Back garden bees – in an environmentally conscious world keeping a hive of bees can help the planet survive

Stuart Baillie has been to meet local carpenter Kevin Hitchman to find out about his passion for bees and bee-keeping and about what got him started in the hobby in the first place.

I’ve never been that fond of bees, being stung by one as a child is probably what did it!

So when Kevin Hitchman invited me round to find out more about his hives and his passion for bee-keeping and then said, “I’ve got a bee suit for you,” I have to admit, I felt a cold sweat starting to form.

cb0ef7bf-0a84-43b8-bd5c-6f02987a5b1a
Kevin sets to work on one of his seven hives, he removes the honey from each hive twice a year.

But I needn’t have worried, Kevin’s bees are sociable creatures and while they buzzed about me as I watched him empty one of his hives of its honey, I felt remarkably comfortable even managing to snatch some close-up photographs of the hive’s Queen Bee.

There was of course a serious reason for finding out a little more about bees. While they are an essential of the natural world one-third of the UK’s bee population has disappeared over the past decade and 24 per cent of Europe’s bees are now threatened with extinction.

We might take bees and other pollinators like butterflies and hoverflies for granted but they are vital for stable, healthy food supplies. They are key to the varied, colourful and nutritious diets we need and have come to expect.

Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food. They do so by transferring pollen between flowering plants and therefore keeping the cycle of life turning.

07d79224-ea4a-4cb6-8683-f2e60e4f87df.jpg
Bees are perfectly adapted to pollinate, helping plants grow, breed and produce food.

The vast majority of plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bees and they also pollinate around 80 per cent of wildflowers in Europe, so our countryside would be far less interesting and beautiful without them.

But bees are in trouble! There is growing public and political concern at bee decline across the world. This decline is caused according to Friends of the Earth by a combination of stresses – from loss of their habitat and food sources to exposure to pesticides and the effects of climate change.

That’s why Kevin, from King Edward Avenue, is so passionate about his bees and so passionate about spreading the word and trying to encourage other people to take up bee-keeping.

“It all stated for me about seven years ago,” says Kevin, “I’d been chatting with a family friend and before I knew where I was I’d agreed to take a hive of bees. It was something I’d always been interested in though and after a little bit of guidance and training I was up and running on my own,” says Kevin

47199b55-0e94-438a-951f-9a6c968c0e9c
Kevin got in to bee-keeping after a chance conversation with a family friend.

Some of the numbers surrounding bees are quite staggering. A healthy hive, says Kevin, will contain 60,000 bees – and Kevin has seven hives!

A good Queen Bee will lay up to 3,000 eggs in a day and in pursuit of its pollen a bee will travel up to three miles from its hive – a staggering distance for such a tiny creature.

This time of year can be a difficult time for bees which is why during June and July it’s not uncommon for ‘swarming’ to occur. It happens because a hive is becoming too large and too crowded and temperature regulation becomes an issue inside the hive. It will result in a large number of bees – a swarm – leaving that hive to seek a new home and that does not necessarily mean another hive.

“Bees don’t need a hive, a hive is a man made thing, it just makes it easier to collect the honey,” says Kevin.

In the wild bees will seek shelter and safety above ground, the hollow of an old tree being a typical new home for them. An old tree keeps the colony dry and provides space and ventilation. Kevin says some bee keepers have what is called a swarm box, effectively an empty hive that the migrating bees can use to set up their new home – that way the bee keeper does not lose any of the bees to the wild.

5630e710-3b95-461a-a55b-334e19b1f5ee
As the honey is emptied from the hive the bees will pounce on any residual honey, eating it and leaving the hive spotlessly clean.

And of course there can only ever be one Queen Bee in a hive! If a new Queen is introduced it will fight with the existing Queen until one or other is killed – the supremacy of the Queen is absolute.

Kevin has a passion for the natural world that was instilled in him by his father who kept and bred birds and taught his son about insects and the natural world in which they existed. It was therefore perfectly natural for Kevin to gravitate towards bee-keeping.

“It’s a nice hobby and a calming hobby,” says Kevin who runs a busy carpentry business. Bees are his sanctuary, when he’s tending his bees he gets a break from the stresses of everyday life.

He a great ambassador for bees too, he’s keen to get more people involved and he’s happy to share his knowledge, and even his bees, with other people: “Even if you only have one hive, you’re doing something really positive for the environment,” he says.

9c96ac06-0466-4588-b9e4-40acd831857e.jpg
There can only ever be one Queen and you can see her here with the yellow spot on her back.

But what about the honey?

Screenshot 2019-06-22 06.05.52
An English National Hive – a plainer and more functional design.

On the day I visited Kevin he was emptying one of his hives. it was a fascinating process to watch; he has WBC hives, known as such because they were designed by William Broughton Carr. He designed the hive to look more attractive and therefore to be more appealing to people to keep in their gardens rather than the plainer and more functional English National Hive.

The hive Kevin was emptying had four layers to it. The further down the hive you go the more honey there is. The further down the hive you go, the more agitated and noisier the bees become because of course you are getting closer to the Queen and the job of the rest of the colony is to protect the Queen from any threat.

Each hive is emptied twice a year and can yield more than 100kgs of honey each time it is emptied.

aaa8c469-a597-4c8a-969f-1264cdcdcc03
What it’s all about – honey fresh from the hive!

Kevin explained that the flavour of the honey he produces can vary, so much of how the honey tastes depends on what kind of plants or flowers the bees have been collecting their pollen from.

Kevin’s passion for his bees is very evident and his knowledge about the various species and how to care from them is wide ranging and he’s happy to share that passion and that knowledge to encourage more people to consider taking up bee-keeping and having a bit of fun while they do their bit to protect the environment.

And one of the biggest lessons I learned from my visit to Kevin’s is how a colony of bees is an entirely self regulating thing. From the summer swarming that controls the hive’s population through to the ‘waggle dance’ they use to point each other in the direction of a new source of pollen the bees need little outside intervention.

Alas it might bee that too much outside intervention is what has put our bees at such risk in the first place.

6 thoughts on “Back garden bees – in an environmentally conscious world keeping a hive of bees can help the planet survive

Add yours

  1. Such an interesting and well written piece. Kevin should be proud he’s doing his bit to help save the Bees and also enjoy that lovely honey !! Does he share ?

    The stories are becoming varied and it’s great to see, it’s also about Local People and business too which is what people want.

    Keep up the great work.

    Like

    1. Hi jack, Kevin here. You can do a course at plumpton agricultural college, just north of Brighton. They used to do 1 day introduction courses

      Like

  2. Such an important and essential part of nature here. I use to keep bees from 11 to 17years old and just enjoyed it. These are so intelligent when you see what goes on in the hive. Problem for most people in keeping them is the fear of getting stung. Mind you if you have the right gear on that will not happen. But many keepers can handle their bee colonies without nets and gloves just the issue of karma really with them.
    The only time I got a few stings was getting a swarm from a building with my Catch Box. But then I had no protection and we are dealing with a few thousand of them very active and looking for new lodgings.
    Great article.

    Like

  3. This is another reason why we should not cut back the roadside verges or any other wild flower patch – people are complaining that it all looks untidy – well – what would you rather have? Tidy, barren roadside verges or a flourishing insect population? We are told that the insect population has declined dramatically and have you ever wondered why your car windscreen is not longer covered with dead insects stuck fast to the screen after a trip down the motorway? Think about it! The more wild flower/plant areas we can cultivate the better for everyone. Farmers are now dedicating parts of their fields specifically to wildflower cultivation. And even the smallest garden can make one part specifically for wild flowers/plants.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: