Perhaps once seen as a mysterious pastime, beekeeping is growing in popularity. Emma Sarah Tennant, beekeeper and one of the authors of The Bee Book, tells us what it’s like to keep bees as a hobby.
I listen to the bees when I open up the hive. A low steady hum means they're content for me to interrupt their day. I remove the dummy board, a wooden frame at the front of the brood box, to give me space to pull out each brood frame in turn.
The first frame is removed easily and I see the sunlight shine through the empty hexagonal cells of honeycomb. The next couple of frames are meanly covered in patches of capped honey and pollen and a handful of crawling worker bees.
Already I'm into the nest. I quickly find her. She's walking purposefully across the frame with her long dark abdomen floating gracefully over the comb. The queen. The workers turn to face her and move aside as she passes.
The nest is just two or three frames in size with a small amount of brood on each frame. There are unsealed larvae and some eggs to prove the queen is laying, but is she laying sufficiently to sustain her tiny colony?
Opening up a hive to inspect the honey bee colony at work is as mesmerising for an experienced beekeeper as it is for a beginner.
Being a beekeeper is a bit like being a detective. I carefully put back the frame holding the queen inside the hive and take a moment to think while inspecting the next frame.
The colony is good-natured for the first inspection of the year; the workers are bringing home pollen and busying themselves with various tasks inside the hive. The nest itself looks healthy: the larvae is pearly white, the brood cappings are even and biscuit-coloured, the bees are fuzzy with perfect little wings, and there is nothing sinister on the comb to suggest disease. I checked the varroa board before opening up the hive and there were only a few mites to be seen.
All the signs were of a well-functioning colony despite its small size. The brood and the bees that are there are largely workers, not drone; at least I know the queen has not become a drone layer over winter and that there isn’t a problem with laying workers.
Why then in March, with Easter around the corner, has my colony not started to build up for spring?
Inspecting the hive provides a fascinating glimpse of the workings of the honey bee colony, but it can involve some detective work to understand what's really going on.
I decided to give my queen the benefit of doubt, after all the workers seemed to be happy with her. A mild winter had depleted most of the hive's stores and a chilly wet spring had made it difficult for the colony to forage. Feeling cold and hungry could have slowed down or even prevented the queen from laying.
If the bees can be patient then so can I. When the days get warmer and the colony grows stronger, I'll replace the old comb for new in the brood box and let the bees fill up their nest with brood and stores. Later in the year, a queen excluder and a super box can be added for the bees to start work on the honey crop.
For now I'll just keep my bees warm and well fed. I remove the empty frames completely by brushing off stragglers, and fill the gaps left behind in the brood box with more wooden dummy boards. This closes up the tiny nest and helps to keep the bees insulated and warm. It's something I've learned to do over the years.
When you first start to keep bees it's good to learn the basics. As time goes by, you'll pick up lots of tips and tricks like carrying a pair of tweezers to inspect for unhealthy larvae or using extra dummy boards to keep smaller colonies warm.
The hum of the bees was getting louder as I reached the end of the brood box and finished my work. The higher pitched whine let me know I'd overstayed my welcome. A few puffs of smoke persuaded protesting workers to retreat down and allowed me to close the hive without squashing any bees.
I leave the colony the remains of the winter fondant under the roof. They can't build comb or rear brood using fondant, which would help the nest to grow bigger, but it's still too chilly to feed them syrup and at least the fondant directly above the nest is easy to reach and may help to prevent starvation.
Getting into beekeeping is both relaxing and interesting, as well as being a fun and sociable hobby.
I put a bunch of leaves in the nozzle of my smoker to smother it, and head back to where the other beekeepers of my association have gathered at the table for tea and cake.
I got started in beekeeping through a lifelong passion for nature and wildlife, and a particular curiosity for the small things like insects that make the world around us work. I have since discovered that keeping bees means being part of a wider friendly community of beekeepers, all of whom are happy to share their experience of the craft.
I sit down to drink my tea and tell the others what I found inside the hive today. I'm prepared to hear all sorts of views on what I could have done instead, from shaking the bees into a nuc to combining with a stronger colony, but that's okay. Life inside the hive can't be much different.
The Bee Book opens up a beautiful window onto the life of the beekeeper and the bees. Find out what to expect through the seasons and how to help honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees in your garden.