Taken from his popular blog, the Surrey Beekeeper, James Dearsley presents the first personal, accessible account of the experience of learning how to harvest bees
Beekeeping . . . oh my . . . what have I done? I am 30 years old, I have been married for three years and am a new father to a fantastic little boy. Surely there are things that I should be doing at this age which do not involve little yellow and black insects that can hurt you if you are remotely clumsy (which at 6ft 5, I have an amazing ability to be).
James Dearsley's wife thought he had lost his mind when he announced his intention to become a beekeeper. But like many interested in the self-sufficient lifestyle, he loved gardening and growing vegetables in his garden and the old romantic in him had idealistic notions of teaching his little boy where honey came from, so he set himself what seemed a reasonable goal: to get, in a year's time, just one jar of honey.
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From A to Bee
My First Year as a Beginner Beekeeper
By James Dearsley
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2012 James Dearsley
All rights reserved.
SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
My beekeeping career started today with the first of ten two-hour classes. I found the beekeeping course by performing a Google search and discovering that there were beekeeping associations that ran evening classes. I was already starting to feel old even thinking about beekeeping, let alone thinking about attending evening classes.
I was feeling quite nervous as I drove to the local school where the course was being held, as I simply did not know what to expect. I was pleased to be earning brownie points as well as learning a new skill because, should we ever win the lottery, Jo and I would love to send our son to this rather grand school set in the heart of the Surrey countryside. Therefore, I reasoned, this was to be a reconnaissance mission as well as an evening class.
While driving along on this miserably dark autumnal evening, I was wondering how beekeeping could possibly take ten weeks to learn. Surely these little black and yellow insects would be easy to look after. I was more interested in what the fellow enthusiasts were like, let alone the teacher. I had a very clear vision, probably gleaned from my knowledge of morris men: usually old, with beards, red cheeks and noses, well-rounded tummies and generally a fondness for drinking ale. I felt that beekeepers and morris men would be cut from the same cloth. I wondered if being beekeepers-in- the-making, beginner beekeepers would only have partial beards, slight tummies and merely a hint of reddening of the cheeks and nose. The teacher, on the other hand, being fully qualified, would have all the attributes of the morris man.
As I drove into the school's vast driveway I was immediately in awe of the beautiful building in front of me, softly lit by floodlights. It was Gothic in appearance with impressive stonework and the most imposing arched windows and doorways dotted around its facade. I could just imagine Sebastian coming here. I approached the door of the classroom (which was one of the outbuildings and not so impressive, having probably been built in the 1960s!) with my heart beating slightly faster than usual. The strange nervousness of a new situation was dawning on me – as well as the frightening thought of a room full of morris-dancing beekeepers.
I opened the door and walked into the classroom. In fact, everyone looked pretty normal. Only about 40 per cent had beards – none of the ladies did – and there were only a few rounded tummies. They all said hello to me, which was nice. The classroom had desks laid out in two horseshoes, with a desk at the front. Having only just got there on time I was the only one sitting in the smaller, inner horseshoe with everyone else behind me. I felt like a naughty schoolboy having to sit closest to the teacher and voiced this point to the others to subtle smiles.
So the most difficult bit was done. Nerves gone, I just had to sit down and enjoy the next two hours. David, the teacher, was incredibly informative and immediately likeable. I hadn't spotted him straight away as he was standing off to one side. He was also the slimmest of the lot and had no reddening of the cheeks either, putting him way off my stereotypical beekeeper, though he did have the tell-tale beard. I later found out that he was one of the top beekeepers in our area. How do they measure this? Honey production? The beekeeper with the most beehives? Who knows, but I was certainly fortunate to be learning from him.
