Friday, 4 December 2009
People have worked out relationships with all kinds of animals – cows and other grazers for milk, chickens and other birds for eggs – and we care for them in exchange for a share of what they produce naturally. We have very few relationships, though, with the vast majority of animals, the insects. Except for silk caterpillars, raised by specialists, there is only one insect that most of us can cultivate – bees.
People have probably been keeping bees for thousands of years, giving them a place to live in exchange for a share of their honey. For most of that time, though, they were kept in simple containers like skeps – essentially baskets – which had to be broken and the hive destroyed any time the honey was harvested. In 1852, a Pennsylvania vicar invented the beehive that is still used today – a wooden box with several frames inside that the bees can use to make honeycombs, without sealing the frames together. Each frame can be pulled out and checked, the bees inspected for disease and progress, and the honey extracted, all with only a brief disruption to the hive.
Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, and some people keep them in their back gardens. Most bees will forage for pollen in a radius of several miles, so it doesn’t matter much if a hive is located near homes. All the same, most bee experts recommend keeping the beehive inconspicuous and pointing away from neighbour’s driveways, so the bees’ runway flight is not likely to get in people’s personal space.
Honey is the most obvious advantage to keeping bees, and the honey can also be made into mead, or honey wine. But bees also produce wax that can be used for everything from candles to skin creams – some people chew it like bubblegum. Also, bees of course have the natural function of pollinating plants, and most beekeepers say their garden yields increase dramatically once they have a hive nearby.
What would ordinarily be a diverting hobby takes on a special urgency, of course, because so many bees around the world -- the source of so many of our crops -- are dying from obscure causes.
Most beekeepers recommend placing the hive on the north-facing side of a windbreak, open to the southeast sun so the bees get warm as early as possible in the morning. The hive should be level on dry land, and water should be set nearby so they can get a drink – one beekeeper recommends putting a small bucket of water nearby with a piece of Styrofoam floating on top, so the bees can have a place to stand while they drink.
To get started, you need a few basic materials. Of course you need a hive, and you also need a bee suit, gloves and a smoker – the smoke keeps the bees calm while the beekeeper does their work. Most of these materials can be purchased for a few hundred euros from any one of a dozen or so companies.
I can’t speak about beekeeping from firsthand experience, but I plan for that to change this spring. By March or so, I hope to give a step-by-step account of how to set up one’s own hive – and perhaps what not to do.