A friend of mine inherited a couple of beehives, which had been left in the garden when he moved to a new house.  They were empty of bees and rather sad looking, I asked him if he planned to keep bees “Oh no” he said “I’m scared of being stung” and I agreed whole heartedly with him – why on earth would anyone want that.  Later we moved to Kent, next door to a picture-book family farm with cows, sheep, horses, chickens, guinea fowl, geese, dogs, cats and bees (the farmer and his wife were perfect too), the bees were looked after by a local beekeeper.  We used to walk our dog down the footpath past the beehives into the woods and one day the beekeeper was there with them – he shouted just one word, “RUN”, so my daughter and I ran with the noise of angry bees around us, we continued running deep into the woods but one or two bees followed us and we both got stung several times on the head and suffered for about a week afterwards with the diminishing pain.  Another time the farmer’s daughter had to jump into the pond to escape clouds of angry bees, afterwards she had trouble with her hearing until the doctor found and removed a bee from down inside her ear.  A friend of my mother’s kept bees for years and my mother used to complain about how sticky her whole kitchen got with the honey harvest.

I’m not sure when it was that my curiosity about bees got the better of me.  Perhaps being a herbalist and devoting my time to caring for patients, plants and the soil in the interests of health helped because I found bees were not healthy.  As a wild creature surely they should be, but they can suffer from viral infections, bacterial diseases, fungal infections, protozoa and most hives are now plagued by the varroa mite which can get quickly out of control during the summer (the number of mites doubling each 4 or 5 weeks) until they cause the demise of the whole colony of bees due to deformity and disease.

I joined my local bee association in 2001 and started going to their meetings.  These are always on the 2nd Sunday of the month from April to September.  They are held at different homes each month and in this way we all work with each other’s bees and see how they’re getting on.  It is fascinating and the hives can vary tremendously from year to year.  The beekeepers kindly gave me a second-hand hive and in no time we were called to collect a swarm from a garden in the next village.  The swarm looked very large to me and the noise of all those bees was overwhelming, I had to pretend not to mind but wished I could be inside the house behind glass windows watching with the family there.  We managed to get most of the bees settled into a cardboard box, which was then covered by a sheet leaving a small entrance for the bees still left flying nearby.  Later we returned, collected the box of bees and I was helped to site my hive (facing south-east away from the prevailing wind and to catch the early sun) and shake the bees into it.  To begin with the hive consisted of a brood box filled with frames of wax for the bees to build comb onto, this is placed on the floor which has an entrance for the bees at one side, a cover board goes on top the box with a roof over that – this particular hive is called a ‘national hive’.  Later when the bees need more room to store honey a ‘super’ is added above the brood box – this is a shallower box with shallower frames.

I was taught to use a queen excluder to stop the Queen wandering up into the super and laying her eggs there – to destroy queen cells to try and prevent swarming – to put apistan strips in the hive to kill the varroa mites but although I bought some the first year I couldn’t bring myself to use them.  In fact I don’t do any of this now.  My thoughts were always how can we help the bees to become more healthy and to live more naturally.  My bees are lucky because they are surrounded by a medicine chest of flowers, medical herbs grown biodynamically for my patients but they can fly a long way, it is said up to about three miles and we have farmland around us where sprays are used on the crops.

Perhaps here I need to go into this a bit deeper and try to explain Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is happening every year in America on a frightening scale and to a lesser extent here.  No pesticide or herbicide is good for us, they are designed to kill something living.  There is now a different type of pesticide, a systemic pesticide, which is a neurotoxin and is used as a seed dressing to protect the seed and then the plant against attack.  They are called neonicotinoid pesticides and have brand names such as ‘Gaucho’ and ‘Titan’ they are used by farmers and are also sold for use in home products – I remember reading somewhere that they were even added to Levington’s compost at one time.  Bayer and Syngenta make them (see www.CBGnetwork.org), Colony Collapse Disorder started after these neonicotinoids were introduced.  Residues of this pesticide contaminate the pollen and poison the soil causing eventual disorientation, paralysis and death to bees.  It does not happen immediately but the bees exposed to this pesticide in America died from CCD within about 6 months.  There is a film which has just been released and is showing at various venues around the country at the moment, it is called ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ (see www.vanishingbees.co.uk), it is well researched and presented and very informative.

Beekeepers in France suffering CCD burnt their empty beehives outside parliament and forced their government to ban neonicotinoid pesticides in 2005; they have been banned in Germany after two-thirds of bees died in one region following clothianidin ‘Poncho’ application in 2008.  They have also been banned in Italy and also in Slovenia.  But here in Britain our British BeeKeepers Association the BBKA endorses “Bee-friendly” pesticides!  However, the Co-op are taking it seriously and have banned neonicotinoids on all their farms.

Bees have been on the earth for 20 million years longer than humans.  Einstein stated “If bees disappear from the earth, human beings will only be able to survive for a further four years.  No bees, no pollination, no plants, no animals, no human beings.”  We need to take action now.  Bees are not difficult to keep once you get used to their ways, they don’t hear noise so you can shout or sing as loud as you like but be gentle when you open their hive, it is the vibration they do not like.  If you are careful and move slowly and gently they will happily carry on their work and not even notice you are there.  Check Maria Thun’s calendar for a suitable day to open the hive and make sure the weather is good and it is warm enough.  Bees keep the temperature of their hive at 95F (38C), similar to our own temperature, this warmness is important for the brood and should be respected.  I do not give the bees ready-made wax strips on the frames as these have pesticide residues in them and anyway the bees happily make their own.  Before hiving a swarm or giving a hive extra supers, rub fresh thyme into the wood as it is wonderfully anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-septic and the varroa mite does not like it.

Check out www.biobees.com for alternative beekeeping.  I’m experimenting with a Warre hive, which I’ve had for two seasons now and intend to make a top-bar hive this winter ready for a swarm next year.  I let my bees swarm, it is a natural process and I’m sure they are healthier for it.  A swarm is easy to take (as long as it is not too high up in a tree), I remember being terrified the first time I had a swarm from my bees and had no-one to help me.  Now it is not a problem and they’ve always been well behaved and do not sting.  Do not buy in a foreign Queen – bees in their natural state are the virgin Queen’s true sisters with the same mother and father and so there is a close bond between them.  Leave enough honey for the bees to survive on, only take surplus honey from the hive for yourself.  Watch the bees – I visit mine every day and just observe the way they come and go from the hive, you can tell if they are happy, content, excited or if something is bothering them i.e wasps or if they’ve lost their Queen.

If possible grow flowers in your garden that the bees love.  Garden organically at the very least, biodynamically if you can.  Buy organic food or grow your own organic vegetables, it is important to support sustainable agriculture and healthier too.  Beware of genetically modified crops, they will be a disaster for bees and for us if they are forced upon us.

KEEP BEES – you will wonder how you managed to live without them for they are truly life enhancing.

Books to read:

Organic Gardening: the whole story by Alan and Jackie Gear

ISBN 978-1-906787-24-0

The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2010 by Maria and Matthias Thun

ISBN 1751-0449

Bees and Honey from Flower to Jar by Michael Weiler

ISBN 10: 086315-575-8

Towards Saving the Honeybee by Gunther Hauk

ISBN 0-938250-1490000

Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith

ISBN 1-903998-41-7

The Bee Friendly Garden by Ted Hooper & Mike Taylor

ISBN 978-1-899296-29-3