Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

To bee or not to bee

Julie Elkin is a member of Devon Beekeepers and a course tutor for the North Devon training courses. Too many people think keeping bees is the only way to help honeybees. ‘Taster days’ gives people the opportunity to handle bees and decide if keeping them is really for them but the emphasis is on how we can do much more in our gardens’ own plots to help all pollinators.

Spring at last, the garden a joy to behold filled with colour and fragrance, the hum of the bumblebee queens preparing to start their nests and my honeybees foraging on hellebores and crocuses as I write this. 

It is still too soon here in North Devon near the edge of Exmoor to take a peep inside risking disrupting that fragile developing nest of eggs, larvae and sealed brood, so carefully nurtured and maintained at 35°C by their older sisters.

I know without disturbing them that the first workers of the season have emerged and are out foraging, their youthful appearance in stark contrast to their old work worn and now tattered winged sisters who have lived through the winter and nursed the colony back to life as honeybees have done for millions of years. 

Soon the queen will be laying 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day and the nest will burgeon into the large rugby ball shape that mirrors the shape and size of the swarm you see hanging in a bush or tree later in the year.

Swarming is the honeybees’ natural way of reproducing that has enabled them to spread far and wide fleeing adverse climatic conditions, leaving pests and diseases behind, evolving and adapting to the world around them. A swarm should be a sign of prosperity, that all is well in the bee world but sadly that isn’t always so now. Bees and all our native pollinating insects, bumblebees, hover flies, butterflies, solitary bees and wasps are all in decline.

Alarmist tales of mass honeybee deaths in the USA (referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder), higher than usual colony losses in many other countries including the UK mean that a huge amount of research is being done to explain and reverse this decline.  Pollinators certainly have problems but with honeybees we sometimes lose sight of the fact that losses of the weak, diseased and ill adapted are essential to the survival of the species. 

bees honeybeesThe history of mankind is inter woven with bees, first as gatherers of honey from wild bee nests and later as keepers of bees to enjoy the products of the hive, honey and wax and that essential service of pollination they and other insects provide.  

A third of our food crops and 90 per cent of our wild plants need cross pollinating.

We all know the reasons given for these declines, all man made; in our greed and stupidity we have destroyed so much of their world. Loss of habitat to grow more food for us, huge areas of monoculture, yet our pollinators need a mixed diet, and the concreting of so much land.

Many of these factors are beyond the average person’s control  but progress is being made, road verges are blooming again, Wildlife Trusts and other bodies are restoring, creating and maintaining habitats and the public are bees flower pollinationwilling to share their gardens with insects that many people used to want removed!

Beekeepers too are responsible; while most want to do their best for their bees we have stressed bees to the limit with our unreasonable expectations of them. 

We have coerced them into boxes, given them wax foundation containing many residual toxic chemicals on which to build their combs and when they succumb to pests and diseases, many of which we have imported we dose them with yet more chemicals.

DEFRA describes bees as ‘food producing animals’ but unlike other farm animals honeybees are and always will be wild and free spirits whose natural instincts cannot be subdued and denied without damaging their natural defences against pests and diseases.  

Fortunately many beekeepers are reviewing the way they have been taught to keep bees and looking for ways to work with the bees and not frustrate their natural instincts. 

At our teaching apiary in North Devon we enjoy teaching would-be beekeepers, guiding them up the steep learning curve that beekeeping can be. 

So is the answer to pollinator decline to train evermore people to keep bees?

The answer has to be a resounding no! 

We need to encourage younger people to replace those of us getting too old to teeter on ladders catching swarms but there are limits to the number of hives that an area can support and undernourished bees soon become sick bees. 

We know that between 2007 and 2010 the number of beekeepers increased hugely in response to pollinator decline and maybe encouraged by “celebrity” beekeepers making it a trendy thing to do. I’m not suggesting that people’s intentions were other than very well intentioned! Figures for 2013 give 274,000 hives kept by hobbyist beekeepers and about 40,000 hives kept by about 200 commercial beekeepers in the UK. 

The problem with these figures is that we just don’t know how many other beekeepers there are out there. 

Responsible beekeepers become members of the British Beekeepers Association and/or register their hives with ‘Beebase’, part of the National Bee Unit which monitors bee health throughout the UK but many don’t and their hives aren’t counted.

I am the last person to want to deny others the great pleasures of keeping bees. I love my bees, my garden would feel empty without them and I go out almost every day to sit on the hive stands to watch and listen to them; yes I am a little obsessed! 

I also know that beekeeping is not for everyone but if you really, really want to keep bees look at the Website of your County Beekeeping Association and sign up for a taster session to find out if it is for you. If so then sign up for a beginners course, usually an eight week course which will give you hands on experience and help you source your first bees safely. Please never be tempted to buy bees on the web, you may unwittingly buy in diseased or aggressive bees. 

Your local Beekeeping Association is there to help you

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