Thoughts on keeping bees alone

I’m finding inspecting my allotment bees a new thing, quite different to the beekeeping I’ve done in the past. These are the first bees I’m inspecting alone on a regular basis.

I cycle to the allotment alone – this in itself is a new experience! Before Drew gave me my bike a year ago I hadn’t cycled in city streets since I was a teenager. And back then I’d cycled on pavements and in parks, not on the roads. Cycling gives me a peculiar feeling of freedom tinged with fear. It is a joyful thing to zoom along with my heavy beekeeping equipment balanced in a basket, but cars behind me in narrow streets bring an element of stress.

Cornflowers and daisies

Once at the allotment, I unlock the gate and wheel my bike down the grassy paths between the plots, past beautiful flowers and a huge variety of vegetables. It doesn’t take long to reach my plot, where I light my smoker alone on a bench under the apple tree. This week, I had a huge problem getting any of my matches to turn to flame. Maybe they had got soggy at some point. It was a relief when I heard that rushing noise and got my egg boxes to burn. Then the smoker went out – twice!

IMG_3612

Without any other humans around, it’s just me and the bees. I concentrate and lose myself in their hum. My main focus is on trying not to squash any as I move the combs out to inspect. I am afraid not of them but for them – they are so little, so delicate! A misplaced thumb can still them forever. It is they who should be terrified of me. Like cycling, for me beekeeping is freedom and joy with nagging twinges of worry. I hate the crunching noise of a squashed bee.

Bee in bindweed

Absorbed in slow, steady movements, looking out for eggs and potential queen cells, I have no time to think about anything else. Troubles are forgotten as I twist the frames round and watch the bees dancing on the comb. This is the gift the bees give me.

Moths

This year the allotment hive, headed up by the newly named Queen Stella, have been curiously well behaved. They have made no attempt to swarm – but neither have they made much honey. They are plodding along. The photo below is of a super belonging to a luckier beekeeper.

Honey super

I’m not sure whether beekeeping alone makes me a better beekeeper or not. I probably make less silly mistakes, because I’m not being distracted by trying to carry on a conversation or answer questions while I inspect. I lose my hive tool slightly less often.

On the other hand, if I always did beekeeping alone I could miss out on alternative ideas and ways of doing things that have not occurred to me. It is always good to learn from other beekeepers, to watch them and pick up on successful or indeed disastrous movements and techniques they use. And of course the bonus of having a hive partner is that you have someone to help lift heavy boxes and chat with over tea.

What do you think, do you prefer beekeeping alone or with a audience?

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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46 Responses to Thoughts on keeping bees alone

  1. I have done both now, alone and with someone else. I far prefer doing it with someone else. I see more, I have more time and most importantly we can talk about options when we come across something unexpected. It is nice to be alone with them sometimes though!

    David

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  2. Jonathan Harding says:

    If you are self employed the only time you get undisturbed is when you are looking at the bees! Nobody comes asking for a signature or can I do this or that,,I am doing my bees.
    Easygoing bees seldom make a lot of honey and hot bees often produce a lot,no gain without pain…..
    Your pink moth looks like a small Elephant Hawk and the other one is a Lime Hawk,

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Sounds like your bees are a great way to get some peace! I did wonder about the mean bees = lots of honey thing, but then last weekend Tom showed me a hive of the most perfect bees. They are gentle as pie, a huge colony, they haven’t tried to swarm this year and they’ve produced four supers so far this summer, which is a huge amount for London.

      Thanks for the moth IDs. A naturalist at a local nature reserve (Perivale Wood) showed us them. I’d never seen such beautiful moths before.

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  3. Grower says:

    Those moths are stunning!

    I enjoy being alone with the bees. But I also find when I was inspecting with my partner we’d each see different things and there were two of us to make notes or remember what we wanted to record. Having a hand lifting heavy hive parts was nice, too.

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  4. I like a beekeeping buddy. Partly because sometimes I wonder if something is amiss and brainstorming helps. We may not reach the right answer, but a burden shared is a burden halved.

    The main reason I like a beekeeping buddy is because I literally can not lift a full super. We have full depth supers (8 frame, same depth as the brood) and when the bees pack it full of honey we can easily extract 20 kilos of honey from a box. Add in the weight of the honey we leave behind and the box and the frames and the wax and the bees walking along innocently and I have to really put my back into it to clumsily swing the darned thing off. Putting it back on my own leads to an equally clumsy manoeuvrer which squashes bees and rattles the whole hive. I’d have to change over all my supers if I were to work alone so I’ll let my husband into the apiary with me!

