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Beekeeping – it's in the blood

19 April 2017 by Rolawn

My husband and I became beekeepers in 2012. Some would say it was inevitable given my background. Gramps, having retired from his job as head gardener on the estate, moved with Nana to my great grandmother’s house in a small hamlet up the road in Hampshire where he took up beekeeping and continued to indulge his love of gardening. The house was, and still is, called ‘Beehive’. When my Mum inherited the house she couldn’t cope with the bees and they were duly marched over the road to Jock’s. I’m not surprised as my Uncle is extremely allergic to bee stings although Gramps obviously wasn’t, as one of my early memories of him is watching him pick stings out of his bare arms after he had extracted honey.

We didn’t have any burning ambition to become beekeepers but when we moved into our present house we took on an acre of land. The garden at that point was mostly paddock. We gradually developed it into a garden and created an orchard area with the ambition of making cider. One day we were stood in the orchard talking about future development ideas for the garden and I mentioned bees and what was probably a flippant remark turned into reality.

Orchard surrounded by edible hedging

Orchard surrounded by edible hedging.

As is our usual style we bought books on beekeeping and started studying. We were hooked. It soon became clear that there was a lot to it and we enrolled on a course at Thornes just outside Lincoln. Our previous study stood us in good stead and we sailed through the course. Our last day was a practical and I have to say it was scary for me although my husband, as always, took it in his stride.

Our teacher, Simon, was excellent and made sure we all had a go at handling the bees. He had also given us good advice on gloves with some spine tingling tales about leather gauntlets. These are what are usually sold in beginner’s kits but he encouraged us to use thin, nitrile gloves. They enable you to ‘feel’ the bees and handle the frames gently and as they’re disposable they don’t build up propolis and attract the bees who are not generally terribly happy with you at this point and are more likely to sting than at any other time. You are after all invading their houses.

After the practical session we took our pre-ordered nuc of bees home. This is a small box with 5 frames of foundation in and about, oh, 10,000 bees. The box is enclosed with the bees breathing through a mesh covered hole with the door having some foam stuffed into it. That doesn’t stop the odd bee getting out though and it felt like a very long and nervy drive home.

Nuc of bees ready to be introduced to their hive

Nuc of bees safely home, ready to be introduced to their hive.

We duly arrived home and transferred the bees into their new home. Some of you may be wondering why the bees didn’t just fly back to Lincoln but you can move bees a distance if it is more than 3 miles. As they then don’t have any local frame of reference they stay where you put them.

Our first hive expanded rapidly, too rapidly. In July it swarmed. Bees swarm due to lack of space to expand into; before they leave they stuff themselves with honey so that they’re ready for what could be a long trip. When they leave, tens of thousands leave the hive together with a queen; we were lucky enough to see a swarm leave a hive last year and it’s a fascinating sight although you’re a bit disappointed as you thought you’d given them a home they would want to stay in. At least half the colony (the hive of bees) leaves and very soon settle on a branch or somewhere else convenient, for them, at least. Many swarms are found in chimneys! Scout bees then start to look for a new home and once they find one, off they all go. It was obvious our hive had swarmed as when we carried out an inspection we had a lot less bees in the hive. There were also several queen cells on the frames. As we were new to this lark we decided to leave the cells (baby queens) and let nature take its course hoping that a queen would hatch out in time to save the hive.

Swarm of bees ready to be collectedA week later as we walked down the garden to inspect the hive, we could hear lots of buzzing and sure enough, there was a swarm in the hedge. Unfortunately it was on the other side, in the neighbours cow field. We got our books out and started mugging up on dealing with swarms, then knocked on our neighbour’s door trying to exude confidence. After clambering over the electric wire without mishap, it took us several attempts to get the bees into the nuc box. If you don’t manage to capture the queen to start with, they all fly back to where she is, on the branches. Once you have her in, they usually stay put and it is absolutely fascinating watching them follow her in. To see a swarm being collected click on the link to watch our video. Swarm Collection

We left the box where it was as it’s better if you wait until dusk to move them. We then set up a new hive for them and got the books out again. As the weather started to close in, we decided to get on with moving them back to our garden. As we exited our neighbours gate with the nuc tied up in a sheet, another neighbour came by with his granddaughter. “Oh look, spacemen”, she says. Her grandad laughed and asked us for some honey.

There are several methods for getting the bees into their new home and we decided to ‘walk’ them into their new hive. This is a method where you place a plank leading up to the hive entrance and put a sheet on it. You then tip the bees onto the plank and as long as the queen decides this is their new home, they all follow her into the hive. Another fascinating thing to watch.

The following video shows the bees walking into the hive. At one point the bees started to go back into the nuc box which meant we hadn’t got the queen out of the nuc. Once they were shaken out again, off they went into the hive, following their queen.

Bees walking into the hive

Over the past 4 years we have had many experiences with our bees and told lots of tales to colleagues especially when queen bees started arriving in the post at work. Hives are made up of three types of bees, with very distinct roles, a queen, drones and workers. The Queen bees have a strange life; they go on a mating flight where they mate with several drones (the male bees, whose sole purpose is to mate with queens), they then spend their lifetime of not much more than 2-3 years laying eggs. The worker bees (female) tend the eggs and the queen, make the honey and keep the hive clean and tidy.

We attended a queen rearing course and raised a new queen using the Horsley board method (see Since then we have split a number of hives, mostly through swarm control and management of queen cells and we have been very successful.

The first year we had 3 jars of honey! Last year we had 10 hives at the peak and took 100 pounds of honey off them in one harvest, making use of our cider press to extract it. We decided not to make a late harvest last year and left the supplies for the bees. This gives them a good start going into Winter with lots of food for them. We currently have bees in 8 hives.

Our first hives with young edible hedging behind

Our first hives with very young edible hedging behind.

As we head into our fifth year of beekeeping we finally feel as though we know what we’re doing. We have two further hives ready to be populated and a new Top Bar Hive to experiment with this year and have recently sown an area of ground with annuals and perennials for both honey and bumblebees to enjoy.

I feel very proud that I have followed in my grandad’s footsteps.

Davina Turner, Company Secretary, Rolawn