I first became interested in beekeeping about five years ago now – I was enjoying homebrewing and making some mead, which turned out well. I decided that the sensible, logical thing to do in order to make more in the future would be to start beekeeping since it would obviously be much cheaper than buying honey in bulk. I did a quick course with the at-the-time local beekeeping association and a lot of reading around the subject. Inspiration-wise, it was definitely the mead that got me into beekeeping.
My name is James Bore and I specialise in cyber-security. I have gradually moved more and more into security over the years. My latest job has given me a chance to build and grow something from a relative greenfield in a company – it gave me a good challenge and team to work with.
The first few beehives we bought were from an ex-beekeeper who’d developed an allergy. After that, bees make more on their own – if the hives grow well, you can split them into two new hives. We’ve also bought a couple of nucs in the past, which are small colonies you can dump into a new hive and hope they’ll decide to stay.
When it comes to gear and equipment, you obviously need the hives themselves, whichever type you want to go with, and a hive tool, which is a crowbar-like device for prying the hives open for inspections (bees are amazingly good at sticking things together). A smoker is optional – I have one, but since my assistant has developed a bit of a phobia of bees, it’s not that useful other than helping me find her again once she’s run away with it if the bees get angry. For getting out and processing the honey, you need various bits and pieces, but must associations will loan out the equipment for that, and that’s a better option until you’ve got more than a few hives.
Some beekeepers will say that you don’t need a suit, gloves, or in some cases, even a veil. My counter-argument is that stings hurt, and protection is a good thing. It’s worth noting that bees can, and will, sting straight through gloves or a suit if they’re angry enough – it just makes it much easier to extract the stings quickly, and does provide some protection from them.
Constructing the beehives is a bit tedious (they’re cheaper when bought flatpack), but after that, it’s just a case of regular inspections, rotating out the sections of hive every few years, and rotating out the frames. Basically, you want to be replacing the equipment every three years or so, and the best way to do it is to replace a third every year. You can reuse the older equipment, but it needs to be cleaned up and sterilised first.
Different times of year and different surroundings have a huge effect on the honey since it’s made from nectar from the flowers in about a three-mile radius of the hive. Depending on how many flowers are around and the weather, you can get one or two harvests a year while leaving the hive enough stocks for the winter. Some beekeepers will take the whole lot and feed them through winter instead –frankly, I’m too lazy for that. The harvest is done by opening up the hive and taking out frames of honey, brushing the bees off, and sticking the frames in a box where the bees can’t get to them. Then you put new frames in and take the ones full of honey away. Generally, we were able to get about 10kg of honey per hive per harvest. My favourite parts of beekeeping are definitely the inspections and harvest, working with the bees themselves. While it’s often painful, sweaty, hard work, and a bit unpleasant, I found that I can let go of a lot of stress.
My record so far is 31 stings in about 20 minutes, which was not a pleasant day. If you’re not allergic and get used to the stings, it’s not really dangerous. If anything, if you can learn to accept the pain; there’s a really nice endorphin-based euphoria after a large number of bee stings. If you are allergic, you’ll want to look into double-walled suits and heavy gloves – those will actually protect fully against stings, whilst making sure you slowly roast inside.
There’s a lot to learn about bees from beekeeping. Bees never do quite what you’d expect them to – they aren’t predictable, and the books don’t help. Having said that, with some experience you can get a sense of their mood and health very quickly while walking up for an inspection. There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about bees out there, such as the nonsense idea that the queen somehow rules the hive (it’d be more accurate to say that no individual bee really matters to the hive, though admittedly they don’t do well without a queen, and they’re better thought of as a single organism called the hive, swarm, or colony, rather than as individual bees).
The future goal with beekeeping is, at some point, to be able to get some land or a bit of forest and put the bees there, then gradually increase the number of hives. It would be great to get to the point where this is a self-sustaining hobby. There are some more plans and hopes after that, such as looking into brewing and selling mead on a larger scale, but that’s still a way off.
Beekeeping has given me some fantastic analogies to use when I’m presenting on or talking about cyber-security issues, so at the conceptual level, there are a few similarities between beekeeping and my tech job. Otherwise, it’s the difference from my normal work in tech that keeps me interested. If nothing else, beekeeping gives me a chance to focus on other things has helped me not to burn out.
My advice to anyone looking to take up beekeeping is to get in touch with your local beekeeping association (I guarantee you have one) and try a taster session. If you want to get into it, then definitely listen to people’s advice, but make sure it’s sourced widely rather than just in one place, and make your own judgments. Everyone has their own philosophy.