The secret life of bees
Jane McGuire

The secret life of bees

Introduction to beekeeping

First published date July 18 2011 Amended date August 28 2015

At Hotcourses there really is something for everyone, as was proved last week when our very own Cliff (who usually spends his days working on the website) went and tried out an introduction to beekeeping course. According to the British Beekeepers Association, bees are in danger of disappearing as the honey bee comes under attack from the varroa mite. The number of native species of bumblebee living in the UK is rapidly decreasing and two have already completely died out. Something needs to be done, which is where Cliff and his fellow bee keepers step in.


Save the bees

Despite being the black and yellow stingers most of us run screaming from, bees are more important than we realise. In fact, it is estimated that one third of the food we consume each day relies on pollination by bees; surprisingly, this list includes avocados, cucumbers and almonds. The bumblebee is commercially used in the UK to pollinate tomatoes and soft fruit, so these honey makers are in fact less of a threat and more of a friend than their sting suggests.

The number of people keeping bees has also decreased over the past decade, with many of us wrongly believing without a large garden or countryside nearby, beekeeping is not possible. We sent bee enthusiast, Cliff, along to try an introduction to beekeeping course for himself, not too far from our Hotcourses offices in South London. He told us, ‘I have always been interested in bees, so when I heard about the course I jumped at it and found my first foray into the world of bees and beekeeping thoroughly enjoyable.’

‘After a brief introduction into the usefulness of bees and the history of beekeeping, we started learning about the ins and outs of this interesting pursuit. Most of the beekeeping course was class-room based, but we did walk down to the garden and hives where we could see the bees coming and going. In the classroom we were shown the structure of a hive, and learned about the inner workings, the relationships between the bees and their functions in the hive.’

Did this course make Cliff want to try keeping his own bees? He tells us that living in a flat in London has not stopped him, ‘I learned in my course that bees only visit one particular species of flower in a day. They can fly up to three miles daily so beekeeping in urban areas, like my balcony in central London is actually quite feasible.’

If, like Cliff, you have always had a fascination and want to learn more, why not try beekeeping for yourself? We ask Cliff if he would recommended his class to a friend and he assures us he, ‘Definitely would – it was a fascinating morning and it has sparked my interest to pursue beekeeping further.’


Bee in the know

Fancy keeping your own bees but not sure how to get started? Here are some things to consider before buying your first hive:

Time – Most beekeepers only start with a few colonies, as time is an important factor when keeping your own bees. Weekly inspections are needed, shifting colonies for pollination or to different honey flows and on average, a beekeeper should spend around half an hour per week with each hive. Cliff assures us that beekeeping can be rather addictive and like with all animals, it is better to spend more too much time caring for them than too little.

Space – As Cliff highlighted, bees really can be kept anywhere from a country orchard to an urban garden or even a central London balcony.

Neighbours – Having a swarm of bees in your garden might not make you the neighbour of the year. It’s important to keep your bees under control, so ensure that the entrance to the hive is pointed away from the busiest part of the garden or a walkway. Another top tip is to buy good tempered bees, which means using a good supplier.


How to be bee proof

To some extent, getting stung comes with the territory, but is obviously something to try and avoid. Bees are not usually aggressive creatures but will become defensive if they feel they are under attack. A defensive bee will fly around your face and omit a high pitched buzzing, so if you are not in your bee suit, walk away calmly and avoid swatting them. Bees usually die after they have been stung, so this is something to avoid for both keeper and colony.

There are some safety precautions you can take to avoid being stung and this starts with what you wear. A bee suit is essential for protecting your skin and keeping bees away from your face. There are many different options available depending on your experience, from a full body suit to just a veil for the more well practised keeper. Some beekeepers wear gloves to protect their hands as well; another item recommended for beginners until they learn how to handle their bees confidently. Wearing welly boots gives you the best protection as the sting will not get through rubber, but remember that bees crawl upwards so always tuck your trousers into your boots. Beekeeping is no fashion parade, but you will always have a fancy dress costume at the ready!


What else will I need?

Apart from the obvious (bees and a hive) a smoker is the next essential when it comes to beekeeping. The smoker is used to calm the bees before you inspect them, by producing cool thick smoke which is puffed into the hive. The bees smell the smoke and assume the hive is on fire, so start to eat honey in preparation to leave, this means the bees cannot ‘raise the alarm’ as you open the hive.


How do I get my bees?

The best way to get your bees is by joining your local beekeeping association who will usually be able to put you in touch with an established seller. Most novice beekeepers choose to build up a colony from a nucleus.


Know your colony

As a beekeeper it’s important to know the members of your hive, so a beginner’s beekeeping course is a great way to learn a little more about the various types of bees.

Queen – The queen lays all the eggs, both fertilised males and unfertilised females. She will live for several years and you will usually be able to spot her, as she will be larger than the rest of the colony, she will not fly as much and often has a green spot on her back.

Drones – In the summer, there will be several hundred drones going in and out of the hive. Their role is to mate with the virgin queens and they usually live for several months.

Workers – In the height of summer there will also be between 50,000 and 60,000 worker bees, the workforce for the hive gathering what the colony requires. In the summer, they will live up to six weeks, whereas from winter to spring the worker bees can survive for up to six months.


Did you know?

Why beekeepers wear white? Bees have evolved to protect themselves from other animals, most of these dark in colour, so they have grown to dislike big dark animals approaching their hive. When wearing white, a beekeeper can safely approach without his bees becoming defensive. In other words, wearing white means a happier hive.


Beekeeping is far more than a hobby, but a way to help the environment and protect bees from becoming extinct. With plenty of evening and weekend courses available, why not try an introduction to beekeeping course and discover the secret life of bees?


Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire received her BA (English) from the University of Loughborough. A yoga enthusiast with a sweet tooth, in her spare time you will probably find Jane in the gym or online shopping.