Beekeeping for Beginners classes – Essex Beekeepers’ Association


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association | Posted on 23-02-2011

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Almost exactly twelve months ago I signed up to attend a novice beekeeping class run by my local division of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA). The course cost just £40 and included three classroom sessions and three or four practical sessions in an apiary. I had no experience of beekeeping and didn’t own a hive or colony. Here were my thoughts at the time.

Thaxted Guildhall

Thaxted Guildhall in Thaxted, Essex (photograph by Bev Aston)

Attend ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ class run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association at the 600 year-old Guildhall in Thaxted. Beautiful building, if surprisingly small inside. All low ceilings and uneven floors.

My fellow beginners cover all ages (including teens, surprisingly) and both sexes, but with an encouraging preponderance of yummy mummies. Excellent. Something to tell the wife. For six months now she’s been gently indulging my talk of taking up beekeeping, including arranging for me to be given a copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey at Christmas. At the start of the New Year however, she quietly pulls me to one side and asks me whether I’m serious. Only I’ve been telling rather a lot of people, it seems. I might want to tone it down if I’m not.

I react with indignation. Of course I’m serious. I signed up for a course.

And now here I am, three months later, with still only a copy of Guide to Bees and Honey as proof of my intent; £12.99 worth of commitment, and I didn’t even pay for it.

I look around. Lots of other copies of Guide to Bees and Honey in evidence. I’m clearly in good company. I can’t recall whether it comes out as a result of a show of hands or just in the course of conversation, but it turns out I’m not in the minority. Plenty of people talking about buying beehives, and quite a few brandishing pages printed from the Internet featuring hives for sale, but not many fellow pupils actually own a beehive, it seems.

You see my problem is the start-up costs. This was meant to be a cheap hobby. I’d been hooked in by the promise of being able to do my bit to save the bee population, of hives and equipment costing a couple of hundred pounds – literally – and of my being able to recoup even that (should I be so inclined) by selling a few jars of honey. And I’m sure there was a time, not so very long ago, when that was the case. It just isn’t any more. The same magazine articles, radio and TV programmes that drew my attention to the plight of the honey bee also caught the attention of thousands of others. Equipment prices shot up. Rustic old beekeepers couldn’t believe their luck when stuff they’d had laying around in a field or shed for years was suddenly worth more second-hand than they’d paid for it new. Ebay is now awash with chancers selling ‘beginner hives’ they’ve knocked up in their spare time.

If I’d wanted an expensive hobby I’d have bought a motorcycle. If I’d wanted to splash out more cash on house and garden the catalogue of things on our ‘to do’ list remains endless. This was meant to be a low-cost diversion, a bit of fun – relaxing.

‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course – week 1

The problem is immediately acknowledged by Richard and Jane, who are delivering the course. I sense tacit resignation among all present that this is going to cost. Now it’s just a matter of establishing how much.

Richard and Jane put on a good show, neatly avoiding the perils of death by PowerPoint and deftly handling an uninhibited barrage of questions. Turns out Jane used to teach at secondary school. So we cover the bee colony, the bee’s anatomy, the inside of the beehive, and beekeeping equipment and tools – all at a rattling pace, for an hour and a half – before ending the evening with tea and biscuits.

It’s fascinating. What amazing little creatures they are. How industrious and devoted to the common good. About the only criticism you can level at them is that they produce more food than they need. What a preposterous notion…

As I leave I’m at once elated, exhausted and in more of a quandary than ever. This looks like fun. This looks like a worthwhile challenge. There has to be another way.

Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ classes start Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. More details from Jane Ridler at EBKA. Open to members of the EBKA, membership of which costs £30.

Photograph of Thaxted Guildhall reproduced by kind permission of Bev Aston. See more of Bev’s images, including some delightful shots of bees, on her Photostream page on Flikr.


Feeding honey bees in winter and early spring


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 16-02-2011

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Ah, the tell-tale first signs of spring: the sound of novice beekeepers texting one another with questions about what to do next. In our case they revolved largely around whether “to feed or not to feed”. That, and the rather bizarre question as to just how many dead honey bees one should expect to find when conducting the first proper hive inspection of the year.

Honey bee frames in February (UK)

Anyone seen the queen? Honey bees spread across all frames

Most of us had quite naturally consulted text books, beekeeping forums and more experienced beekeepers… and quite naturally received completely conflicting advice. The common sense and more popular view favoured feeding them candy if there was any evidence of their running low on stores. (That ‘evidence’ presumably being the absence of any stores). I therefore duly presented myself to the colony last Saturday, with hive tool and smoker in hand, ready to have a damn good poke around.

Slight – and I’m sure new – evidence of mould inside the roof didn’t exactly get me off to a good start, but once I’d lifted the crown board I found my own spirits lifted by the hive of activity within. The bees had spread themselves across pretty much all nine frames. Peering down between them I could see plenty of dead bodies piled up on the mesh floor, and guessed that that might be part of the reason for the fresh signs of mould. They didn’t seem to bother the live bees however.

Dead honey bees at first hive inspection in February (UK)

The ones that didn't make it through winter

As I carefully lifted out each separate frame, most seemed to have at least some stores left on them. Frame 1, which I’d ill-advisedly separated from the others with a frame of new foundation before sealing the hive for winter, was virtually untouched save for a handful of adventurous bees that clearly couldn’t believe their luck at having stumbled across such bonanza. Almost its entire surface was a wonderful golden yellow-brown. Frame 3 meanwhile, showed clear evidence of uncapped stores and was already around a third full. I quickly performed a swap-around, placing the undrawn foundation on the outside, before turning my attention to the hive floor.

Separating it from the brood box I placed it on the ground to have a good look. There were certainly a lot of dead bodies – at least an inch thick in places. With a casualness that I immediately regretted I tossed them into an inaccessible space behind the summerhouse before brushing the mesh and replacing the floor beneath the brood chamber. It was only then that I reminded myself that I hadn’t yet seen the queen.