The joy of beekeeping

My partner, pets, and I managed to move into Shipton under Wychwood right at the start of the second lockdown after a protracted tussle to purchase our house. Apart from the sense of security and neighbourliness in the area, something sorely missing from Cowley Road in Oxford, was also the opportunity to expand our little familial unit by a factor of several thousand. After months of haggling with the Diocese’s land agents, I was finally allowed to set up an apiary on their land in the village. Indeed, after some poorly timed swarming by the bees above Ivy’s Florist on Church Street, and an admittedly not completely sober rescue operation at 10pm at night, the apiary had its first tenants.

Apis Mellifera, or Western Honeybee, is one of the widest ranging and one of the first domesticated insects. It has a global range and an ability to thrive in different environments. There are 31 recognised subspecies, with the lineage native to our islands usually called the ‘British Black’ Bee – apis mellifera mellifera (AMM). With the importation of other, specially bred strains of bees from Europe and America, the honey bee you will usually see flying around would usually be a wild hybridisation of our AMM bees and another strain.

Why do we keep bees? Well, there are multiple benefits. Beyond the need for more pollinators across the board, bees produce valuable – and tasty – products. Bees buzz around collecting nectar which they take back to the hive. Coming into the hive, the foragers pass the nectar across to other bees, and have the pollen cleaned off them. This pollen is full of protein, and is stored around the brood for their use. The nectar, currently very high in water content, is dehydrated to less than 20% water by volume, and then stored as honey. The honey, along with the wax comb it resides in, are a hive’s main product.  However, you see other items on therapeutic shop shelves, such as propolis (a sticky substance created by the collection of tree resin by the bees to plug holes in the hive), royal jelly (the mixture fed to brood in the first few days after hatching), and bee bread (the stored pollen, which undergoes a natural fermentation).

“How do I become a beekeeper?” I hear you cry through the ether. Well, it is easier than you would think. A structure (hive), space (for the hive), suit, smoker, and a swarm are all you really need. Augment this with YouTube, if you are so inclined a bee husbandry book, maybe elect to join your local association and the British Bee Keepers Association (BBKA), and this hobby is one of the cheaper ones around. Afraid of bees? The more time spent around them, the more you notice that in a suit, you are very safe. That, combined with the smoke from your smoker, make the majority of bees about as scary as sitting outside on a sunny day with a little more background buzz.

My hive has been in place since late March 2021, and already they are starting to prosper after the truly atrocious start. I have found very little in the way of signs of disease, and although the hive is not growing population wise as quickly as I would like, they are happy, producing new comb, young, and honey, and so I hope to harvest before the end of autumn – at least a jar of honey! If you want to know more, join me on a hive inspection or honey and wax collection.

Tim Eden

October-November 2021