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How to be an urban beekeeper

Theodora Tsentas

27th April, 2010

You don't need a smallholding and a meadow to be a budding apiarist - a few sensible precautions will let you fight honeybee decline with a hive in your own backyard

Whether attributed to climate change, the varroa mite, pesticides or colony collapse disorder, a dramatic decrease in honeybee numbers has been noted worldwide, putting pollination and food production at risk.

The British Beekeepers' Association estimates that over 90 per cent of the UK's honeybee population is attributed to the efforts of 17,000 amateur beekeepers. Are you ready to join their ranks?

Step 1: knowledge and commitment are key

Signing up for a beekeeping course at a local association is strongly recommended by the National Bee Unit (NBU), a Government agency within the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which likens beekeeping to the rearing of livestock.

'It's quite a lot of work - even a few [colonies]. There's a whole wealth of things you've got to be aware of: bee biology, bee pests and diseases, the legislation, crops, botany, nutritional aspects,' says Mike Brown, Head of the NBU.

Courses cost between £50 and £250 depending on their length, with winter courses generally focusing on theory before practical lessons are taken at an apiary in the spring.

The Soil Association runs one and two-day beekeeping courses at various organic farms, supported by the Daylesford Foundation. The Biodynamic Association and the Natural Beekeeping Trust also run courses on beekeeping. Check their websites for upcoming dates.

Aside from the knowledge and experience gained at beekeeping courses, there are a number of books available that can guide you.

The London Beekeepers' Association LBKA recommends two books for urban beekeepers: Ted Hooper's Guide to bees and honey (£12.99, Alphabet and Image) and Alan Campion's Bees at the bottom of the garden (£9.99, Northern Bee Books). In addition to beekeeping practices, Susan Brackney's Plan Bee (£8.99, Hay House) gives a great insight into bee biology and recipe and craft ideas for honey and beeswax. The BBKA has also recently launched a start-up beekeeper's kit, with training books and a DVD included, for £150.

Ross Conrad's Natural beekeeping: organic approaches to modern apiculture (£25, Chelsea Green) offers an insight into a purely organic approach to managing bees.

Step 2: setting up

Registering with both your local association and the NBU is important, as the lack of legislation obligating beekeepers to register or obtain a licence makes voluntary registering the only way which both beekeeper associations and the NBU can inform you directly of the spread of diseases in your area.

Once you have decided where the beehive is to be placed, notify your landlord, neighbours or allotment manager to obtain approval and make sure that no one in the beehive's vicinity is allergic to bees.

Only then can you start looking into beekeeping suppliers and ordering your gear, which should at first include: a protective suit (complete with gloves and veil); a beehive; a smoker (used to lull the bees into a stupor when you open up the hive); a hive tool (to separate the supers and frames from the propolis secreted by the bees to seal cracks), and a nucleus of honeybees (preferably a non-aggressive species to start).

Expect to pay an average of £500 for the kit. LBKA's chairman John Chapple advises first time beekeepers not to scrimp on the cost of equipment but to buy the best they can afford so as not to compromise on quality.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, experts advise that you avoid buying second-hand gear - especially the hive itself - as diseases can easily be passed on to your new colony and make your efforts futile. The plastic beehive by Omlet, Beehaus, has been specifically designed for urban use; but whether plastic or a more traditional cedar, a beehive needs to be chosen according to your means and the space you can give it.

Step 3: becoming a beekeeper

Minimum effort is required during the autumn and winter months, when the hive should be monitored once a week to check if the bees have enough to eat and that their entrance is clear. The beekeeper's tasks become more demanding in spring and summer, however, as the queen lays her eggs and the colony becomes more susceptible to Varroa mite infestations.

'You cannot keep bees without varroa in the UK,' warns the NBU in its advice to new beekeepers.

Tim Lovett, public affairs director at the BBKA says that chemicals, like pyrethroid, need to be employed to lessen the effects of the varroa mite on the bee colony. However, the BBKA's endorsement of the use of pyrethroid has caused controversy within the organisation, with many members considering the pesticide itself to be a threat to the colony.

There are more natural, organic ways of being a beekeeper, although the concept of 'organic honey' in the UK is a contested issue, as there must be a certain amount of land around the hive (a few miles), which is free of pesticides in which the bees can forage. 'That's not really possible in the UK,' says Clio Turton of the Soil Association. Organic beekeeping practices are another matter, however, and the Soil Association says that even varroa infestations can be treated with organic essential oils.

Heidi Herrmann, a founder trustee at the Natural Beekeeping Trust (NBT), argues that the survival rates of naturally husbanded bees are 'twice as high' as those delivered under traditional beekeeping methods. Husbandry practices also differ, with organic, biodynamic and natural beekeepers aiming to respect the natural behaviour of bees - for example, by allowing bees to sustain themselves on their own honey rather than sugar syrup during winter.

Step 4: controlling the population

During late spring or early summer, the old queen may have the urge to form a new colony, taking thousands of worker bees with her in a swarm and leaving the new virgin queen to assume control of the hive. The danger of swarming is that it could easily halve the existing colony and its honey, threatening its survival through the coming winter months.

Beekeepers can take some precaution against swarming by 'splitting colonies' and selling them or, according to Plan Bee author Susan Brackney, eliminate the competition altogether by crushing queen cells with a hive tool. Heidi Herrmann of the NBT, disagrees with traditional control methods, arguing that swarms are 'a species-specific behaviour' and 'should be allowed as far as possible' to concur with the bees' natural reproduction cycle.

Whichever controlling method is used, NBU Director Mike Brown warns that beekeepers ‘very quickly go from beyond one [colony]' within the same year.

Step 5: reaping the harvest

While some harvests may be unproductive and honeybees will need their diet supplemented with syrup, supers (honey boxes) will need to be changed regularly in extremely productive years. Extracting, settling, and filtering honey does add extra time and effort to a beekeeper's tasks, but buying your own extracting equipment is unnecessary, as associations will rent them out to members for a small fee.

Although giving jars of homemade honey to friends and relatives needs no authorisation, selling honey commercially must follow strict hygiene and labelling guidelines.

Step 6: is there an alternative?

Keeping honeybees in urban areas does require some extra care compared to rural beekeeping, so as not to disturb the neighbours. But it should not be looked upon as a poor relation of its rural cousin - towns and cities can offer a greater variety of flowers for foraging than the huge expanses of monoculture crops in the countryside, says BBKA's Tim Lovett.

And if, after all, you decide that tending a beehive is not for you, the BBKA has come up with an 'Adopt a beehive' scheme for the ‘armchair beekeepers' among us.

Theodora Tsentas is a freelance journalist

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