How To Fall In Love With Bees

My partner, Jon turned 50 at the beginning of September this year and he is very difficult to buy for!  He always says he’s easy to buy for, all he wants is a sailing boat!  No, he didn’t get that, maybe next year!  He did, though get a great present from his mum and dad – A Taster Beekeeping Course At Buckfast Abbey.

It was brilliant that they booked the day for both of us, we were quite excited.  Jon has always talked about keeping bee’s and we’re hoping one day we’ll be in a position and place where this could happen.

We were up early as we had a couple of hours to travel from Helston where we were staying, up to Buckfastleigh in Devon, on the fringes of beautiful Dartmoor.

I was not only looking forward to attending the beekeeping course, but I was hoping we’d be able to spend some time around Buckfast Abbey too.  I was in luck because we arrived 45 minutes early, the sun was shining and the Abbey is only five minutes away from where we’d be attending the course.

Buckfast Abbey

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As we pulled into the grounds of the Abbey, it struck us how beautiful and pristine everything looked, including the Abbey itself.  Buckfast Abbey is a working Benedictine Monestry with a community of monks living, self-sufficiently within it, creating goods to sell, producing their own electricity and engaging in pastoral work, and most graciously, are welcoming of visitors from around the world.

While standing within the grounds looking up at the Abbey, we were struck by how grand the building looked and amazed to think this place has a thousand years of history,  you can read more about it Here.  It dates back to the reign of King Cnut in 1018 and as you can imagine, has faced many changes of rule during its time.

The grounds are immaculate too and there is such a lot going on.  There’s a busy restaurant, book shop, hotel, conference centre and gift shop.  There is obviously some wonderful gardeners here, because there are various well kept and thought out gardens, including a sensory one, which has beautiful colours, a physic garden, which is designed to attract bees and butterflies, who work amongst the rosemary and thyme, and there’s the lavender garden with it’s incredible scent.

We had a wander around, but didn’t go inside the abbey, because we were keeping a close eye on the time, but after a quick cuppa and cake were back in our car driving the five minutes to where the bee keeping course was to take place.  We found ourselves in a very large workshop being welcomed by the tutors with the offer of a drink.

A Taster Course in Beekeeping

The course itself was from 10:30am until 4pm and from the moment the tutor started to speak, I was gripped, the whole day was so interesting.

Ten facts about honey Bees, (information from course notes)

  1. Bees have been around for more than 100 million years and they evolve from wasps.  Bees are in fact hairy wasps.
  2. There are more than 20,000 different bee species in the world and more than 250 different species in the British Isles.
  3. The difference between honey bees and other species of bees is that honey bees are social insects and live in families of up to 60,000 strong (and more) during the peak of their season.  The colony being a super-organism.
  4. The Queen bee does not rule the colony like a dictator. A more accurate description of her is, ‘mother’, since she is an egg laying machine for most of her time.
  5. The bulk of the colony are Workers who are all female.  They only live for around 5 weeks during the spring and summer months, but don’t toil all day long, they have plenty of rests and spend time relaxing during bouts of frenetic activity.
  6. The male bees are called Drones and are only present in the hive for the active season, spring/summer.  After this they are evicted from the colony as they don’t contribute economically to its survival.  They are too expensive to feed through the winter months.
  7. Promiscuous queens are best.  A virgin queen mates on the wing a few miles from the hive where she was born.  She only takes one or two mating flights and the more drones she manages to encounter the better.
  8. Swarming is colony reproduction.  A large and prosperous colony will divide and form two or more daughter colonies which will move on to new nest sites some distance away.
  9. Honey bees don’t hibernate.  They stay awake for the winter period, but don’t venture from the hive if the weather is too cold or wet.  They keep warm by eating the honey they gathered and stashed during the summer months.
  10. Honeybees’ communication skills are amazing.  They use chemical messages called pheromones for the most part, but they also use visual cues such as ‘dancing’ to tell other bees where to get the best supply of nectar from flowers.

After having an hour or so talking about these facts seen above, along with visual slides, we donned some very fetching beekeeping suits to go and inspect some hives and say hello to the honey bees.IMG_4469

The hives were a short walk through a wood until we came to a clearing with around ten hives.

We secured our hoods to the suits, made sure gloves were tucked in to sleeves and trouser legs tucked in at the ankles, just i case the bees got a little naughty.

As there were around 25 people on the course, we were split into smaller groups to view the hives.

Jon was given the task of keeping a smoker going to help calm the bees for our group.  I think he enjoyed having that job!

Inspecting the bee hives

The lid was removed and there was the inner cover, which had a hole where bees could come through – a place to chill out…

That layer was removed to expose the exciting part of the hive…

The tutor was explaining the differences between the female Worker bees and the Drones and we were looking for the Queen, which is marked with a little white blob for easy inspection.  We did find her, but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo as the Worker bees very quickly covered her, protecting their Queen.  The Queen is only fed Royal Jelly, her main role is to lay thousands of eggs

As soon as a Worker bee is born it will start work and throughout its short life will have various roles, including cleaning, guarding, feeding the Queen and Larvae, foraging for pollen and water, making honey and making cells.

Can you spot a Larvae in one of the cells?  Can you spot a bee being born? 

The way they communicate is fascinating.  Honey bees actually dance to let other foragers know where the food and water sources are, how amazing is that!

There was such a lot of information to take in about these super creatures, they are truly amazing beings, after understanding them a little more you cannot deny their skills as individual workers and understand that the honey bee colonies are truly ‘super-organisms’.

There are some great books about Beekeeping, I’ll certainly be putting ‘Beekeeping for Dummies‘ on my Christmas list!

We had a fabulous day at the Buckfast Abbey Beekeeping Taster Day, we learnt such a lot and although we already loved bees, we now have new found admiration and whole heap of respect for these amazing creatures and realised beekeeping is something we would love to learn more about.

As many of you will already know, over the years bees have declined in numbers, the main reasons being; habitat loss, intensive farming with insecticides and diseases.  They also have other issues such as the Varroa Mite, a wide spread problem for honey bees and the Asian Hornet, (almost entirely dark abdomen with a yellow segment towards its back end), this is a non-native, invasive insect from Asia, not to be mistaken with our own own harmless and very useful European hornet, (light brown abdomen with paler yellow).

I found this wonderful website BuzzAboutBees.net, which is well worth a visit if you’d like to learn more about our bees and learn about how we can help them.

How to fall in love with bees?  I would fully recommend going on a ‘Beekeeping Taster Day’.  It makes a fabulous present and even if you have no interest in keeping bees yourself, it’s still such a fascinating day of learning.

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