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I know what you mean about the brainstorming, many a time Emma and I have pondered various ideas over, she’s very good at coming up with clever solutions.

      Do most Australian beekeepers use full depth supers? I find a half depth one heavy enough! Perhaps the full depth ones are more efficient in your climate?

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      • Most of the beekeepers I know use full depth supers. I’m not sure if it’s a climate thing. The main reason we do it is because then it’s so easy to swap materials between brood and supers. Everythings interchangeable and it’s easier (and cheaper) to keep spares. It’s pretty common to not just swap frames but to swap the brood box and the super if the queen moves up where you don’t want her. Of course it’s easier to extract as well because you get double the honey with the same effort. Maybe the climate does have something to do with it because filling a full depth super with honey doesn’t seem like a big ask – we often (it’s certainly our goal) have 2 full depth supers on each hive in summer and expect our girls to fill ’em up twice!

        So it’s ease of management (and cost) not ease for your back that motivates the beekeepers I know.

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        • BTW, perhaps you jinxed me. I’m alone on the farm with my husband o’seas right now and one of the hives was looking decidedly problematic – not many bees coming and going. Their queen wasn’t laying well 6 weeks ago when we checked. It’s mid-winter so I really like to leave the hives alone but today was sunny and 18 C so I opened the hive – all by myself (thinking, “darn that Emily”) and found a partially removed queen cell but no brood. I didn’t check each frame as its winter but I didn’t see a queen or any queen activity where most of the bees were clustered. No disease, no problems, just a lousy queen. And she was new in January. I guess it happens some times.

          I made a quick decision and moved a brood frame (capped, larva and eggs) from a strong hive into this weak brood box. If they already made their own replacement queen, this will boost her numbers. If they superseded (that’s my guess of what happened) and if failed, then they have eggs to try once more at making a queen. There aren’t many drones around so I don’t think this poor hive has much of a chance to save itself but all it cost me was 1 frame of brood which the hive I robbed doesn’t need.

          I slung two “heavy” (okay, only half full) full depth supers like a pro in order to save my struggling colony. I would have loved another pair of eyes to check, another brain to think and 2 more hands to work faster, but I think I did fine on my own.

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          • Emily Heath says:

            Oh no! What a thing to find, especially just when you’re alone. I think your idea was a good one, hope it goes well. Beekeeping must be so different in Australia – we’d never have drones in winter and very few eggs around.

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            • The jury is in – beekeeping alone sucks. Because of a few problems in the apiary and some stores that could be redistributed and my fear of the winter dearth and some great weather and… Anyway, I took on the apiary alone today. It was a pleasant sunny 20 (winter here is really lovely) and the bees were flying. In 90 minutes I checked 8 of my 22 hives. My back is killing me. One is queenless, a couple are weak, all (except the queenless one) have brood – some lots – all show signs of eating some of their honey stores, but more recently storing up nectar and pollen. After the 8 I decided that the bees were fine and didn’t need any more “help” from me. Not until I get help anyway. I simply don’t have the strength/stamina for getting through 22 hives on my own. I could get through it all in 3 days I suppose but honestly, I’ve convinced myself they’re all doing okay. I checked the strong and the weak and the ones in between must be similar.

              That said, it was very peaceful to work at my own pace. I could even stop to remove my hood and adjust my hair when it came loose and started tickling my nose – something that is more difficult if you’re partnering. So if I had up to 5 hives I think I’d be perfectly happy to do a lot of the beekeeping alone. I think.

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              • Emily Heath says:

                Trying to inspect 22 hives on my own would kill me too. 5 is bad enough. Think you did really well to inspect 8 in that time. Also you said you have the full size supers, which must be insanely heavy.

                Your winter weather is our summer’s!

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        • Emily Heath says:

          Really interesting…the advantages you mention make sense. I expect it would take the bees here quite a while to fill a full depth super, and I know some of my colonies wouldn’t manage it.

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  5. Bruce says:

    I’m the head beekeeper of a community garden so every hive inspection involves teaching and guiding beekeepers including two 4 year olds this year (very cute in their outfits). This is fun but I find it much more relaxing, productive and intimate being by myself with the bees. Also, the bees seem less stressed.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      4 year olds – brilliant! That’s a good point about the bees seeming less stressed, by yourself there must be fewer disturbing vibrations and less commotion around the hive generally.

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  6. solarbeez says:

    I’ve never had an audience, so I don’t really know, but then I don’t pull out frames either. Most of my hives have an observation window so I can sort of see what’s going on without having to interrupt them.
    Your beekeeping friends at the apiary are going to miss your cakes, cookies, and companionship. What about them? 🙂

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  7. I prefer to do everything alone, so I imagine beekeeping would be no different.

