When the permaculture bug first took hold of me a few years ago, I was really disappointed that I didn't have enough land to keep the chickens, goats, and sheep that I believed I needed to have a permaculture site. Well, experience has taught me two things – you don't need a zoo to be a permaculturist and almost everyone has the space to keep tens of thousands of honey bees.
Why Keep Bees?
Bees are a permaculturist's dream. Firstly, they pollinate many of the native and introduced plants in our gardens and the countryside. Secondly, they improve the pollination rate of many farm crops. Indeed some farmers pay for the privilege of having beehives on their land.
Ever since the accidental introduction of the varroa mite into Britain the wild population of honey bees has declined rapidly. At present its probably true to say that most wild honey bees are probably swarms from hives. It's sad to think that the honey bee population relies on bee keepers and the annual varroa treatment. Worse still is that due to poor practice amongst a few bee keepers there are now resistant mites appearing in the south-west of Britain. So unless the bee keeping population keeps the number of hives up then one would forsee a drastic reduction in the bee population and the consequences thereof.
The final advantage of keeping bees is the honey. My wife and I have completely replaced our use of sugar with honey. Not only does this save money in the longer term but it saves on food miles, packaging and the dreaded trip to the supermarket.
So you think you want to keep bees? Well firstly, STOP. Don't go rushing off to buy equipment as you need to do some research. I would urge everyone with an interest firstly to buy a good book (see recommend books) and secondly join the British Bee Keepers Association. The BBKA has local chapters that can provide advice and show you a working apiary. It's not unknown for a beginner to buy all their equipment and then go along to the local BBKA apiary and run away in a panic or worse find that they are allergic to bee stings. A small percentage of the population can die from anaphylactic shock caused by bee stings so if you have never been stung by a bee then please get yourself and your family checked.
Among the first questions you should ask yourself is do you have time and the space to keep bees? A good bee keeper will look at each hive weekly from around late March until early October depending on climate. During the winter the bees should not be looked at unless there is a problem.
The two busiest times are when the bees start to think about swarming and when the honey is removed. One should check the hives during the swarming period on a weekly basis, but when new queen cells are found action will need to be taken immediately. If you have a number of hives this can be a busy time.
The other busy time of the year is when the honey is taken off. Normally the honey comes off at the end of the summer and can then be stored in the combs until processing. Processing honey from a single hive will take a few hours or so. The exception to this is if the bees are in an Oil Seed Rape (OSR) area. OSR honey solidifies in the combs and needs to be removed and processed as soon as the OSR crop stop flowering. If you don't do it and leave it you will end up in a real mess.
Do you have the space to keep bees? If you have any sort of garden then the answer is typically 'yes' although you will need to take care in siting the hive. I have seen hives in the centre of towns and they can even be kept on flat roofs (e.g. on top of garages, sheds etc.). In colder parts of the world they even keep them inside sheds! Ironically, those who keep bees in towns and the suburbs of big cities generally get higher honey yields than those outside. The reason for this is because of all the nice flowers in urban gardens and the lack of wildflowers in the countryside due to poor farming practice.
One thing to remember when talking with your local BBKA members is that every bee keeper has a lot of advice that will generally contradict everyone else. Mostly it is neither right nor wrong just different. The key is to use the information wisely and develop a system that works for you. I would recommend sticking to the advice from one of the better books and staying with it until you feel confident to branch out.
What To Buy & Where
Some of the BBKA local associations run a 'try-a-hive' scheme that allows you to have a small number of bees (a nucleus) and a hive for a summer. At the start of autumn you have a choice of either returning the hive or paying for the hive and becoming a fully-fledged bee keeper. I participated in this scheme in Cambridgeshire and it was excellent.
I would encourage all first time bee keepers to buy new equipment. Yes, used equipment is cheaper and yes it can be made safe. The chances of passing on disease can be high, however, and there is nothing worse than starting out on the road to be a bee keeper and have your hive getting a disease and being destroyed.
So start with new equipment. There are a number of sources of equipment some more expensive than others. The quality of frames and hive parts varies considerably, however. The best hives are made from red cedar but I personally don't know anyone who can afford this material these days (and you need to check its source for 'wood miles'). Remember the quality is important – hives can last for many years and it is worth getting the best you can afford. So I would either find someone local who can show you a hive they have bought or go to one of the bee shows (e.g. Stoneleigh) and look at the equipment. Suppliers often sell off equipment at shows at good prices. I have given the web addresses of two reputable (although not necessarily the cheapest) suppliers that I use at the end of the article.
For the hive you will need a brood box, brood frames, floor, crown board and roof to start with, followed soon after by a super, super frames, queen excluder, feeder etc. The best way to get what you need is either to buy one of the 'beginners kits' that most suppliers sell, or ask. The reputable dealers know what is needed. Buy the hive flatpack and learn to assemble it – it's much cheaper and is good family fun on winter nights. The local BBKA normally run courses on hive and frame building or ask a local bee keeper.
