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The beautiful world of honey bees

Lush Times columnist, permaculture expert and now beekeeper Maddy Harland shares the ongoing story of her love affair with bees and explains why, this year, she is about to embark down the road of a more natural way of beekeeping.

I have been keeping bees for three years. In beekeeping terms I am a novice. We need at least a lifetime to get to know and understand bees. Even then some aspects of their fascinating lives remain a mystery. For instance, no one really understands why the exact chemical constituents of Royal Jelly create Queen cells or how a hive communicates the location of nectar flows through the waggle dance. Bees are fundamentally mysterious.


I started beekeeping because my forest garden has over 80 fruit, nut and other useful trees, and spring and summer wildflower meadows. It is a haven for pollinators. A few years ago, however, I noticed a dramatic drop in honeybees. I put it down to the practice of spraying insecticides on crops like oilseed rape on the arable fields around my home. I decided I needed a beehive to provide a home for bees and to pollinate my fruit. Thus began my love affair with honeybees.


A few chilling statistics: A recent German study has revealed that our insect population has declined by 75% in the last 25 years. Since 1945, Britain has lost 97% of its wildflowers, 80% of its chalk downland and 300,000km of hedgerows (with 10-15% being recently re-planted). The main reasons for this decline is industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change.


The loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides are particular threats for honeybees and wild pollinators. Before 1988, there were 5 million hives in the USA. By 1993, the bee disease varroa had destroyed half of them. Normally, beekeepers expect to lose about 17% of their bees in winter. With climate chaos, this percentage has now doubled.


How I started


I learnt beekeeping from Geoff, a local beeper of 40+ years experience. He introduced me to national hives and I built two of my own. These are boxes in which beekeepers hang frames, each with a wax foundation. The bees build up the frames into comb. Some boxes and frames are deeper and are used for the Queen to lay eggs in (brood) and have a ‘halo’ of honey and pollen stores around the edges. Others are slightly less deep and are for storing honey (called supers). Usually the Queen is excluded from the honey frames that are located higher up the hive by a Queen excluder. This is a wire mesh that allows smaller workers through but not the larger Queen bee and prevents Queens laying eggs in honey stores.


In early summer a hive full of bees, brood frames and honey will often swarm. So beekeepers ‘go through’ their hive to check for Queen cells and grub them out to prevent swarming. They also make room by removing honey and or adding more frames. Beekeepers check through their hives for diseases and add chemical treatments if necessary. In a national hive this is done by dismantling the boxes and checking all the frames. It is similar to someone coming into your home, removing all your possessions and then putting them back again, but not in the same rooms, denting a few of your favourite bits of furniture and the walls along the way.


I try to keep these interventions to an absolute minimum. I never remove honey frames if it risks leaving my bees short of stores for the winter as this necessitates feeding them on sugar which I believe weakens their immune systems. A hive needs at least 30lbs (13.6kg) to get them through (the equivalent of a full super of honey) the winter season. If they have strong immune systems then they are not so vulnerable to bee diseases. I therefore leave them honey and do not treat varroa with noxious chemicals but use more natural methods.


I use as little smoke as possible to control bees. Smoke drives the bees into the hive as they think there is a fire nearby. There they gorge honey in case they have to move house. Bees with abdomens full of honey can’t bend their bodies and sting. Hence the practice, but I prefer a very gentle, slow and minimalist approach with a little misted water instead. Bees aren’t keen on rain!


I am also beginning to wonder if I really need a Queen excluder in the summer? In the wild, when a hive is thriving, the bees will zone their honey and brood in separate parts of the hive.

The other thing I do not do is requeen my hives with bought in Queens. I let them breed their own new Queen as importing bees risks importing bee diseases and especially bred Queens are hybridised.


Last year, I divided my main hive into two colonies, sharing the honey stores between them. The second Queenless hive bred its own Queen. My main hive has a wonderful temperament. The colony is very gentle, resilient to disease and doesn’t tend to swarm much. The Queen lays lots of eggs and the workers produce lots of honey. Great genes!


The maiden flight


When a Queen cell is allowed to hatch, she takes a maiden flight into the mysterious ‘drone congregation area’ to mate. This place is where drones (male bees) from various neighbouring colonies congregate and wait for queens. It is about 100 m in diameter and from 5 to 30 m in the air. They are often near the edges of tree lines towards the horizon. The drones like a breeze too. It helps them chase after the Queen to mate! (Check out this incredible YouTube film).


Allowing nature to take its course ensures mixed genes but this can have risks as we have feral bees in our woods. Once a new Queen mated with drones with very aggressive genes and we had to give the colony away. It stung anyone unfamiliar if they came within 20 feet (6m) of the hive in the garden! But usually, by allowing nature to take its course, I ensure the genes of the new colony are mixed and thus more likely to be healthy and resilient to bee diseases.


Honey’s healing properties


Natural honey (unheated and derived from flowers, not sugar, from a good local beekeeper) is an incredible substance. It does not spoil. Honey found in the Pharaohs’ tombs that is thousands of years old is still edible. It has antibacterial qualities and can be used to treat ulcers and other skin wounds. It also helps boost our immune systems; hence honey and lemon in hot water when we have a cold…


Having spent three years as an apprentice learning beekeeping with nationals - a conventional way of keeping bees for honey - I am about to embark on a new journey; first I am going to build a Top Bar hive, and then I am going to learn natural beekeeping, incorporating many of the skills I have learnt to date and new ones too. Top Bars do not have premoulded foundations in their frames and they allow bees to draw out their own comb. This has many advantages for the bees (but requires gentle handling by the beekeeper). Top Bars are less intensively managed and do not require the dismantling of the entire home to check the bees like a national hive does. They are more for bee ‘habitat’ than honey production.


I will let you know how I get on with first building a Top Bar beehive. Then I will fill it with a new swarm and compare the two systems. I am sure that during my further adventures with bees I will learn more of these fascinating creatures that co-operate as one, the Hive Mind. There is so much we can learn from them as a species.


Free Top Bar hive plans are available here:


You can build a Top Bar hive in a day with Jim the Bee in Dorset here:


Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture Magazine. She is the author of Fertile Edges – regenerating land, culture and hope – and The Biotime Log.

Photo credits: 
Main photo: Bee collecting pollen by Jon Sullivan , Wikimedia Commons
Below: Bridport Community Orchard, by Jim ‘the Bee’ Binning


Loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides are particular threats for honeybees and other wild pollinators

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