Simon Cavill has been keeping bees in Hampshire for more than 15 years. In 2008, he and his wife Caroline set up a business called ‘Bee Good’, an award-winning natural skincare company making products using honey and beeswax from British bees.
To get us started, here’s a few honeybee facts for you:
- Plants evolved flowers to reproduce by attracting insects to transfer pollen between them, offering nectar and some pollen as a ‘reward’
- 90% of all fruit and vegetables we eat are pollinated by insects, especially bees
- Honeybees are the only insects to produce food for humans
- Honeybees visit about two million flowers to make one pound of honey
- Total UK honey production is about 6,600 tonnes of honey per year
- We produce only 14% of the honey we consume – the rest is imported – mostly from Eastern Europe, but also from Argentina, China, and India
- There’s a huge problem with counterfeit honey – especially Manuka honey.
The relationship between humans and bees goes back at least 15,000 years (according to cave paintings) and
probably much longer. Way before farming, hunter gatherers marked out honeybee nests and collected honey to feed them on their journeys and used beeswax and propolis to glue feathers onto arrows.
Today, in the UK, beekeeping is growing in popularity, with 40,000 amateur beekeepers managing around 220,000 hives between them, but there are only 200 professional bee farmers that earn a living from harvesting honey and placing bees for crop pollination.
Journalist and presenter Bill Turnbull posing with his bees.
Some beekeepers keep bees solely for the joy of watching and working with them, and, in return, the bees can act as a kind of restful therapy for those with issues related to PTSD, stress, anxiety and depression.
Many ex-military staff find the art of beekeeping therapeutic and calming, as it directly connects the beekeeper to the natural world and gives them a calm focus around the bees.
One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on animals like bees and pollination taking place. It is almost impossible to over-emphasise the importance of the service pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, perform for us.
Beekeeping throughout the year
So, let's get into the practicalities of keeping bees through a typical year. For most of us, the active beekeeping season runs from March to the end of September. During this time, we visit the colonies on a cycle every 7-9 days on a warm, dry day. We inspect the bees to check on the colonies’ progress and look for signs of any disease.
Plan for about 2-4 hours of beekeeping activities a week at these times, depending on your experience, access to a mentor and the number of hives. In general terms, for us in the UK, the beekeeping year looks like this:
During the coldest months, the bees will stay safe and warm inside the hives consuming pollen and honey gathered the previous spring/ summer. We clear away any snow blocking the entrances and spend a few hours planning the rest of the year and preparing equipment for later in the spring. About 2-3 hours of effort per month.
The bees will start to forage for pollen from the early spring flowers, and the Queen bee will dramatically increase her egg-laying for the next generation of workers to emerge in six weeks in step with the explosion of spring flowers and blossom. Once we get a spell of dry weather with daytimes at 15C or more, we can conduct our first inspection and continue to feed any hives looking low on stores. We start adding honey-storing super boxes to the bigger colonies to give them room to expand. About 4-6 hours this month, depending on the weather.
Things start getting busy, and we are now looking for signs of Queen cells being formed at each inspection, along with any signs of disease or the impact of Varroa mites, which may require treatment. Male drone bees hatch ready to mate with any early virgin Queens. Good colonies can expand rapidly, so we add more super boxes as each colony grows and may split bigger hives into two colonies to prevent unwanted swarms later. We may be called out to collect local swarms and re house them. About 6-8 hours this month, plus swarm collection and re-housing efforts.
Longer days mean more time for the bees to forage and, inside the hives, the population of bees reach their peak. Start moving previously split colonies into full-size hives. Still watching for disease and signs of swarming, which will need to be acted on quickly. Honey is coming into the hive at quite a rate, and there may even be a few full supers of spring honey ready for harvesting! About 6-8 hours this month.
Many nectar-bearing trees come into blossom along with blackberry and other main honey-bearing flowers. Make sure hives have enough supers to cope, as this will help reduce the swarming impulse. Still collecting and re-housing swarms, although, by this stage, we are now passing them onto to new beekeepers, as our apiaries are full of newly-collected swarm colonies! About 6-8 hours this month.
Most of the honey harvest is inside the hives, and most main-crop flowers are over. Populations of bees inside colonies start falling fast as there is relatively little to forage. Swarming season is mostly over, and we will harvest our honey at the end of the month, making sure each colony has plenty of stores left to see them through until next spring. Hive entrances are reduced right down to prevent robbing by wasps and other colonies. About 4-6 hours, plus a holiday for the beekeeper before harvest!
Any remaining drones are pushed out of the hives to die as they are no longer needed. Bees forage from the last of the flowering plants, especially ivy. We may merge or feed weaker colonies to ensure they are big and strong enough to get through winter. We usually treat for Varroa mites at this time and start strapping down hives ready for any autumn storms. About 3-4 hours needed this month.
The bees stay in the hive as the weather cools. We finish processing and bottling this year’s honey harvest. Inspect the apiary after any bad weather to ensure the hives are intact. Then it’s important to clean and check all the equipment ready for the next season. About 1-2 hours this month. Enjoy Christmas and don’t forget to visit the bees and say thanks for all their hard work!
Creating a home for your bees
"Keeping bees requires carefully planning in advance, as, once in place, beehives can be difficult to relocate. It’s important to note that space will be required for at least two beehives, as it’s very useful to be able to occasionally move bees from one colony to another.
Siting hives takes some care as you need to position the entrances away from any footpaths or locations close to people or animals. It’s sometimes a good idea to place entrances facing a fence as it makes the bees fly up and over, but again, working with an experienced beekeeper can help greatly to avoid problems later on.
Honeybees will typically access plants and trees in a radius of around two or more miles around their home beehive, so the hive needs to be situated where the bees can access plenty of forage throughout the spring and summer."