How it began…
You would have thought that after spending over 30 years in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside that this would have been the perfect place for me to start this hobby – wrong! I lived in a quiet little street with a nice little garden, surrounded by keen and enthusiastic gardeners and behind the shed would have been a great little spot for some bees. It wasn’t until I decided to move to one of the biggest cities in the world that I thought about taking up bee keeping though.
As mentioned on the intro page, I’ve loved honey for years. It sounds stupid but I’ve never thought for long just how much effort it takes to produce this amazing stuff. It was just always “there” in nice little shops that you visited on a weekend or when my mum had been for a trip to farmer Copley’s!
On a trip to north Wales in August 2013 I saw a leaflet to an Apiary museum and I really wanted to go. Unfortunately we’d already decided on moving to London by this stage and so we had to leave Wales early to go flat hunting. Plus, I don’t think Liz was too keen on the idea! I was disappointed and so started search for other places around Leeds/London where there was something similar.
Anyway, for my birthday in September, Liz bought me a “taster session” with Camilla Goddard who is a full time bee keeper. We met in Greenwich where she keeps around 10 hives that are located behind Devonport House Hotel. The idea was to give me a proper introduction to practical bee handling (i.e. not just learning about it in a classroom and never getting within an inch of a bee!) So technically this all started on 25 September 2013.
I turned up and got straight into a big white bee suit. I made certain that all the zips were done up and there were no spaces the bees could get in. Camilla was a great teacher and spent the first 5-10 mins showing me what the bees were doing around the entrance. In those few minutes I saw the “guard bees” attack a cheeky wasp that tried to get in; some “household bees” taking out a few dead bodies and some of the lovely females evicting a big fat drone! It also turned out I was stood right in their flight path so had quite a few whizzing past my head and some even getting in my hair – so we quickly moved.
Over the next couple of hours we went through 2-3 of the hives in detail. I was shown everything from what the different parts of the hive were, how to light a smoker (and more importantly what it does to the bees), how to spot the different types of bees on the frames, how much honey they need to last over winter and what some of the diseases there were to look out for. I even had a go at lifting some of the frames out on my own and trying to work out what was going on in there.
I came away incredibly excited and knew from then on that I wanted to start this myself….
Hunt for a site
I spent the next couple of months reading some of the books Camilla had suggested to start learning in more detail what this was all about. The main book I invested in was the Guide to Bees & Honey by Ted Hooper (The World’s best selling guide to beekeeping) and it was an absolutely fascinating read!
Before spending any money on a hive and equipment, I first needed a suitable location. Given London is a bit tight on space I thought this would be virtually impossible. It turns out that London is a great place to keep bees – mainly because of the enormous variety of plants available. Instead of out in the countryside where you have fields and fields of one particularly type of plant, in London the variety means that the honey here is so varied and therefore has much more flavour…
I still needed a site though!
I stumbled on a website called “hivetalking” which is an initiative by urbanbees.co.uk and sponsored by the Co-op. This had a map of the world and had different coloured markers identifying people who want to offer their land and for people who want to learn more. I put in my details and started to search for possible “hosters”. I sent a few emails and got a few negative responses. I started to get worried thinking that the site was too old and was too out of date.
I then got a reply from a lady called Caroline who lived in Islington. Apparently she put the “advert” on there a while back and hadn’t had much interest. I went round to meet her and her husband, Chris, and turns out he also grew up in God’s own county as well! We chatted for a while, I checked out the site and we agreed to enter into a partnership – her letting me use the space in exchange for a few jars of honey each year! Worked for me! By this stage it was mid-November 2013 and obviously far too late to start things going. We exchanged contact details and I agreed to get in touch in Spring 2014 when it would be the start of the next season.
First off, there are lots of different types of hives. National, Commercial, WBC, Langstroth etc. so my first task was working out which one to get. I originally looked into the WBC hives as
these were the typical picturesque images that people think of.
I read that the honey crop on these types of hives wasn’t quite as good as they held few frames, plus they were a lot more expensive. I therefore decided to get a National hive (also the most popular in the UK).
