Keeping Bees: The Basics and Where to Keep Bees
In a sense, honey is a product of the sun, for it is made from the nectar secreted by myriads of spring and summer flowers. Both nectar and pollen are collected by bees, the nectar in a honey sac — roughly corresponding to a bird’s crop — while the pollen clings to the insect’s legs and furry body.
The bee’s honey sac contains enzymes that at once begin to break the nectar down into simpler, more easily digested sugars. When a worker bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates nectar and enzymes together into a cell of the honeycomb, which is later sealed over with wax provided by other worker bees within the hive.
The chemical process continues within the cell, finally converting the nectar into honey. The excess water in the cells is evaporated by squads of bees that stand just inside the entrance to the hive, fanning their wings to drive a constant airflow around the honeycombs.
Meanwhile, the pollen gathered by the foraging bee is packed into the comb cells for use by the nurse bees. By a glandular process, they convert it to bee milk for feeding to the larvae in the lower part of the hive.
So far as the bees are concerned, the honey stores they have so tirelessly accumulated have but one purpose: to provide a supply of high-energy food that will ensure the survival of the colony through the months when no flowers are available. What the bee-keeper hopes and works for is that the bees will gather and store much more honey than they need, so that in the late summer he will be able to remove this surplus for his own use.
This is made possible by providing the bees with a good, ready-made home, by exercising skilled care in their welfare and, if necessary, augmenting their winter stores with sugar.
Apart from the opportunity to harvest one of the finest and most wholesome of natural products, bee-keeping provides a hobby whose fascination never wanes. It requires little space and, properly managed, the bees will soon give you an excellent return on your initial outlay.
Bee-keeping is a skill that grows with the years and with experience of bee-handling. It is not possible here to do more than to suggest how to make a start.
Where to Keep Bees
Though bees are most generally envisaged as inhabitants of ancient country gardens, they can be kept with complete success in a much wider variety of habitats. Bees are indifferent to scenery; all they require is an environment in which suitable flowers grow.
Airports, railway embankments, town allotments, overgrown waste tips and quarries all support thriving bee colonies. There is even a bee-hive on the roof of a City of London office block; apparently the City squares and gardens supply sufficient pasture for its needs.
Conversely, some of our richest farmlands are now bee deserts; mile upon mile of wheat, sugar beet and other crops that yield no bee food at all. And careless spraying can decimate bee populations in rural areas.
However, almost any area within a couple of miles’ flight of a lime avenue, heathery heath or a large orchard may be ideal for keeping bees. A fruit farmer may even pay you to keep your hive on his land during the blossom season.
A district of small gardens containing herbaceous borders, flowering trees and shrubs also provides excellent bee pasture. But if you intend to keep bees in such an area, there are several important points to be borne in mind.
The neighbouring gardens should be well-established, containing plenty of trees of medium height, as well as tall fences or hedges. These help to keep the bees’ flight path high — a consideration that will be much appreciated by your neighbours. Recently built housing estates, or those with low fences and lately established plants, are not really suitable for bee-keeping.
For the same reason, you should screen your hives with a high fence, bushes or dense, climbing plants. These will force the bees high on their inward and outward journeys, and will save your neighbours’ gardens from being constantly traversed by a stream of low-flying, purposeful insects.
For your own comfort, and that of your family, you should establish your hives at a reason able distance — say 30 ft (9 m.) or more from the house. The site, which need be no more than a couple of yards square, should be dry and sheltered, but not deeply shaded.
Which direction the hives face does not particularly matter, though it is an advantage if they can be warmed by a little winter sunshine. Apart from that, if the bees have a good store of food, if the hives are dry and have good air circulation, they will survive the worst the British winter has to offer.
Bees require considerably less attention than other livestock. The chief tasks are good hive maintenance, the provision of additional combs and boxes as the colony expands in the summer, a regular search for embryo queens during the swarming season in June and July, and making sure that the bees have an adequate winter food supply.
Apart from this they may be left largely to their own devices until it is time for you to collect your share of the honey.
How to Handle Bees
All authorities are agreed that beekeeping is very much a matter of temperament. Bees react badly to rough or impatient handling, and are aware, in much the same way as dogs and horses, of your state of mind if you are afraid of them.
In time, most people can acquire the art of handling bees with gentleness and confidence; all the same, it would be a good idea to visit your local bee-keepers’ association before going to the expense of buying a hive.
There, you will be able to discover if you and bees enjoy each other’s company, as well as gaining much useful information and practical help.
A sympathetic understanding of bees and their way of life is not only a prerequisite of bee-keeping — it will also considerably lessen your chances of being stung.
Getting stung is a hazard that prospective bee-keepers will have to accept. No matter how skilfully you handle the creatures, or how good your protective clothing, sooner or later you will collect the odd sting or two.
The dangers of this, however, are much exaggerated. Fewer than one person in every thousand is really allergic to bee venom, and though a sting — most likely on the hand — will produce a sharp pain and some swelling, there will be no lasting damage.
It may also be some consolation to know that after a time, and several stings, antibodies develop in the blood of bee-keepers that go some way to lessen the effects of the venom.