Some insects are more popular than others with a range of mammals, birds and, indeed, other insects. Ants are mighty popular with anteaters, ant birds and various beetles, wasps and butterflies for example. Wasps are almost universally unpopular and, although some subspecies of cockroach have their fans, most are unwelcome in the homes of human beings. There is one insect though, that despite its propensity to give a nasty sting if provoked, is viewed with greedy approval by many creatures. It's the honeybee.
Without knowingly prostituting itself to humans and their appetites, the honeybee has, for thousands of years, been a 'kept' insect. The keeping of bees shouldn't be confused with true domestication. Kept bees are still potentially wild bees and beekeepers have to keep a sharp eye on their hives for signs that the bees might be planning to swarm off to pastures new. When a commercial beekeeper sees a colony preparing to abscond, s/he takes action to prevent it. This sometimes involves killing queen bees. Treacherous and ungrateful, you might say but, if left to their own devices, honeybees would not be inclined to 'share' their honey with animals of other species. They haven't read any of the beekeeping manuals, and they haven't noticed that they're being manipulated and repeatedly robbed, otherwise they wouldn't put up with it. Commercial beekeeping could be seen as a form of slavery - although, conveniently for the slavers, the slaves don't appear to notice.
Most British beekeeping is not commercial. Here, it's usually just a hobby - so there's no need to be too ruthless with the bees. Instead of considering the bees just a source of profit, they can be seen as a source of enormous satisfaction and fascination - a beekeeper's way of helping to maintain a healthy environment, at a time when the importance of maintaining a healthy environment has suddenly become more obvious.
Bee populations are crashing and no-one is entirely sure why. Diseases, parasites, pesticides, malnutrition, climate change: all may be playing a part in the collapse of hives. For people who love honey, this may be disappointing news - but there's more to bees than just honey. It's estimated that 70% of the food we eat is pollinated by bees. They are a vital part of every ecosystem where they are found. Unlike thousands of other insect species, if bees become extinct, we humans will definitely notice. To paraphrase1 a disgruntled honey-lover, raging uselessly against those who would be happy to see all insects eliminated completely:
Don't need bees? Are you mad? What else do you suppose is going to pollinate the flowering crops? One way or another, over two thirds of the food you put in your mouth depends on bees for pollination. Once all the bugs have been poisoned into oblivion, who do you suppose is going to carry out the sex between the flowers, that results in the food on your table? A vast army of people armed with a feather or cotton-wool bud (cotton is pollinated by bees too by the way, so we'd better stick with the feather), scuttling about, from flower to flower, tickling their stamens? Trampling crops? Clambering up blooming fruit trees? Think of the Health and Safety issues. Think of the cost. Bees do it for free - and actually pay for the privilege in fact, in the currency of honey. And you needn't think other bugs will do the job when the honeybees have been wiped out. No! Those other insects are the real targets of the insecticides that are also weakening and killing the bees.
It's a wonder there are any insects left. Post mortems on dead bees have shown up to 25 different agrochemicals in a single bee - that's pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. TWENTY-FIVE! But that's what happens when you have a massively over-inflated population to feed. Perhaps miles and miles of monoculture as far as the eye can see in every direction is the only way you can feed such huge numbers of people. And immense monocultures like that wouldn't be possible without pesticides. They don't support ecosystems. They wipe them out. It can't last. It's not sustainable. Not for crops that need pollination. But don't you worry your little head about it! At least you don't get that gooey mess splattered all over your car wind-screen any more. No, you're right, of course. Good riddance to all those pesky creepy-crawlies. You'd better celebrate while you can though - and remember, bug-haters: we're next.
- An h2g2 Researcher
Thinking about becoming a beekeeper
This might not seem the ideal time to start thinking about beekeeping as a hobby - just when colony collapse is driving commercial beekeepers out of business. Non-commercial beekeepers are having a hard time of it too. Martha Kearney, whose voice and face we know well from BBC news and politics programmes, is also an advocate and keeper of bees - and so far she has lost all her bees and had to replace them three times. That's got to hurt - and cost. In a recent BBC documentary, 'Who Killed the Honey Bee?' she investigated the phenomenon of colony collapse and found it was happening almost everywhere in the world, apart from Australia. Beekeepers are kicking up a fuss - marching in their bee suits, shouting slogans and waving placards - trying to tear the politicians' attention away from more cuddly issues and get it focused on this unfolding catastrophe. In the words of the BBC programme introduction:
Bees are dying in their millions. It is an ecological crisis that threatens to bring global agriculture to a standstill.
Looking at it a different way though, hobbies rarely generate much income and can usually be expected to be expensive in terms of time, energy and money. The reward is satisfaction at learning a craft and perfecting a skill. The odd loss or failure can be seen as a lesson rather than a disaster. And with beekeeping, if it's done right, the beekeeper can at least break even and might just make a profit. That's more than can be said for angling, twitching or train-spotting. To quote the professionals:
It is not as dangerous or as expensive as, say, riding a motorbike. It has some of the same qualities as the hobby of fishing without the need, as it seems to us, to sit around in cold wet places!
- Adrian and Claire Waring
Teach Yourself Beekeeping
Another possible benefit of beekeeping to the beekeeper, is being repeatedly stung. Insane as that may sound, some beekeepers assert that bee stings help to suppress the symptoms of arthritis:
That's it. 'Apiary'... or 'monkeying around with bees', as the old man used to call it. He used to wear a hat and veil, but he never would wear gloves! Said they got in the way - couldn't feel what he was doing with gloves on. Besides, he said the stings were good for his arthritis. Came into the kitchen one day like a beekeeping zombie in his hat and veil, waving his hands about in front of him. The backs of them were smothered in stings - hundreds of them... well dozens anyway. All he said was "they're not very happy today". Well, they must've been in a foul temper! I helped him to get them out with a goose quill we kept for the purpose. You have to scrape 'em out, see? You shouldn't pinch 'em out, else you'll squeeze more of the poison in.
