Firstly, beekeeping is cool, very cool… and don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.
Secondly, let me list the things that beekeeping is cooler than:
- hipster beards on 25 year olds
- unicorn Latte’s
- miniature pigs
- cauliflower florets
Lets face it, if you aren’t already a beekeeper, you want to be one now don’t you?
If I sound in any way defensive and self justifying, it’s possibly because if you know me well, beekeeping’s probably not quite what you might expect my hobby to be. It’s also possibly one of the most ‘Zen’ hobbies that you can have on the planet and that might take a bit of an explanation, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Please firstly allow me to explain how I became interested in the gentle art of beekeeping.
I grew up on the edge of a medium sized village in the British East Midlands. There were farms and orchards all around and people still followed traditional English country pursuits including maypole dancing, shooting, beer drinking, fishing, cider making and beekeeping. Ok, I made the first one up as there weren’t many folks still doing that, but I did as a kid and apart from feeling a bit silly dancing with girls, I enjoyed it.
In the summer and really, the last great summer I remember in the UK was 1976, when there were bees everywhere and it was quite dangerous to run barefoot in the garden because you’d run the risk of treading on a bee feeding on the clover in the grass. When the bees swarmed, which they always did in the middle of summer, it wasn’t uncommon to find a football sized teardrop of bees hanging from your tree, the eaves of your house or even your car. In most cases, they either had to be left where they were in the hope that they’d move on, or they had to be physically relocated by someone who knew what they were doing.
And here’s one the bees made earlier
For our small village of the damned, the local ‘go to’ person for relocating bees was the village plumber and he was known by the local kids as “whistle Poo” – one, because his real name sounded like that and two, he whistled when he was in your house, so you always knew where he was and three, he was usually up to his elbows in someone else’s poo.
My parents, had many roses and a large orchard that attracted a lot of wildlife and at bee vacation time, we’d often find a swarm clinging to one of the apple trees, or on one memorable occasion, in a hollow of the cherry tree. Whistle Poo would usually respond to a bee call faster than a burst pipe and luckily his call out fee for removing a swarm was much cheaper than for a plumbing call out as it usually only amounted to a couple of pints down at the local pub. He didn’t exactly lose out through his largesse as he ended up driving a Porsche and living opposite the local golf club, so that shows you how successful a plumber he was!
During the cherry tree incident, I watched from a safe distance as he suited up and lit his smoker, fascinated with the calm and deliberate way he moved among the bees and coaxed them into a box for their safe removal. As an adult, I had always wanted to keep Bees but had been frustrated by circumstances; my years in the service or living in multiple rented houses and apartments around the world had always precluded a hive, but I always planned to have one someday.
When I moved back to Australia, one of my neighbours mentioned that he had access to a number of old hives that had been abandoned when a farmer he knew had passed away. The bees had all moved on, but the twenty or so hives left behind, were up for grabs. Ordinarily, you don’t take on abandoned hives, because you just don’t know if they have been diseased or poisoned, but being a newbie and a bit tight, I decided that I’d take a look at them and see what could be salvaged.
Anecdotally, the farmer had been a keen beekeeper until he’d become too old to look after them, so I could be reasonably certain that they hadn’t been poisoned and the bees had probably moved on of their own accord. Unlike kids, bees do actually leave home eventually and set up somewhere else without insisting on being given lifts, having tantrums and bleeding you dry of your hard earned but by the by; out of the pile of brood boxes, supers, lids and frames there were around half a dozen that were salvageable so I hired a high pressure steamer and went to work on them and burned the rest.
That summer a friend called and said that she had bees in her chimney and could I please come around and remove them? Excited at the opportunity and buoyed up by all the training that You Tube could provide, I struggled into my brand new suit and clambered up onto her roof and into a grist of happily buzzing Bees.
After a couple of puffs from my new smoker (which I had filled with shredded cardboard and some dried leaves), I removed the chimney pot and with the aid of a torch, I saw a fantastic vaulted wax chamber and felt, as much as smelt; a beautiful waft of warm honey envelop me. I was hooked.
Despite feeling distinctly out of my depth, but borne out of the confidence of never having been attacked by a swarm of angry bees, I decided to press on with the removal of the comb. Having been anchored in the chimney for quite some time, it took me a while to remove it all, sawing the wax from the sooty brickwork with my hive tool and all the time, listening to the frequency emitted from the bees as it rose and fell. I learned then that you can tell the state of mind of the bees by the pitch of their buzz – the higher pitch, the more you should back off or puff more smoke. The lower the buzz and when you can almost feel the sound in your core, the happier they seem to be.
