Beekeeping is more popular than it has been for decades. We talk to beekeeper Phil Braithwaite of Braithwaite’s Nursery.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN BEEKEEPING?
My grandfather kept bees from the 1930s onwards, and at an early age I started lifting and carrying for him. I’ve been keeping bees myself now for over thirty years.
HOW MANY HIVES OF BEES DO YOU HAVE?
We have eleven at the moment, but at the height of summer we can have up to sixteen. In winter, maybe eight or ten.
WHAT JOBS DO YOU NEED TO DO, SEASON BY SEASON?
The beekeeper’s year starts in autumn, when we make sure our bees are clean and well fed ready for winter. We supplement our colonies’ supplies of honey with sugar syrup, and treat the hives for varroa mite. It’s impossible to eradicate, but we can at least keep it in check.
DO YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOUR HIVES DURING COLD WEATHER?
It doesn’t matter how cold a winter we have, as long as the bees are dry and have enough food within the hive they’ll survive until early spring. They keep themselves warm by forming into a tight cluster and gently vibrating their wings. The colder it gets, the more their metabolisms slow down and the less food they need to consume. It’s spring, rather than winter, that’s the most dangerous time for them. The colony starts to expand rapidly, but they haven’t yet replenished their food supplies. So if there’s a spell of bad weather we need to watch out – they could potentially starve to death.
HOW MANY BEES ARE THERE IN A HIVE AT ANY ONE TIME?
At their peak, in mid-July, there could be 50,000 to 60,000. And when they swarm there will be maybe 15,000 or 20,000 of them leaving the hive, which is why they make such a tremendous noise. People tend to be afraid of swarms of bees, but generally they’re very docile. They’re carrying lots of honey, and concentrating on finding a new place to live.
APART FROM VARROA MITE, WHAT PESTS OR DISEASES ARE BEEKEEPERS CONCERNED ABOUT?
There are one or two problems on the horizon, including the tropilaelaps mite and the small hive beetle, either of which could get into the UK via imported bees, although they haven’t been found yet. There’s also the Asian hornet, which can kill vast numbers of bees. Fortunately beekeepers and the general public are very aware of the threat, and DEFRA has established procedures for dealing with them.
SO DO YOU SELL YOUR OWN HONEY?
We do indeed. There are plenty of people who swear by local honey for preventing hay fever – a teaspoon a day for six months, is what they recommend. There are racehorse trainers and owners of working dogs who feed our honey to their animals for that very purpose. But regardless of any medical benefits, local honey is a completely different thing to the mass-produced stuff you get in supermarkets. People say to me ‘I don’t like honey’ and I say to them: ‘buy some proper local honey, then tell me what you think’. You can buy Phil’s honey and beeswax candles from Braithwaite’s in Leeming Bar (braithwaitesnursery. co.uk), who also stock a comprehensive range of beekeeping equipment.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU GET STUNG?
If I’m trying to do things too quickly, or I’m a bit careless, then quite regularly! But it doesn’t bother me too much. I’d rather be stung by a bee than by a nettle. A bee sting may hurt like crazy to start with but it soon fades away, whereas a nettle sting will keep itching and bothering you for ages!
WHEN IN THE YEAR DO YOU START HARVESTING HONEY?
The first crop of the year is oilseed rape honey, in May. The hives stay in the nursery, with the bees foraging in local fields, hedgerows and gardens, until late July or early August. Hawthorn, lime flowers, brambles and rosebay willowherb are all good sources of nectar and pollen for them. After that we take them up the moors to work the heather until the end of September. As the year draws to an end they’ll direct their attentions to plants like Himalayan balsam and ivy. You can tell when they’ve been working Himalayan balsam because they come back completely covered in white pollen. Conservationists hate balsam because it takes over the riverbanks, but from a beekeeper’s point of view it’s good stuff!
HOW DO YOU TRANSPORT THE HIVES UP TO THE MOORS?
We start very early in the morning, when it’s still dark and the bees aren’t yet active. The hives are usually formed from stacked boxes, so to transport them we have to put a strap round the hive to stop it coming apart in transit. A foam strip is used to block the entrance to each hive and the hives are transported by van – trailers are best avoided as they bounce too much. If you’re travelling for more than half an hour you need to ensure that there’s good air circulation and the bees don’t overheat.
HOW QUICKLY DO THEY GET USED TO THEIR NEW SURROUNDINGS?
As soon as they come out of the hive they’ll start working out new flight paths in the local area. When it comes to moving a hive, if it’s been shifted less than three feet they won’t have a problem finding their way back. Otherwise you have to move them more than three miles or they will recognise familiar landmarks and try to find their way back to the previous location of the hive. Bees generally forage within a two to three mile radius of the hive, although on occasions they’ll travel further.