Beekeeping is causing a buzz, with many new enthusiasts starting the hobby each year. Lindsay Walsh meets the Portsmouth Beekeepers’ Association to find out more about the nation’s growing love for apiaries and the fascinating world of bees.
Over the past couple of years bees have been decidedly big news.
They pollinate about a third of all the food we consume in the UK and form a vital part of the food chain. The diminishing population of our number-one pollinator has got chins wagging in everything from news media to films like 2013’s More Than Honey.
The industrious little creatures have come under increasing attack from modern farming methods, the destruction of their traditional foraging areas and foreign pests like the varroa mite.
While the buzz of tiny wings is enough to send many people into a frenzy of arm-flapping at a summer picnic, the thought of a world without bees is difficult to picture.
‘I couldn’t imagine a world without bees,’ says Mike Cotton, chairman of the Portsmouth Beekeepers’ Association.
‘In some areas of China they’ve wiped out the bee population with pesticides and now they pollinate their fruit trees by hand, while in America they ship bees around to pollinate almonds, oranges and blueberries – it’s a multi-billion pound industry.’
As well as being vital pollinators, we also make use of bees in numerous other ways.
‘Bees produce propolis to seal the hive and it’s antibacterial,’ says Mike. ‘It’s used in medicine for sore throats and for varnishing violins.
‘ We use beeswax in candles, shoe and furniture polish and we also use honey in hospitals to heal wounds. Honey is hydroscopic, it absorbs moisture, so it doesn’t allow bacteria to breed in a wound.’
We have a long-running relationship with bees and the Portsmouth Beekeepers’ Association is testament to that, having been established for almost 100 years.
‘The association will be 100 years old in 2018’ Mike says.
‘I became chairman three to four years ago. We had 60 members then, but now we have about 100. It’s to do with the media coverage of bees, they’ve been very much in the headlines recently.’
The association has meetings and talks throughout the year to share information with new and existing beekeepers and offers training and qualifications to develop beekeeping skills.
Mike explains: ‘We run a winter training course for six to eight weeks where we give the basic theory and basic practical work.’
‘In summer we go to the apiary in the Sustainability Centre, East Meon so that people can get first-time hands-on experience before they commit to buying hives. A new bee keeper will also be assigned a mentor, who is an experienced beekeeper that will look after them.
‘Members are given the chance to do modules in the British Beekeeping Association syllabus. Once you’ve done two years of beekeeping you can do the Bee Basic assessment and you get a certificate to say you’re a qualified beekeeper.
‘You can then do other modules in microscopy, bee disease and bee health. You can become quite knowledgeable through training and become a master beekeeper, an assessor who assesses other beekeepers or a bee inspector working with DEFRA.’
The association also offers a swarm collection service, relocating honey bee swarms that people find in their gardens, and runs an annual spring convention featuring speakers and trade stalls every March.
But as Mike notes, getting involved with bees can be as simple as letting your grass grow.
‘We’ve lost 90 per cent of our meadows which are key foraging areas for bees, so you can leave a section of your garden uncut or plant wild flowers – every little thing people can do helps.’
One person who is familiar with all the small details of bee keeping is John Perry, deputy chairman of the Portsmouth Beekeepers’ Association. Having kept bees for almost 10 years, he also knows how rewarding this pastime can be.
‘As well as looking after the bees you feel you’re doing something beneficial for other people and there’s also the prospect of a honey pay off!’ says John.
‘There are different flavours of honey. These come from the plants that the bees are foraging on because different flowers produce nectar that has different sugars in different concentrations.
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‘Distinctive flavours include lavender, heather and clover. I like clover honey - it’s a very light, clear, runny honey.’
John explains that there are also two different types of honey that exist within the hives themselves.
‘Capped honey is honey that’s been sealed in with wax. This has less moisture content and it’s ripe honey.
‘Uncapped honey has a high moisture content and will potentially ferment. You wait until honey is capped to harvest it, that’s when the bees judge it’s right.’
Although most of us take honey for granted in the food we eat, it’s also a vital resource for the bees.
