Beekeeping for Beginners course – part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Making a beehive | Posted on 02-03-2011

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More thoughts, recorded at the time, from the novice beekeeping course I attended almost exactly twelve months ago. This year’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course, run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA), starts on Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. Contact Jane Ridler at the EBKA for further details.

Week 2: More of the same, except that we’re now all on ‘second day at school’ nodding terms with each other. Richard and Jane briskly finish off equipment and tools before moving on to the life cycle of the honey bee.

We’re joined by several new folk who, we’re advised, are experienced beekeepers and will be our ‘bee buddies’ in the practical sessions. When the tea and biscuits are finally wheeled out once more a wave of students rises as one from the centre of the room and surges outwards towards them. They soon each have their own little flotilla of novices, earnestly asking questions and bobbing between conversations, sheaths of notes clutched to their bosoms.

I get involved in a discussion about bee suits. I’ve found a guy in Poland selling them on eBay for around £36 – which is cheap – and ask whether anyone knows if they’re any good. A fellow novice has just bought her suit from ‘Polish man’ and reports that, as long as you follow the clear instructions and order one size larger than you’d expect, they’re fine*. I decide that that’s the bee suit sorted. Eastern European smokers and hive tools are also given a cautious thumbs up.

modified national beehive plans

Modified National beehive plans

(*Three months later she’ll tell me a quite alarming tale of how the zip broke while she was wearing it, causing her to get over a dozen bee stings. Sadly, she got a less than helpful response from the seller, so buyer beware).

Week 3: The third and final lesson covers the beekeeping year (what happens when) as well as pests and diseases, and where to site your beehive.

Before it starts I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. They already have several colonies, housed in national beehives. He bought them from a ‘retiring’ beekeeper friend, but only after a succession of wasted road trips chasing what turned out to be mangy old equipment offered at over-inflated prices. I sympathise, and mention the idea of building my own beehive. He says he has a set of plans and – true to his word – later gives them to me. They’re for a modified national beehive with bottom bee-space. In woodworking terms I suspect they’re barely one step up from book shelves but to me they’re like blueprints to the space shuttle.

beehive entrance block

My first attempt at a beehive entrance block. See if you can spot the obvious flaw...

Practical beekeeping sessions: My bee buddy is Robert Pickford. Robert is a vastly experienced beekeeper and, it turns out, a first class teacher. Later he’ll also prove to be a more than decent friend, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. For several weeks four of us present ourselves at his apiary on a Tuesday, self-consciously suited and booted in virgin white overalls and veil.

Robert has us making frames, lighting smokers and, of course, inspecting bees. He has hives spread around everywhere and appears to be perpetually playing host to at least three other beekeeper’s colonies at any one time. As a consequence we get to see beehives and nuc boxes of all shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of decrepitude. As I inspect them a mental image springs to mind of the beehive now slowly taking shape in my garage. Robert defends their state by pointing out that, “the bees don’t care what they live in.” We’ll see. They haven’t experienced the limits of my wood-working skills yet.

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Beekeeping for Beginners classes – Essex Beekeepers’ Association

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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.

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Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference 2010

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Colony Collapse Disorder CCD, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Varroa destructor | Posted on 25-10-2010

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On Saturday I attended the Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s Annual Conference in Great Dunmow, an event far more exciting than its title would have you believe. It featured neither rousing anthems, nor resolutions or floor fights, nor even a gavel-banging chair person. What it did include were a number of first-class lectures on the present and future of beekeeping, each one introduced (in remarkably relaxed and professional manner) by a different member of the EBKA. Two of the speakers kindly allowed me to make their presentations available for download here.

Dr Peter Neumann presenting at the EBKA Annual Conference 2010

A stand-out performance: Dr Peter Neumann delivering his lecture on 'Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination'

Dr Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre in Bern was first up. A future TV star and spokesperson for the international beekeeping community if ever there was one, Dr Neumann cut quite a dash. At nearly 7 foot tall he dresses, if you can imagine this, like a cross between a university lecturer (which he is) and a teddy boy (which, being a German based in Switzerland, I’m guessing he isn’t). Despite talking for well over an hour he kept the audience spell-bound, before spending the remainder of his time at conference being followed around by a crocodile of enthusiasts, courteously answering an unending stream of questions.

Dr Neumann’s lecture entitled, ‘Apiculture in decline? Colony losses and the future of pollination’ went right to the heart of why beekeeping has attracted so many new recruits in recent years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is now a worldwide phenomenon, while its causes remain – it seems rightly – much disputed. Having listened to him I’m inclined toward the view that if Dr Neumann hasn’t yet pinpointed the source of the problem, no-one has. Logically, all the evidence points to it being a combination of intensive (professional) beekeeping practices, industrialised farming and insecticides, and parasites and pathogens. No surprises there then. But here’s the thing: in the course of presenting a compelling case in favour of standardised measurement and data collection Dr Neumann revealed some of the statistical anomalies that existing – and reputable – research has already thrown up. For example in the US, which is often regarded as the epicenter of the CCD problem, professional beekeepers actually list CCD as being not even among their top five concerns.

Dr Neumann’s slide showing worldwide recorded instances of the Varroa destructor mite, almost exclusively confined to the northern hemisphere, drew an audible gasp from the 150-strong audience. It also acted as the perfect introduction to the second speaker, Ricarda Kather, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield*. If Dr Neumann was the harbinger of bad news then ‘Ricky’ was the cavalry… sort of.

Varroa destructor mite

Varroa destructor: tricky little mites (photo courtesy of University of Warwick***)

Her presentation on The effect of Varroa and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) on the honey bee recognition system’ couldn’t help but leave me with a grudging respect for the annoying little pest, which has adapted itself almost perfectly to life as a bee colony parasite. Not so much that I won’t still nuke the little blighters given half a chance, mind you. Ricky Kather’s proposed experiments will hopefully prove most helpful in that battle.

Lunch was followed by a short pitch by author and beekeeping expert Clive De Bruyn on behalf of the charity Bees for Development, which in turn was followed by a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex** by John Hall, director of the Essex Wildlife Trust.

I confess that by this point the effects of a warm pastie and cool glass of cider were starting to kick-in. All morning we’d been under siege, but now all was well with the world. John’s slide show was a fabulous advertisement for the Essex countryside, leaving me to muse on what a very pleasant place we lived in, with all those ancient forests, and coastal marshes, and beautiful insects …and varieties of bee…

…I don’t think I actually dropped off. I’m sure it was the buzz of anticipation that hit me like a shot of adrenaline just as the prize-giving was getting underway. Having been a volunteer helper on the Essex Beekeepers’ Association stand at the Essex County Show I saw the quality of the honey products produced by club members. As I now discovered, the trophies for being best in show were pretty impressive too.

And so ended the day.

Once again I witnessed that if you ask two beekeepers a question you’ll get three different answers. More than that, I found it hard to avoid the sense that I’d joined an extended family and that this was our annual gathering; a chance to catch up with favourite aunts and cousins – while avoiding Uncle Fester – and to recognise that we were all in it together. I went not sure what to expect, and ended up having a really good time.

I commend this piece to Conference.

* Ricarda Kather’s research is being supervised by Dr S J Martin and Prof R K Butlin, and conducted in collaboration with Drs G Budge and F Drijfhout, with support from the BBSRC and East-Anglian Beekeepers.

** Note: This link will open part 1 of a presentation on the wildlife and bee varieties native to Essex as a PDF. Part 2, part 3 and part 4 can be similarly viewed by clicking on each link. Use the ‘back’ arrow on your browser to return to this page.

*** Photo courtesy of Dr David Chandler and the University of Warwick School of Life Sciences.

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