blog Update

I have dared to add some novice How-To guides on that complex business of Swarm Management:

Regaining my sanity without bees

Just a quick update on the bees:  they took down 14Kg of sugar in October, so that should help them through the winter.  On my last inspection I could not find the new Queen even though she was marked.  There were 43 varroa on the board over 9 days and this calculates at 660-1,300 varroa in the hive – too many.  There’s not much I can do now.  Oxalic acid in Dec/Jan and hope there’s a Queen in there.  I need to get better at this.

However, I am finding some other ways of regaining my sanity.  I saw a bloke picking some berries and asked him what they were.  He explained they were sloes.  I have tried my friends sloe gin in the past, so thought I would give it a go.  Heidi and  I picked 1kg of sloes at the weekend and made some sloe gin. Recipe: 750ml gin, 500g sloes, 340g sugar.  Have to resist drinking it for 3 months.  Using the liquer as an ingredient in crumble and mixing the left over fruit with dark chocolate sound like good ideas too. (Nat – do you have any sloe gin cocktail recipes you can share!)

sloe gin

I have also really enjoyed gardening (now that I have a garden for the first time in my life).  It’s a lot less stressful than beekeeping.  I planted some honeysuckle at the weekend.

Planting honeysuckle

I would love to hear summaries of your 2012 bee experiences.  Have I been a terrible beekeeper (possibly losing both my colonies even before Winter), or has my experience been common this year?

You might not hear anything from me for a while.  Heidi is due on 18 November.

Let’s hope I am better at babies than bees.

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The course of true love never did run smooth

I made some sugar syrup this morning:  2kg of sugar mixed with 1200ml of water, heated gently. Delicious.  Tasted as sweet as Coke.  My girls were going to love it and having harvested their honey a few weeks ago this was the least I could do for them.  Like any healthy relationship, it’s a balance of give and take.

I was looking forward to the morning inspection with the same thrill as date night. I was not anticipating any problems or hard conversations, just good times.  I had removed the newspaper a week ago (due to combining hives) and had witnessed loads of bees toing and froing – 10 a second were shooting out at some stages.  I had more bees in this hive than at the height of Summer. Some might say this is too little, too late … but having a strong colony going into Winter is positive.

The result of today’s bee date:

  1. There were 10 bees in the top (weak) brood box – so that was easy to remove.  Good.
  2. About 10 drones dying above the Queen excluder – so I helped the bees and got rid of them.  Good.
  3. Strong brood box full of bees – every frame teaming.  Good.
  4. I am still not using smoke and the bees are amazingly gentle – no stinging, no aggressiveness – it feels like they know and trust me.  Good.
  5. No capped brood, larvae or eggs – eek!  I was not expecting that.  BAD.  VERY BAD.   Crikey – was another colony going to die on me?

This is when beekeeping can be a headache.  You just want to enjoy the bees.  You don’t want problems.  Just good times.  But as the saying goes “The course of true love never did run smooth”.  I guess the principle is that real relationships have real problems.  And that there is something more fulfilling in having to work through problems.

But the truth is I much prefer “plug n’ play” and auto-setup than fiddling around at the back of the television, phoning help-desks and seeing relationship councillors.

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The Beekeeper’s Wife

I’ve asked my wife to let you know the reality of sharing your partner with a hive.   She’s not a fan of “beasts” (i.e. insects) and the photo below shows the closest she has ventured to my beehives.

Beekeepers wife

In her own words …

The Pros

  • Roger finally has a proper hobby which means I get time to watch ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and other such nonsense without him telling me it degrades my brain
  • He seems happier, more upbeat and enthusiastic about life these days. I’d like to think the marriage and pregnancy has something to do with that – but I think I have to share a bit of the credit with the hives

 The Cons

  • He talks about his hobby A LOT. This blog manages to capture about 10% of his bee-thoughts and I get the rest. Considering I don’t even like honey (let alone crawling flying insects which sting), I can’t say I’m naturally interested but I think I have perfected the interested nod (important in any marriage) and encourage Roger to get his bee-updates out the ways when friends come round for dinner. BE WARNED!
  • He’s already looking at bee-keeping suits for children

If you want to read how we are getting on, try It’s A Girl.

Holiday reading for beekeepers

We’d had our mini-moon – two nights in a B&B in Devon off Vouchercloud – but she wanted a week in the sun, on a beach.  As the Summer progressed it became more evident that I could not persuade her that this exotic dream could be achieved by me offering to pack up the tent and drive us down the M5 to a deluxe* Cornish campsite.

* i.e. it has nice clean loos.

A week before the Greek voted on their new government and whether they would stay in the Euro, we booked our last minute honeymoon to Skiathos.  It was the only place that met my wife’s criteria for relative luxury and my pursuit of a good deal.