Some beekeepers say that puffing the smoke tranquillises them, but others claim that it mimics the smoke from a bushfire and the bees start eating all the honey they can and protectively surround the queen as a prelude to moving out en masse, to a safer place. I’m not quite sure which one it is, but as I took a rest sitting on a flat part of that hot tin roof on that beautiful sunny afternoon, I was feeling the buzz (pun intended), I knew that I wanted to do more of this, much more of it. I felt so calm and yet so absolutely in the zone. I hadn’t focused on anything quite so closely since Miss Gooch’s* mini skirt. And there you go, there’s the ‘Zen’ reference explained…
*My very stylish and attractive 1970’s primary school teacher.
I heard once that if you are in the fire ban season, which we have annually in certain parts of Australia, in order to prevent bush fires, you cannot light any fires, have open bbq’s or even use your bee smoker and then it’s best to spray sugar water all over the bees to calm them and they will spend ages licking each other clean and they don’t worry too much about the unwanted company. Well, I thought… you would, wouldn’t you?……….
At the moment, I have two hives, one at home and another at a friends place. I took advantage of a recent hot spell, which where I live, outside of the summer months, generally isn’t that hot at all and I disturbed the bees in order to upgrade their accomodation. Last winter’s weather hadn’t been kind to the pine boxes and there were several areas where the bees were taking shortcuts through holes in order to get out and tend to the flowers in the garden. Some serious renovation was clearly in order.
The hive – looking a bit worn out (like me..)
Before I go into the hive renovations, let me try to explain what the inside of a man made hive actually looks like. Inside your hive the bees build their foundation on pressed wax sheets that are fixed onto a lightweight wooden frame and they hang, more or less like the folders inside the drawer of a filing cabinet. The bees use their energy to first build out the wax and then to fill the little chambers with honey. The honey in the bottom box, or “deep” as they are sometimes called, belongs to the bees and the workers tend the Queen and produce enough honey for the hive to thrive on.
The smaller boxes that sit on top of the deep are called “supers” and that technically is the beekeepers honey, for him or her to gather. It’s important of course, not to take too much from the bees and to always leave them enough honey to take them through the winter months.
One of the most stressful things that you can do to your bees is to raid the hive and steal the honey and to be honest, whist I love working with the bees, I have never found the extraction of the honey to be a very satisfactory process. Don’t get me wrong, I love the end result, but the troops spend so much energy creating the wax foundation before they get to making the honey, that I always feel like I am destroying so much of their hard work when I try to extract the honey from the cells.
The traditional way for the semi commercial beekeeper to get the honey out is to use an extractor; which is a a bit like the spinner in a washing machine. The older ones are hand cranked and the newer versions have motors to avoid the work out. I borrowed a hand cranked one from a friend and had a go. First you scrape the wax caps off the little cells that contain the honey (as seen in the picture) and then you slip the wooden frames into the spinner and get going.
Attempting (and failing) to warm and coax the honey out of the frames in front of the fire.
I have to admit that on my first attempt, I failed miserably and ended up piling the gooey, waxy mess into a sheet of calico and hanging it up in a warm place to drip out the good stuff over a couple of days.
Since then, I have wrestled with different extractors and I even had an ingenious (or so I thought) small stainless steel frame made that fitted into the chuck of a drill in order to help spin the honey out into a large plastic drum, but I always seemed to pick a day that is too cold and the honey won’t run, or it’s so hot that the wax foundation collapses; thereby ruining the foundation for reuse.
My not so – genius invention..
A lot of the time, I ended up spinning it too fast and centrifugal force flung the honey and wax everywhere without actually getting any into the bucket. It’s bloody frustrating to be honest and I always seem to end up trying to do it just before I go away on a trip and getting covered in honey and not enjoying the process as much as I should.
I did ask the long suffering Mrs. Jerry to hold the bucket still one time in a bid to refine the process and then we both got horizontal stripes of honey all across our chests, faces and in our hair for our trouble. In the full knowledge that I was going away for a few weeks, I glanced amorously across the bucket and briefly reminded her about the bees covered in the sugar water but I was quickly told ‘not to even think about it’…. but, it’s always worth a try though right?