I should point out that there are many types of hive – stick to something common like the National hive even if your local expert says you need some obscure hive that is the 'best'. Avoid the traditional beehive seen in picture books (called the 'WBC') – it's a waste of wood and is heavy and more work even if it does look nice! You will need to protect the hives. Traditionally this was done with creosote but this is unacceptable and about the most ecologically sound coating is to use clear Cuprinol – make sure it's the type that is not harmful to insects and only use it on the outside of the hive.
Clothing is a personal choice – you will look silly and feel even more so the first time the postman/wife/husband/neighbour sees you wearing it. Most beginners start with a full suit that includes head protection. I didn't and just bought the top part using jeans and a pair of wellies for the rest. You can get away with this if you want to save some money as firstly bees can't sting through jeans (although most other things they can) or wellies. However, some writers say that bees are attracted to the blue colour in jeans – so take this advice at your own risk.
Over a full year you will need even more equipment... mouse guards, bee escapes, varroa treatment, the list is endless. Luckily the most expensive items of equipment you will need, the honey processing equipment, can be borrowed from your local BBKA. If for no other reason join your local association to borrow the centrifuge, wax melter and uncapping tool you will need.
Where To Get Bees From?
Of course, the final missing element are the bees themselves. The best way is (surprise, surprise) to get a nucleus from your local BBKA. Most of the BBKA will make sure the bees you get are of good temperament and free of disease. Good and bad tempered bees are easy to distinguish. The good bees will be relaxed and non-aggressive when you open up the hive – assuming of course you have smoked them first. If, on the other hand, a large number of bees start thwacking into you and follow you all the way back to the house then you know you have the more aggressive type. There is nothing necessarily wrong with these bees and re-queening with a less aggressive queen can work wonders.
An alternative to the BBKA is to buy a nucleus from either a bee keeper or supplier. The nuclei from a reputable supplier will be good, as might the ones from a friendly bee keeper. However, be careful – do ascertain whether they are disease free – take an experienced bee keeper along with you.
There are a number of general rules in siting bee hives. Obviously don't put it next to the house or any other place you need to pass on a regular basis. This also includes the neighbours and any public footpaths. If you need to place the hive somewhere near a path then this can be done if you force the bees upward when they come out of the hive. The way to do this is to face the hive into something like a hedge. When the bees leave the hive they are forced up and out rather than over the path. A temporary structure such as fine mesh netting can be used until the hedge grows.
Don't put the hive out in full sun otherwise the bees will overheat. A nice cool shady area is best but avoid frost pockets and areas of strong winds (shelter can be provided). If you are somewhere flat like I am in Cambridgeshire, protection for the bees en route to and from the forage area might be worth considering if you have control over the land in question.
You will need space to work around the back of the hive and space in front for the bees to leave the hive. Notice that each hive is oriented slightly differently avoiding confusion amongst the bees and stopping bees 'drifting' into the downwind hive. As you will also see from the photograph the hives are raised off the ground on concrete blocks. I use these in preference to hive stands or other wooden devices because they are stronger and last longer. The hives should be level with a slight fall towards the front thus ensuring that any water that does get into the hive doesn't puddle in the hive and cause it to rot.
The apiary area should be easy to maintain and hence I use a bark cover over weed matting. I find this preferable to cutting grass in a bee suit.
Bee hives do not go well with other animals although my cat seems to spend a considerable amount of time lying next to them. Horses are definitely a big 'no' as they seem to like kicking down the hives probably because they are getting stung. I gate my apiary to keep my dog out. I have also heard that bees attack mechanical devices such as mowers and tractors. (They do! Ed.) I haven't yet seen my neighbour on his mini-tractor attacked yet, but I will let you know if he is!
As a final thought on the siting of hives you can always put yours on a friend's piece of land or farm. Same rules apply as above although I would make sure that out-aparies cannot be seen from the roadside as vandalism seems to be a common occurrence.
Designing For Bees
Depending on the amount of space you have you can incorporate the bees' requirements into your site design. As bees typically forage only at distances greater than 100m (110yd) from the hive there is little one can do specifically for your bees if you have a small site. This should not stop you planting bee friendly species, however, as bees from elsewhere will surely drift in. Water should always be provided in some form. A few well placed rocks or pebbles in a pond works well, making sure the bees can land on a dry part and 'walk' to the water's edge.
On larger sites, specific planting can help the bees, especially during lean periods. Bees need two major types of forage – nectar and pollen (a source of protein for rearing new workers). Bees will generally choose the sweetest nectar source and hence fly up to 3 miles (5km) or so for brassica crops like OSR. The aim of planting should be to provide good sources of nectar through-out the year and pollen during the times of growth in the colony – particular early and late in the season.