On a side note, I read a few weeks ago in A Short History Of The Honeybee, that the word honeymoon comes from a tradition of newly-married couples drinking honeymead for the first month of their marriage in order to increase the likelihood of having a boy.

For my new wife, lying next to a pool in soaring temperatures is like some kind of spiritual retreat.  But for me, such holidays are like an M&S meal for two, it tastes good but it only feeds the body.  Camping near beaches in Cornwall is my Zen and, like a home-cooked meal, feeds my body and soul.

Whilst my fellow holiday makers worshipped the sun, tested their brains on Sudoku puzzles, read The Mirror and books with people like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs on the cover, I had brought the adult version of The Famous Five – proper old-school adventure with some big words thrown in for good measure.  (My wife had banned me from reading beekeeping books due to me waking her up on two consecutive nights with bee-related, anxiety nightmares).

Holiday reading for beekeepers

I had come across The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy whilst browsing in Waterstones.  A few words spun off the back cover which prompted me to buy it: desolate, beautiful, award-winning, two cowboys, drifters, journey, coming-of-age (I relate to the coming-of-age thing despite coming-up-to 40.  Is that true of all early-middle-aged men these days?).  The only word missing was bromance.  I half recognised one title in the trilogy, All The Pretty Horses, and I recognised some other books he had written: The Road, No Country For Old Men.

I haven’t read enough books to know if it’s a “masterpiece” or a “landmark in American literature”, but it contained wisdom and meaning and made me want to jump on a horse and travel.  Unfortunately, if I did that back home in Bristol, people would just think I was crazy.  In fact, many of the things I dream about doing would mark me out as crazy, so I’ll stick to my backyard beekeeping adventures … and then I will appear relatively sane!

I checked the bees as soon as I got home (it had been two weeks).  They looked good from the outside.  The clip below is of my newest colony (the swarm I hived three weeks ago).  I’ll let you know what I found in my next post … Proud Dad.


Will “religion for atheists” help me regain my sanity?

In his new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton argues that religion has important things to teach the secular world.

He believes religions are packed with good ideas on how to live and arrange our societies. Alain proposes that we should look to religions for insights into how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, get more out of art, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, and much more.

He’s in Bristol on the 16th May as part of the Festival of Ideas to discuss this book.

Sounds like the sort of thing I should get involved with!  I’ll be there.

If you have read this book or heard Alain speak, please share your thoughts below.

Read books I recommend by Alain de Botton.

Beekeeping – Smoking the hive & more to worry about

The BBKA news arrived today – this is the monthly newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association.  I thought it would be a wonderful antidote to newspapers and current affairs but this month’s articles include headlines like “Taking & Hiving A Swarm” with photos of giant swarms about 1m high and 0.5m wide (… interesting, perhaps something for next year); “Allergic Reaction to Propolis” (yikes, hope my skin will be alright); and a front page headline of “Neonicotinoid Effects on Bees” (hhmmm, let me guess, bad effects rather than how it makes them into bees with super powers … must read more).  Also, on page 24 are photos of burning pyres of beehives being buried in pits.  It’s like a scene from bee armageddon.  All terrifying to the novice beekeeper and surely off-putting for wannabee keepers!

I plucked up the courage.  It had to be done.  The plan:

  1. Open the hive
  2. Replace the closed floor with an open mesh floor (so the varroa fall out)
  3. Dust bees with icing sugar, so the bees clean each other and the varroa drop off (yes – that is what beekeepers do)

I managed to get the paper, cardboard and chippings to light straight away and off we set to the allotment with the smoker.  I just want to make it clear that I took Dad with me as I want him to be my Deputy (rather than hold my hand and protect me from the bees).

I’d read the books.  Been on the courses.  And was anxious to just get on with it and naturally the plan went out the window.  If you are a beekeeper, you might not want to read the next paragraph.

Before: me, pensivefirst time at beehive After: beehive without landing board and without entrance excluder (this was not the plan, eek)beehive without landing board

I puffed some smoke into the front and back of the hive. So far so good.  I lifted the roof and placed it on the ground.  The crown board was full of 1000’s of ants.  Hmmm – another worry to add to the list.  There did not appear to be ants inside the hive though.  The bees seemed really good natured and friendly, ie. they did not hassle us.  I put the super on top of the roof on the ground.  Picked up the Queen excluder.  Worried about the Queen hanging onto it, but felt powerless and relied on the fact that she probably wasn’t.  I lifted the brood box and put it on top of the excluder.  Removed the closed floor and replaced with open mesh floor.  At this point realised that I had now got rid of the bees landing board at the same time.  Hmmm – another worry to add to the list.   Reassembled the hive, trying not to crush too many bees, but everything might now be at right angles to what it was before.  Sprinkled 50g of icing sugar over the brood box.  Hopefully bees are robust.  Hopefully bees can find the entrance?

