To bee or not to bee? Expert Clive Joyce answers the question for budding beekeepers

Hiving a swarm: the bees running into the hive

Hiving a swarm: the bees running into the hive - Credit: Archant

Elizabeth Bates promotes beekeeping on behalf of the Warwick & Leamington Beekeepers charity. She spoke with Clive Joyce, manager of the apiary at the National Beekeeping Centre at Stoneleigh, who explained how he got involved with the humming honey-makers, and some of the factors prospective beekeepers should consider.

Clive and Brian removing the honeybee colony, parts of which can be seen above the window.

Clive and Brian removing the honeybee colony, parts of which can be seen above the window. - Credit: Archant

In August 2011, due to house alterations, we needed to move the honeybees that had lived happily behind the barge boards in the front of the house for three or four years. My husband and I watched with increasing fascination over a weekend as Clive Joyce, an expert beekeeper, and his colleague Brian, extracted bucket loads of honeycomb, bees and honey.

As he was carrying the bees away, Clive said, “If you get trained next spring, we’ll say the bees are on their holidays and get them back to you next year.” We could hardly wait.

Two years on, we look after several hives and our lives have been transformed. Clive is still there whenever we need advice, and kindly agreed to answer many of the questions that potential beekeepers ask when they learn you are a beekeeper...

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What made you start beekeeping?

I was working irregular hours and often had time when the rest of the family were out at work. Having been intrigued by a bee-handling display at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, I realised it was something that could be done alone. My wife saw a training course advertised in the local post office, and attending the course got me started. I found it to be a very sociable pastime as there are always beekeepers who are happy to discuss problems, and celebrate success.

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What parts of it do you most enjoy?

I like handling and observing the bees best of all, particularly on a warm summer’s day. The joy of discovery is an important part of beekeeping, especially when you see your ‘first’ queen, or ‘first’ drone, having learnt about it in books.

Another great pleasure, as you become a bit more proficient, is collecting and hiving a swarm. Swarms are beautiful natural occurrences, nature’s way of propagating the species. The bees in a swarm tend to be very gentle. Watching the swarm you have gathered running into a hive is really special.

Yet another delight is when you have worked with your bees for a few months, and finally you rear your first queen bee, and see a whole frame of larvae that have come from eggs she has laid – and you think ‘I managed to make that happen’. It is so much more than just ‘you get your bees and then you make your honey’.

Are there parts of beekeeping that you don’t particularly like?

Some people love extracting honey and working with wax – I prefer to be outside with my bees!

We keeping hearing that bees are in trouble. Is it true? Does keeping bees do any good?

Bees are in trouble – yes – mainly because of a small mite, called the varroa mite, which reached the UK in 1992. Varroa weakens the bees and spreads disease. It will kill whole colonies unless they are treated. As ever, man was to blame, by transporting other forms of bees that are tolerant of varroa from across the Himalayas, and mixing them with our own honeybee, Apis mellifera. Our honeybee does not have any coping mechanisms for dealing with varroa. Hence there are now virtually no feral bees in the British Isles – honeybees need beekeepers.

Do bees really help the environment?

It is only because of beekeepers, the majority of whom keep only a few hives, that many of the plants which farmers grow are kept alive. Bees are pollinators vital to our food chain. One third of the food we eat would not be available but for bees.

How much honey would you expect to get in an ordinary year from each hive?

Looked after properly, you would expect to get around 30lb of honey from each hive in a typical year. However, this is heavily dependent on the weather, the surrounding crops in any given year, and on the particular colony of bees – some bees make more honey than others.

Do you ever get stung?

It is impossible to keep bees without getting stung, as you are ‘invading’ their ‘home’, but there are two ways to view it. Either you wear protective clothing, but wear lightweight gloves that allow you to feel the bees, and thus sense their mood. Alternatively, you wear highly protective clothing, but it is difficult to sense when they are becoming agitated with thick gloves, and it is more difficult to treat the bees gently, keeping them calm and well-tempered. Even fully covered, they will find the odd space!

How much does it cost to start beekeeping?

You can buy completely built hives from well-recognised beekeeping suppliers for about £350. Alternatively, there are self-assembly budget hives which are an excellent starting point costing about £150. Building the hives from scratch is an option if you are good at woodwork, or buying second-hand. If the latter, real care must be taken to make sure that the hives are completely sterilised to prevent disease spread. You will need a bee-suit, rubber gloves and wellington boots. Some associations have loan schemes that allow people to try out beekeeping before they commit.

Do I need a big garden?

No – just a small garden is fine. You have to be keenly aware of the neighbours when planning your apiary, and you should always have well-tempered bees. Advice and links to reputable suppliers can be made through your local beekeeping association.

Can I keep bees if I have children? Is it safe with children?

Keeping bees is fine with children, provided the bees are kept responsibly. When my children were small we had a safely enclosed apiary up against the back window so that the children could watch them being checked. It made a good burglar deterrent too!

If you do not have a garden, are there other places to keep bees?

Yes – you can keep your bees in ‘out-apiaries’. Warwick & Leamington Beekeepers have locations where members can keep their bees, and allows people to meet up and help each other if they wish. Alternatively, farmers usually welcome beehives on their land to pollinate their crops.

How much time does beekeeping take?

It can be very time-consuming if you wish, as looking at your bees is a lovely experience! Although an experienced keeper would suggest 20 minutes per hive per week when the bees are active in the warm weather, a new beekeeper might spend an hour per hive, although gradually you become faster and more proficient. However, you can get involved in other activities, such as helping at events, or formal study modules – the choice is yours.

Describe a bit more about your organisation

I belong to the Warwick & Leamington Beekeepers; set up to enhance understanding of the honeybee, as well as supporting beekeepers that care for them. By joining us, you can attend lectures, meet for social events, join study groups, find out where to purchase bees and equipment, and benefit from the knowledge of experienced beekeepers. Our organisation comprises a friendly bunch of people who are always happy to help newcomers, and actively involve children in learning about honeybees. Take a look at the website: www.warleambees.com

We run regular courses, and the best advice I can give any potential beekeeper is to join a beekeeping association (where friendly expert advice will always be available) and to attend a course on beekeeping before even considering buying them. Our branch is running an introductory course in January 2014.

If you join the Warwick & Leamington Beekeepers, attending the course makes you eligible to request the support of a mentor in your first year of beekeeping. Most new beekeepers find it reassuring to know that there is someone to whom they can turn if things don’t go quite to plan.

Again, if you are not too sure if beekeeping is for you, there is a loan scheme which allows you to look after a hive at one of our out-apiaries for a year, so you know exactly what is required to keep your bees happy and healthy before committing.

Any final thoughts?

I love passing on knowledge to newcomers, and trying to give them a hint of the sheer joy of beekeeping. As a beekeeper, you can go all over the world, and are never without friends. Beekeepers tend to come from all walks of life. If you are thinking about it – don’t put it off. Come along and see what it is all about.

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Clive Joyce is a tireless supporter of the honeybee, giving talks at locations such as Gardeners World Live and the Edible Garden Show. Clive runs the apiary at the National Beekeeping Centre at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, and is an Honorary Member of the British Beekeeping Association.

Elizabeth Bates promotes beekeeping on behalf of the Warwick & Leamington Beekeepers charity.

For more information, visit: www.warleambees.com

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