The way the course worked was that we spent the mornings doing theory and then the afternoons actually getting hands on experience with the hives. I was expecting a big classroom, but it was less formal than that, sitting around in a spare room above a medical centre. Apparently there was an FA Cup football match this weekend, so some of the people who'd expressed an interest in the course didn't turn up; that left us with a ratio of 2 instructors : 3 students, which was pretty good from my point of view.
Some of the theory overlapped with what I already know, e.g. the different castes and the conditions that would cause a swarm. Other info was new to me, more related to the practical aspects of beekeeping, such as ways to check a hive for diseases. The two people who led the course are both members of the Wimbledon Beekeepers Association (WBKA), and one of them did say flat out that there are no longer any wild bee colonies in this country. Or rather, the only ones which do exist are the ones that have swarmed from managed hives, and they tend not to last very long before succumbing to disease. That's unfortunate, but it does justify the role of a beekeeper, i.e. he/she is actually protecting the bees rather than just keeping them as slaves.
This then leads into some wider philosophical issues. For instance, both of the teachers said that the whole point of keeping hives is to maximise honey production. In my case, I'm probably closer to a university researcher; I don't mind taking some honey for myself, but I'm not planning to start up my own company, and I'm mainly interested in observing the bees so that I can make my computer simulation more accurate. An oft repeated phrase is that "bees don't read the books", i.e. they tend to do weird stuff which the books don't talk about!
Still, there are differences of opinion between beekeepers as to the best approach to take with a hive. For instance, one of the trainers said that he puts sugar water into his hives during the winter, to replace the honey that he's taken and allow them to survive until the spring. The other trainer said that she doesn't do that, so she leaves them one "super" (a box full of frames/combs which makes up one storey of the hive) full of honey that they've made themselves; this means less for her, but her conscience is clear. Similarly, he said that he clips his queens' wings to stop them swarming (since they can't fly away), whereas the other teacher didn't.
I mentioned Sue Hubbell's book before, and at one point she talks about a visit from a commercial beekeeper to her state association. The visitor advocated killing off most of the bees before winter, and then buying new ones from breeders in the spring, in order to maximise profits.
"The audience was quiet and attentive, and I thought perhaps I was the only one who found his methods repellent and unacceptable. I was surprised and pleased, however, when one of the most prominent commercial beekeepers in our state, a man with thousands of hives, jumped to his feet. He is a tough ex-marine, a shrewd businessman and no sentimentalist, but he passionately condemned the Nebraskan's methods as cruel. He put into words what most of us at the meeting, as it turned out, believed: that was an ungrateful way to keep bees. We applauded him for a long time."
I know that (some) vegans refuse to eat honey, and I respect that. (E.g. Why honey is not vegan.) I'm "only" a vegetarian, so I have no objection to it, but I'm not going to tell anyone else that they should expand their diet. However, I think there may be a middle ground, depending on your ethical views: if you buy honey from a local apiary (rather than a supermarket), you'll have a better idea of the conditions that the bees were kept in, so it's the equivalent of buying free range eggs. As a fringe benefit, there's a theory that you can reduce asthma and hayfever if you eat honey which includes pollen from local flowers; opinions seem to vary on how effective this is, but it's probably worth a try.
Turning to history, apparently beekeeping used to be a lot more common than it is now, so most people would have a hive or two in their gardens. In fact, it was traditional for a beehive to be included in a dowry! I think that's quite a nice idea; I realise that dowries in general cause a lot of problems, but I suppose the modern equivalent would be a wedding gift from your in-laws. Sadly, I'm not really in a position to keep bees where I live (that being a first floor flat), but I may be able to rent some space in the corner of an existing apiary or allotment.
As I mentioned, we went out to the park in the afternoon to look at some hives, so I borrowed a beesuit for this:
This is where being tall is a bit of a disadvantage: looking at the BBWear website, the "Large" size is for people who are 6 foot tall, whereas I'm 6'2". In practice, that meant that every time I crouched down it felt as if the front of the collar was cutting off my airway! If I carry on with this then I'll get my own suit, although it's unfortunate that you can't tweak the different measurements individually (chest/leg/height).
