The Cottage Smallholder

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Beekeeping plans and projects 2012

photo of a honey bee on a flower taking the nectar

The same honey bee as yesterday. Just going in to get the nectar.

Our colony of bees didn’t make it through the winter.

I always start checking to see if they are flying on sunny days. It’s so heartening to see them buzzing in an out of the hive. A real sign of spring.

But this year the hive is silent. I’ve sat beside the pond for ages hoping that eventually they’d appear. But there is no sign of them.  All the honey bees that I’ve spotted in our garden must have come from the hives across the road. It’s really disappointing. I haven’t looked inside the hive yet – I suppose I’ve been hoping that our bees are taking a long time to get going. But deep down inside I know that they are dead.

Over the years we have made quite a big financial investment in our bees. We have two big hives, two ‘nukes’ and masses of spare frames. As well as bee suits, gloves, smokers and all the tools that one needs for beekeeping. We’re probably looking at about a £400 – £500 investment.

Beekeeping is not a particularly good commercial venture unless you have a lot of hives (100+) and the time to tend them. If you just have a couple of hives and, over a ten year period, you can cover your costs and make a bit of profit by selling honey you are doing well.

Up until now we have just produced honey comb for our consumption. We like honey comb best and that’s what we’ve concentrated on producing. Last autumn we didn’t need take off any honey and left all the stores for the bees to eat over the winter. If you can spare some honey for your bees it is far more nutritious than sugar solution.

Colony collapse has happened to us before. Each time we’ve been lucky and a swarm has arrived and taken up residence in one of our hives – our garden is full of flowers and nectar so it must seem like Harrods food hall to a discerning bee.

This year we want to do things differently bee wise. Ramping up our beekeeping/honey producing activity is one of the ‘Five Bucks a Day’ projects on my list. It went on the list before I twigged that we had lost our bees so I’d started to make pretty detailed plans regarding our beekeeping future.

OK Five Bucks a Day = £3.33 x 365 = £1215. I’d never make that with just two hives but this is a small project – I’d be delighted with 25% of that (£303). The whole point of Five Bucks a Day is to create and maintain loads of projects, some bringing more than $5 bucks and some bringing in less. The overall ethos is to create multiple small streams of income, to think creatively as well as commercially and move towards a state where you have enough irons in the fire to be able to survive whatever the economy throws at you.

I’d decided to market and sell our honey comb. This is packed in plastic boxes and wouldn’t cost as much as a heavy glass jar to post. There are loads of local beekeepers producing jars of honey but no one offers honey comb so there’s a gap in the market. 250g of honey comb is worth far more than 250g of liquid honey in a jar.

One of the main reasons that beekeepers are loath to produce honey comb is that the foundation – the wax that is extruded by the bees to make the comb that they fill with honey – cannot be reused. Also, the bees have to spend time extruding the comb again. These bees would not be out looking for nectar but they would be looking after the brood, cleaning and repairing cells and so on.

However, I like making the frames and the foundation isn’t very expensive. Also eating the honeycomb can be very good for you – see some of the benefits here. N.B. If you are allergic to be stings, it’s advisable not to eat honeycomb without first consulting your doctor.

I’d also decided that we’d actually farm our bees this year. This is relatively easy. If you have a strong colony and a ‘nuke’ you are set to go. A nuke is beekeeping slang for a nucleus – a half sized hive that is specifically used to raise a new colony of bees.

Obviously you need a healthy colony to start with. You take four ‘brood’ frames plus bees and place them in the ‘nuke’. You add a frame of honey to keep them going. You need to double check that your queen is not moved into the ‘nuke’ by mistake.

When the bees in the ‘nuke’ realise that they do not have a queen they make a new queen. This process takes a month. They might make a few and if this happens the queens will fight to the death leaving the strongest queen to lead the colony.

A lot of beekeepers use nukes as an insurance policy just in case their main colony doesn’t survive the winter. We never have done this but will be doing this from now on. And if our main colony survives we can sell the spare nucleus – market prices start at a minimum of £150 for five frames of bees with a queen.

I had also decided to move our hives from the back to the front garden. Our front garden is big. About five cars’ length from the road. It is also much warmer than the back garden which is a true frost pocket. A colony of bees can use up loads of energy just trying to keep warm during a cold winter.

Now that we have no bees in residence it’s the perfect time to clean out the hives and move them to the new, more protected spot that we’ve selected.

We could get a free swarm of bees locally to start us off again but I’ve decided to invest in some Buckfast Bees. These are gentler than the standard British honey bee and if we are planning to breed them I’d prefer to be able to offer something a little bit special to potential buyers.

Our new bees will arrive at the beginning of June. Meanwhile we will close the entrance to our main hive but leave a front door open to the other one. Just in case a local swarm appears, looking for a new home. If we had the chance, it would be good to compare the output and behaviour of the Buckfast bees to the standard British honey bee.


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  1. Elizabeth Maxwell

    I didn’t realise you could buy nucs and have them delivered. If I may ask were did you get them from please? Our colony decided to leave us exceptionally early this year leaving just a few stragglers and no brood.
    We are re-siting our hive and hope to start again next year, but trying to find a good apiary here (North of Scotland) is difficult.
    Hope you can advise

  2. I started a hive (my first) with a very young queen & a couple of hundred bees last May in a sheltered spot in my south-facing garden. We weren’t entirely sure she was strong enough to hang onto them, but she did. By last Autumn the hive was fairly strong & to give them the best chance of survival we fed them on fondant throughout the Winter. I was stunned at how early the bees started to become active & how quickly the queen began laying. We are in the middle of a cold snap so are taking a little extra care, having seen lots of baby bees. Being my first year everything is a bit ‘sudden’, & we do panic a bit (needlessly!), but so far so good.

    I am sorry about your bees……….I guess its something I could well face in the future.

    Oh……..I didn’t mention that since caring for my bees, I have discovered I am extremely allergic to bee stings! (Like hospital-type-allergic!)

  3. Finally visited your blog! Thinking of starting with bees in the next year so very interested in your experience. I was sorry to read of the loss of your bees and wish you success with the Buckfast bees. Please let us know how it goes.

    • Fiona Nevile

      Hi Aly

      I’ve ordered the Buckfast bees. So that’s all paid for now 😉 They have 400 to sell and had already sold 100 in February so I thought that I better get in fast. Can’t wait until they arrive in June!

  4. Belinda

    We keep hearing this but our place is aswarm with bees when the lambs ear, lavender etc etc are in flower.

  5. So sorry to hear about your bees – there’s little that gladdens my heart as much as the sight of bees busy in the garden and of course they’re such an important part of the eco system. Lots of luck with the new swarm

    There’s an interesting take on beekeeping here


  6. Forgot to add, that for anybody interested in starting to keep Bees, there are some very good “Tutorials” on U-Tube!!

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