This first session covered the basics and gave an insight into the world that I was about to enter. Within ten minutes I realised why these courses were ten weeks long. There was so much to learn. I drove home from the session utterly in awe of what I had just learned. I now know what honeybees look like (they are not the fat, hairy bees which are so obviously bumblebees but in fact look similar to wasps but with not so harsh colouring) and realise just how important they are to the world in which we live. I got home, offloaded a load of (what I believed to be) useful information to my wife, and then remembered about the reconnaissance mission. I told her about the school: brownie points duly earned.
I can't sleep but I know I'm hooked on becoming a beekeeper.
It is now two days on from the first day of the course that changed so many of my ideas about the honeybee and I find that I cannot stop thinking about them. One fact on my course amazed me and I feel I have to look into it a little more. Doing this will introduce me to the practical side immediately and make it all feel a bit more real.
I learned during Wednesday's session that bees can forage up to 3 miles away from the hive. This fact astounds me. Imagine the journey these little bees do, just in the search for nectar and pollen!
I am truly desperate to look at a local map but I don't want to rush into this. I have a notion of sitting down with a nicely brewed cup of coffee with a map spread out in front of me. I will locate where my hives are to be based (have not got a clue where yet) and get a pair of compasses and plot a nice circle around my hives to the tune of 3 miles. There is a side of me imagining a World War bunker-type operation, complete with the map sprawled out over the table, low-level lighting, cigarette smoke hovering overhead and me manoeuvring little bee models around the map with funny-shaped sticks.
I know I have a 1:25,000 map of the local area somewhere so I reckon this will be enough to tell me all I need to know. How many farms are there around here? How many fields for foraging and what types of crops are grown? This is obviously of utmost importance for the bees – I've heard that oilseed rape, for example, produces a very early honey harvest; if you leave it too long it goes rock hard apparently. I hope I don't have too much of that nearby. I feel fortunate to live in the country with lots of room for them to forage. I wonder if there's a difference between urban and rural bees and their respective honey ...
After a short trip away with work, which meant being out of the house at 4 a.m. and only just arriving home at 11 p.m., I have had enough of my corporate world for today and am very tired. I have worked in the overseas property business for four years now and it involves a lot of international travel. For the first couple of years it was fantastic but now that I can even tell when Gatwick Airport WH Smith has restocked its shelves the travelling has lost its appeal. However, with map in hand, I feel that now is the time to see where my little ones might fly to.
Jo and I get into bed and I bring with me the map and a glass of wine; who says romance is dead?! I also bring a pair of compasses ready to draw a nice circle around a proposed hive location to see just how far my bees will fly. I think this an ingenious plan though perhaps not the best implement to take into the marital bed. I then notice to my utter dismay that we are located right at the bottom of the map; I can therefore only see the top of the 3-mile circle.
Even though I can only see half the story I still know this is a huge area for my bees to forage – a total area of nearly 19,000 acres after some quick mathematics. I immediately realise why they say that bees literally work themselves to death. As I view the area I also realise just how little I know about my local landscape and, due to the fact that I live in pretty much the middle of nowhere, how little I know about the farming and agriculture around me.
I feel that I have to know more about this 'bee fly zone', and that I need to have a drive around to familiarise myself, not least because in that compass half-circle I count about five public houses. Imagine what I might find in the other, more populated half! As I am drifting off to sleep I feel it is entirely justified as maybe, just maybe, my bees might fly into the gardens of the public houses at some point and I might need to go and see what they are like. What a lovely excuse to go and investigate. A job for the weekend I think.
It's the second session of the course tonight and again I come away with a great appreciation for the 'humble' honeybee. For such little insects they are unbelievably sophisticated. Essentially the topic for this evening is the colony itself and its structure, but I can see that David is itching to tell us all some amazing facts:
In just one hive there can be up to 60,000 bees but just the one queen (!).
To make one jar of honey (you know, your regular 454 gram jar from the supermarket) the bees from a beehive would have made at least 25,000 flights to gather enough nectar to convert into honey.
The average worker bee, in their lifetime of only six weeks, despite flying for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, will only make one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.