[If the language above is confusing please read about beehives.]

There seemed to be a bit of confusion and a lot of bees around the entrance for the next 30 minutes.  I left the entrance reducer out so there was a massive entrance for the bees.  Was not sure if this was the right thing to do. Another thing to worry about and Google.

I went back later to use secateurs to cut the grass below and around the hive and replaced the entrance reducer (based on Google evidence).  I studied the hive a bit to discover quite a lot of dead bees around and about 100 clinging to the bottom of the open mesh floor on the outside of the hive.  Hmmm – another two worries to add to the growing list.

So much to worry about.  So much to learn whilst making life and death, success and failure, decisions.   The best bit of the day was watching white bees flying around covered in icing sugar.  Magic! I’ll try and take photos next time.

If any real beekeepers are reading this, please give me some advice.

I feel over-whelmed and so am trying to break down what needs to be done into small steps.  So next time:

  • Do a varroa count on the board
  • Check they have stored honey in the supers
  • Check to see if they are building a Queen cell
  • Try and find the Queen
  • Dust with icing sugar

I think I can do this.

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Manliness – Learning to use a hammer at the age of 39

Renting flats and house shares for 20 years has meant that I have not needed to do any DIY or look after a garden EVER in my life.  Despite having an engineering degree, the only hand tools I have used have been a knife, fork and spoon.  Ever the modern-man, I have sensitive skin, use Marigolds and Head-To-Toe baby wash.  As a consequence my hands have a softness that Fairy Liquid models gush about and which my more manly friends are shocked by.  I feel this might change as I type this with hands bearing blisters and holes where I pulled splinters out.

Hammering has got to be simple, right?  It’s like one of the first things that our hominid ancestors did before they discovered fire.  I banged at the first nail with the enthusiasm and dexterity of an 8 year old child wielding a Bob-The-Builder tool-kit.  It went in at an angle and ending up poking out dangerously from the brood box.

My 70-year-old Dad, then showed me how to hammer nails in straight.  I always saw myself as a late developer, but not this late!  Should I be embarrassed writing this?  Not sure.

I looked at the flat hive pack with only slightly less trepidation than I look at the beehive.  So many parts.  So much that could go wrong.

Dad was keen for us to use his Black & Decker Workmate and he patiently showed me how it worked.  I’m glad he’s got the kit.

black and decker workmate beehive construction

Two hours after we started we had a hive stand.  Only a brood box, frames, supers and roof to go.  I don’t have time for this!  This is where the ready-assembled beehaus would have come into its own.

I thought beekeeping was going to help me regain my sanity but these last few days it has been making me feel anxious.  I am on a schedule.  I only have evenings and weekends.  I’m getting married in a week.  I have a load of to-do’s and a speech to write.  But the bees are full of varroa and on the edge of swarming.  If I don’t build this second hive now I won’t be ready to artificially swarm the bees.  I need to read up about varroa and how to get rid of it.  And this blog needs feeding, even though I only have 3 Facebook Friends.

Hopefully, the slow-paced, regaining my sanity moments will come later, right?

Other manly stuff I did this week (with Dad metaphorically holding my hand):

  • Went to a building product suppliers and talked with men – they treated me gently
  • Bought 2 flagstones to put under the hives
  • Got my first splinters in 20 years and enjoyed the pain
  • Built most of the rest of the hive (20 man hours so far)

PS. I am still worried about opening up the hive.

The next time I had to man-up was when I broke an unwritten family rule.

Is Foraging The Answer (to regaining my sanity)?

I am still alive!  Who would have guessed that foraging is like an extreme sport with more bravado than a skate boarding park?  Is that a delicious, edible plant, or a deadly looky-likey?  You first!

Whilst my nearly-wife ate blackberries from a bramble for the first time last year I have to admit that I am not much further behind in the foraging stakes.  Despite the advantages of growing up in the countryside and a Dad who studied botany I have walked past wild garlic and other wild foods all my life.

The half-day foraging session by Dave Hamilton was inspirational and has challenged my food boundaries.  This introduction has made me want to spend time on the process of finding my food and cooking it rather than a quick trip to the supermarket so that I can spend my spare time in front of the TV.  Foraging will provide food for my soul as well as my body!

Dave Hamilton explaining how to make tea from pine needles

Me frying and eating Woods Ear mushrooms

 gardner and forager  Eating Woods Ear

My new resolution is to buy Food For Free (classic foraging text by Richard Mabey) and go foraging one day a month for nuts, berries, fungi, leaves and birch sap.  Well, that’s the plan.  Bees forage every day through necessity. I hope I am strong-willed enough to do this once a month!

