This is the second blog of a number we’ll be running prior to Xmas written by residents of the district. This blog post is about their hobby.
Here is a little pre-Christmas quiz to see if you can guess my hobby from a few clues:
It is a mostly summer hobby
I wear gloves
It is occasionally painful
I am usually rewarded well for my effort
I wear a protective suit
It can get sticky
Smoking usually helps
It involves, in my case, around a quarter of a million creatures
Have you guessed it yet?
Of course, I am a beekeeper.
Why did I start beekeeping? We bought our property in the sticks over 10 years ago and built a new eco house to replace the existing one. We soon discovered that there were insects in the roof of the old building. Our first thought was to get rid of these unwanted guests. But soon we realised they were honeybees and that we were privileged to have them residing with us. The next problem was to rescue them prior to the demolition of the old house. This was done by a beekeeper in Hawkinge. As we were keen to keep them on site he left us a colony of bees in his hive in our garden. Being a busy paramedic, he left the bees to get on with their business here with little intervention. However, when the colony died out that autumn (probably robbed by wasps) I decided I had to learn how to look after them.
And so it began. Little did I know then, the time commitment, paraphernalia, worry, financial outlay and space that would be needed on this journey!
Back then, our garage was a garage (mainly my husband’s domain!), our garden was a garden and our kitchen was a kitchen. My husband, Captain Tidy, was a happy man. This would all change…
I went on a beekeeping course and joined the Canterbury Beekeepers Association. I started small, yet there was still considerable outlay on the equipment needed to set up a couple of colonies from collected swarms (it is almost impossible to keep a single colony – with at least two colonies you have ‘back up’ should anything unexpected happen to one). Being part of the club, I soon had no shortage of new ‘beek’ friends and a mentor for advice and support. It was way more complicated than I could have imagined and ever more equipment was needed to make the novice beekeeper’s life easier. I was keen to taste our very own honey. Of course, that takes even more equipment, purchased or borrowed, to extract the little darlings’ golden treasure. My tutor had told me “If you want honey, you must KEEP your bees!” This was easier said than done.
The first season I lost swarms of bees, not really knowing the signs to look for. I recall extracting a little honey, being sure to leave enough for the bees to feed on over winter. My husband worked out that first honey had cost me about £100 per pound to produce!
I soon learned I must open and carefully check my hives weekly from March – October. I check for signs that they may swarm and ensure they always have sufficient stores and are healthy. I may need to give them more space to lay or make honey, or give medication against the varroa mite. This inspection may take most of a day, especially if they are preparing to swarm. I protect them from mice and woodpeckers in the winter. I am rewarded for my work by the honey they produce for me in return.
At present I have four beehives, increasing to six or eight colonies in the summer. I have previously had more colonies, but with a day job (and other hobbies) there were simply not enough hours in the day!
Re those clues to my hobby in the intro: I wear a beesuit and gloves as I am also allergic to beestings, sometimes painful! The smoking is not me ‘avin’ a fag, but the smoke from a bee smoker, which fools the bees that they may need to flee their home from fire, so they gorge on their honey, which calms them.
I am still amazed at this incredible creature, its lifecycle and importance to our world. Consider these facts about the humble honeybee, which pollinates much of the food we rely upon to survive:
– There are around 60,000 bees in a strong colony
– Most of these are the workers, which are female. They do all the work and wait tirelessly on the queen and drones
– A few hundred drones are the males, whose only purpose is to mate with the queen and if they get lucky, they die instantly!
– There is only one queen in a colony. She can lay 2000 eggs a day
– The workers decide when to replace her or swarm with the old queen and make a new one
– The workers bring in all the nectar and only live for a month or so in the summer, until their wings literally wear out, poor things :’(
– It takes each worker a lifetime to produce less than a teaspoon of honey
– A bee may fly up to 5 miles to forage, so a strong colony could fly the equivalent of to the moon each day
– A strong colony can produce over 100lb of honey (though many don’t)
– In winter the colony drops to around 10,000 bees which cluster together to keep warm
– It’s definitely a woman’s life in the hive. After summer mating, the drones are no longer needed and are a drain on resources, so the female workers kill off the drones and decide when to make more in the spring
Now you may begin to understand how my beekeeping hobby has affected our lives and our home, especially in the summer months.
Our garden is not just a garden, but also an apiary.
Our garage is no longer my husband’s domain, but taken over by honey extraction from June to September. It is a winter store for empty ‘supers’ and brood boxes, as well as a workshop for making replacement frames and repairing hives.
Our kitchen is not just a kitchen, but a year-round honey jarring and labelling facility.
Captain Tidy despairs!
The Shepway Vox Team
Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful