April 21, 2012

Steps on the way to beekeeping IV (guest post by AJLR)


It’s a year, now, since I first started looking after a colony of bees. The year has been notable in many respects, mostly to do with my repeated feelings of ‘Why did they do that?!’. It is said among beekeepers that beekeeping has a 30-year apprenticeship and I suspect that may be underestimating the time required to gain a reasonable degree of understanding about what a colony of bees does in different circumstances, and how best to look after them.

When one is a novice in any area of reasonably complicated activity, one expects to find the early stage a steep learning curve* but when that activity involves looking after live beings of some sort the learning curve also involves large amounts of ‘am I doing it right for them and will they survive?’ With bees – and I don’t know if any other beekeepers reading this have experienced anything similar – I’ve found that thinking about how a colony of social insects will react as opposed to how one interacts with (typically) small mammals, one has to recognise that what is being looked after is a) a collective mind rather than a lot of individuals and b) there is no evidence to suppose the colony realises that one is trying to do the best for it. For me, and I realise it may be different for other beekeepers, the interest lies in watching the complexity of how the colony manages itself, in trying to work out from the various clues available what I need to do to help them do their own thing, in learning more about a fascinating creature, and in perhaps being able to harvest some honey if there’s a surplus. There is no personal relationship with the individuals or the colony – none of the bees is ever going to fly to me for a cuddle, or a grain of sugar fed at fingerpoint, or a game.

So, what have I learned over the past year?

I think respect would be the first thing. It’s not that I didn’t have a great admiration for honeybees (and other bees) before this. I appreciate this may sound strange – after all, they’re just doing what their genes have programmed them to do, without any conscious choice or intent involved. However, a closer acquaintance with the intricacy of their lives, their ordered activity, and the beauty of what they produce – whether that is wax comb, honey, or propolis, has given me the utmost respect for them as a species. What extraordinary creatures they have evolved to be – and how much we depend on them for so much of our food production.

Next, I’ve learned that bees don’t read the manuals. This fact may not come as a total surprise to anyone, but the multitude of ways in which a honeybee colony can react to their habitat and conditions has been a source of puzzlement, frustration, and sheer amazement to me over the past year. My new colony started off, last May/June, by being unhappy with their new young queen. There was nothing wrong with her that I or my beekeeping mentor could see but they kept trying to get rid of her by raising new queens. They had plenty of space in the hive (cramped conditions can lead to a new queen being raised and the colony splitting), she was newly-mated and laying evenly and well, and there was nothing wrong with or in the hive that we could see. Yet every 2 – 3 weeks I’d find another couple of queen cells being built and with eggs and once (when I was a few days late inspecting one week) the cell had been capped. Eventually my mentor suggested that I just let them get on with it and accept that, as I didn’t want to start a second colony in my first year, it would be best to let them sort themselves out without my regularly removing queen cells. So that’s what I did – panicking slightly one week when I couldn’t find a queen at all (the new queen must have just hatched and was lurking in a quiet corner, while the ‘old’ one had gone) but slightly comforted by the fact that the colony was not agitated and upset as they would be if there was no queen in the hive. That is not in the least how a new colony with a young queen is supposed to behave, according to the books, but hey…

The third thing I’ve learned is that belonging to a local beekeeping association is a great help in retaining one’s sanity and not having to spend mega-amounts on such things as a honey-extractor in one’s first year. Not that I had much honey to extract – I wasn’t expecting any, to be honest, as a colony’s first year energies are usually employed in building themselves up and making new comb (needed both for raising new bees and storing supplies) takes a lot of bee-hours. Being able to borrow equipment from my local association (and asking the experts how it worked) was extremely useful. Mind you, if the expert who lent me the radial extractor had mentioned, at the time of my collecting it, that it was not a good idea to have eaten supper just before trying to clean it (and pass it on to the other member who needed it urgently) after extracting honey, so that one wasn’t head-down and bottom-up in a large stainless-steel drum on top of a fairly full stomach, I would have been even more grateful. That, and learning that if you don’t have the honey-frames loaded very evenly around the extractor drum, then it will try to waltz rapidly round the kitchen when you turn the dial up to extracting-speed, so that you have to fling your arms round it in a fond and stabilising embrace while your husband makes a wild dive to turn the power off! And has anyone else noticed that honey is sticky?

So, a year after starting and with a colony that has survived the winter reasonably well, I now find myself contemplating my second year as a beekeeper. I hope to observe more, to learn more, to be able to keep my charges free of the various horrible pests that try and get them, and – possibly – to get a second colony started in a couple of months’ time. If anyone wants me, I’ll be out at the apiary, watching my precious bees. :)

* * *

* And that, possibly, it’s not a great idea to try and learn two complicated and demanding new activities at the same time. Beekeeping and bell-ringing, for example (though at least I know who to blame for the second of these!).


Steps on the way to beekeeping III

Steps on the way to beekeeping II

Steps on the way to bee-keeping I



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