GRAEME COUSINS tries not to get stung as he takes a crash course in beekeeping with outdoor enthusiast and animal lover Vanessa Drew
As Vanessa Drew prepared to tap the side of one of the bee hives at her Co Down home, she told me: “There’s bees that we call guards, they act like nightclub bouncers – they’ll be the first ones out of the hive to check what’s going on.”
I was intrigued, but a bit skeptical as to whether the bees would perform on cue.
She knocked the wooden hive.
Sure enough, two bees poked their tiny heads out from a gap at the bottom of the hive and spotted a wasp loitering menacingly near the entrance.
Not doing anything to dispel the bad reputation some bouncers have, the pair attacked the wasp, sending it packing from their home.
“Two bees fighting a wasp – you picked a good day to visit,” said Vanessa.
Vanessa, now 46, has been keeping bees since she was 14.
She explained: “I always loved all animals and when my dad told me he knew of someone who kept bees, straight away I asked him if we could get some.”
Vanessa’s first swarm came courtesy of the family’s minister – John Bell of Ballylesson Church of Ireland.
“When you think about it now, we got a second hand bee hive, I had no bee suit, no equipment, no smoker, no nothing. We didn’t have a clue, no idea.
“When I look back at it now my dad might have given him the impression that he knew what he was doing.
“All we had was a book about beekeeping which is not remotely enough. It was a total disaster.”
But that difficult introduction to beekeeping which led to numerous stings and thousands of escaped bees did not put her off.
Vanessa Drew is a certified lecturer with the Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations.
Her home in Ballyroney where she lives with her husband Russell is a bed and breakfast as well as the location of her many bee hives.
She keeps a number of animals including goats, sheep, peacocks, chickens, goldfish and practises self-sufficiency in producing as much as her own food as possible, some of which she sells to the public.
The 46-year-old runs courses in garden maintenance, keeping chickens, growing your own fruit and veg, as well as beekeeping, which I had enrolled for a one-day crash course in.
Asked what was a bee-keepers worst enemy, she said: “Wasps. They serve no purpose whatsoever. I love animals but that doesn’t extend to wasps.
“If they get into a hive they can destroy it. Not only will they steal all the honey but they’ll also eat the larvae because they’re carnivores.”
Wasps, it would appear, are also trained in the art of deception.
Vanessa said: “Once one wasp gets in to a hive it keeps the scent of the hive on them. It will tell all its friends and give them the scent so when they go to the hive the guard bees will let them in too because they recognise the scent of their own hive.”
As well as wasps, she said humans are also a threat to bees: “Bees don’t need humans. In fact, amateur beekeepers who don’t look after them properly can be the worst.”
Asked what was the worst case scenario for a new beekeeper, Vanessa said: “You could get stung because you’re not handling them properly. When it comes to swarming time you could end up with a swarm of bees in your chimney.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for and when you could end up with too many queen cells. If you don’t separate the queen cells then every time a new queen hatches she’ll just fly out with half the (foraging) bees. You’ll never see them again.”
Explaining the different types of bees you would find in a hive, Vanessa said: “A full hive of honey bees would have around 50,000 in it. A nest of bumble bees would have about 500, a wasp nest would have 5,000.
“The honey bee would be about the size of a wasp with brown and black stripes. A queen would be twice the size, longer and bigger. Even the way she walks is different.
“The drones are all the males – their only aim in life is to mate with the queen.
“All the workers are female, which is not a surprise. The males just hang around and chat and eat honey.
“The queen is the only one who should lay eggs although she may stop laying if she is too old for example, then the workers can lay eggs.
“The females go out and forage for nectar, pollen, water, propolis and also they feed the baby bees. They’re nurse bees and they’re foragers.
“The drones die whenever they mate, that’s the end of them.
“The queens come back to the hive using a sort of GPS. They use landmarks to find their way home. The foragers will come back as well. The hives are all different colours so the bees can tell which one is theirs from all the others in the row of hives.”
In terms of feeding bees Vanessa said: “They’re fed sugar and water, but it doesn’t have the amino acids that they gather in their honey so you should leave as much of it in the hive as you can.
“We sell some of the honey, but I would never take a full super (the box that sits on top of the hive which gathers honey).
“When people start beekeeping they tell all their friends and they’re all waiting for a jar of honey. It get embarrassing when people keep asking for honey and the beekeepers will do anything to get honey out of the hive at the expense of the bees.