- Son of a beekeeper
Not that you'd need to be a beekeeper to get the benefit, but some people also believe honey can cure hayfever.
Maybe the claims made for honey are out there in the realm of 'snake-oil', but if it doesn't cure all your ills, at least it won't do you much harm - and there aren't many medicines you can say that about. The beekeeper has this brilliant sales advantage, with no need to subject the product to rigorous testing, no need to nobble inconvenient results, no need to pay out of court settlements when things go horribly wrong. It's a golden product.
Could YOU keep bees?
There are a few other things to think about before you even consider embarking on this adventure. We can assume that anyone with a phobia of insects or a serious allergy to bee stings will already have ruled themselves out. But for the rest, where should you start?
The first thing to decide, before looking at anything more technical, is whether you are physically capable of carrying out the bare necessities of beekeeping. Bee hives are made up of stacks of boxes full of frames that the bees fill with wax, brood (larvae) and honey. The boxes come in different sizes, and a large one can hold up to 90 pounds of honey. Even the small boxes will hold 30 pounds of honey. These have to be lifted and transported to the honey extracting equipment if you intend to harvest the honey. A 'slipped disc' or a hernia will rapidly drain the beginner of enthusiasm for the new hobby. If you are not strong enough to do it on your own, can you find someone to help you?
Where to put them
Have you got somewhere to put a hive? Your garden may not be suitable. If there are neighbours close enough to see your hives, you'll probably need to consult them. Beekeepers will tell you that anyone receiving a sting from any kind stinging insect in the vicinity of your hives will blame you and your bees. Some beekeepers will advise you to ask the victim what their assailant looked like, then assure them that your bees are a different colour - or that none of your bees fit that description, or you've counted all yours and none of them are missing. The point is, some people will be stung from time to time and you can expect to be blamed for it.
Dogs also get stung. New beekeepers' dogs or beekeepers' new dogs usually take a week or two to learn from painful experience, the difference between bees and other flying insects. On the brighter side, unlike sore neighbours, the dogs will never threaten to sue you.
If you live near to allotments or farmland, you might find that the allotment holders or farmers would be happy to allow you to park your hives on their land. They will have crops that need pollinating and they see honeybees for what they are: the farmers' and the gardeners' friends. The search for a good place doesn't end there though. It may be embarrassing, but you have to check in the mouth of this 'gift horse'. Agrochemicals, as already mentioned, are suspected of being one of the culprits in the destruction of honeybees. What is the farmer/allotment holder growing and what is s/he spraying? Some seeds are coated in pesticide and grow into plants that are poisonous to insects. Systemic and spray pesticides are not designed to kill bees but there is evidence that the cocktail of chemicals the bees are absorbing, is not exactly 'putting hair' on their thoraxes.
Unless the allotment holder or farmer is using organic methods, they will be using some kind of pesticide. But that needn't necessarily put you off. If it's a spray, you can ask when they intend to carry out the application, and then you can take steps to protect your bees: remove them from the danger zone.
So much to learn
Once you are satisfied that you have the physical capacity to manoeuvre hives and a place to keep them, you need to think about acquiring the equipment and the bee-craft. How much will it cost and how much time will it require? The best place to start is the British Beekeepers' Association website. There you will find sound advice on the best beekeeping books, essential equipment and Local Associations.
If you're very lucky, there'll be a Local Association in your area. There, you can get hands-on experience before deciding what sort of hives will be best for you and what type of honeybees to keep. If luck is beaming her most benevolent smile on you, there might even be a retiring beekeeper there, who can furnish you with all you need, second-hand, and at a very reasonable price2.
If there's no Local Association close enough for you to visit, then learn all you can about beekeeping from the sources available (books, the internet etc), before you order your first hive or bees. There's a lot that can go wrong if you allow yourself to be swept along on a wave of enthusiasm before finding out the basics - as you'll discover once you start reading. To take just one example from the BBKA's 'Getting Started' help files on getting your first bees:
If you do get to hear about a swarm then make sure they are actually honeybees. Before August they could be bumblebees, after August they could be wasps, and we have all been caught out.
Wasps?! The football hooligans of the order, Hymenoptera. That's like mixing up the Sugarplum Fairy with a Gorgon. It's hard to believe that it's possible - but according to the BBKA, they've all been caught out.
On an American beekeeper's blog, there was speculation about why the smell of bananas makes bees aggressive. Apparently the bees' alarm pheromone smells like bananas. That's worth knowing if you're a beekeeper and you happen to be fond of bananas3.
In the autumn, dead bees start to appear around the hive entrance. If you don't know that inside the hive is a radical feminist super-organism, you might imagine that colony collapse disorder had struck your hives. There are three types of bee in the hive: the queen, the workers and the drones. The drones are the stingless males. Their only function is to mate with queens. At the end of the summer, when the girls are stocking up in preparation for winter, they sling all the males out - and since the males are incapable of defending or feeding themselves, their only response to this harsh treatment, is to die.
You need to know what goes on in the hive, what a healthy colony looks like, when and what to feed your bees, how to spot signs of disease, which diseases are notifiable (to DEFRA4) and how to treat diseases/parasites that are treatable.
By the time you've read the book(s), seen the websites, played their little snippets of video and (if possible) made contact with your Local Beekeepers' Association, you will know whether you want to buy the tee-shirt (and all the other kit), join the club and get beekeeping.