I found a website and submitted my order over Christmas with a view to putting it together over the holidays. I spent the next few weeks putting the various bits and pieces together - being the excellent DIY-er that I am (my family all agree with me ;-) I obviously had to by the flat packed versions rather than the ready assembled!
It took quite a while to put everything together – mainly due to work being so busy – but also because there were 33 frames that had to be nailed together with the wax foundation inserted correctly in place. A ready made hive therefore sat in the flat for a few months until it was ready for its new residents.
Whilst this was all going on I got in touch with Camilla to find out where I could get some bees from. I’d also read that it was good to get “local” bees and ones that were quite docile as they were easier for a beginner to get used. It turns out Camilla also supplies bees so that was an easy choice! She got in touch and we agreed that the delivery could be made in late May/June time.
I also got in touch with Chris & Caroline to arrange to take the hive over so it would be there ready and I took it round at the end of April. It was easy to get in the back of the car as it’s basically just a load of small boxes that stack up on each other. I was in and out in no time at all. It was good to chat with Chris & Caroline again and to discuss how this would work in practice given I would need to go round regularly to keep an eye on them.
7 June 2014 was the big day for the bee arrival. I agreed to meet Camilla at the house in Islington so the bees could be transferred into the hive. I was very nervous as I didn’t have a clue what to expect and also it had been throwing it down with rain all morning so was worried we’d have to put off until another day. Being the professional, Camilla didn’t mess about and got them in quickly to keep them quiet. We gave them a bit of food and left them to it. As I left I could see them having a bit of a fly round to start getting their bearings.
I was incredibly excited – after first thinking about getting into this, 10 months later I had my own hive and had to be a responsible beekeeper.
I went round the following day to give them more food. The “food” they eat is essentially concentrated sugar (syrup) made from dissolving 2kg of sugar into 4 pints of water. I went round and filled the feeder up with 4 pints of the stuff. The reason they need food is because the worker bees now have a very period ahead of them by building out the comb throughout the hive (“drawing the comb”).
When Camilla transferred the bees in, she had them on 5 frames and contained lots of brood – i.e. developing bees. Due to my hive being new, all the other frames (6 in the brood box) and all the frames in the supers (another 22) simply had a sheet of wax in the middle. The bees had to build out the wax into the hexagonal combs on every frame so that they could start storing honey, pollen and the queen could start laying eggs in them.
I came back a week later and they’d eaten every bit! I’m not surprised given how busy they’d been. They’d started to build the comb out on the new frames already and were doing a fantastic job. I topped the food up again and left them to it.
As I write this, I’m only 3 weeks into my new beekeeping career. I’ve had lots of fun over the past 10 months getting everything set up and I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with friends, family and work colleagues about what I’m doing. We even went along to “The Big Laugh” at the Hammersmith Apollo theatre which was in aid of bees (hence the picture above). My life has become obsessed and most people think I’m mad, but we’ll see how that changes when they taste the harvest later in the year!
I’ve been to inspect the hive a few times now. This is a weekly task (in Summer) where you need to check that the Queen is laying eggs, there’s enough space, there’s no diseases etc etc. I’ve also been along to the North London beekeepers association to meet people there, just in case I need any urgent help. I’ve also been paired up with a “bee buddy” – basically someone who knows a bit more than I do and he came round at the last inspection to check everything was ok. It’s at this visit I spotted the Queen for the first time.
I’ll keep posting pictures on here at the various inspections and update the blogs to let you know how everything is progressing throughout the various stages of the beekeeping year.
Hopefully I’d like to get more hives and get up to 12 throughout London over the next 4-5 years. So keep checking back so you can see my progress (or set backs). Thank you to everyone who has helped me so far … Camilla (for my tuition); Chris & Caroline (for being excellent hosts and showing as much interest in the hive as me); Liz (for listening to me go on about it all the time); and friends and family who have given me lots of encouragement!!!
I’ve named my first Queen “Aphrodite” which was a suggestion by Sonia and Ben. Given I will be getting more Queens as I get more hives and when Aphrodite gets too old, so I will be going through the alphabet naming them. So please post through your suggestions….