keeping bees


Meet the beekeeper – an interview with ‘Sir Timothy Beeswax’ ( our beekeeper’s alias). He has over 30 hives on a fruit farm, and his honey is delicious.
And don't forget to have a look at bees in the Country Enterprise handbook.
What made you become a beekeeper?
I started beekeeping in 1977, at that time we had a smallholding and I delegated all the tasks on the farm to my children, that left me with nothing to do and I decided to take up beekeeping as they were the only creatures on the farm that I wouldn’t have to kill and that I wanted to preserve the life on and enjoy the produce they made. I started by ringing up the local beekeepers’ association secretary. I nagged him, and eventually, on a Sunday he brought over in the back of his old Vauxhall car a WBC beehive* that he gave me and set up in my garden. That started me off.
And that was complete with bees?
Yes, that was complete, beehive, bees, the lot in the back of his car and that started me off.
So did somebody then keep an eye on your progress and how you were going?
No, I was a book man. The man who gave me the bees showed me how to get started and then I found out the rest from books. The secret was learn about the queen, she is the mistress of it and if you can read the queen and what her activity is in the hive it rapidly lets you control the hive and know what to do in any given circumstance.
Do different breeds of queen bee have different behaviour patterns?
I’m told that’s the case but I’ve never experimented with queens, I’ve bought some in when I’ve been short. I’m told that the New Zealand queen is very placid and produces placid stock. I had a New Zealand queen once, it was placid but I found that when it mated with the drones the stock became a bit fierce so since then I haven’t bought in bees. I haven’t specialised in specific breeds I’ve just used queens I’ve produced myself.
What is your busiest time in the year?
It starts off at the end of April, May it starts to become hectic June is even more hectic with swarms all over the place, especially here – they love the apple trees. July it calms down, there are no swarms really from the middle of July onwards. You breathe a sigh, and then August you get the honey in. And that is ten days approximately each year of hard work in the honey shed. There’s certain machinery you can get to make life easier but I’ve chosen not to spend the money it would take and I just sweat it out taking the capping off with a knife, getting the honey into a tank that spins round and out comes the honey at the bottom.
What happens to all the ‘gunk’ that’s spun out of it?
What happens is the honey comes in a frame out of the hive; you get a knife and skim it, taking the wax off, that’s called uncapping. And you put it into the tank, it takes 12 frames and when it spins round the centrifugal force shakes out the honey. But there’s no gunge, you’ve then got the frame that’s left damp with honey, you put that back in the beehive, they repair it and dry it out and restore it for next year. But the bit that you’ve cut out, the uncappings, is the best wax of all. And you melt that down, I barter that in exchange for other beekeeping equipment with a local man. I have made candles occasionally but it’s a bit messy so I haven’t done too much of it.
If you make candles do you just melt that wax? Do you add anything to it?
You could add paraffin wax, that would make it go further, and still say it’s a beeswax candle and make quite a bit of money, but no I haven’t gone into that.
Does the candle burning smell delicious?
No, that’s an absolute fallacy, what smells is the wax. The advantage of beeswax is that it lasts much longer, the beeswax goes much further.
You’ve got the honey out, you’ve put the frames back into the beehive, now do you feed the bees sugar to keep them through the winter?
Yes, I bought 75 kilos this year, some hives were heavy and some were light and I had to feed them sugar and water mix 
Do all the bees live through the winter?
Usually yes. If I am competent, yes. But the big killer is damp in the winter. I had a late swarm this year and I put it into a little nucleus box, it isn’t as big as a hive. It was getting a bit damp after the rain last night. You can move a hive after the beginning of November. You can move them from November to February. But bees locate themselves to the hive, if you move them at another time of year they get terribly lost. So I moved that, which I can do now it’s nearly November, and I put it under a little packing case that’s on its side, and that shelters it from the rain and the wind.
And do the bees stay in the hive from then on?
Yes, they stay in there and feed on what’s in the hive.
How do they keep warm if it’s freezing?
They don’t seem to mind the cold. It’s the damp that kills them off.
What is the problem with mites?
I’ve kept bees since 1977 as I told you, and I haven’t been wiped out but I was nearly wiped out in 1994 – 1995 season.
I was down to two hives from twenty because of the varroa mite. At that time you were supposed to send up samples to the BeeKeeping unit for the Ministry of Agriculture as then was. They said I was clear, but I wasn’t and the mites were beginning to show. It’s a sad sight when the bees hatch out with broken wings and they didn’t get through that winter very well. But I’ve built up again since then. There is a treatment for it, which is a strip of plastic measuring a foot long by an inch wide, like a ruler, and that’s impregnated with a substance, pyrethroid, and you insert that between the frames. Two of them between frames, during that time all the bees will crawl over it so the substance kills the mites but not the bees. You put that in during August and take it out in October. I was down here last week and that’s what I was doing – taking them out.
And that doesn’t affect the honey?
No, because I’ve got the honey off by August.
How long will a queen last?
In theory three years but they lay a tremendous number off eggs in their first year and get a bit weakened by the second year and if she’s not producing enough eggs the bees get restless and start producing fresh queen cells for a new queen. Once the new queen shell is underway and nearly hatching the old queen will clear off taking all the worker bees that have been with her and form a swarm.
