It may not be riding rockets, but bee-keeping has a certain edge to it when you’re allergic to their stings.

Last autumn we set up three hives on a corner of the garden. Andrew and the botanical team have since given the hives proper plinths, we’ve registered them with the local authorities, and it’s become a rite of passage for willing guests to join a hive inspection or feeding.

Claire agreed to join, if I could find a pink bee suit. Turns out, white ones dye really well:

Claire in her new bee suit

The bees just call her "Blossom" with a capital B

For those of you who, like me, know virtually nothing about bees or beekeeping, here’s the short short version.

Beehives are cleverly designed as stacks of rectangular boxes without a floor or a ceiling. You combine different types of boxes to get different things done. For example, the main body of the hive lives in the base box, called a brood box. That’s where the queen hangs out, the comb there has both honey cells and hatching cells (think honey-eating bee-maggots, more charmingly called brood). The worker bees move freely up and down the hive, from box to box. You put a filter above the brood box to stop the queen, who is too big to fit through the grille, from laying eggs upstairs.

You get boxes for feeding the bees, and boxes for collecting honey. The honey-collecting boxes are called “supers”, and the others, which are more like spacing boxes with room inside for gadgets and gizmos are called ekes (possibly Norse, for “augment”?). Since our colonies are young, they haven’t yet filled out their brood boxes, so I’ve focused on feeding them. I accidentally drowned half the bees in each of the colonies in the first attempt by failing to install the feeders properly so, all in all, I’ve come to appreciate how fragile the colonies can be.

Throughout the course of the year, there are different things to watch out for, or get done. Early in spring you give the hives a dose of syrup to get them started. We started feeding them in March.

This Easter weekend, with my brother Bradley & guest visiting, and spring springing, seemed like a perfect occasion to see how the colonies were doing. We made some feeding syrup last night, woke up at sparrowfart this morning and suited up. Our goal was to check out the hives, make sure they seemed healthy & happy, and replenish the food to help the colonies grow quickly.

Things got a little adventurous while we were inspecting the brood frames of the first and most vigorous of the hives. Two of us ended up with bees inside our veils, so we closed up quickly and beat a hasty retreat for a brush-off and tea. I got stung on the neck, but I think the sting failed to set properly so the epi-pens are all intact. Some disappointment in the household that nobody got to jab me in the heart with one.

Restored, we went back to finish off the other hives, and Bradley spotted a queen – first time I’ve seen one of them. Once we all relaxed it was a pleasure to work through the frames together one by one. As Bradley said, there are millions of years of evolution telling you that you urgently have to be somewhere else every time the hive buzzes. We’ve got to figure out the best way to clear each frame without ending up surrounded by a cloud of upset bees. But it all went smoothly.

So, all things being well, next year we’ll have honey that is genuinely local. And we’ll get to test that old story about local honey being good for hayfever. All in the name of science, of course.

22 comments:

  1. Greg Auger says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Ubuntu 12.10, the Quintessential Queen [Bee]?

  2. nixternal says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    HAHA! Like you, I am afraid of bees as well. I haven’t been stung, knock on wood, since I was a little guy, so I don’t know how my allergies with them are today. Back then, when I got stung, I was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room. The community I live in recently set up a bunch of hives for people to maintain. I still haven’t worked up the courage to go and look, but I just might when the temps warm up a bit here.

  3. LinuxCanuck says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Most rewarding things come when we are afraid. Fear is a good thing. If there is no fear then we are not living hard enough. Congratulations on meeting the fear and it looks like you and the bees will gain much from the experience. Love the pink suit! The bees will as well, I suspect.

  4. Welcome - wien.dickbauer.net says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    [...] a career as beekeeper, but also Marc Shuttleworth seems to find bees intriguing – as well as the pink bee suit of his girlfriend… geschrieben von Klemens Dickbauer 0 Kommentare kennzeichnen [...]

  5. Alan Bell says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Very cool, I have chickens and I would love to get bees. I would have to keep them at the allotment as the family have vetoed the concept of a hive in the garden.

  6. lorain says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Will there be plenty of honey for attendees of us this year or should we expect another uneventful summit?

  7. Andrew Ampers Taylor says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Our cat, when she was a kitten, played with a bee once. The poor thing kept waving her little paw up and down, poor thing.

    She never got stung again!

    Me? I’m off… Good BYE!

