Why should I keep bees? The attraction of drizzling yummy homemade honey over your breakfast pancakes, ensuring the pollination of precious crops on your veg plot, or just doing your bit for the planet. There are a number of reasons why you might want to keep these long-tongued, hairy legged flying helpers and almost everyone can have a go. Whether you're in the countryside or slap bang in the centre of town, bees are fascinating and the number of people caring for these pollen hunters is increasing.
Bees are one of the main pollinators of crops, transferring pollen from one plant to the next in search of nectar. This movement of DNA has helped to create the incredible diversity of foods that exist on our grocery store shelves, accounting for 1 in 3 bites of the food we eat. But more importantly, they also help pollinate our wild trees & flowers proving vital food for our wildlife.
Who can keep bees?
Everyone! Although there are some considerations to think about. Caring for them is relatively stress-free as they don't require too much interaction - however, they will need regular inspections even in winter to ensure they haven't run out of food.
It's recommended you contact your local beekeeping association and sign up for an introduction to beekeeping course for loads of help and advice. https://www.bbka.org.uk/find-beekeeping-near-you
How can I set myself up to keep bees?
Buying bees is normally done in the late spring, early summer from online mail order sites or auctions such as this one. Occasionally local associations will know of hives for sale and it's worth contacting them. But to be ready for their arrival you'll need a few items of kit.
Beginners normally start with the National, a square brown box that is easy to use. A Safety suit, all in one with veil provides full protection from those bothersome stings. A "smoker", to mimic forest fires, making the bees docile and safer to work around.
Where is the best location to keep bees?
Siting your apiary requires a little thought both for practicality & safety...
- Arrangement, how easy will it be to access?
- Shelter, protection from the prevailing wind with no overhanging foliage to drip moisture and raised up to avoid flooding
- Food and water, urban areas provide an almost year-round supply due to the density of private gardens, farm land sown with one crop can be empty of nectar most of the year.
- Distance (from people/animals), Close to home will make it easier to visit during bad weather.
- Neighbours, check that no immediate neighbours are severely allergic to bee stings
- Public access, ideally 8m+ away from public footpaths with a barrier between.
- Permission, always seek permission from the landowner. As a rule most council allotments sites say no but it's always worth asking.
- Farm animals, generally sheep & goats ignore hives but cattle & horses can knock them over causing possible death on both sides
- Crop spraying, depending on location it's worth checking in case the farmer is using something harmful to bees
What do I do next?
Bees can fly up to 3 miles foraging for food but planting a few nectar rich flowering plants nearby can benefit them greatly especically early or late flowering varieties. The RHS have a selection of downloads to help identify suitable plants. Avoid plants with double or multi-petalled flowers, these can lack nectar and pollen and bees may have difficulty in gaining access.
Avoiding pesticides. Hives located in urban settings are doing better than their countryside neighbours due to the fact that pesticides such as neonicotinoids and coumaphos which target bees brains are not used in private gardens.
Regular Inspections of the hive. There are a number of diseases which must be reported https://www.gov.uk/guidance/bee-health, early detection can help preserve other hives in the vicinity.
The type of nectar that the bees have been collecting does affect the colour & flavour of the honey they produce. Almost like wine the taste can be different from year to year depending on the change of the weather.
As a medicine honey has been used for thousands of years. Its antibacterial effect has been used in topical dressings to treat infected surgical wounds, burns, and skin grafts. It inhibits the growth of many bacteria strains, including the bacteria responsible for ulcers and eating honey has a stabilizing effect on our body's blood sugar levels.
Raw unpasteurized honey (once it's been filtered to remove any pollen or wax) can be stored for years but if it starts to granulate it can be gently heated (kept below 46C) to return it to a runny state.
With a care & attention and provision of feed to replace the honey you've harvested, a hive will repay your investment with the taste of summer on every pancake you drizzle.