Are you all abuzz about bees? Ever wondered what it takes to keep a hive at home? We’re big fans of these pretty pollinators at Joules. Not only beautiful, they are essential for our survival. So we caught up with Corri McDowell, a hobby beekeeper from Cheltenham, on how to choose a hive, avoiding stings and the fascinating habits of a clever colony.
“A s an enthusiastic garden cook, I’ve always been fascinated by bees and the different flavours you get from honey. But it was attending a talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival that inspired me to take up beekeeping. Steve Benbow, who runs the London Honey Company, spoke about the declining population and how we can make a difference. I thought, “Well, if you can keep bees on the balcony of a tower block flat in London, I can do it in my garden and do my bit to save the bees.”
“I found my local beekeeping association on the Great British Beekeeping Association website, which I would suggest to anybody as a great first step. I found my bee mentor through them, who I still speak to for advice on days when I just can’t work the hive. They recommended a two-day honey bees beginners course. Day one covered theory, all about the lifecycle of bees, the seasonal cycle of a hive, how to check for disease, what sort of plants bees like and how far they will fly to find nectar and pollen, like 101 questions about bees. Day two was practical, getting on our suits and having a look in the hives. I was nervous about that part, actually taking the roof off and inspecting the frames, but it was strangely calm. You could smell the honey and the constant buzz was quite soothing. I expected bees to fly everywhere, but they seemed really disinterested in us.”
“You actually need less stuff than people think. The essentials are a suit, a smoker and a hive. You can get lots of different types of beekeeping suits. I wear a full suit; it’s particularly unattractive but it just gives you really good protection, especially if you’re a novice beekeeper. I’ve seen senior beekeepers wear just a veil and gloves with normal clothes though.
The kit doesn’t need to cost loads. Most local beekeeping associations auction off second-hand and end-of-line equipment, so you can pick-up really cheap but perfectly good gear. Hives range hugely in terms of the type and costs, but for new you’re looking at around £400 upwards. Then probably add on around £100 for your suit and £30 for your smoker.
The biggest expense is the hive. I have two, really traditional, Winnie the Pooh style WCB hives. They are double walled to give the bees extra insulation and made from red cedar, but I’ve painted mine. These days you can get hives made from polystyrene or plastic and, effectively, the construction is pretty similar. You have an outer layer to protect from the elements and an inner layer to allow bees to exit and enter. Inside then consists of a brood box, where the queen lays all the bees, and a honey super box, where the bees store the nectar and pollen and turn everything into honey and beeswax for us. They are separated by a Queen excluder, to stop the Queen bee from laying eggs inside the honey. Moveable frames provide the foundation for either laying eggs or storing honeycomb.”
“This is where it becomes really useful to both register with your local Beekeeping Association and go on a course, as I bought my bees from my tutor. I would appeal to anyone wanting to take up beekeeping, please do not have them sent through the post. Firstly, you won’t know if you are getting bees that are suitable and adapted to the area and environment you live in. Even small variations in temperature can mean the difference to whether the hive thrives or just survives. Secondly, you’ll know you are getting British bees. A lot of the bees that come by post are Italian and European babies, carrying different diseases that are killing off our bees in the UK.
UK bees are in trouble for a myriad of reasons. Climate change is a big factor, because the bees are actively having to work for much longer in the year and that puts a lot of stress on their bodies. There is a lot of press on the harmful effects of pesticides too. Also, due to urbanisation, the countryside here is slowly being eroded. If everybody just planted a few trees or some wildflowers, that would do a lot to help save our bees. It’s so important, but I don’t know if people understand why. Bees pollinate around 75 per cent of all of the food that we eat, so if we don’t take steps to save our bees, our food chain could collapse within five years.”
“It’s not very time consuming at all. It’s a six months on, six months off job really. Right now my bees are in peak flow season, so it’s the busiest time. As a standard guideline, I check the hive once a week to make sure there is no disease, check they’re not going to swarm and see if they need extra honey boxes or extra room. When I first started, my hive checks took around an hour and a half, because I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Now I can get in and out of a hive in less than 30 minutes. Harvesting obviously takes slightly longer, but let’s be honest, you get the benefit and reward of the honey.
During the winter months, when the bees stop flying, there is very little to do but make sure you are ready for the next season. You just leave them a full box of honey and don’t look in the hive at all. If it’s particularly long winter, you might need to give them some sugar syrup as food to help see them through early spring time. That’s when they will struggle the most. As soon as the temperature starts to rise, they’ll want to start flying again but there might not be a lot for them to eat. So you just need to make sure they have enough food for the early part of the season. Other than that, it’s just cleaning parts of the hive.”
“If the bees are having a really productive year, which mine are, I’ll probably get 48 frames of honey, so maybe 120 jars from one hive. I love honey. I do a lot of natural baking and the taste of completely raw, untreated honey is just so good. It tastes so different and I love the distinctive taste of honey from my own hive. Honey carries the flavours from whatever the bees have foraged on, that’s how you get the taste. I think my honey tastes quite citrusy at the moment, then as we move through the summer it gets more floral. Towards the end of the year, it becomes much darker and richer.
Bees can travel up to 10 miles to get food and I can always tell where mine have been from the taste of heather, borage, wildflowers and the type of pollen they bring back to the hive. So for instance, I know in the early part of the season that they will have been on the horse chestnut, because the pollen they bring back to the hive is blood red. A park close to us is full of poppies and I know when they’ve been there, as they start bringing back jet black pollen.
I also suffer from hay fever, which raw, local honey helps with. I’ve started dabbling in making hand creams and lip balms too recently using the wax. I’m always looking at inventive ways to use up the by products of the hive.”
“Yeah, it’s sort of part of the job. It’s only happened two or three times, always because I either wasn’t focusing or not paying attention to something and I trapped her. Generally though, bees are very disinterested in you. They will only sting if they feel they’ve got no other option, because they die as soon as they sting you. So it’s a pretty big deal for a bee and not as common as you think. Now, every time I get down to the hive I say, “I love you. I’m not here to hurt you. Everything is fine.’ I think if you send them some love, they’ll send you some love back.”
“I find my bees incredibly therapeutic. The noise they make is like a sort of humming meditation, because you can’t actually think about anything else whenever you’re inside a hive. I always get a lot of headspace and feel quite humble. I feel good from keeping bees, not only from an environmental point of view, but I feel good in myself.
I’m also fascinated by the lifecycle of a bee and feel a huge responsibility for them. They are amazing. All bees have a clear purpose, they know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing at any given time. Your average worker bee only lives for six weeks. They spend their first three weeks inside the hive doing jobs, like cleaning, looking after the babies and making sure there are enough food stores. Then, once they are about three weeks old, they start taking on duties outside the hive, so guarding, foraging and bringing in water.
You’ve got the Queen bee, who is fattened up to breed and is the mother of pretty much all the bees in the hive. By the time you get into peak flow of the season, you might have around 40 to 60 thousand bees in a hive, having started from a nucleus of maybe six. Pretty much all of them are female too. Let’s say you have 50,000 worker bees in your hive, only 500 will be drones, or boy bees. That’s girl power!”
Thanks Corri, what a fascinating hobby. Inspired to take-up beekeeping? Let us know how you get on. If you’re now hankering for honey, check out our delicious honey cake recipe. Or perhaps you just want to add a hint of hive to your wardrobe or home? We’ve got you covered with our bee-autiful bee inspired prints and products: