Friday, January 11, 2008

Beekeeping Simplified: discovering the top bar hive

Let me lay my cards on the table right away: I believe that beekeeping should be a small-scale, 'cottage industry', part-time occupation or hobby and should be carried out in the spirit of respect and appreciation for the bees and the part they play in our agriculture and in nature. I disapprove of large-scale, commercial beekeeping because it inevitably leads to a 'factory farming' mentality in the way bees are treated, handled and robbed and a lack of consideration of its effects on biodiversity.

Bees evolved to live in colonies distributed across the land according to the availability of food. Forcing 30, 50, 100 or more colonies to share the territory that, perhaps half a dozen would naturally occupy is bound to lead to concentrations of diseases and parasites that could not otherwise occur and that can only be dealt with by means of chemical or mechanical interventions, which, I and many others believe, weaken the bees' natural defenses.

Bees love to feed on a multiplicity of flowers, as can be easily demonstrated by the variety of different pollens they will collect if sited in a wild place with diverse flora. Transporting them to a position where there is only a single crop of, say, oilseed rape within reach prevents them from exercising their desire for diversity and causes an unnatural concentration within the hive of a single pollen, which is most likely lacking in some of the elements they require for full health. Yet migratory beekeeping is practised in just this way on an industrial scale in some countries, especially the USA.

From a conservation point of view, unnaturally large concentrations of honeybees can also threaten the existence of other important and, in places, endangered pollinating insects, such as bumble bees and the many other species that benefit both wild and cultivated plants.

Sustainable beekeeping is small-scale by definition. It is 'backyard beekeeping' by people who want to have a few hives at the bottom of their garden, on their roof (there are a surprising number of roof-top beekeepers in our cities) or in their own or a neighbour's field or orchard.

Probably you want to produce modest quantities of honey for your family and friends, with maybe a surplus to sell at the gate or in the local market. You will have by-products; most obviously beeswax, which you can make into useful stuff like candles, skin creams, wood polish and leather treatments, so beekeeping could become the core of a profitable sideline.

And you are interested in bees for their own sake, I hope. If not yet, I have no doubt that you will be once you have looked after a few hives for a season or two.

You may have been to an open day hosted by your local beekeeping association, or read a book or two, or perhaps you have taken the plunge already and bought a second-hand hive and captured a swarm or obtained a 'nuc'1. You may have browsed through the catalogues of beekeeping suppliers, wondering at the enormous number of specialized gadgets and pieces of equipment you seem to need and wondering where you would put it all and how you would pay for it.

In this case, you will be truly thankful to know that my mission is to show you that, (a) beekeeping does not have to be as complicated as some would make it out to be and (b) you need none of the stuff in those glossy beekeepers' supplies catalogues in order to keep healthy, happy and productive bees.

None of it at all.

The sub-title of my book, The Barefoot Beekeeper, is 'A simple, sustainable approach to small-scale beekeeping' and that is what I have in mind throughout and I would like you to keep in mind: simple, sustainable, small-scale.

The system I describe is about as simple as beekeeping can get, while maintaining provision for occasional inspections, comfortable over-wintering and non-destructive harvesting. Everything you need is in one box – the beehive – which you can make yourself if you follow my instructions.

You can buy or make yourself a veil. If you are nervous, you could even get a beekeeper's suit or a smock, but any light-coloured shirt will do as well. A hive tool can be handy, but a strong, sharp, flat-bladed knife will also work.

Some of the things you will not need include:

  • frames

  • foundation wax

  • supers

  • centrifugal extractor

  • bottling equipment

  • de-capping knife and tray

  • bee escapes

  • mouse guards

  • queen excluders

  • fancy feeders

  • space suits

  • bee blower

And you probably won't need gloves or a smoker, but if you already use them, or are nervous of bees, then by all means use them if they help you to feel more confident.

What you will need is a hive – probably two or three or more in time – and I will show you how to build them cheaply and easily, using only hand tools if you prefer, with only rudimentary woodworking skills. You will find fully-illustrated instructions in my downloadable ebook called, 'How To Build a Top Bar Hive', obtainable free in several formats from my web site:

Bees are fascinating creatures and among the many beekeepers I know or have talked to – even commercial men - I can't think of any who keep them solely for the income they generate.

So be warned: if you start keeping bees and develop a real interest in them, it will be with you for life. And I doubt very much that you will regret it for a moment.