Diary of a Novice Beekeeper

by Henrietta Batchelor

M ay 2020, and our bees have been with us now for five weeks.

The beehive at the bottom of our garden.

We, that is, my husband and myself — have talked about getting a hive for a number of years and have watched our daughter's growing proficiency with her bees with interest.

So last October we took the plunge and signed up for a local beekeeper's course and began to prepare for the arrival of our bees. It was really a bit like expecting a baby as first-time parents.

We thought we should think about the necessary layette and to this end ordered a hive, some bee suits and a smoker and some other kit as well. At this point we quite quickly made a number of bee-keeping friends and realised what a fantastic network of skilled apiarists exists 'out there'. Some gave us extra equipment, others were generous with advice and encouragement.

So, we weathered Christmas and a wet January and February and waited for our new arrivals. We were told that there was no definite date for expecting delivery of our nucleus or nuc (a few hive frames with a queen, and some larvae and worker bees), but they would come 'sometime in the spring'.

But we were in luck, our new beekeeping friend Andy was splitting his hive and we could have half of his very productive colony.

Henrietta taking the hive to pieces.

So, one warm April evening they arrived, swaddled in a sheet with the queen in a little transparent container and we carefully placed this nuc into our prepared hive. And like new parents we wondered anxiously whether they were warm enough, did they have enough to eat, were they happy?

In fact, we were told that the building up of wax combs, essential for housing young larvae, pollen stores, nectar and eventually honey took a lot of energy so we fed them on a strong sugar syrup for the first few weeks of their new life with us.

And so the learning began.

First, we had to get to know a new language.

Brood cells mean the hexagonal containers where the queen lays her eggs and the nursing worker bees tend these little ones until they grow into adult bees. The majority of these youngsters will be workers but later in the season drones will hatch too.

We are talking about a matriarchy here. The queen and workers are female and make up the majority of bees.

The queen, marked with a green spot, surrounded by her workers.

The drones are male with only a half set of chromosomes which defines them as being masculine. They hang around lazily all spring and summer fed by the workers and their only function is to mate with the queen thus fathering the next generation of young bees. But they have their come-uppance at the end of the season.

They are too expensive to feed through the winter and are booted out by the workers to die a lonely cold death.

The supers, are frames which eventually will be filled with honey. They fit above the brood cells separated by a queen excluder (you don’t want larvae in your honey so this keeps her out of the honey storing supers) and the whole hive is topped by a crown board and a roof.

So, five weeks have passed and we had our first full inspection.

We saw tiny eggs, like miniature translucent grains of rice. There was a multicoloured kaleidoscope of pollen filled cells — different colours for different coloured pollen, glistening cells full of nectar and, quite literally, thousands of busy worker bees tending brood, returning from foraging, guarding the entrance of the hive. We saw the first honey building up in the supers. And there in the middle of a furry huddle of bees was our magnificent queen.

She is bigger and shinier than the workers and has done so well, generating all this new life and wealth of food supplies.

Our neighbours are understandably interested in the produce side of beekeeping and we now can say confidently we will definitely get some honey later this summer.

Obstacles lie ahead: will our bees ward off marauding ants and wasps, will they get parasitized by the dreaded Varoa mite?

And will we, as first-time beekeepers, be up for the challenge of protecting them through these early months and years?

Time will tell, but we have the best of support and feel privileged to have started out on this particular journey.

Henrietta Batchelor is a resident of Kidlington Village, Oxfordshire.
Acknowledgement: the three photographs in the body of the article above with grateful thanks to Andy Pedley.

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