Ilike flowers, bees like flowers. I like honey, bees like honey. I don’t much like being out on cold, wet days, and neither do they. We’re a match made in floral heaven. There have been times when I’ve blundered through our relationship, but getting honeybees made a lot of sense – and changed my relationship with honey.
It seemed the next logical step in growing your own. I also liked the idea of being in charge of so many. I can’t have a herd of cows in the city, or fit even one goat in my space, but I could have 30,000 or so individuals to look after, get free honey and maybe make a few candles.
It turns out all my preconceptions were wrong. You’re never in charge of bees: at best, you tend to their world, but mostly they do their own thing. Honey isn’t free: beekeeping has a price – the hive, the equipment – but the true price is how hard the bees work. (There’s no beating around the bush: we steal our honey from bees.) It’s been a privilege to peer into my bees’ world, one I shouldn’t plunder, so last year I took just a 10th of their store, left them the rest and they came through winter on their own honey.
Steve Benbow, who runs the London Honey Company, is my bee mentor. We met at a book festival and it was another great match: he needed more flowers for his bees and I wanted to learn how to look after a hive. He gave me my first set of bees and built me a top-bar hive to house them. In return, I helped him build a wildflower garden to feed his bees, and all the other pollinators, too.
I am persevering with that top-bar hive, in which the bees make their own wax frames along thin, wooden bars. I do a bit of wax shepherding (bending wonky new wax so it sits straight on the bar), but the queen moves about as she pleases and there is minimal manipulation of the bees. Plus, top-bar hives are cheap and easy to make.
My honeybees have also changed the way I garden. Once, I was mostly concerned with how humans perceived my space; now, I think of the insects foremost. For much of spring, my allotment was a beautiful sea of forget-me-nots. Wild flowers and weeds such as buttercups are hugely beneficial to pollinators, because they offer long-flowering periods of both nectar and pollen. Instead of managing my allotment largely by hoe, I now use shears, cutting and composting huge volumes of material to stop flowers setting seed, and rotting it down in buckets of water so my compost heap doesn’t become too weedy.
I’ve never made so much compost and, in a lovely twist, each of my bins now has a large bumblebee nest in it. I went to fork one bin into the next and heard a roar: a nest of buff-tailed bumblebees, If this means I have to wait until the end of the summer to tidy my compost, so be it. By autumn, the nest will be over: only the queen overwinters, and all the workers will die at the end of the year.
Pollinators, be they honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps, butterflies, moths or flies, need both pollen and nectar. Pollen provides protein and nectar carbohydrates. Honeybees and some bumbles fly on warm days in winter, so require year-round food: not much, but winter-flowering shrubs and early spring bulbs can make a big difference. They also need a source of clean water and somewhere to nest. The water could be a pond, bird bath or water butt with a landing stage: marginal plants in a pond, sticks in a butt or bird bath.Your bees’ nesting site could be a bee hotel but, as my compost heap attests, an undisturbed space works just as well: a dead hedge of sticks and twigs, say, or just a quiet corner. Being mindful not to clear up every last bit of dead material and leaf is as vital as any fancy hotel, though. If you do take the hotel route, position it somewhere sunny, facing south-east or south, and sheltered from rain. It must be at least 1m off the ground with no vegetation obscuring the tunnel entrances. Make sure it’s firmly fixed, too, so it doesn’t sway in wind.
Finally, don’t use any synthetic chemicals in your garden: no fungicides, insecticides, pesticides or herbicides, all of which can damage pollinators and potentially linger in the soil for years.