At all times of the year, regardless of the outside temperature, the hive is kept at a temperature of between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius. It doesn't matter whether you are in the Arctic Circle or in the Sahara Desert!!
For someone who has been around bees for most of his life, it's inspiring to see that David's passion for them remains strong. So are his concerns. Though I understand that we are going to discuss bee diseases at a later date, he obviously can't avoid the elephant in the room: the problems bees are facing. I have read a few articles about the problems but I genuinely didn't realise their extent.
Currently bee colonies are being wiped out at a rate of at least 30 per cent per year, David says, every year. In some cases, beekeepers in the US have been seeing losses reaching 70 per cent in some years. The almond plantations in California are already having to ship in beehives to help pollination as there simply aren't enough bees to do the job locally. Considering this is an 800 million dollar business there is a serious dependence on bees: can you imagine manually pollinating thousands of acres of almond trees? I have heard about a situation in the deepest depths of China where people are employed to walk around orchards all day with feathers on long sticks to manually pollinate fruit trees. I can't quite see this happening in America somehow. Meanwhile, shipping thousands upon thousands of hives could be contributing to the problem, with the bees getting stressed on long journeys.
What is also interesting is the breakdown of the colony. Of the 60,000 bees in the colony, 90 – 99 per cent of those are the daughters and these are termed the worker bees. The name is particularly relevant when you consider what these bees do in their lifetime:
Clean the hive and other bees
Feed the larvae, young bees and the queen
Deposit the pollen and nectar brought in by older, flying bees into cells and start the conversion to honey
Maintain the hive's temperature by either huddling together in winter or fanning the hive in summer
Make wax to build the comb
Guard the hive from intruders
Incidentally, this is all before they are old enough to leave the hive, about three weeks after they hatch. They then simply work to bring in nectar and pollen for the hive, before dying of exhaustion out on the wing; therefore reducing the work of the others back at the hive. David mentioned that they are the perfect example of a successful democratic society and I can see this already. They all work together for the good of the hive: incredible, really.
It sounds a pretty tough life, especially in comparison to their brothers who seem to have an amazing life! The boy bees are called drones and when I saw a photo of one against a worker, it was like watching an episode of Supersize vs Superskinny. The drone is almost twice the size and is essentially a fat, lazy slob of a bee. The drones simply wander around the hive expecting to be fed, cleaned and generally treated like royalty. Their sole job in life, other than just chilling out, is to mate with a queen. Somehow they know when a queen has left a hive (how do they know that?!) and the drones fly off to a secret location and compete to get their wicked way. Apparently the queen may mate with up to seventeen drones – she must be exhausted after that! If the drones succeed and are one of the lucky ones able to mate with the queen they do meet a pretty swift end. While mating, there seems to be a point where their enthusiasm gets the better of them, as their abdomen splits in two and they die. If they don't succeed in mating, though, they are still alive – I should think they fly with their proverbial tail between their legs back to the hives.
If they don't manage to mate with a queen by the end of the summer season, says David, their sisters, the workers, get the hump. In short they get their wings nibbled off and are booted out of the hive. As they cannot fly off anywhere without wings, they have a miserable end as they succumb to the elements. Therefore, it must be said, they have the most amazing lives but also a rather quick and untimely end!
I find myself at work today daydreaming about bees, which feels a little weird. I am contemplating my understanding of this new world, how little I knew before and how amazing it all is. In just two sessions I feel my taste buds for a new hobby are burning. Never did I think I would want to be known as one of those slightly strange beekeepers, but I can feel I am turning – I know what I'm like. I am most likely to become obsessed. What will my friends, family and colleagues think? I think I will wait some time before telling them my plans for the year.
This concern all stems from a rather tenuous link from my childhood, I think.
I used to have various money-making schemes to raise cash to spend on comics and my addiction to penny sweets; cola bottles and fried eggs in particular. To complement my pocket money I would wash cars and do odd jobs and gardening for people in the local area. I remember once putting little leaflets advertising my services in people's letterboxes to help finance my addiction to The Beano and The Dandy while scoffing flying saucers.
