It is estimated that one third of all food relies on pollination. This isn't just the fruit and veg we eat but also the clover and grass that feeds livestock. Within the UK over 70 different crops rely on pollination and, when you include the 6,000 tonnes of honey that bees produce, pollinators contribute over £400million to the UK economy.
However, this natural supply chain continues to be under threat from pesticides, disease, parasites and habitat loss. None of the alternative approaches to pollination are as effective and the impact should the decline continue is significant and goes well beyond a threat of higher food prices.
There are over 20,000 recognised species of bees but only one produces honey. We joined up with our local Welsh Bee Keepers' Association to find out more about keeping bees.
Just one bee hive supports 50,000 bees, produces an average of 14kg of honey per year and supports the pollination of 4,000m2 of crops. Not bad for an insect often smaller than 15mm.
In Wales there are 19 bee keeping associations with around 1700 active bee keepers.
If you keep bees should you expect to get stung? The answer is of course yes but as bees only sting as a last defence most bees are well behaved unless angered. Some 'established' beekeepers long ago decided to stop wearing gloves to make handling easier. Each to their own.
How do you get started? It is recommended that you start by joining your local bee keeping association. These associations are filled with like minded people who want to maintain honey bee numbers and will be happy to support your learning about bees and hopefully, eventually, having a hive or two of your own.
Most Associations provide beginner and advanced bee keeping courses that run in Spring for a period of around 6 weeks. These courses introduce all the important aspects of bee keeping such as building a hive and how to keep your bees healthy and well fed.
How much work is involved? The bee keeper's schedule gradually ramps up from as the temperature increases. As the temperature gets above 10 degrees celsius and the bees start flying you might inspect your hive once every few weeks increasing to once a week in May and June. During this period you need to manage the threat of swarming as the number of bees rapidly increases.
From June through to August honey production will start in two flows. Once as the spring flowers open, then there is often a gap until the summer flowers open. The bee keeper is looking to make sure there are enough food stores in the hive to sustain the bees. Sometimes you provide a supplement of sugar water if the bees are running low of their own supplies.
During the cold months you don't want to disrupt the hive as the bees will naturally look to keep the hive at a constant temperature. If you open the hive during this period you will cool it down and they will have to use a lot of energy to build it back up. The worst case is you lose all your bees.
Queens are often marked with a coloured dot to show their age and to make them easier to spot (Image courtesy of Piedmont Bee Keepers' Association)
The bee keeper's schedule:
End of winter - Check you have a Queen bee and that your bees are still alive.
Early spring - Once your bees start flying it is a sign your Queen is laying eggs. Increase inspections to at least once every 8 days (hatching cycle).
Mid April to early July - Swarming season, check there is enough space for the Queen to lay her eggs and for the hive to develop.
Early June and July/August - Honey flows. There are usually two flows, one from Spring flowers but then these disappear and there is usually a gap until the summer flowers open. The second flow usually produces a tastier darker honey.
Year round - is there enough food to support the bees? Is the hive free from disease and parasites (this is where you get full value from attending a bee keeping course and from the support of your local bee keeping association)?
Other considerations: The amount of outside space available is important and also the proximity of neighbours. Just because your garden is small doesn't stop you keeping bees. Your local association may well have apiaries available to their members where you can keep a hive. This also means your bees won't be bothering you neighbours not that this is often a problem. Strategically placing your hive so the bees naturally fly away in a certain direction and height is easily achieved. Speak to your association and they can help assess whether the space you have available will be suitable.
Cost: Lastly of course is the cost. Whilst bee keeping isn't the most expensive hobby there is an initial outlay which involves a bee suit (unless you're really brave), gloves and hive tool. Your association might have hives you can borrow in the short term whilst you learn as well as a nucleus (nickname - 'nuc'- pronounced nuke) of bees to get you started. Otherwise you should expect to pay in the region of £500 for the whole kit including hive, nuc of bees and queen.
Bee keeping may seem a little bit daunting compared to keeping chickens for example but the approach should be the same. Keeping any managed livestock is a big commitment. If you are prepared to do a little bit of research first and to consider the commitment before rushing in then you will find bee keeping to be a fun and rewarding experience. In a way it can be therapeutic to spend time at your hive patiently observing and handling the bees and seeing your hive develop especially when it produces the tastiest local honey. You will also have done a little bit to help sustain a dwindling bee population and support local food produce and gardens.
Links: If you are tempted to find out a bit more here are some useful links
British Bee Keepers' Association - https://www.bbka.org.uk/
Welsh Bee Keepers' Association - http://www.wbka.com/