So, what did we learn?  We tried numerous foods but here are my favourites.

Wild garlic: Eat the leaves and flowers. Add to salads, make pesto Sorrel: Tastes fresh and lemony.  Add to salad or eat with fish Dead Nettles (not to   be confused with regular nettles that have died): Squeeze the flowers and suck out the nectar
 Wild Garlic Flower  Sorrel  Dead Nettle Flower

Warning: Make sure the food you eat has not been sprayed with pesticides; take a bottle of water with you to wash the food; know what you’re doing.  It’s this last one that’s the stumbling block!

Books written by Dave Hamilton and his brother Andy:

Recommended links:

You might like to read some of my other foraging posts.

I Am Not A Beeman

Unlike me, Jonathan is a real beeman. He knows stuff.  He knows useful stuff about the weather, bees and plants, whilst I have a couple of theoretical GCSEs in Geography and Biology. He’s got dreadlocks.  I’ve got a short back and sides with designer stubble.  Not waxing is my token gesture to manhood.  He picks bees up by their wings.  I stare at bees and wonder what to do.  He gets the smoker started in less than a minute.  I just stand and stare uselessly wondering “how did he do that”?  He uses his bare hands to wipe the floor board clean which has quite a few varroa mites on.  I cringe and think “I need to man-up”.  He casually knocks bees off the frames.  I knock 1 or 2 off when I try the same technique.  He is a beeman.  I am not a man.  I am not even a fish (to quote an Apprentice episode).  When will I be able to strut proudly in my beesuit?  I had better read “Status Anxiety” again.

My new-to-me hive:

 My Beehive  National Beehive

Major U-turn!  I have a confession to make!  You may have noticed from the photo that it does not look like an urban setting.  The plan to be an urban beekeeper has changed as an opportunity came up to buy a National hive full of bees in a countryside allotment.  Beekeeping is not cheap and this seemed a good way to start.

Despite my ineptitude and lack of beemanliness, Jonathan was fine about selling me his bees.  I am not sure how the bees feel about it.  I will introduce myself properly when my beesuit arrives, but I am guessing my arrival might not be welcome.  If I was them, I would rather be looked-after by Jonathan.

As I write this post from my flat in Bristol, it feels strange to think that there is a hive out there that I am responsible for.  It feels a bit overwhelming.  Where’s Jonathan?  Can I send him another text?  Did the cost of the beehive include dealing with an anxious, novice beekeeper?

 “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld”, 2002

My fears – the known knows:

  1. The Queen is unmarked. How am I going to find her amongst 30,000 other bees, when I artificially swarm them in a few weeks time?
  2. Will I be able to handle the bees, or will they terrify me?
  3. Will I be able to reduce the varroa and remove the ants?
  4. Will I be able to build a hive from a flat pack (I am so unpractical)?
  5. Jonathan says the bees are “swarmy” – a technical term for the fact that I might not have any bees next week and risk annoying lots of neighbours

My ignorance – the “unknown unknowns”:

Despite my Geography and Biology GCSEs, I know little of practical use about the environment and animals.  Whilst Rumsfeld might have been coy about what he knew, I can honestly say that when I look at the hive, it is the great unknown to me!

To manage my fears I have a plan: 

  1. To deal with the varroa: order some Hive Clean (natural treatment for the varroa)
  2. To deal with the ants: get some cinnamon and vaseline (more in a future post)
  3. To deal with the “swarminess” – buy another hive and when the bees start creating Queen cells, get Jonathan over, find and mark the Queen and do an artificial swarm into the new hive.  (I will then have 2 hives! Am I multiplying my problems?  The expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” comes to mind.)

I think it’s gonna be alright.

Post script: As a beekeeper, this was the first time I realised I had some manliness issues to deal with.  The next time they cropped up was when buillding a flat pack beehive, Manliness – Learning to use a hammer at the age of 39.

A Wild Food Walk

For Christmas, my nearly-wife (3 weeks and not counting), bought me a Wild Food Walk – but will it improve my sanity or lead to a new obsession?  I need to get to Ashton Court Estate (5 minutes drive … oops 30 minutes walk) by 1.30pm to meet our leader Andy Hamilton.  You can check his website Self-Sufficientish or read to see how it went at Is Foraging The Answer (to regaining my sanity).

Thunderbirds are go! Well … almost.

I’ve been on the courses. I’ve ordered the beehaus.  I know where I am getting my bees from.  I know where they are going to be located. I have a blog and have been called “the beeman” by those who don’t know any better. Now I am at this crucial stage, I realise I have no idea if bees are the answer or if they are going to drive me crazy! Thunderbirds are go! Well … almost.