One of the people that responded was Anne Buckingham, who my parents always referred to as 'the lady who keeps bees and chickens at the end of the road'. Her car was a grey Saab with the most amazing windscreen – almost vertical but fabulously curved. Washing her convertible grey Saab was one thing, but I distinctly remember peering through soap sudded windows and seeing her looking rather funny in an all-in-one white boiler suit at the bottom of her garden.
I will always remember laughing as this lovely lady with rather unkempt hair pulled on her boiler suit and week after week fell over trying to put on her wellington boots. She would then trudge along to her two beehives, tripping over her own feet as she went. When she reached the hive, however, it was a different story. She became calmness and patience personified as she went about her business, with a metallic object puffing smoke at the bees. Still, 'utter madness,' I would think as I went about my weekly task of removing droplets of pollen from her car chassis.
Beekeeping to me as a child was therefore carried out by middle-aged, Saab-driving ladies with an amazing ability to fall over their own feet. This viewpoint never really changed into my adult life, and thus the hobby never really appealed.
Until now ... Heaven help me!
I am sitting here in my study after a long day in my corporate world, exhausted as I had to do some travelling last week and haven't really caught up yet, followed by my third beekeeping session. Tonight's session was about the beehives themselves – and here was me thinking there was just one type. For the first time I have started to imagine my own beekeeping next year, and to consider what hive I will get. I really have to think this through to make the right decision.
Previously, I thought beekeeping was simple. You would put this beautiful white beehive, looking a little bit like a pretty version of a dalek from Doctor Who, in the corner of your garden. When you were ready you would pop over and use the tap on the side to pour some honey in the jar, before walking jovially back to the breakfast table to spread it on your toast.
In fact that good-looking dalek, which tonight I found out was called the WBC hive, is rarely used now. William Broughton Carr designed it (hence the name) in the late 1800s and it quickly became the quintessential British beehive. However, it was forty years earlier that the first what they now call 'moveable frame' beehive was patented by a Rev. Langstroth over in America. It's apparently the world's most popular beehive today, with over 75 per cent of the world's beehives being a Langstroth. I hope he signed a royalty deal.
Reading about this session before the course started, I did wonder exactly how interesting this evening about the hives would be. But I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised. I never realised just how long beehives have been used, and it is quite amazing to think that beekeepers still use a piece of equipment that was patented over 150 years ago, with no major changes. We can't say that for many things nowadays, can we?
We also talked about a hive called the 'National'. Being British, I suppose we wanted a bit of our own engineering and essentially we have ignored this popular American Langstroth design. The National, a smaller version of the Langstroth, is the most-used hive in the UK and so maybe I should look into using one of these. I am not convinced though because I never follow the crowd, and I am therefore not 100 per cent certain that using a National or Langstroth is right for me.
David also talked about more modern hives; some being polystyrene and some being made of plastic. It all sounded a little strange to me and the feeling accelerated when I saw pictures of them. The plastic hives, called Beehaus, looked a little bit like top-loading freezers but were all bright colours, yellow and purple. They did catch my attention.
David did not sound the biggest fan; he stated that most beekeepers dislike them. I need to know more though, especially as they are compatible with the National hive that had been previously recommended – one of the most important factors if you are considering two or more hive types. Somehow David's hesitation to recommend it fuelled my interest, as I always like to give everything a fair trial.
As a beginner, said David, you should look for a hive that is compatible with other local beekeepers so that in times of emergency they can help you out (I hadn't a clue what that meant if I am honest) and that, most importantly, you should also run two hives so that you can assess each colony individually and have a comparison.
Oh Christ, not just one then!
Excerpted from From A to Bee by James Dearsley. Copyright © 2012 James Dearsley. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsDiagram of a Beehive,