Beekeeping in Sussex

Many people enjoy wildlife, others like to make things. Beekeeping is a pastime that combines both. Liane Oldham buzzed off to West Sussex to find out more

The low hum of honey bees as they dance from flower to flower during the summer belies how busy their lives actually are. Beekeepers know exactly how much effort a honey bee puts into just surviving and they put just as much effort into making sure they do.

Einstein was alleged to have said that if the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. With a drastic decline in their environment and therefore food sources, the humble bee is facing a crisis. And with one in three mouthfuls of food that we eat being dependent on pollination, you could say we are too.

Help, however, is on hand it seems with more and more people becoming aware of just how vital the work of the bee is to our crops, our plants and our overall environment.

In Sussex there are a number of local Beekeeping Associations whose members are dedicated to the care and continued livelihood of these industrious creatures.

Worthing Beekeepers Association has around 100 members, with many having joined in the last five years since the plight of the honey bee, its habitat destruction and its susceptibility to pesticides were documented in the media.

One of their youngest members is Charlie Brown from Angmering, West Sussex, who, together with the help of his father, Graham and support of Mum, Jane, maintains two beehives in his back garden.

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Charlie, 15, first became interested in beekeeping during a family holiday in Devon when he was 11.

“We went to the Devon County Show. The Devon Beekeepers Association had a huge marquee with lots of info on bees as well as the by-products like the honey and soaps all laid out and I thought it looked really interesting. I wanted to find out more but I didn’t really know how to go about it.”

When he got home Charlie did his research and contacted his local Beekeepers Association in Worthing.

“They were incredibly helpful and encouraging,” said Charlie. “I learnt exactly what I would need to get started. I went to several of their meetings and ‘out apiaries’ where you get taught how to handle the bees and I found out just how much commitment beekeeping as a hobby would take. And also how rewarding it could be.”

By this time it was too late in the summer for Charlie to start up his own bee hives so he aimed for the following year. “I got some Christmas money and decided to put it towards my first beehive for March.”

The most popular types of hive in use throughout the UK are the National, Commercial, Langstroth and WBC. Charlie now has two hives, a National and a WBC.

As with most hobbies it doesn’t stop with just a couple of items. “It depends on the type of hive you have,” says Charlie. “But you will also need various other accessories such as brood and super frames, foundation wax sheets and mouse guards. And in time you will also need other items such as feeders.”

And then, of course, there is the outfit. “A bee suit with veil, hygienic gloves to protect both you and the bees is vital,” says Charlie. “You also need a hive tool to help you move frames and a smoker to help you calm the bees.”

And, most importantly, the main component, the bees themselves. Charlie’s first bees came from Ferring.

“Early in the season I was able to buy a “nuc” with the help of my local Association. This is a 5/6 frame nucleus of honey bees with brood, food and the queen,” says Charlie.

“It’s much better to buy bees that have been bred locally or at least within the UK. You can buy imported bees from as far away as Hawaii but you can run the risk of diseases which come from other countries, such as Small Hive Beetle.”

Depending on the season Charlie, just like his bees, will have different jobs to do. He has his basic duties such as general maintenance and hygiene, inspecting the brood, checking the health of the bees, checking there are sufficient food stores and looking over the egg laying from the queen.

“Spring is the busiest time for the bee world,” says Charlie’s dad, Graham. “With the first flush of flowers and then the pollen, it’s the ideal time to grow the colony.”

Swarming takes place when the bees leave the hive to reproduce because there is not enough room. It’s not great news for beekeepers as the swarm takes many pounds of honey with it. However by creating an artificial swarm, beekeepers can trick the bees into staying and therefore stop the loss of both the bees and their honey.

“It sounds quite complicated but basically you create a new colony or nucleus by taking three frames of brood and eggs, or a few frames with one queen cell intact, plus a few frames of honey/nectar and pollen. It’s very important to have enough food for this new nucleus as they won’t be able to collect much food for the next few weeks. It’s also important to ensure they have enough young nurse bees to raise new bees and the new queen. The existing queen should be kept in the old hive so as to prevent any check on the honey gathering of the original colony.”

Sometimes, however, things do get a little tricky. “We once found two queens fighting each other in one hive. One had left her hive and gone into the other one. If we had been a minute later one would have died and a colony would have been left with no queen. Luckily we knew which queen belonged to which hive because we’d marked them, but it was a tense moment,” said Charlie.

One beehive can produce 60lb (27kg) of honey or more in a good season. Last year Charlie’s hives produced their biggest yield yet, a record 100lb.

Honey is a precious commodity not just in Angmering but throughout history. The Romans used honey instead of gold to pay their taxes. Bees fly about 55,000 miles to make just one pound of honey – that’s one and a half times around the world.

“Apart from the delicious honey at the end of it, it’s just fantastic to keep learning about different things,” said Graham. “Every beekeeper has a different opinion. You can ask two beekeepers one question and get three different answers.”

“It’s been an unusual and very rewarding hobby for Charlie and we’ve supported him totally,” said Jane.

“It’s great to see him outdoors, in the garden. He’s always loved nature and now he’s doing something that not only does he enjoy but that benefits the environment at the same time.”

Pauline Ford, President of Worthing Beekeepers Association, has been a great support. “It’s marvellous when young people have a chance to do something to conserve the planet,” said Pauline. “The survival of the bee is vital. One third of our food crops have to be pollinated and honey bees are especially useful as they can be “controlled” and taken to crops that need pollinating, live throughout the winter as a colony, so are ready to pollinate in large numbers early in the year, unlike bumble bees.”

Pauline supplied Charlie with his first bees and has been involved with beekeeping for 30 years.

“I love opening the hive on a pleasantly warm day when the bees are contentedly working away and watching the life of the hive. Seeing the worker bees dancing to tell other workers where to go to collect the best nectar pollen and water, the drones bumbling around begging the workers for food, the queen laying eggs and examining the next empty cell to see if it’s clean and polished enough to receive an egg. Just fascinating, it certainly banishes all thoughts of a hectic day at work!”

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