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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.

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