Country enterprise: keeping bees for honey, wax, royal jelly, honeycombs
Honey can be used to make honeycakes, mead, and is very healthy
Collect your swarm of bees in a hive.
...Siting a hive
...Capture a swarm
...Buy a colony or nucleus
...Queens & drones
Keeping bees is one livestock enterprise that can be practised
The delicious honey produced by suburban bees
still manages to evoke images of flower-laden orchards and country
lanes. There are even beehives in the City of London - though not
very many. The bees survive on window-boxes and the small oases
planted as picnic-places. The great thing about bees is that they fly
off to gather food for the hive and so they do not have to be right
in the middle of a food supply, just within reasonable striking
distance. Apparently, one bee makes about 2,000 trips to flowers
to make one teaspoonful of honey: that is something to remember
as you spread it thickly on the bread at tea-time.
In commercial terms, bees produce honey and beeswax and, of
course, more bees. To sell good honey is not difficult: the price is
always good and there are very few areas where enough is produced
to meet local demand. Anyone who appreciates using beeswax
as a furniture polish is a good customer and anyone who does
not appreciate it has probably never tried it. If you want to sell
the bees you produce as a beekeeper, you either need someone
who is going into beekeeping from scratch or another beekeeper
who wishes to expand his enterprise more quickly than his own
bees will allow. You may well be your own best customer for the
first few years but eventually you will end up with some surplus
bees unless you just let them swarm and fly away which is wasteful
and in populated areas unpleasant and possibly dangerous.
There are not very many people who are allergic to bee stings,
something like one in a thousand, but nobody likes being stung.
You should bear this in mind when you come to site your hive
near your neighbours properties. Bees will fly up high over an
obstacle so if the hives are in a suburban setting or in a populated
country setting, put a high fence a few feet from the hive. This
means that the bees will rise into the air and tend to disperse
rather than treat neighbouring gardens as a fly-path.
Bees may not find enough food in a newly developed area.
Although established suburban gardens are usually good feeding-
grounds, large areas of newly cultivated gardens are not. Water is
another attraction for bees.
We had friends whose suburban goldfish
pond became a buzzing cloud of bees on summer evenings.
Granted they had a delightfully flowery garden with herbs and
shrubs as well but it appeared to be the pond that was the great
attraction. It became quite unpleasant at times and clearly young
children could no longer be allowed to play about in the garden.
The problem was never solved as the neighbours with the hive had
no children and not much sympathy; eventually our friends moved
house so we have no idea of the final outcome if there was one.
Whether you intend to start bee-farming with one hive or to
buy an existing bee-farm on a franchise basis (the newest method
of honey production), it is important to find out whether you can
get on with the bees.
Traditionally bees do not take to fornicators!
Nor do they like sweat or dirty clothes. Putting together all that,
pure, sweet honey is clearly best produced by pure, sweet people!
It is up to you to judge whether you fall into this category or to
decide to take a chance if you do not.
Many beekeepers are happy to show you some of the intricacies
of beekeeping. If you contact your local bee-club, you will be put
in touch with someone suitable.
Getting stung is never pleasant,
even when you have developed some degree of immunity as you
seem to with several stings. If the thought of being stung fills you
with horror, do not go in for bees. Even honey is not worth it.
However if, like many people, you are fascinated by the intricate
workings of the hive and you are prepared to put up with the
occasional sting, you will probably find beekeeping one of the
most fascinating occupations.
Left to their own devices, bees will as happily build a nest in a
hollow tree as in a purpose-made hive.
The purpose of a man-made hive is after all simply to make it easier
for you to remove the
honey and to ensure that the honey is as free from impurities as
possible. When a honey-eating bear raids a hive in the wild he is
not concerned about pieces of bark and the occasional insect,
neither does he have to ensure that the honey is clean enough not
to ferment in storage. We all assume when we take honey from a
jar that it is pure and wholesome and the best start to producing
clean honey is to have the bees in a suitable hive. Manufactured
hives are quite similar in design and if you intend to make your
own hive, it should have the same basic design.
Starting from the bottom, where the bees enter through a small
hole, the first layer is the brood chamber. This is a rectangular
box, open above and below. On the bottom it rests on a board and
above it, there is a screen with holes that are small enough to
allow access for the worker-bees but too small to allow the queen
to pass through and lay her eggs in the honey storage boxes. The
queen is thus confined to the lower box which is referred to as the
brood chamber. In this she lays her eggs and here the worker-bees
feed the larvae.
