Struggles with beekeeping

Two years ago, I was given a beehive for my birthday – no bees, and no instructions on how to assemble the hive.   I didn’t know at the time that it is a national hive.  I know that now, and I know that, ‘The British Standard National Hive is the most popular design in the UK.’

About six months after getting the hive, I enrolled on my local beekeeper association beginners’ course.  Supposedly it was for people new to beekeeping.   Sadly, it didn’t begin with the basics, ‘This is a bee’.   But launched straight into a foreign language – for example.  ‘The national beehive’s square dimensions allows for the brood box to be the warm way or cold way to the entrance.’

Also, because we were in Covid-times, the course was all on-line.  So, we didn’t actually get to see a 3D hive with living bees in it.   Nevertheless, I struggled through 8 weeks of 90-minute on-line classes, aided by the beekeepers glossary, and several intro to beekeeping books, which seemed to have conflicting information on pretty much anything I wanted to clarify, look up, or learn more about. 

At the end of the course, I realised I was still clueless.  But, by chance I was at a community garden and I spotted a beehive, and asked who the bee-keeper was.  She happened to be there and suggested I join her local association.  Thus, I did a second beginners’ course – also on line.  This one was better, either because I was getting some inkling of what the language meant, or because it was much more usefully structured and delivered as an introductory course.  It did, more or less, begin with, ‘This is a bee’.    Actually, the first slide was titled ‘What are honey bees?’  The second slide had a pictures of honey bees, and the third slide had a line drawing of the anatomy of a honey bee. This course was just the level I was looking for.

I now have a small collection of bee-keeping manuals, a subscription to the British Beekeepers Association, membership of two local bee-keeping associations, each with their own mag. I have a colony of bees, and belong to two beginner beekeepers’ What’s App groups (one for each of the local associations I belong to).   I’m not at all confident as a beekeeper, but neither are any of the beginners, and the What’s App group is a delightful saga of the delights(?!) of learning a new skill, and avoiding the multiple pitfalls, if possible.

Both What’s App groups include one very experienced beekeeper, there to answer all the questions.  Many of the questions I have lined up to ask but someone got there first.  For example, ‘I just took the roof off my hive to have a quick look in the super and there isn’t a single bee in there.  Is there a way to encourage them to go in?’  The expert answers, ‘Be more patient.  There’s only so much honey that needs storing and so many bees to draw out comb’.   And ‘After previous manipulation nuc and 1 hive queenless.  Nuc stuffed with food.  Hive looks to have a supersedure cell.  Advice please’.   (See what I mean about the vocabulary of bee-keeping).  

Finally, we were doing practicals in a real apiary with real bees, wearing our beesuits.  The first task was learning to light the smoker – ‘a small metal furnace which you can use to lightly spray your bees with smoke – calming them, persuading them to move and preventing them from swarming.’  See the video tutorial here.  Naturally, there are multiple recommended ways of lighting a smoker – the basic design of which has not changed in over 100 years.  I wondered how bees felt about being smoked.

Even though I’d done two intro courses and could light a smoker, and had practiced examining real frames, with bees on, (though still unclear about what I was looking for) I was alarmed when one of the tutors called me to say she had a colony ready to bring round to my still empty hive.  I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be responsible for 35 – 40,000 beeswhich is what a typical hive contains at the height of summer.

Still, I got the colony, and I gathered two pots of honey from the hive, (estimated investment cost price of these around £350 each – beekeeping is not a cheap hobby).  The bees survived the winter – which apparently is something of an achievement, although the feral colony in our roof-space has survived several winters.  I attended more instructional sessions, and read the mags.

Now it’s a year since I got my first colony and I’m finding I’m reluctant to extend to two colonies which is what the experts say I should do. (Some suggest three colonies).  I’m also a little at odds with the ethics, language and expectations of conventional beekeeping.  

The conventional way of beekeeping, or rather the way I am learning of it, reminds me of the Taylorist ‘Scientific Management’ and Fordist theories of production, prevalent in the early 1900s (and for some time after that), as one that rather than seeing workers – in this case bees,  as assets to be nurtured and developed, the workers are often viewed as objects to be manipulated.  In the case of bees the language is of ‘crop production’, and the aim is to get the most honey possible from the bee colony. 

I have multiple other questions about these conventions of beekeeping, including:  How do bees feel about being smoked?  Why do we have to feed them supplementary fondant? Why is there such antagonism swarming and so much emphasis on swarm control? How do we know the queen doesn’t feel her wing being clippled or feel anxious about not being able to fly?

Swarm control involves practices like marking the queen with a coloured dot – different colour each year – clipping the queen bee’s wings, various ‘swarm control’ practices, removing ‘excess’ queen cells, and so on. 

My unease on the practices has grown as I become (marginally) more practiced.  Having declined in last month’s practical session to clip a drone’s wing ‘for practice’, I went home and looked up what vegans thought about honey.   

I’m on alert for other challenges to the conventional methods, and this month two have dropped through my letterbox.  The first by Chris Palgrave in BeeCraft magazine, Honey bee welfare: building on a rich legacy (unfortunately, paywalled).  He ends his thought provoking article on how he is continuing to explore ‘how we manage our bees in a more responsible and sustainable manner’. 

The second came in New Scientist, The urban beekeeping boom is hurting wild pollinator species, ‘The recent global trend for urban apiary amounts to “bee-washing” that detracts from efforts to reverse the decline in wild pollinators.’  This has many links to useful articles and the journalist, Graham Lawton, sent me an additional one.  Confronting the Modern Gordian Knot of Urban, Beekeeping

I’ve also discovered a short course on Natural Bee-keeping  which I’ll take as the next step on my path to find out if there is a way of supporting bees not in the Taylorist style but in a more natural/ethical/less mechanistic way. (Do I even need to ‘keep’ them, could I work with them?)

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