The hood looks a bit like a fencing mask, but it's a lot more flexible than that, so you can rub your nose if you get an itch. We use smokers to calm the bees, and these are a bit like barbeques and camp fires in that the smoke can seem to follow you around, wherever you stand!
The suit is basically important as protective clothing, since we did wind up being surrounded by bees, and I had a few landing on the front of my hood. It didn't bother me at all, so it's not as if I was cowering inside my "suit of armour", but I might have been a bit more twitchy if I'd had bees landing on my face instead. Mind you, some other people take a more relaxed approach: I saw one guy in the apiary who had a hood and jacket, but his hands were bare and he just wore normal clothes (jeans/boots) from the waist down. He said that this gave him more sensitivity, and I can understand that. When I started riding a motorbike, I didn't wear gloves (mainly because I hadn't bought any yet), and when I did later get them I could feel the difference, since I was now a bit more isolated from the bike. As for bees, I did get my rubber gloves caught between the frames and the boxes a few times, so bare hands would avoid that problem. On the other hand, he showed us where he'd been stung several times, so there is a downside!
Coming back to Sue Hubbell's book, she talks about wearing minimal protection when working with hives:
"The day had been hotter than usual, and after my shower I had slipped the most minimal of sundresses over my nakedness and called it getting dressed. [...] The bees swirled around, hardly noticing me as they worked and as I worked. When the bees were shaken from the supers they fell to the truck bed, and some of them began flying up underneath my sundress. I could feel them crawling across my skin. The bees were in a good mood, to be sure, but it was asking too much of them not to sting when they discovered they were trapped under the dress. I didn't want to be stung, so I peeled off the sundress. Once they were freed from the confining cloth, they flew away peacefully and I continued to unload the truck inside a cloud of bees, naked as a jaybird except for my big workboots."
There's something similar in the novel "A Hat full of Sky", where Tiffany Aching dances with bees. I quite like the idea of being in harmony with nature, but I'll stick to the full bee suit for now, as I suspect that the alternative would involve me saying "Aargh, no, not the face!"
It was interesting to see inside the hives, because there are some things that don't come across well in photos. Still, I'll try to convey the sense of activity with this picture:
One key point is that bees don't have much sense of personal space, as they're literally crawling over each other; it's quite fun to watch their "circus trapeze" act, where a group of them will dangle underneath a frame to extend the comb. You have to put the frames that close together, otherwise they'll build extra comb in between.
The basic idea is to take the hive apart by lifting the various boxes around, then take out a few of the frames to check the general condition, e.g. is it healthy, has the queen been laying eggs ok? On the first day I watched and assisted with this, and on the second day I completely disassembled/reassembled a hive by myself (under supervision). I was able to see a waggle dance, which wasn't what I'd expected: it looked as if the worker bee was shivering. I also saw a drone emerging from his cell while I was holding a frame, which was pretty cool. One of the keepers pointed out a queen in a hive; I couldn't spot her before, but now that I know what to look for it should be easier in the future (ditto for eggs).
Coming back to the ethical problems, I tried to be as gentle as I could while I was moving things around, but I did still squash a few bees in the process, and the trainers said that this was inevitable. The only thing I could do was put them out of their misery with my hive tool, so that they'd get a quick death. One of the other WBKA members (who I haven't met) has a blog called "Diary of an Incompetent Beekeeper", and one of his entries talks about checking for disease via autopsy. ("It's a violent way to diagnose diseases, and it felt cruel. On the other hand, with some 35,000 or more bees, it's for the greater good of the hive.") The queen is certainly the most important bee in the hive: she can't survive alone, but it's a lot harder to replace her than any of the others, so I can understand the view of caring for the hive as a whole.
Ending on a more cheerful note, I picked up a couple of souvenirs from the weekend: I have a new pot of honey, and some spare comb (drone cells) that the workers had built in an awkward place. As with the "cut comb honey" that I've bought in the past, it's nice to be able to actually hold the comb and get a feel for the dimensions; I think that the cells in my simulation are currently far too big (screenshot), so this will let me improve on that.
The WBKA meets on Sunday mornings, so they said that we'd be welcome to wander along to those meetings for a while until we decide whether we'd like to join the association. In my case, I don't think that I can commit to doing every Sunday (since I have other commitments like SJA), but I'll certainly try to go along to some of them.