The Buzz of Beekeeping

Claire Simpson tries to avoid getting stung in Limavady

Beekeeping evokes images of veil-wearing country folk tending their cone-shaped beehives on sunny days. But do you really want to look after swarms of buzzing insects for a hobby?

The constant threat of a stinging death meant very little was known about bees until the eighteenth century. It certainly explains the number of myths surrounding the origin of bees. If French legend is to be believed, bees either come from the tears of the dying Christ or from drops of water on Jesus' arms. But the most bizarre theory comes from the Roman poet Virgil, who thought they came from ox carcasses.

Although beekeeping today is seen as a less than glamorous hobby, it has enjoyed huge popularity over the centuries. Aristotle was fascinated by bees and wrote detailed descriptions of the structure of a beehive. In the twentieth century, actor Henry Fonda and conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hilary, were keen beekeepers.

Bees have also inspired authors. Bees are mentioned in most of the main religious texts, including the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud and the Hindi Rig-Veda. And the poet Sylvia Plath drew inspiration from her father's beekeeping hobby to write her famous collection of 'bee poems'.

No one has managed to pinpoint when bees were first introduced to Ireland, but legend has it that one Irish monk St Modomnoc, who worked in the monastery of St David in Wales, brought bees with him when he returned to Ireland.

For the uninitiated, beekeepers collect honey produced by bees in their hives, whilst making sure the bees are fed and cared for. Bees produce honey, which is their main food source, from the nectar of flowers and they use it to survive throughout the winter when food is scarce.

Bees live in colonies, each of which has a single queen, together with worker bees and drones. The queen bee is the only fertile female in the colony and lays all the eggs. Worker bees are female and drones are male bees which develop when the queen lays unfertilized eggs.

In the wild, new colonies are formed when queen bees leave the colony with a group of worker bees. This process is called swarming. Beekeepers try to prevent bees from swarming and depleting the hive by using a number of methods which fool the bees into thinking swarming has already taken place. There are around 1000 beekeepers in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately the hobby has a painful side.

Dave Atherton, who is a member of the Roe Valley Bee Keepers Association, has experienced more stings than he cares to remember. ‘I do get stung occasionally,’ he laughs. ‘But I don't really like getting stung. I make sure to dress up properly. I know people who don't bother dressing up and don't seem to be effected by the stings. And of course there is a tiny percentage of people who are allergic to the stings.’

Despite the physical dangers, Atherton sees beekeeping as more of an intellectual challenge. ‘I’ve heard it said more books have been written about beekeeping than any other subject on earth, with the exception of religion,’ he smiles. ‘It's intellectually challenging, especially following the structure of the hive. The social structure of a bee colony is very complex.

‘You need to know about the life cycle of the honey bee. And you need to recognise all the different signs and different stages to prevent swarming. You also need to know the difference between the male and the female bees and know which one is the queen. They all have different life cycles.’

Atherton explains collecting honey is only one aspect of beekeeping. He feels beekeepers also have a responsibility to look after the bees in their care. ‘Honey is what keeps them alive so we have to feed them on a sugar and water mixture. It's important to recognise if they have enough food to live on.’

But beekeeping can be an expensive hobby with a hive and a suit costing around £300 in total. Atherton agrees beekeeping does not come cheap.

‘The running costs are about a couple of hundred pounds a year. But you can off set them by selling the honey. You can buy a lot of tools if you want. There are so many sites on the Internet selling a huge amount of stuff. But really you can get away with very little,’ he grins.

‘The basic tools you need are a smoker and a hive tool. The smoker subdues the bees with smoke and the hive tool separates the frames in the hive, although a chisel or a screwdriver can do just as well. If you want to produce runny honey you also need an extractor.’

Atherton admits beekeeping is an absorbing hobby. ‘Anybody can do it. But it is a fairly challenging hobby. ‘I first started beekeeping when I retired. I've been keeping bees for 11 years but it is physically tough,’ he warns.

‘Bees also suffer from a variety of diseases. You have to recognise the diseases like you would when farming beef or cattle. They have a predator which is endemic in the Far East. It's a mite which lives on the bee.’

Atherton cautions against beekeeping as a money-making enterprise. ‘The yield of honey per hive is quite low. The amount you get is quite small so you can't really run it as a commercial enterprise.

‘We give most of it away to friends and neighbours,’ he chuckled. ‘Because of our climate, bees in Ireland don’t produce a lot of honey. I have five hives and I am thinking of going up in numbers. But the hives I have now would only produce around 20 to 25 pounds of honey each.’

Atherton recommends any would be beekeepers to research the hobby thoroughly first. ‘I’d advise anyone who’s interested to contact their local bee keeping association. Beekeepers are very friendly people and there's no competition involved,’ he smiles.

But he says he would advise anyone to take up the hobby. ‘Don't be frightened of making mistakes,’ he urges. 'Bees are surprisingly forgiving creatures. I was fortunate in that I had two or three bee keepers who got me on track.’

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise offers beginner and intermediate courses in beekeeping at its Greenmount campus. For more information contact them on freephone 0800 028 4291.