Why I love beekeeping

Alison Graham tells us why beekeeping has become so common, why she got into and what makes it the perfect midlife hobby.

In a field near my house, a row of relatively unassuming wooden boxes vibrate with thousands of bees. Not what you’d expect to stumble upon on an afternoon walk — the four colonies I look after are essentially living boxes, literal hive minds — but they’ve become a real passion of mine in midlife. When I hold a frame of their comb and place the back of my hand gently on their wings, I feel this amazing vibrating sensation go through my body and there is a feeling of total activity. It’s fascinating.

How I got stung by beekeeping

I became hooked on them the first time I saw a hive in person, but that was almost a decade after my husband first bought me a beekeeping starter kit.

When I lived in Hackney, around 10 years ago now, I’d heard of someone who was keeping bees on a large flat roof near London Fields. I thought that was a wonderful idea and explored the idea of keeping bees in my garden, which was sadly not possible. Bees are wild insects that don’t really want to be close to homes or neighbours and I didn’t want my neighbours to get stung — or myself, for that matter. But that Christmas, my husband felt a hive and full bee suit was an appropriate gift despite the fact that, though I was delighted on receiving it, making a beehive from scratch with no proper knowledge is no easy feat.

How my husband rekindled my beekeeping dreams

Ten years later, we had moved to Somerset and the hive remained, languished in the garage. The bee suit had seen a couple of outings, only as I wandered around the house wearing it when a bit bored. Ultimately, my husband threatened to sell all the bee equipment on eBay in an effort to spur me into action and it did the trick, I signed up for a course with the Wiltshire beekeepers.

The course was quite enlightening, but it was only when I saw the inside of a hive that I had any real idea of how honeybees live. I became completely absorbed by the incredible dynamics of their colonies. I asked a beekeeper in my village if I could come to their apiary and see inside a hive. It was huge, housing around 10,000 bees all going about their appointed duties. Despite the mass of activity and the enormous volume of the bees, I wasn’t scared. I thought they were absolutely magical.

About honeybees

Honeybees are one of the most studied insects in the world; there is a real wealth of information available about them. I’d already fallen in love with their scientific name — “Apis Mellifera” — but the more I read, the more astonished I became. Each colony’s linchpin is their queen and the whole hive works tirelessly to guarantee her ability to lay eggs, increasing the size and strength of the colony. Typically, there’s only ever one queen to a hive at any time. After she’s born, she leaves the hive to mate and is then set up for her lifetime of laying eggs.

Bees = ruthless queens

But should the queen be unable to do so, perhaps because of old age or injury, the colony removes her by supersedure and creates a new queen. The old queen either leaves the hive with a swarm in search of a new home or is killed by the younger, fitter queen. Bees are ruthless when it comes to their need to flourish, coming together to form this incredible team to play out their powerful survival instinct.

Keeping honeybees has become very popular in the UK, especially in recent years. In the 1990s, the honeybee population was very badly hit by a parasite called Varroa, a vicious little mite that clings to bees and weakens them by sucking their tissue. And the phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder caused widespread destruction when the worker bees began leaving their hives, abandoning their queens and, in some cases, letting the colony completely disappear.

Why we should be concerned about the bees

Since honeybees are so critical to the maintenance of the environment — they’re responsible for pollinating flowers and crops, encouraging healthy ecosystems, essentially aiding all of nature — many people wanted to save honeybees and took up beekeeping as a means of doing so, hence the rise in popularity.

In 2013, there were approximately 29,000 amateur beekeepers in the UK. By 2019, this had grown to 44,000. But this might not be the solution it seems. There are some 250 species of bees, only one being honey. These solitary bees and bumblebees are incredibly important pollinators in their own right, but their food supply will be adversely affected if colonies of honeybees start cropping up everywhere.

This is particularly true in cities where, although there are plenty of gardens, foraging can be difficult at certain times of the year. Honeybees possibly pollinate 5-15% of insect pollinated crops but there are other pollinators that are all using the same food sources. So, it’s essential for beekeepers to think about how many colonies there are in their area and to not overwhelm other pollinators.

As sensitive as the beekeeping and protecting process may be, bees are remarkably resilient. When Notre-Dame in Paris caught fire and partially collapsed in 2019, the bee colonies that had been housed on a roof over the sacristy survived the flames and toxic fumes and are thriving to this day.

How beekeeping has helped me

I’ve been keeping bees for four years now and have found the most life-changing aspect to be the community. I’ve made a group of friends, all beekeepers in my area, who are some of the kindest I’ve ever had. We’re always helping each other out, sharing kit and advice on our WhatsApp group. In general, beekeepers are very generous, spirited folk. We always joke that we’re beekeepers but sometimes “bee losers” when we have summer swarms. It’s wonderful to have a shared passion with friends who are always ready to help.

My love of beekeeping may not be shared by my family — my husband is absolutely terrified of my bees, my kids are just not interested and none of them eat honey. But this is something I’ve cultivated entirely for myself and it has been such a joy to have found this new passion in midlife, and great friendships along with it.

Alison Graham

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