Will you try and catch the swarm?
I’m fortunate here because the farm manager is an excellent swarm catcher thanks to the experience I’ve given him. But it’s difficult to get them back in again. You’ve got two queens, they’ve swarmed, and they’re restless. I haven’t had any success doing that. And sometimes they lose their queen and go off somewhere they shouldn’t. In other words sometimes they’re lost and swarming onto an apple tree and they go off into someone’s garden in the village or somewhere like that.
And then anyone can take them?
They’ve lost their queen, that’s the problem, they’ve lost the location of their hive. You shake them in again but they fly out again and it’s chaos.
So if you find them in your garden clearly lost and not where it should be, is it likely it won’t have a queen with it?
No, it’s likely it will have a queen.
So when you call a beekeeper to take them away he’ll put them in a box and take them away and put them in another hive?
In theory.
And how many hives have you got?
At the moment I’ve got 34, 35 with the little box I talked about earlier – 35 units.
And how much honey do you get from your hives in year?
About three quarters of a ton.
So apart from anything else there’s quite a lot of weight carrying involved in keeping bees?
One of the questions I thought you were going to ask me is what are the essentials for a beekeeper. And number one is fitness,
. I read in a sailing book that if you get too unfit for sailing you should take up beekeeping. And I thought, what a ridiculous statement because if anything demands fitness it’s keeping bees. And the doctor told me that the simplest way to slip a disc is to go through the frames of three hives – thirty frames a hive – and you’ve slipped a disk! And I do ten minutes press-ups in the morning and any exercise that keeps me flexible.
So that’s a common misconception, that beekeeping is a calm, gentle occupation but actually it’s hard, physical work?
Yes, it’s a lot of physical work. And I have to keep active and I do my excercises every day with beekeeping mind. The farm manager and I moved three quarters of a ton of honey this year for the second crop, and they’re in boxes. So that means moving from the hives to the tractor, then the tractor takes it to the honey shed. And we had to lift it into the honey shed – then I had to lift the whole lot into the bins – not the whole lot at once through!
And there’s the 75 kilos you talked about earlier. Do you think of your beekeeping as an expanded hobby?
Well it was a hobby, there are moments when it’s absolutely satisfying. They make combs, and fill the frames. Then the drudgery in August and extracting that honey is an awful chore. But then there’s the enjoyment of eating it. And the enjoyment if you’re invited out to dinner, you don’t have to take a bottle of wine, a couple of jars of honey are far more acceptable than a bottle of supermarket plonk!
How much space do you need to keep bees? If someone just wanted to have one hive, would they need a lot of space or could they keep it on the balcony of a flat for example?
I’ve had that experience. I was at work, in a conference and was interrupted by an urgent call from my wife. She said the neighbours were complaining, they had a builder repairing the roof and my bees had stung him. I had to rush home, my wife had managed to prevent the builder from burning my hives. There was obviously a crises. That night I had the assistance of my father in law. We put the four hives into the boots of our two cars and brought them down here to the farm. From then on I decided I would never keep bees in a garden again. The thing about suburban gardens is that there’s a colossal amount of flowers and the bees go mad, they make a tremendous amount of good honey, more than in the country sometimes. So it had that advantage but the problem was that you couldn’t take the frames out and examin what the queen was doing etc. because the neighbours might be having a barbeque and wouldn’t be pleased to be visited by irritated bees. You need to be somewhere that’s well away from the public.
Are you a believer in talking to the bees? People say if there’s a death in the family you should always tell the bees. 
I don’t do that. But it is one of the more irritating hobbies and I manage the bees mainly on my own. You really need three hands, and sometimes I drop something and all the bees fly up into the air – you can imagine what I say then, when there’s a cloud of bees that fly up into my face!
Do you get stung a lot?
Fair bit, but they don’t always do it. I went down this morning and there was a bee in a spider’s web, I put my finger in and took it out and let it crawl on my finger. It was so grateful it didn’t sting me. They get aggressive in August when we take the honey off. Do I get stung a lot? I take every precaution I can. I don’t enjoy getting stung so I wear gloves, I wear a hat. It used to be the fashion - I’ve got books from the thirties and forties, with pictures of experienced beekeepers with no hat and no gloves, covered in bees. I think that’s foolhardy. Do say that you shouldn’t open a hive without gloves on and a hat.
You’ve been stung more than people who aren’t handling bees – does it get more or less painful?
I’m not immune to stings. I took those strips from the hives last week and I was wearing some old gloves that the bees stung through. And it makes you jump. What happened at the beginning, there used to be quite a lot of swelling. That doesn’t happen any more unless I get stung on a sensitive part, like an eyelid, then you look as if you’ve got a black eye.
If somebody asked you if keeping bees was a good hobby what would you say to them?
You’ve got to be a peculiar person, you’ve got to love the bees, which I do. They’ve dominated me for more than 30 yeas and I love doing it. And as I’ve said, you’ve got to be physically fit. If there’s a crisis you’ve got to be able to lift a whole hive off the ground. It is a fantastic hobby, and unlike sailing where you don’t get anything when the boat comes in you’ve got to clean it at least after you’ve cleaned the hives up you’ve got your pots of honey
Thank you very much, Sir Timothy.
* the ‘old fashioned’ picture book, ridged roof beehive.