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Beekeeping: The first 18 months

Not really sure where the thought came from to keep bees but it arrived in my head and after a while I did something about it!!

When I was younger my father had kept bees for a very short period of time ...he quickly discovered he was highly allergic to them. However my drive to keep bees didn't start from there ...if anything it would have put me off!!

Getting a book and joining a course were the easy parts and somehow along the way I had persuaded my son to join in with the bee crusade. Personally I think he was swayed by the lure of tea and cake at that was on offer at the course...just like his mum! If I said that learning to be a beekeeper was a minefield that would be an understatement. You can read a plethora of books and they all tell you different methods that contradict each other then people start giving you advice which adds further complication. The beginners course was great as it combined theory with practical, so they had us lighting smokers, building frames and visit to apiaries. (For those of you that don't know...as I didn't ...an apiary is the collective noun for a place where bee hives are kept!). When the course cam to an end I think we were meant to feel ready to embrace being a beekeeper and have our own colony...but I didn't! My bee mentor kept saying 'HIVE TIME' to me and by that he meant that I had to get into other people's hives, become confident and identify the different types of bees. It is so hard to spot an unmarked Queen Bee among a group of Drones! Drones are the bees that fertilise the virgin Queen when she comes out of the hive with the swarm. Drones do nothing else other than this and their life span is much shorter than the worker bees in the hive - they don't survive the Winter as their work is done. Worker Bees are female bees who are catergorised into 2 groups, ones that stay in the hive and the flying bees. The ones that stay in the hive feed the larve, clean the cells, make the honey as well as tending to the Queen. The flying bees are the ones that go out and collect the pollen and the nectar - they are also the ones that the Queen takes with her when she swarms. (This is a very brief snippet of information and if you want more info I would recommend the British Beekeeping Association website).

I got my 'HIVE TIME' with my mentor and all too quickly the conversation came round to having bees and the next thing I knew I have a small colony of bees in the garden. Prior to this a bee area had to be created by my husband where my beautiful green poly hive was in pride of place ...it looked idyllic! The girls - the bees- came in a nucleus hive and were then placed in the area so that they could aclimatise before transferring them to the brand new hive. One of the best bits of advice that my mentor gives to me is that you must talk to the bees so that they get to know your voice and then it in theory reduces the needs to smoke them. I suppose it is the same theory as a gardener talking to their vegetables and plants!

Spinning the honey from the comb

The main objective in the beginning was to get the girls fed and through the winter...so no honey this year but if we nurtured them then we would rewarded with honey the following year. Here lies the other crucial advice and that is to 'FEED, FEED, FEED!'...so I did until I could feed no more. When the weather gets into single figure or in low teens you have to stop feeding with sugar solution and give them fondant to eat ALSO don't go in the hive when it is cold or wet as it makes them cross and potential to kill them or make them ill. So I left them until the first weekend in May or shirt sleeves weather- another bit of mentor advice!

Opening the hive after Winter was amazing - it was bubbling with bees - but on close inspection of the frames there were loads of queen cells in the hive - meaning that they were ready for swarming! So I called for back up...

With the help of another beekeeper we split the colony in an attempt to stop them swarming. BUT that didn't happen...the Summer was a nightmare as both hives now swarmed multiple times so I lost a lot of my bees and I ended up with 3 small colonies. We did manage to take off some Spring honey and about 5 jars of Summer honey. By the end of the Summer the colonies were so small that we combined the 2 smaller colonies and then it was a waiting game to see if the would combine. I would go and visit them and there were wasps going into the hive - so I thought they had got so weak that wasps had infiltrated the hive and taken over.

I fed them into the Autumn with sugar syrup and then replaced it with fondant to feed them over the Winter - you can't feed them syrup over the Winter as the bees can't extract the water from the solution. I didn't feel positive about going through the Winter and it was a really long and wet one. It dragged and unfortunately as predicted the girls didn't survive and I was devastated ...and I felt like a failure.

So after an apiary visit to one of the local beekeepers I felt ready to get more bees. I have now gutted the hives...cleaned them...removed moldy wax, sugar honey and started a fresh in anticipation of a swarm coming our way. With every experience there comes opportunity for reflection and learning. Where I think we went wrong was dealing with the swarm season and not being active in preventing swarms..however you live and learn.

So with regret, I have to say to those who ask me, there will be no honey this Summer but with abundant feeding and effective swarm control, next year will see the honey flowing again.