If you grow top fruit, beans, almonds, coppiced hazel or willow, flowering crops of any kind, or just have plenty of wild flowers in your garden, you will already have bees as visitors, so keeping a hive or two of honeybees would seem like a great idea. However, while my own main interest is in honeybees, my first piece of advice to gardeners thinking of taking up beekeeping is first to spend some time addressing the needs of other wild pollinators, especially bumblebees and solitary bees.
It may seem romantic to have thousands of honeybees buzzing round your flower beds, but the reality is that they are not entirely without problems. If your garden is small and urban, you may need to think carefully before placing a box of fifty thousand insects equipped with stings close to a neighbour’s territory. There may be pets, children and elderly people to consider. You may want to think about how you use the space in your garden and how your activities – such as sunbathing, eating al fresco or simply hanging out the washing – may interfere with their flight-path, which at times may make Heathrow look like a quiet backwater.
I say these things not to put you off, but to encourage you to think carefully about what your real reasons for wanting to ‘keep’ bees may be.
The chances are that flowering plants you grow are already being pollinated quite effectively by wild bees and other insects and unless you grow such crops on a large scale, adding honeybees to the mix will have only a marginal effect on yields. Exceptions to this might include areas where neighbours routinely spray with insecticides – with the result that wild insect numbers have been drastically reduced – or places where wild bee populations have suffered for other reasons, such as heavy pollution or habitat loss. Unfortunately, in these cases, you are probably in the wrong place to keep honeybees.
Compared to most livestock, honeybees need little attention, and so can be added to a garden, homestead or smallholding without fear of creating a serious drain on your time. However, as with any other creature that comes within our care, someone must give them the right kind of attention at the right times, if only to ensure that they are comfortable, replete with stores and disease-free. Honeybees are – and will always remain – wild creatures, unimpressed by our attempts to domesticate them, so ‘keeping’ them is really a matter of providing suitable accommodation and allowing them freedom to roam. Beyond that – especially if you have honey in mind – you have to consider the degree and style of ‘management’ you will endeavour to apply.
Addressing the needs of other native bees first will help ensure that you do not cause an imbalance by flooding the area with honeybees while the local bumble population is less than optimal. Exactly how this can be assessed is yet to be fully established, but if bumblebees are currently rare visitors to your garden, it may be too soon to add a beehive.
One of the most important considerations is the availability of food throughout the bees’ flying season, and this is where the gardener can apply their particular skills to ensuring biodiversity and appropriate variety of species. There is considerable overlap in the flower varieties visited by different types of pollinating insect and they each have particular preferences. For example, comfrey, red clover and foxglove tend to be preferred by bumblebees, while honeybees are more likely to be found on heathers, white clover and apple blossoms. Of the ‘imported’ species, Buddleja is famously attractive to butterflies, moths and many bee species, and Himalayan balsam provides a welcome late-season boost, especially to bees and hoverflies.
Of course, many – if not most – putative beekeepers are tempted in that direction by the prospect of having their own honey ‘on tap’. Honey yields are dependent on three main factors: the number of colonies kept, the extent and variety of available food and – more than anything – the weather. Of these, only the first is fully under your control, as bees may forage over a three mile (5 km) radius from their hive. If most of that territory is flower-rich meadows and hedgerows, organic farmland or verdant, uncultivated wild countryside, you are probably well placed to keep at least half a dozen hives if you so choose. Increasingly, beekeepers in towns and cities are finding their bees are healthier and more productive than those kept near arable farmland, and the explanation for this seems increasingly clear: our agricultural system is a massive consumer of pesticides, fundicides and herbicides, which are known to be dangerous to pollinators. Much attention has lately been focused on the insidious destructive power of systemic neonicotinoids, including Imidacloprid, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam, which are known to be highly toxic to bees in laboratory conditions, yet have been licensed for use in the field. They are typically applied as seed coatings, finding their way into the cellular structure of the plants as they grow and rendering the entire plant – from its roots to its pollen and nectar – toxic to anything that comes too close. Concern has widely been expressed about their potential for toxicity to humans, too.
If you decide that you do want to bring honeybees into your life, an early choice you have to make is between ‘conventional’ beekeeping, using variations of the Langstroth-style frames-and-foundation hive, and so-called ‘natural’ beekeeping, which is mostly based on variants of the top bar hive. The route you follow will depend on your philosophy, your priorities and your pocket. The conventional approach requires a substantial initial investment in equipment, an ongoing dependence on bought-in supplies and the possibility of higher honey yields; while the natural path can be followed at a minimal cost, with generally lower but more sustainable yields and a minimal carbon footprint. Before choosing between them, you should first seek out opportunities to have some direct, hands-on encounters with live honeybees en masse.
It should also be noted that not everyone is temperamentally suited to working with bees, and it is as well to establish this one way or the other before you find yourself with tens of thousands of them in your back yard.
There are some things all gardeners can do to help all bees and other pollinators, short of taking up bee keeping.
The most important thing anyone can do is to learn how to control pests using biological methods that do not require the use of toxic chemicals. Around 98% of all insects are beneficial to us in some way, but most insecticides do not discriminate between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’.
The next most important thing you can do is to improve habitat for bees by planting native, wild flowers – the kind that bees evolved with over one hundred million years. There are lists of bee-friendly plants available online and there are some plant nurseries that specialize in them.
If you have space in your garden, letting some of it go wild to create a safe haven for bees and other insects is a great idea. Gardens that are too tidy are not so wildlife-friendly. Small piles of twigs and leaves and heaps of rock are useful to many species.
Aside from the practical reasons why you may be considering keeping honeybees, they are an engaging species from which we have much to learn. Beekeeping is a fascinating and absorbing activity that has the potential to enrich your relationship with the landscape and its untamed inhabitants.
And simply having more bees of all kinds around can add greatly to your enjoyment of your garden.