My grandpa always wanted to keep bees. Or at least that’s how I remember it, him talking about it and me fascinated by the idea. For some reason the urge has resurfaced recently, and as luck would have it the local NamBeePamBee Beekeepers in nearby Scott’s Avenue Allotments have begun holding open days and now half day workshops.

Bee under a microscope
A section of a bee under a microscope; it was really hard to photograph through the eyepieces!

It was every bit as fascinating as I hoped it would be. We have several hours of ‘bee theory’ from Loucas, who’s only been beekeeping for around four years but had such a depth of knowledge he could and did talk and hold our attention for two hours before we started on the practical elements of the workshop. Did you know bumble bees have been around for about 70 million years, but social hive bees only for about 20 million years? Did you know all the working bees in a colony are female, and the male drones just hang around waiting to mate and eating (as my wife delighted in tweeting last night)? You can tell the females are running the show when you learn that the males get kicked out of the hive in the autumn to die over winter, to conserve food supplies for the females! (Another fact Carolyn gleefully tweeted on learning it.) I could go on, Loucas’ brief theory was so extensive I took 2,783 words of notes on my iPhone while he was speaking.

Why do bees fascinate me? I think because we don’t understand them and they’re so so different to humans. The entire colony functions as a single organism, the queen isn’t some kind of ruler over the other bees in the colony… in fact the workers (her daughters) make the decision to swarm if they need to as a consensus, she gets carried off if she can’t fly! The whole life thing is just incredible to me.

Bees, as you’ve probably heard in the news, are in decline with diseases and disorders we are barely beginning to understand. NamBeePamBee’s motivation for running the course was, in significant part, to try to reduce the number of bumbling beekeepers setting up in their ’hood and allowing diseased bees to interact with NamBee’s meticulously kept healthy bees. (Interestingly, and it’s all so so interesting, if a nearby colony is collapsing then bees from that colony will drift around looking for a health hive to join… the first time they try to get in the guard bees (guard bees are female, natch) will not recognise the foreign bee’s pheromone signature as from their hive and will rough them up and chuck them out, this might happen several times but eventually this roughing will transfer enough of the colonies pheromone onto the foreign bee for the guards to recognise it as one of their own and they’ll allow it in… and thus disease is spread.)

After the theory, we were split into groups and I had a go at various beekeeping maintenance tasks: counting verroa mites, nailing frames together for the bees to fill with honey comb, learning about honey extraction, and examining a bee through the microscope.

A corner of wild comb, below a super frame
A corner of wild comb, encouraged to grow on a shallow frame in the deeper brood box

Most excitingly at the end of the day I got to interact with a hive. Taking off the four top ‘super’ boxes full of honey combed frames, and then examining the brood frames at the bottom to check for the queen and signs that she was still laying well. As luck would have it, out of my group of three workshop-ees, she was on one of the set of four frames I examined and so I can say I ‘found’ her. (Pure chance, if I’m honest, and nothing to do with my frankly amateurish frame lifting technique.)

So am I going into beekeeping? I’d like to. It’s moving beyond something I like to tease Carolyn with (we worry about the neighbours) and into to more serious consideration. Responsible beekeeping is expensive though, in terms of equipment and buying bees, and is definitely a time commitment, constantly keeping an eye on the hive and make adjustments to attempt to put off swarming, etc. I’m definitely going to take things further and maybe do a short course to get to know the field better, and I’m sure that will be reward in itself.

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