John says: ‘The reason bees make honey is that in the winter there are no flowers so the honey represents their food for the winter. You harvest honey throughout the year but you have to leave bees enough for the winter. You have to ensure in the early part of the year that there’s enough left to see them through any bad weather.
‘If winters are particularly severe you have to give the bees a helping hand and feed them fondant soft icing sugar and sugar syrup in the spring.’
Despite all the care and knowledge that goes into keeping bees through the winter, harvesting the honey is simple.
John says: ‘To extract honey you de-cap the honey comb in the frame and it’s then spun in a centrifuge. It’s filtered and bottled and that’s all that happens to it – there’s no messing about!’
Although there are many simple pleasures to bee keeping, John also recognises there is value to this pastime as well.
‘It’s important that somebody keeps the bees going otherwise we have a major problem. Bees are very important to almost all crops so it’s vital to preserve them.
‘There are very few commercial beekeepers and there are virtually no feral bees, so almost all the bees in the UK are kept by amateur bee keepers.
‘Beekeeping is important for the bigger picture.’
I must admit to feeling a bit excited about donning the iconic white beekeeping suit on my visit to the Southern Co-operative bee hives at Lakeside, North Harbour.
Putting on the thick protective gloves and all-in-one suit with its net mask in order to deal with potentially painful bees has always had parallels for me with a knight dressing for battle or an explorer donning his pith helmet and heading out to face down unknown danger.
Suitably zipped and velcroed up, I headed over to the hives with John Perry and Mike Hastilow. The two beekeepers talked me through the layout of the hive, showing me the wooden sets, covered in wax, that contained the honey.
The pair also explained the importance of bee space between the cells and showed me the queen excluder which stops the hive leader laying eggs in the honey-rich upper levels.
As we delved deeper into the hive, bees filled the air and soon they were hovering around my face mask and landing on my gloved hands. I felt completely safe in my suit of fabric armour and it was an exciting experience being so close to creatures which usually make you run away.
The inside of the hive was intricately detailed and when John handed me some wax to hold it was surprisingly strong.
Visiting the hives was both informative and exciting and as I reluctantly shed my suit I knew I would never look at the humble bee in quite the same way again.
Beekeeping jargon explained
Frame – A removable wooden frame that supports the wax of the hive in which honey is created and new bees are hatched. There are several frames in each hive layer.
Queen excluder – A precisely-spaced mesh sheet that worker bees can pass through but which is too small for the queen, keeping her confined to the brood box.
Brood box – The bottom level of the hive where eggs and larvae are raised into new bees. Confining the queen to this level means that you don’t get eggs or larvae in the supers.
Supers – The upper levels of the hive used for storing and harvesting honey.
Bee space – The amount of space (approximately 7mm) needed between sets for bees to work back to back. This was discovered by Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in 1851 and forms the basis for most modern hive designs.
Queen – The leader and mother of all bees in the hive. In the summer a queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs a day.
Workers – Worker bees are female and perform all the work in the hive from cleaning out cells and raising young to guarding the hive’s entrance and preparing the honey.
Drones – Drones are all male. They are bigger than workers and have large eyes and strong bodies. Their entire purpose is to mate with queens in order to produce new bees. Drones do not work and when winter comes they are denied access to the hive and die outside.
Mike is the Southern Co-operative’s beekeeper for the hives at Lakeside, North Harbour and has been mentored by John Perry.
Mike says:‘We decided we wanted to keep bees and at the time we had no experts within Southern Co-operative.
‘One thing we didn’t want to do is get a whole load of bees and find out that they’d died. We contacted the Portsmouth Beekeepers’ Association and they were very supportive in setting up the hives.
‘John has been mentoring me since the start. Without a doubt my confidence has grown with the bees, but it’s nice to have someone you can ring up and say “I haven’t seen this before!”.
‘To me beekeeping is a great pastime, they’ve always fascinated me. The bees almost have a personality themselves and you get to know them.
‘I think it’s important to raise awareness about bees. In the Co-op values and principles is the idea of education and we show the bees to our members and colleagues so they can come and see them. They learn how important the bees are, what their life cycles are and what the threats and dangers to bees are.’