For those with a timid disposition, keeping bees in the city is the perfect way to give oneself a wild veneer. Think about it – there’s lots of saving bees from worldwide Colony Collapse Disorder, lots of increasing plant diversity in your neighborhood, lots of delicious honey that you endlessly gift people and yet it’s still more than a little bit scary
You will need: some bees, a hive, some smoke, some plants, a hazmat-style, anti-sting body protector and an EpiPen (just in case).
Before you do anything resembling fiddling with a bee, enroll in a beekeeping course. There are a plethora to choose from: Capital Bee, The London Honey Company, Zootrain and of course the redoubtable British Beekeeping Association, which has a series of exams leading to you eventually becoming a Master Beekeeper should you wish. The basic assessment contains vital topics you will need to successfully manage your hives, including oral questioning on swarming, swarm control, diseases and pests. Simple.
Prepare your ground. You will need a sunny roof terrace and some large terracotta pots into which must go a variety of bee-friendly plants. Favourite perennials are sedums, buddleia, geraniums, forget-me-nots and foxgloves. A variety of flowering shrubs and trees would be much appreciated. Things such as mahonia, crab apples, choisya, acacia, hawthorn, rowan and limes are very delectable to a bee and will extend your flowering season.
This is the moment you might want to plant a hedge around your roof terrace, in order to protect your neighbors by raising the level at which the bees are flying as well as shielding them from the hive. You are not legally obliged to do this. But… well… you know bees.
Accessorising. There is a huge amount of exciting shopping to be done when embarking on beekeeping. It is of course the best thing about any hobby/wild planet-saving enterprise. For a sleek, modern, easy-to-use hive in tune with the your “urban chic beekeeper” look, try the Beehaus sold by Omlet. The starter pack, including your beekeeping suit, hive tool and smoking liquid comes in at a cool £529. Which is fine because, you know… bees.
You will also need a variety of other sundries such as a smoker, honey filter, multiple jars, sugar solution for feeding, insulation blocks for the winter to keep everyone snug, regular supply of Apiguard (to protect against varroa, chalkbrood and the tracheal mite, £26 for five treatments), a bee brush and perhaps a shed to store it all in. All this obviously costs many more pounds, but we lost count back in Step One when we paid for our beekeeping course.
Buying your BEES! This is obviously the moment you have been waiting for. Your roof terrace is ready, your shed is full of fun beekeeping accessories, your hive is poised, you now need to buy the actual, live, buzzing bees. Contact your local beekeeping association, or there are a variety of websites that promise to provide over-wintered, seasonally produced nucleus starter colonies including a laying queen. Honeyfields Bee Farm, and iwantbees.co.uk are a good place to start. The bees will cost from £50-£100.
Stings. There are many tips on how not to get stung. Honeybees are essentially fairly docile when not attempting to defend their hive, so it is technically possible to engage with your new hobby without provoking the wrath of God. But the main thrust is make sure you have your smoker (bee valium) to hand, no swatting, no body odour (makes them very upset apparently), don’t drop the frames and only open the hives between 10am and 5pm on a sunny day when most of them are out. Failing all this, just go with it and try to enjoy the benefits of a free “bee-sting facial”.
Swarming. In the wild, this is the natural process of divide and rule. When the hive reaches a certain density, a new queen is formed. The displaced old queen ships out, taking some of her faithful workers with her, and forms a new hive somewhere else in peace and quiet. In a city, this does not seem like a natural process, but something to cause maximum fear and panic as they descend, en masse, on your local bus stop or your neighbour’s shed. One of your jobs as beekeeper is to maintain the size of the hive and keep your queen happy. So please do it for all our sakes. (see Step One and the beekeeping course).
And if this is all too much like hard work, you could always go to your nearest deli, buy a lovely pot of locally produced honey for £4.95 and leave it someone else to it. Because, you know… bees.