Eventually, after planning to refurbish the hives but putting it off through lack of time, I heard of a new invention that has revolutionised beekeeping – the flow hive….
Note to readers – as previously mentioned, for those of you who do know me well, I bet you never thought I’d be singing the praises of a revolutionary new beekeeping invention…. but look, its an honest hobby and it doesn’t hurt anyone – unless you get stung, of course and it keeps me out of the pub, so there!
The ‘flow hive’ is the brainchild of a father/son team who live in the hippy hills behind Byron Bay, in NSW, Australia. It took them about ten years and judging by the look of them, probably more than a few herbal cigarettes to invent and refine something that allows you to harvest your honey, without even opening up the hive! have a look at their video – it’s absolute genius…
Cedar (told you they were hippies) and his dad raised the money for developing the flow hive concept by crowdsourcing and the $300K they were asking for reached around $30Million within a few weeks. Now; thats a fair few free trade lentil pancakes isn’t it?
I took the option of NOT buying a new and quite expensive hive as depicted on the extremely impressive marketing video , but instead I decided to modify my existing hives. The secret of the flow hive is in the frames, as shown below. They are around twice the width of the normal wooden frames you can see and split vertically in two when you place a large flat ‘key’ into the top and twist it.
The modified ‘super’, with the key port
A bit of basic woodworking later and I was set up and the bees were doing their thing. If this all sounds a bit like hands off beekeeping and in some way cheating, let me assure you that it isn’t. As Cedar’s laid back Ozzie drawl tells you in the video, you still have to look after them, maintain the hives and you’ll still get stung occasionally. So just like old fashioned beekeeping then?
I went back to check on the bees a couple of weeks ago and I thought that as it was still a fire ban period, I’d just sneak around the back of the hive, open up the little window and see how they were going. Just in case you think that this is a little foolhardy, in the video link above, there’s a little girl sticking her finger in the honey outlet tube and after sucking it, expressing her delight with a very cute lisp. Righto, I thought, I can do that and I won’t even have to bother with my suit and veil. I avoided the flight path out of the front door of the hive and stepped around to the rear and business end of the flow hive. I opened the trap door and bugger me; the bees were waiting. Douglas Bader with stripes and his mates scrambled to attack the bandit. Firstly, they went for my eyes, then my ears. I tried to stay calm, willing myself to remember that for a bee, stinging is its last resort, because they don’t live long after leaving their sting and most of their intestines in your skin, but obviously, this lot had guts to spare and they didn’t give a stuff. I felt like Godzilla, surrounded by American fighter planes, but this time being actually hit by the bees rather than being hit by missiles. Initially at least anyway.
I fled back to the house and glanced at my reflection in the cars wing mirror on the way. I had started to resemble the male lead in the 1980’s Cher movie ‘Mask’ and I could see that some serious anti histamines were in order. I couldn’t see anywhere on the label that beer wasn’t appropriate in conjunction with the pills (largely because my eyes had swelled shut) so I pressed a cold can to my forehead as I gulped down another. I decided not to mention my stupidity that evening at the dinner table, but instead muttered something about running into some stray bees that were clearly not my own well mannered bees and retired early to bed, with the snickers of my own poorly mannered family ringing in my ears.
The very next day, I judged that the bees had calmed down and that as they’d never recognise me in my suit and smoker in hand, I’d have another go. I gave them a few good puffs of smoke and a moment to get used to the idea that I meant no harm. A couple of bees did fly round to have a look at me, but they didn’t seem too fussed and so I carefully opened up the small window and I could see that they had indeed started to fill up the plastic frames with honey. It was working! I decided that as the weather was getting colder, I wouldn’t try and ‘crack’ the frames and steal some honey, but instead, I’d leave it to the bee community and hopefully, they would make it through the winter unscathed.
I sat for a little while, just watching and listening to the happy bees flit in and out of the hive, going about their daily business seemingly without a care in the world. Bees really are an example of how to live together cheek by jowl (mandible?) and working together for a common cause. They would work tirelessly for the betterment of the community and they don’t hesitate to sacrifice their lives in order to protect others if it is required.
With the pain and humiliation of the previous day behind me, I decided that next season we’d start anew and I’d make it up to them by not pulling the hives apart too much, planting a lot more flowers and maybe even trying a little sugar water spray, just for their own enjoyment….
A little of last years swag – worth all the stings!