When the workers store the honey in the second layer they are
providing us with our crop. Left totally to their own devices, they
are simply building a reserve of food to last them through the
winter. When we interfere and take some honey, we have to
supplement their diet as necessary with sugar.
Hives generally have two storage layers, referred to as 'supers'.
When these are both full, a third layer can be added. On top of
this high-rise bee-house is a roof to keep out the rain. The hive
should have ventilation holes at the top.
In the winter you should
put a mouse-guard at the entrance hole; a bee-house is just as
desirable a residence as a human house to an autumn mouse, no
doubt even more so as it is crammed with delectable honey. The
mouse would not last long as the bees kill intruders but the carcass
is too large for them to remove and is therefore a possible source
of infection. What the bees would do to counteract this is typical
of bee ingenuity. They would form a layer of propolis over the
dead intruder. This is the substance collected from leaf buds by
the industrious bees. Being resinous, it is a strong glue and is used
in hive construction; it is also a natural antibiotic and would help
to prevent the decomposing mouse from infecting the hive.
Really competent woodworkers may find constructing a hive
part of the overall challenge of keeping bees. The rest of us are
probably best advised to buy one. You can often buy second-hand
hives and it is also possible to construct fairly simple outer boxes
and simply buy the frames to hang inside them. Some enterprising
beekeepers convert dustbins to use as hives. These are apparently
very successful, even if they look somewhat unromantic. The most
romantic hives of all are the original straw skeps that our ancestors
used. We in fact use a drawing of one of these on the honey fudge
that we sell. They are certainly less productive and we use the
modern hive in reality to produce the honey. In any case, whatever
kind of hive you decide to use, you can be sure that for each
hive occupied this year you can expect to fill another with bees
next year when your bees swarm.
Having got a hive, empty and ready for use, there are a few other
items you will need.
One of the appeals about beekeeping is that the necessary equipment
is fairly limited. One item that you will most certainly require
is a smoker. This is simply a pair of bellows
attached to a funnel; you fill it up with something smokey such as
old rags and have it poised for action when you handle the bees. If
the bees become agitated, the cool smoke calms them without
damaging them. What a shame that no-one has developed something
similar for dealing with irate humans. You may just wish
you had such a device if your bees swarm in a neighbour's garden!
Another item you will need is a hive tool. This is made of steel
and has a flat blade at one end and a scraper at the other. You can
often find something similar in your tool box. If you do, make
sure that it is quite clean before using it. You use it when you
want to open up the layers of the hive and when you want to get
wax from the frames.
As you are keeping bees to remove some of their honey, you
must replenish their larder in the winter. To this end you require
a feeder of some sort. There are several designs available. They all
contain sugar syrup that you make up.
If you want to sell or eat
honey and wax together, you put lots of little boxes, referred to as
sections, into the supers instead of the usual larger frames.
bees are never quite as enthusiastic about filling the little boxes,
presumably because being sociable little creatures they prefer
working in large groups. However, in a good year, you will get
quite a reasonable yield this way. You will also receive a premium
for honey sold in this way and will avoid having to purchase the
second most expensive item of equipment in beekeeping after the
hive - an extractor.
You need the extractor to extract honey cleanly and efficiently.
An extractor works on the same principle as a spin-dryer, using
centrifugal force to remove the honey from the comb. The honey
must be clean before you jar it or you will find that it ferments.
Very nice if you are making mead but not if you are selling pure
honey. Some groups of beekeepers share extractors and sometimes
you can hire one through a beekeepers' association. Clean honey
jars are a necessity and if you are producing a lot of honey, you
will need to buy some new jars. In any case, you should always use
a new lid to avoid contamination. You can ask your local beekeepers'
association about obtaining jars.
That is about all you need specifically apart from clothing.
delightful prints of beekeepers working with flowing veils is not
simply rural romance. Protective clothing is a necessity. A wide-
brimmed hat with a veil that falls on to the shoulders should
always be worn when handling bees. Wear close-fitting cuffs and
always tuck your trousers into your socks. Long, flowing skirts on
female beekeepers look extremely ethnic but the action of several
furious bees trapped inside the folds requires very little graphic
Even very experienced beekeepers seem to become
lulled into a false sense of security and we have heard the most
unpleasant tales of some such souls who simply omitted to tuck
in their trousers. Not only do a multitude of stings make you feel
painful and sometimes quite ill, there is also the sad knowledge to
be gained that the hitherto friendly little bees are really no respecter
of persons. Whether you wear heavy gauntlets or not is
really a question of choice.