“Whenever I feed my bees for the last time in Halloween they store their food because they will not be out flying properly until about next April. They have to gather as much nectar as they can and store it. They queen stops laying and they bed down for the winter.”
She gave some tips for people who encounter bees in every day situations: “If you stand still a bee won’t sting you. The same with a wasp – just leave it alone.
“If you start flapping about it will think you’re attacking it and sting you.
“The best thing to do is get a glass and a piece of paper, put the glass over the window slide the paper in behind, then put it out. It only wants out.”
Vanessa estimated that it would cost an average of £1,000 for a new beekeeper to set up their first hive.
She said: “Before you get the bees you would need to have your hive, your bee suit, your smoker, your hive tools. You would really need to have done a course as well.
“Even after you do a course you need to have regular get togethers to ask questions, chat and discuss any issues you’re having with your bees.
“For someone who has never kept bees it’s a huge undertaking.
“I recommend that people start off with a nuc – it’s short for nucleus. It’s five frames in a box whereas a full hive has 11 frames. It’s half a hive basically. It means then as your knowledge develops you can increase the size of your hive.”
Vanessa makes nucs herself to sell to beekeepers: “I wouldn’t have the nucs ready until the end of July, but what I would do is invite them up here to show them what I’m doing with their nucs and allow them to join in, and get them to grips with it.”
Sharing some beekeeping tips, she said: “You need to be checking your hive every week from April to October – keeping a hive record, particularly of queen cells.
“The queen is the most important member of the bee family, but allowing your hive to get overrun by queens can lead to problems.
“In order to open the hive you need warm, dry, calm weather. After a puff from your smoker you should wait two minutes and then open the hive. If you don’t that’s why they would be aggressive and why you would get stung. You’re coming into their home which is what’s going to make them cross.
“People think the smoke makes them drowsy. It doesn’t. The smoke makes them think their hive is on fire and then they gorge themselves with honey because they think they’re going to have to leave the hive. You know the way after you’ve had a big dinner you feel are sleepy. That’s why using the smoker makes them drowsy, not the smoke itself.
“Gentle movements are very important. And planning in advance to know what tools you’ll need and what you’re likely to have to do.”
She said: “Beekeeping is a great hobby. It brings together the most bizarre group of people from many different walks of life.”
Vanessa, pictured above with her sheepdog Pip, gave an insight into the amazing communication skills of honey bees.
She said: “I never communicate with the bees. They only communicate with themselves.
“As a beekeeper, do they get to know you? The answer is no.
“They only live for six weeks over the summer, so they don’t get attached.
“They couldn’t care less whether I live or die.”
She continued: “When a bee hatches out it can learn to build comb within 18 days.
“It’s pitch dark, nobody taught them, they just start making wax and drawing out.
“Each cell is angled slightly up and they meet in the middle.
“We couldn’t do it with the lights on.”
She added: “The forager communicates with other bees using the waggle dance. Say they find a really good source of nectar it will then come back to the hive, and in the dark, it will dance on the surface of the frame, doing this waggle dance which tells the other workers the direction of where the forage is, how far away it is and what it is.
“All the other foraging bees will gather round the dancefloor. Honestly, people think I make this up.
“She gives them a sample that she holds in her honey crop (before their stomach).
“She regurgitates it so they know what they’re looking for.”
Dromore Beekeepers Association are offering a learning opportunity for beekeepers in the form of a 15 week course beginning this month.
They are delivering one of three parts of the intermediate level beekeeping which builds on the knowledge gained from the preliminary course and improves the understanding of both the scientific and practical aspects of beekeeping.
It consists of three parts – scientific, practical and apiary practical – delivered over a period of at least two years and leading to the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations (FIBKA) Intermediate Certificate of Proficiency in Beekeeping.
It is aimed at holders of the preliminary certificate (or equivalent) who wish to increase their knowledge, understanding and practical skills in beekeeping.
Those applying should be aware that independent study is essential in addition to attending classes and apiary workshops.
The practical written element of the course will be held in Dromore High School and consists of 15 evening classroom sessions between September and April followed by a three-hour written examination next April/May.
The first class will start Wednesday, September 20 at 6.30pm.
The fee for the scientific part of the course is £140 which covers the 15 evening sessions and the examination fee.
If you are interested please contact Vanessa Drew on 07754091772 or firstname.lastname@example.org