  8. Alex says: (permalink)
    April 22nd, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    ;-) Love the pink suit!
    Very interesting, and good on you! Very courageous considering the standby epi-pens. (I read somewhere that almost a third of what we eat requires insect pollination – something that I usually forget as my mind goes straight to the delicious honey.) I admire their work ethic, and enjoy hearing them buzz around my herb garden, but try stay clear of them as I too am allergic. A new respect for the honey I drink with my tea!

  9. | linuxin.ro says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 3:02 am

    [...] Full Article [...]

  10. Evan says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 6:36 am

    I love this article Mark, and even more the honey. :) Comb honey being my favorite. i have a sweet tooth and since I avoid sugar, I use it as sweetener all the time. It’s a bit mean to think we humans are stealing bees’ reserves, but hey there are worse things we could do. The pink is great, very appropriate! Glad you are enjoying nature, but hope you get more involved on the inside, not just reporting, oh you are allergic, sorrry, forgot, well I hope it doesn’t stop you from gardening at least. By the way, this is not really ” play” category, “enjoy” maybe, nah there must be a better word. I’ll let you know. Stay well!
    E

  11. novatillasku says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 9:20 am

    A good way to enjoy the life.My life is similar ;-p

  12. Mr. Tester SA says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Like the one corner of the garden, the Ubuntu servers and mirrors are going to be a-buzz in 3 or so days for the fantastic release of 12.04 . Am playfully picturing some sort of device sitting in the opposite corner, pinging to the sound of every download; a stereo-buzz. Thanks and kudos to you and the team for the OS which I use daily, from Cape Town. :) Now to get it on a phone and in glasses!

  13. Lesley says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Enjoy the Beekeeping! Banking is a good thing for bees:)

  14. Supernova says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 10:43 am

    wonderful camellia! Looks like mine!
    Supernova

  15. lott says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Here a little bit of info you need to know if you plan to keep your colony in tacked or in good health.
    Hope you are as far away from genetic modified soybeans and corn.
    Or in 8 months they will die and it is not your fault.
    It is the soy and corn it is poison to the bees, by next summer they die or move away to die off.
    The queen with fallow 6 months after that, that means the next brew will be contaminated.
    Then the cycle will come 10 months after that.
    Hope that your in a organic area, best wishes.

  16. Caleb says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    I love my bees, and I’m glad to see this here (I showed my wife who is also an ubuntu user, and she was tickled!) talk about working with a community! bees are disappearing where I am, so we lovingly maintain our hives all we can. Once the distro naming naming alphabet comes around to ‘A’ again we should go for “amazing apis” because they are community-driven, intelligent, compact, and produce so many useful things.

  17. Paolo says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    A very good book about beekeeping for laypeople is Sue Hubbell’s “A book of bees”. It’s not really a technical beekeeping book, it goes over a year of beekeeping and is more about the experience than the techique, but it does describe a lot of how she does it… she is not in favour of queen excluders, BTW…

  18. sean fell says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    My dad had about 12 bee hives when he was younger. Bees no problem.
    Sean.

  19. 2 cents worth says: (permalink)
    April 23rd, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Looks like a freak show to me.

  20. george Ronald Adkisson says: (permalink)
    April 24th, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I personally evolved as a child that caught bees by their wings then later let them go to outrun them.
    I am today am a bit perplexed how to resolve the sudden drop in the honey bee populations due to magnetics and a mites…I certainly never would contribute directly to their total removal … or we would be inventing robot replacements, while humans employed Q-tips to pollinate the flowers etc.
    Imagine large numbers of civilized people would actually disappear from not being legally able to conduct their own personal affairs without patents and copyright acts. Einstein did mention once, that we only have 6 years to go as humans when the bees disappear.
    There are areas where the appearance in the yard of a single honey bee is very unusual. Long Beach California is a place that qualifies that distinction … but then you can wander around to other areas like Crossville Tennessee and see a real good dispersion of pollen bees as well as honey bees.
    I never liked being stung and I certainly would not enjoy being injected with atropine or something similar due to a bee sting.
    I wish everyone well with their care of their bees … have a good day.

  21. Bryce Harrington says: (permalink)
    April 25th, 2012 at 6:54 am

    My dad’s an avid beekeeper here in Oregon. He also enjoyed helping retrieve wild bee swarms out of people’s trees. Said that ironically that’s when the bees were most calm.

    I stick with the nice safe Mason Bees myself.

  22. Bryce Harrington says: (permalink)
    April 25th, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Oh, and my dad’s advice: “Duc tape all of the openings no matter how small.”