Whether you approach it from the point of view of conservation, entomology, crop pollination or simply a love of honey, beekeeping is an engaging pursuit and a fascinating window on the natural world.
So what does it take to become a beekeeper?
The essentials are simple enough: some sort of hive, a hat and a veil, an old, white shirt and some gloves – and at least the tacit agreement of the people who share your living space. It doesn’t matter whether you are a town or a country dweller, so long as there is an abundant and varied supply of flowering plants from early spring onwards. In fact, bees often do better in well-gardened, urban areas than in the ‘green desert’ of modern, industrial farm land.
Judging by the questions potential beekeepers ask me, they have three main areas of concern: the cost of equipment and bees; storage space for spare hive parts and other equipment, and the difficulty of lifting heavy boxes – especially when full of honeycomb.
If you go down the road of ‘conventional’ beekeeping, using the standard ‘National’, the ‘WBC’ or one of the other variants of the ‘movable frame’ hive, then these concerns are very real. You can expect to spend £250-£300 on woodwork and basic equipment; you will need a shed or similar space to store spare parts and you – or someone you can bribe – will need to be able comfortably to lift and carry 15-20 kilos at a time. These three factors discourage people for whom money or space are already tight, and those who have a disability or are simply unable to lift and carry substantial weights.
Luckily, there is an alternative.
Like many British beekeeping novices, I began with a ‘WBC’ hive – the kind with sloped-sided outer boxes familiar from children’s books. Soon, I acquired a couple more and began to realize that if I was to continue along this road, I would have to build myself a big shed in which to house all the spare woodwork and other paraphenalia that was rapidly accumulating – and I would have to find a way to pay for all the ‘extras’ I would soon be needing.
At this point I asked myself – does it really need to be this way? – and that innocent question led me on an exploratory mission of reading, study and experimentation that showed me conclusively that, no – it does not need to be that way: beekeeping does not need to be complicated, expensive or dependent on machine-made parts and equipment.
My search for an alternative approach led me to the top bar hive – one of the oldest and simplest types of beehive – that requires little skill and few tools to build. A good start on the road to sustainable simplicity, but is it a practical hive for modern beekeeping?
After some years of experimenting and testing various designs, I believe I now have a top bar hive design that is easy to build, practical and productive, while being comfortable and easy to use for both the bees and the beekeeper.
So what are top bar hives?
The principle is simple: a box with sticks across the top, to which bees attach their comb. Mine have central, side entrances, sloping sides and a pair of ‘follower boards’ to enclose the colony. There are many variations on this theme and all have the essential guiding principle of simplicity of construction and of management. There are no frames, no queen excluders, no ekes, no mouse guards, no supers, no foundation and there is no need for extractors, settling tanks, filters, de-capping knives… in fact no need for any other equipment or storage space, other than that provided within the hive itself. And if you have just spent an hour leafing through suppliers’ catalogues, wondering how you can possibly afford to keep bees, that will come as some relief!
Building a top bar hive is no more difficult than putting up shelves and can be done using hand tools and recycled wood. Top bar beekeeping really is ‘beekeeping for everyone’ – including people with disabilities, bad backs, or a reluctance to lift boxes: there is no heavy lifting once your hives are in place, as honey is harvested one comb at a time. From the bees’ point of view, top bar hives offer weatherproof shelter, the opportunity to build comb to their own design – without the constraints of man-made wax foundation – and minimal disturbance, thanks to a ‘leave well alone’ style of management.
So where do you get bees from?
You can buy them or catch them, or if you are lucky, they will adopt you! Catching or luring a swarm is by far the most fun – and much easier than you might think. Bees swarm in response to their instinct to reproduce – mostly in spring and early summer – and the sight of a swarm in flight is certainly impressive. However, contrary to popular belief, this is the time when they ar least likely to sting you: their only concern at that moment is to find a new place to live. So if you offer them the right sort of accommodation at the right time – such as a pleasant-smelling, cosy beehive – they are very likely to move in of their own accord. Many people become beekeepers by enticing a passing swarm using a few drops of citronella or lemon grass oil, or better still, rubbing the inside of the hive with pure beeswax.
Capturing a swarm is not difficult either – hold a basket or cardboard box under their football-sized cluster on a tree branch and give a good shake! It is not always as easy as that, but it is rarely as difficult as getting a cat out of a tree.
If you think you want to keep bees, I suggest you first get to know a local beekeeper who is willing to let you visit and handle their bees. Most beekeepers’ associations have ‘meet the bees’ days during the spring, giving newcomers a chance to see inside a hive and test their responses to being surrounded by bees.
And stings? Yes, you will get stung from time to time, however careful you are. Local swelling, redness and itching is a normal reaction: faintness, breathing difficulties and collapse are true allergic symptoms and are potentially life-threatening. Most people who keep bees become less sensitive to stings over time, but sometimes it goes the other way and occasionally an experienced beekeeper may suddenly become allergic. So if you have any reason to suppose you may be sensitive to bee venom (only about one in 200 people are) be sure to carry Benadryl or an Epipen (adrenaline injection) or ensure that whoever you are with is properly equipped to deal with an emergency.
Bees are in trouble right now – from pesticides, industrial farming, pollution, parasitic mites and viruses – and we need all the ‘natural’ beekeepers we can get to build up their numbers and give them a chance to solve their own problems. So, if you want to keep bees, build yourself a hive before the swarm season, and you could be tasting your own honey by the end of the summer!