I have probably mentioned before that I am a terrible beekeeper. A really lazy, procrastinating, muddling along as I go beekeeper. This has served me well enough so far I should think. I was gifted a swarm of bees by a friend and my collection has now grown to four beehives at last count. Fingers crossed I still have four come Spring. Other people think my method is not the greatest – no real argument there. In fact, those that know better, despair at me and my ‘chancing my arm beekeeping’ methods.
‘Have you harvested any honey this year – there’s a right flow on.’
‘Eh – a bit….’ Which is code for, I took out a frame the other day and stood it on end in a roasting tray in the kitchen and spooned out the liquid goo onto my porridge whenever the mood took me.
‘Have you put your supers on?’ ……. ‘You should have about five of them on at this stage.’
‘Five! Sure I couldn’t reach up that high.’
‘Have you treated them for the varroa mite yet.’
‘Sugar. I knew I forgot something.’
If I turn up at someone’s door during the summer, a certain beekeeper just assumes that the bees have swarmed because as someone wiser once said, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’
What I really need is someone by my side encouraging me, telling me what to do when and why I am doing it. I need to know the why, otherwise doing it gets shoved down the list. Step up to the plate Mr. David Cramp and his book, A Practical Manual of Beekeeping – How to keep bees and develop your full potential as an apiarist. I was sold just on the tagline. My full potential. Someone wants to develop my full potential. And not just as a beekeeper but as an apiarist. Means the same thing I know but apiarist is much fancier.
Now there are some great books out there about bees. Ted Hooper’s A Guide to Bees and Honey is the bible and definitive reference for beekeepers. I will refer to it when I want more detail about a term or a practice but I find it a bit hefty for a beginner. David manages to strike a good balance between providing information and making it all seem achievable for a newbie. Possibly the best move made by the author is his taking you through the year step by step from how to prepare for the bees arrival, to getting your hive set up and established, harvesting and treating your bees before preparing them for the winter. If you haven’t got a more experienced beekeeping mentor, then this is the book for you.
What I love is that he touches on the possibility of more than simply keeping bees while not trying to cover it in detail. That would be trying to make the book do too much. And I think that is often where other books can fall down. Pick one thing and do it well. This book is about getting a beginner beekeeper (or a lapsed beekeeper) up and running and confident in what they are doing. He opens a window onto things like queen rearing, harvesting royal jelly, pollen and propolis. He raises the question of a market for silk and delves into organic beekeeping, going pro and getting people with disabilities involved in working with bees. The last two chapters are for sitting and dreaming about possibilities for when I am a real grown up beekeeper and all organised. We can always dream.
Although some days I wish I was dreaming. Before we moved out here, we rented a house in the middle of the town in a housing estate. To one side of us was another rented house that stood empty and neglected and to the other side was a lovely family with five boys whom we have become great pals with. They didn’t object to my keeping a small hive of bees in the back garden and looked on from a safe distance as I got my spacesuit on and went about my beekeeping business. On a sunny day, I could often look out the kitchen window and find Mr. Fairweather sitting on a rock beside the hive drinking his cup of tea and watching the girls flying in and out. All was right with the world.
Then one day while I was at home on my own, I looked out the upstairs window to see a cloud of bees swirling around in the air looking for somewhere to settle. They didn’t look like the dark shapes you often see in cartoons. They weren’t on the move yet. They had simply decided it was time to move on and start a new hive somewhere else. Where had not yet been decided so all who were going were rendezvousing while the scouts sussed the lie of the land. Not what you want to see in a housing estate. Now if they had landed in either of my immediate neighbour’s backyards, that would have been fine. But then it wouldn’t be that good of a story. The bees decided they would gather in the backyard of a house two doors up. A house in which the chair of the Residents’ Association lived with her husband. Did I mention that this was the day before their daughter was getting married?!? I could see the husband upstairs shutting windows and looking out into his garden. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole.
Eventually, I sucked it up and ventured over. I knocked on the door and when he answered I asked if he happened to have bees in his back garden.
‘I do. How did you know?’
‘I think they might be my bees. Would you mind if I had a look?’ (As if I could tell whose bees they were!)
‘Do you keep bees? I was wondering who to call. Are you safe going out to them dressed like that?’ (By that, he meant t-shirt and trousers and sandals.)
‘Ah yeah. Once I stay out of their flight path, they should be fine. They’ll have stuffed themselves on honey before swarming so with full bellies, they really aren’t aggressive.’ (Check me out sounding all knowledgeable and stuff.) ‘Yeah. They’re my bees. I’ll come back and collect them if that’s ok with you.’
And off I went. Walking quite calmly but head and heart racing. Out came David Cramp’s book and a quick flick through the well set out contents page brought me to the section on swarming. Why it happens, how to prevent it and how to deal with it when it does happen. I devoured it all. Suited and booted and brand new nuc box in hand I headed off hoping to nip in and do it quietly and get out quickly. Two women were stood on the other side of the road outside the neighbour’s house chatting. They barely nodded to me as I passed by, so engrossed were they in their conversation. The neighbour had opened the side door for me but was safely ensconced inside his house, watching the proceedings from behind the glass doors. The bees had landed on the leg of a wooden picnic table – of all the inconsiderate places to pick. I swept them down into the box, checked for fanning to indicate I had the queen. Got as many of them in that I could, sealed up the box and headed off back the way I came. The women were still there. This time conversation ceased and heads followed me as I wandered nonchalantly down the road with my space suit zipped up and hood on, box in my arms and a small cloud of straggler bees following me down the road.
The moral of the story? There are lots. But if you are starting out beekeeping – get help. And get a good reference book. Try this one for starters.