This post should be treated as an introduction to the idea, and as an overview, of this subject - and how it relates to our plans. More detailed 'in-the-field' posts, about this project - it's successes and pitfalls - will appear when we are actually implementing them. Fingers-crossed this particular enterprise won't have a sting in the tail...
A lot has been written and reported, about the plight of Bees, in the media, over the past few years. And, until you have read up and researched this amazing insect, you may wonder what the fuss is all about. Its quite scary just how vital they are - to our own survival and to the balance, they bring, to the rest of the natural world. So this undertaking will actually be more about helping Bees in general and benefitting from their positive impact on the ecology and diversity, at the Croft; with any honey and Bee's wax, being a bonus.
There are an amazing variety of Bee species, including Solitary Bees (Bumbles are probably the best known of these), which are not really suitable for Keeping, but can be a great asset in many other ways. To encourage these 'solitary' varieties into your garden/land, you just need to give them a nice home - a small log, with some holes drilled into the end and put up somewhere (like this), is perfect.
When it comes to Honey Bees and their Keeping, I'm not anywhere near an expert...yet! I have, however, discovered many resources and web sites, on the subject - so my favourites, of these, appear at the bottom of the post, as usual.
As far as a home goes, there appear to be a number of different hive-types. Initially I assumed there were just the 'normal' shaped variety; with the boxes stacked on top of each other. But I have discovered and concluded, for our purposes, that a "Top Bar Hive" is the way to go. This is a much simpler form of Hive, which can be self-built, simply and cheaply (see exploded drawing). It also allows the Bees to create their combs in a more natural way. Added to this, when a Keeper needs to get in there, to steal the 'booty', the Bees are less disturbed. An all-round nicer solution, for both the Bee and the Keeper. The best resource, I have found, on how to build this type of Hive, is a web site, with free PDF guides, called the Barefoot Beekeeper. The particular PDF, I have read, is called: "How To Build A Simple Top Bar Hive", by Philip Chandler.
To save me 'droning' on about them, here's an extract from the site, giving an overview of Top Bar Hives and their benefits:
"The principle is simple: a box with sticks across the top, to which bees attach their comb. Mine have sloping sides and a pair of 'follower boards' to enclose the colony. There are many variations on this theme and all have the essential guiding principle of simplicity of construction and management. There are no frames, no queen excluders, no ekes, no mouse guards, no supers, no foundation and there is no need for extractors, settling tanks, filters, de-capping knives... in fact no need for any other equipment or storage space, other than that provided within the hive itself. And if you have just spent an hour leafing through suppliers' catalogues, wondering how you can possibly afford to keep bees, that will come as some relief!
Building a top bar hive is no more difficult than putting up shelves and can be done using hand tools and recycled wood. Top bar beekeeping really is 'beekeeping for everyone' - including people with disabilities, bad backs, or a reluctance to lift boxes: honey is harvested one comb at a time, rather than by the box. From the bees' point of view, top bar hives offer weatherproof shelter, the opportunity to build comb to their own design - without the constraints of man-made wax foundation - and minimal disturbance, thanks to a 'leave well alone' style of management."
Now, with the Hive-type sorted. What about the Bees? Well, there are around 29 subspecies of Apis Mellifera (Honey Bee); with the Northern European Dark (Apis Mellifera Mellifera) or Italian Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Ligustica) tending to be the most popular, here in the UK.
The Northern European Dark is typically a small and stocky bee. Its colouring varies from jet back to dark brown. No yellow exists on the UK-native variety, but a lot of mixing with Italian bees has occurred; making pure bred natives quite rare.
Italian Honey Bees tend to be light or golden in colour, with abdomens striped yellow and brown. Their hairy heads give the impression that their large eyes are ringed with hair. Neither Dark nor Italian varieties are that aggressive, but the Italians seem to have a gentler temperament, are great brood layers and colony builders. They have tenacious foraging attributes and can build their combs nice and quickly.
So, although there are other species used in Bee Keeping too, we think we'll stick with our Italian friends at first (unless anyone out there advises against it?). Hearing them busily buzz around the croft, as if on their Lambretta's racing around the Colosseum, will be a pleasant noise...
Finally, where shall we locate our useful little friends? At Guardian Croft, we have a very long meadow, running from the top of the Croft, all the way down to the edge of 'land', at the Loch-shore. Check out our previous post "The Croft Layout & Plans", which contains a drawing/map of the Croft layout.
The idea is to separate off a portion of the lower part of this 'field', turning it into a beautiful flower meadow, which the Bees will love, as a source of food and, in turn, they'll help to cultivate and pollinate it. The Hive(s) will then be tucked in a nice (not too exposed) part of this wild flower meadow, probably close to the tree line. Situated here, they are distanced from the main house and 'tourist' areas. This is mainly for their benefit (Bees thrive better being disturbed as little as possible) and in case people are nervous about, or are allergic to, them. I'm sure the odd few adventurers (Bees after my own heart!) will venture further out across the Croft, foraging in search of nectar. In doing this, they'll also pollinate other plants and trees too.
All in all, I think, they will be a great asset, improving the eco-system of the Croft and may also provide us with some lovely honey for our morning toast. Maybe we can even work out how to produce Mead, from it. Although I should probably avoid referring to my wife as "Wench", when she serves it up to guests...
"A wench by my side and a jug of mead, these are the things that I most need!"
More detailed and informed reading, can be found at these sites (or just Google "Bee Keeping"):
The Barefoot Beekeeper (probably the best resource out there):
Where the main image above was sourced:
The British Beekeepers Association:
Barnsley Beekeepers Association (a great page covering all the different species):
Greenpeace "Save The Bees" Campaign: