Urban Beekeeping in London

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The importance of keeping bees

It is estimated that one third of the food that we consume each day relies on pollination mainly by bees.

Many domestic and imported fruits and vegetables require pollination as do many flowering food crops in the UK, for example: apples, pears, field beans, runner and dwarf beans, broad beans, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and oil seed rape, with 39 commercial crops reliant on bees in total. Even if a crop is not directly pollinated by a honey bee, the crop still benefits indirectly from being in an environment in which honey bees are working, due to the increased biodiversity in the area which stimulates the crop.

Honey bees can also pollinate clover and alfalfa, which are fed to cattle, so there are implications for the meat and dairy industry too. And that is not to mention the huge range of manufactured food products made from all these ingredients.

Honey bees play a significant role in the pollination of other important crops such as cotton and flax.

In addition to the honey produced by the honey bee there are also a number of valuable non-food apiary products, such as pollen, queen substance, propolis and beeswax; used in cleaning and beauty products.

Considerations Before Becoming a Beekeeper

Research if you are able to keep bees in your area. 

Inquire at your local government and see if beekeeping is allowed. Some towns require permits. Some require hive registrations and other places have zero restrictions in place.

Read all that you can.

Learn about beekeeping by checking out introductory books at your local library or at the local bookstore.

Join the local club and/or take a class. 

Check and see if there is a local beekeeper’s organization near you. If so, often many of them offer introductory classes and pair you up with a mentor.

Ask yourself, why you would like to keep bees.

There are many reasons people keep bees. Some people keep bees for the honey, others keep bees to help with local pollination and others keep bees to aid with the global honeybee crisis.

Are you afraid of being stung? 

You will get stung no matter how many of layers of protective garb you are wearing. Yes, even in a full bee suit with gloves.Does this matter to you? Are you okay with being stung?

Are you allergic to insect bites or stings?

 If this is the case, before jumping into the hobby, you might consider getting tested by an allergist to determine your reaction to honeybee stings. If your reaction is mild, there are plenty of beekeepers that tend their bees with an Epi-pen in their pocket and cell phone just in case. If you are severely allergic, you might rethink your plans.

Be a courteous neighbour. 

Consider asking what your neighbours think? Do they mind you tucking hives into your yard? Be ready to explain and educate them why you would like to keep bees.

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This beekeeper is transferring a swarm he caught from a bee skep to a regular hive. Photo Credit.

Do you have a good location? 

Do you have a good spot in your yard for your bees? If not, is there another location where you can keep them? Honeybees will fly up to 5 miles as they forage for nectar and pollen but their hives should be placed in a level location, receive some sun during the day and be sheltered from strong winds. The hives should also be easy to access year-round.

Can you lift at least 25 pounds? 

Some hive when filled with honey can get very heavy during harvesting time. This especially happens with the most popular hive design in the U.S.- the Langstroth. Beekeeping does requires some physical strength. If you think this might be an issue, I would recommend researching other hive designs that require less lifting and strength.

Can you tend to the hives year round? 

Do you live in one location all year-round or do you snowbird? If you are away for long periods of time, it is a good idea to have a back-up beekeeper to help check in on your hives.

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Hives need to have their entrances cleared of snow after storms. Photo Credit

Can you afford it? 

Getting started with beekeeping can be an expensive hobby often costing around £300 for the hive and around another £100 for bees during the first year (depending if you purchase a nuc or a package). Most folks recommend starting out with two hives for a variety of important reasons.

What sort of hive should I buy?

Most beginners start with the National, a square brown box that is easy to use, but you could opt for a traditional, white, double skinned (ie a box within a box) WBC hive (named after William Broughton Carr), which is a bit more bother, but looks more romantic.

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Photo: Getty

Where do I get the bees?

Early Season (March/April)

Early in the season, you will be able to buy a 5- or 6-frame nucleus of bees (5 or 6 frames of honey bees, with brood, food and the all important queen). These are usually called ‘nucs’ by beekeepers.

We recommend that you buy bees that have been bred locally or within the UK rather than imported queens.

You can buy bees from a reputable bee breeder. Become a member of your local association in order to get in touch with local beekeepers or see the beekeeping magazines, such as BeeCraft or use a mail-order company such as Thorne or National Bee Supplies.

Late Season (May/June)

Later in the year, you may be lucky enough to acquire a swarm from a local collector within your association or at an auction.

Most importantly, make sure they are gentle: bees differ drastically in temperament and it’s best to start with docile ones. Explain you’re a beginner and most breeders will find you an easy colony.

What beekeeping equipment will I need?

When it comes to clothing, go for a maximum protection to avoid stings. An all-in-one suit with veil, together with a good pair of gloves and stout wellies will cost less than £150.

You’ll need a ‘smoker’ to puff smoke round the hive as you work (bees link it with forest fires and, thinking their home is in danger concentrate on eating their previous honey leaving you free to rummage in the hive) and a hive tool to prise apart the various

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Photo: Brent Darby

How to look after bees?

You can go away without worrying as bees can survive without human input. In spring, when the weather warms up, open your hives for a thorough inspection; check your queen is laying eggs, make sure there are still enough honey stores and give the hive a good clean, scraping away winter debris, removing dead bees and cobwebs and replacing old broken frames.

Until about July the colony will be growing rapidly and can reach up to 50,000 so you’ll need to check weekly to ensure there is room for egg-laying and honey storing, otherwise the bees may swarm. This is when the queen, sensing that space is running out, leaves the hive with half the worker bees to form another colony. Though the bees left behind will survive (they will sense they are queen-less and feed one of the larvae with Royal Jelly to create a new one), you will have lost half your workforce and your honey will be reduced.

How to collect honey

In August, you can collect your honey, as by then most flowers will have bloomed (unless you live near heather moors, as heather flowers later). In a good summer, you should harvest about 40lbs. In autumn you need to place the ‘stolen’ honey by feeding your bees a sugar solution. Then, having protected the hive against unwelcome visitors such as woodpeckers and mice, you can shut up shop for the winter.

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