Bees do not like being roughly handled
and will show it; on the other hand, to handle bees with bare
hands requires a degree of confidence that many of us do not
possess. Remembering the fact that bees dislike dirty clothes and
sweat, whatever protective clothing is worn should be cleaned
periodically. It is also inadvisable to wear strong-smelling perfume
or aftershave. In a modern world it is surprising how many strong-
smelling substances we smother ourselves in. Deodorants, hair
sprays and fabric conditioners are often overlooked as being
strong-smelling aggravations to the sensitive bee.
You can get started into beekeeping in three different ways.
first, and most dramatic, is to capture a swarm. This usually comes
about when you have been put in touch with a beekeeper who is
aware that his bees are about to swarm and who no longer wishes
to enlarge his numbers. The early summer is the most usual time
for this awe-inspiring migration of bees. It is all part of the complex
nature of the hive. The queen suddenly departs with up to
half the adult population of the hive. A watchful beekeeper will
have been keeping an eye on the emergence of young queen larvae
within the hive. These are identified by the size of cell and the
position they occupy within the hive: the cells are bigger than
those of worker-bees and instead of lying horizontally they hang
vertically. If you have been put in touch with a suitable supplier
at this stage, you must be totally prepared to act quickly when
called. Your hive should be ready for occupation and the supers
should contain wax-filled frames. You also require a feeder as the
newly moved bees should be cosseted on their arrival to enable
them to establish themselves.
When the call comes you dash off, complete with protective
clothing, to capture the swarm. If you cannot bear the excitement
of doing it yourself, you should pay the seller an extra fee. It is
worth remembering, however, that from now on you are going to
be dealing with those bees yourself, so you might as well be in at
the beginning. A swarm of bees is an intimidating sight. When they
are in flight they emit a booming sound. Fortunately they swarm
on to something, often a branch, fairly close to the hive before
taking off altogether. This is when you want to effect your capture.
Sometimes, of course, you are not swift enough; then the
bees are off and wherever they swarm to next - they are there for
the bold to take them. Years ago a swarm appeared on our village
green. The entire village rushed around like bees disturbed, some
wanting to find the beekeeper responsible, some trying to find
someone brave enough to capture the swarm. By the time suitable
brave souls had materialised the swarm had departed. Nobody saw
where they went but the village was supplied with excitement for
When bees are in a swarm they act as a mass and are not very
difficult to capture. You advance with a box, place it under the
swarm and sharply bang their resting-place. Hopefully the whole
swarm will drop into your box which you can hastily cover and
make away with, at speed, to your own hive. Once there, you
make the opening to the hive as large as possible and place a ramp
of wood leading up to it. You then turn the box upside down at
the bottom of the ramp and tap it to remove any lingerers. The
bees with luck run up the slope and enter the hive. Usually they
are quickly installed; you then close the entry to a gap of about
three to four inches wide, attach the syrup-filled feeder and
retreat, feeling unbelievably bold. Now you can celebrate. When
you discover that the number of bees in the hive is decreasing, do
not despair. It is simply that it takes a while for the newcomers to
multiply and replace the bees that are naturally dying of old age.
After a week or two, remove the feeder and in a few weeks you
can watch the hive multiply.
The second way to establish yourself with bees is certainly less
dramatic as you are not involved with a capture.
On the other
hand, you are faced with the sudden responsibility of owning and
being responsible for some 40,000 bees. When you buy a colony
of bees from a dealer you should obtain a queen, ten combs, a
brood chamber, some honey and pollen. In other words, you are
soon going to be in business. Whether you are going to obtain
honey this year depends on the time you buy your colony.
Obviously, if you buy early in the year, you may get honey that
year. If you buy late in the year, you will not.
The third and final way to start is to buy a nucleus. This consists
of the same range of bees but on a smaller scale (slightly less
than half). This is a slower way to get going. If you are a little
tentative about beekeeping then this is going in at the shallow end.
It is difficult to decide where to start when describing the inter-
related organisation of bees in the hive.
Philosophers and lesser
mortals find the essentially complicated relationships in the
community a source of morals and some confusion.
If we start
with the queen we are at least starting with an individual. She is
indeed treated like a queen: she is fed and groomed. Her sole
occupation is to provide eggs for the hive; she has no hand in the
rearing of the young. Usually a queen will lay about 1,500 eggs a
day at the height of summer. It is possible for her to lay up to
3,000. She herself grew from an egg laid by her mother. The egg
was laid in a particularly large cell and was fed on a diet of royal
jelly. If she had not had this special diet, she would simply have
developed into a worker. She would not have been the sole virgin
queen in the hive. However, she would have been the first to
hatch. She then had to kill her competitors. After this somewhat
violent arrival she rested for some five to ten days. The old queen
left the hive, complete with around half of her followers, as the
young queen came to maturity.