The table shows a few species that are useful to the permaculturist's bees. Of these willow is a 'must' as it gets the bees off to a good start and provides early pollen. Other species may be locally important. It's worth noting that the source of your bees' nectar and pollen can be checked by looking at the colour of the pollen. There are many books detailing plant species and their usefulness to the honey bee. The pollen colours can be used to determine where there are 'gaps' in the nectar or pollen seasons and appropriate planting provided.
During your time as a bee keeper you are likely to have some problems. This is again where the local BBKA is useful (haven't you joined yet!). They can help you find your lost queen or tell you how to assemble the last little section of hive.
Another useful person to get to know is the area bee inspector. There are a number of notifiable diseases and he is an expert in searching them out. You should expect to see him once every two or three years when he will inspect your bees – they will of course be healthy as you have taken care of them. Please be nice to him as he is only doing his job and more importantly he is a help in keeping your bees healthy. There are instances of keepers hiding colonies or feeding them antibiotics both of which are illegal. Antibiotics are a real problem at present in imported honey particularly from China where it is used prophylactically. You should know that the bee inspector is able to enter your premises at any time and take any action he deems fit – he has more power than the police. So be nice and offer him a cup of herbal tea, with honey in – of course!
The bee inspector has leaflets showing how to identify the main diseases, as should your BBKA. Learn to recognise these and don't be afraid to call the inspector up with false alarms. In the case of one of the notifiable diseases, European Foul Brood (EFB) swift early action can save your hive. Your BBKA will also provide an insurance scheme at a nominal fee for your hives so you are recompensed if they get diseased or if a member of the public is injured.
If you have your bees early enough in the year you will certainly get some honey to take off. By the second year you will be in full production and may even have a second hive. Typically you might have between 14-23kg (30-50lbs) of honey from a hive. This is a lot of honey and you need to be prepared to process it – especially in the OSR case.
As mentioned earlier you can borrow most of the equipment you need from your local BBKA. You will, however, need enough storage containers for the honey and bottles. If you are selling to the public please buy new bottles and tops and sterilise them. You will also be required to label them with the producer, weight and lot number. Printed labels can be obtained from your hive supplier. If the honey is for your own consumption you can bottle into any container you like.
The process for extraction is in all the good books – uncap the honey using an uncapping knife (a heated tray is useful to catch the wax and honey that comes out – the tray makes it separable). Then centrifuge the frames taking care not to break the frames. The empty frames should then be put back in the hive for the bees to clean up. With non-OSR honey you can generally bottle straight away, remembering to filter it first. Depending on the source of honey it will either stay runny for a long period or set.
OSR honey is more complex because if bottled straight away it will set rock hard, and I mean so hard you will struggle to get it out of the jars. The way I deal with this is to put all the honey into a large container and let it set hard. Then a few days before you want to bottle heat it gently until it is runny. To do this, I built a cabinet out of old wood and a cable heater, but an old fridge and a light bulb or two will do. I gently increase the temperature until it's runny – don't get it any hotter than necessary. The honey can then be bottled straight away. The honey will still set but not as hard as before – you can also 'seed' the honey with a bought honey to help the process.
Having bottled the honey you can now use it or sell it – you won't make much money unless you have a fully commercial operation, but you can normally cover your costs as well as getting free honey. English honey is rather hard to get at the moment and so attracts a good price, almost all the cheap honey on the supermarket shelves is from China and of much lower quality, and has in the past been contaminated. You can do other things to maximise your return by using cut comb or sections – although this is certainly for the more experienced bee keeper. There is a leaflet published by Trading Standards that tells about the regulations you need to meet to sell 'at the gate'.
So what can you do with all the honey you keep for yourself? Eat it as is, cook with it or maybe try making mead – I have never done this, but am told it is lethal. Remember you also get the wax that you can turn into candles or new foundation for the hive. For the latter you can either recycle the wax and make the foundation for the frames yourself or, more easily, sell it back to commercial companies (like Thornes) who pay you for it. Again you won't make a lot of money, but it helps cover the costs of keeping bees and expansion.
You could branch into more esoteric products like propolis (the resin that bees use to stick everything you don't want stuck together), pollen or royal jelly. But (all except the wax production) I would not recommend these for a beginner.
So have I convinced you to keep bees? I hope so. They are certainly one of nature's miracles and one that fits easily into the permaculture lifestyle
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o PM.
Mark Smith has a Permaculture Design Certificate and is particularly interested in small-scale permaculture and applying permaculture principals to conventional gardens. He is presently studying Garden Design and Feng Shui as tools to integrate into permaculture design.
Mark and his wife, Anne have recently started a new venture, @one Associates (www.atoneassociates.com), that takes a holistic approach to helping people gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their connection with the environment in which they live.
Guide to Bees & Honey by Ted Hooper
Beekeeping Practical Notes and Study Notes series by J D and B D Yates. A series of five books which can be used either for reference or to study for beekeeping examinations.
National Bee Supplies
www.beekeeping.co.uk or 01837 54084
www.thorne.co.uk or 01673 858 555