This brings us to the next bee participant in the collective life -
the drone. A drone is a male bee; he leads a delightfully sheltered
existence, being fed by the workers, until the day comes for him
to fulfil his destiny. This is to fly out from the hive, meet and
fertilise a queen. Often this occurs between bees from different
hives. Drones that do not mate return to the hive and venture out
another day. Successful drones do not return. Mating kills them.
As the summer ends returning drones are prevented from entering
the hive. The workers no longer feed them and they die.
Workers are unbelievably industrious bees.
The worker is a
female born into a life of hard service. Initially she is a house-bee;
she grooms and feeds the queen and cleans the hive. Later she
moves on to the business of collecting pollen and nectar from
flowers. A solitary bee would need to gather 37,000 loads of
nectar to make 1 Ib of honey: this proves how essential it is to
keep your bees happily multiplying. The worker processes the
honey and makes the essential combs from wax produced by
special glands. She is a most conscientious worker and even
regulates the temperature of the hive by enthusiastic wing-fanning.
All this effort is crammed into a life of some six weeks - presumably
the workers die of exhaustion! The larvae that exist in
the brood chamber are fed on a kind of bee-milk. This is produced
by the nurse-bees who process pollen that has been packed into
comb cells by the worker-bees. It is nectar that is converted into
the honey we eat. As the bee returns from gathering, enzymes are
already at work converting the nectar to easily digestible sugars.
The bee regurgitates this mixture into a cell of the honeycomb
and it is sealed over with wax. In its own little hexagonal cell the
honey matures. The airflow from the wing-fanning worker-bees
evaporates some of the water contained in the cell. This is essential
to the keeping of honey. If you gather the honey too soon while
its water content is too high, you will find that it will not keep
Producing honey is one of nature's delights.
You kill nothing to
produce one of the finest foods available to man. The work must
necessarily be carried out in an unhurried manner or the bees and
therefore your production levels will suffer. Even when you have
supervised all the work carried out on the hive yourself and
handled your bees for years, you are still presented with a feeling
of mystery when dealing with honey. There are innumerable
legends and items of folklore about honey and bees. Honey is said
to help a number of illnesses, including arthritis and bronchitis.
Apparently, the Phoenicians called Britain the Isle of Honey.
For all its centuries of use and appreciation, honey has still not
been conclusively analysed. There is still a small percentage of the
contents that has not been classified. There have been attempts to
produce honey from the known constituents but this has not been
successful. Clearly we require bees to make our honey as much as
we require them to pollinate our crops. If you live in a fruit-
growing area, you may be able to find a farmer who will actually
pay you to put your hives in his orchards to pollinate his fruit.
This is indeed a bonus; your bees get free access to nectar-rich
fruit blossoms and on top of that you are paid for their efforts.
To sell good, clean honey is often just a question of putting a
sign at your gate. In many areas, especially if you are keeping bees
in an urban environment, this is sufficient to sell surprisingly large
quantities. In country situations you may have to take your
produce to shops or other outlets. Make sure that the label clearly
shows that it is pure honey and where it was made. Customers like ,
to know where the honey came from and a pretty label will help
your jar to sell if it is in competition with others.
Honey as it comes from the hive is in liquid form; you can either sell it like
this or sell it when it crystallises, as all honey will eventually. The
honey can also be sold in honeycombs produced in sections,
or you can put slabs of cut honeycomb into a jar with
some extra clear honey.
The sweetness and flavour of honey makes it a saleable product
Anything made from honey - cakes, fudge, mead - always
retains an essentially wholesome flavour. Beware when sampling
your mead; all mead-makers have tales of its potency and most of
them are quite true. One way of proving to the public that your product is different -
put the recipe on the label!
Beeswax can be sold to manufacturers of polish and candles or
you can make your own polish and candles for sale.
There are two other items that come in smaller quantities from
your hives. One is propolis which is the resinous substance used
for cementing within the hive. This is a natural antibiotic and
some hive-owners concoct mixtures which apparently have healing
Finally we come to royal jelly, the food that turned a
potential worker-bee into a queen, so powerful that during the five
days that the queen was in her larval stage her weight multiplied
1 500 times. This substance has always been the source ot
unbelievable claims for rejuvenation and beauty treatments.
Although the claims seem incredible, there may, of course, be an
element of truth in them. If this is the case, perhaps the best use
that can be made of the tiny amounts of royal jelly available is
for the beekeeper to consume it himself.