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  8. Reblogged this on Linda's wildlife garden and commented:
    Awesome and thank you for sharing

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  9. beenurse says:

    It sounds as if you had a poetic time with your bees. Very nice.

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  10. I think you have the best of both worlds. It is good to be concentrated on your own and really get into the rhythm of your bees but you have also the companionship of other bee keepers when you need it. I so much enjoy watching my solitary bees and trying to find out more about their lives but I have found no one who shares my passion to talk face to face with. Amelia

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  11. Anne says:

    Loved your post Emily, I am in tune with all the emotions you describe, not only the beekeeping ones but the cycling ones also. You certainly seem to find the bees so rewarding from a relaxation angle. I love my bees like you. I enjoy solo beekeeping as well as association apiary sessions where it is great to network and bounce ideas of each other and share your knowledge with beginners. Your pictures are fab as well. Congratulations. Enjoy so much your posts as well as Emma’s.
    Happy Beekeeping
    Anne

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  12. agnesandcora says:

    A lovely insight into your beekeeping. What a great photo of two hawkmoths too. I`ve been making moths recently, but I`ve never seen anything so exotic up here. x

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  13. What a fantastic blog post I’ve got the beekeeping bug at the moment. I’m going to be learning to be a beekeeper in January and I’ve been doing lots of reading up on it. Thanks for this insight I’ve really enjoyed reading it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Heath says:

      Watch out, once you get the bug it’s easy for bees to take over your life! The weather forecast becomes a matter of obsession and any spare space you have at home is quickly filled with all sorts of equipment.

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  14. Hayley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this … It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve always been part of a group visiting colonies on communal gardens & sometimes find it a bit stressful (for me & the bees.) I can’t wait to have bees that I can really connect with by myself. Do enjoy & explore the relationship you’re having with your bees : ) I imagine when your alone beekeeping it becomes a kind of like a mindfulness practice?

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Hayley, I’ve started following your Wrapped in Newspaper blog 🙂 I agree about the group visits perhaps being more stressful for the bees, more vibrations and clumsy bodies getting in their way.

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  15. A lovely post Emily, capturing all that is best and brightest in beekeeping. I like beekeeping alone but I also like having company. I find that other beekeeper helps you slow down, think through a situation, and generally make better decisions. And the companionship is so nice; I invite myself to beekeep with other beekeepers and learn a lot that way. When I beekeep alone (which is most of my beekeeping) I have adopted a policy that if I find a surprise in a hive, I like to close it up, go over my notes for that hive and sleep on it. I make a decision the next day on how to proceed. Not many things demand immediate action, you can usually take a day or a few to fix things. That pause to reflect generally results in better decisions. I am only in my third season of beekeeping but have a lot of bees this year (20+ colonies) and am becoming more comfortable beekeeping alone. I trust my judgement more and more now. In my first and second years I was at sea, learning as I went, and it was hugely helpful and reassuring to have a more experienced beekeeper at my elbow.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, it’s interesting to hear everyone’s experiences. 20+ colonies! Wow. They must be keeping you busy.

      I envy you being able to sleep on things… with only having the weekends to inspect, often we do need to do something the same day, particularly when it comes to swarm control. And sometimes there can be really beautiful weather during the week, but then torrential rain on the Saturday.

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  16. deweysanchez says:

    I would really like the opportunity to share my bees with someone. A share in the concern and distracted thoughts and a shared goal. In have really enjoyed taking my foster son on a few inspections even though he can’t be much help just yet.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      It must be lovely introducing a child to the world of bees. I hope he enjoys meeting them. Perhaps in a few years time you’ll be able to talk things through together.

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  17. willowbatel says:

    I’ve only ever kept bees alone. I like talking to people about all sorts of different kinds of bees, but I hate doing it while I’m actually working with the bees. No one wants to be next to the hive while I’m working (we only currently have one wearable suit), so I’m constantly shouting over the noise of the bees to try and cary a conversation. Working alone is much more peaceful, and lets me visit with my girls (dare I say) one on one. I don’t have a bunch of noisy humans crowding around for my attention, just my bees!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Heath says:

      Yeah, shouting isn’t good, all those vibrations must disturb the bees. I find that awkward at the allotment sometimes, when people start trying to have a long-distance conversation about the bees.

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      • willowbatel says:

        My neighbors try to talk to me while I’m working all the time and shouting over the hum of 90,000 bees to be heard a hundred or so feet away is impossible. And I feel the same way about the vibrations! The bees are already stressed from having their hive opened up, screaming over top of them isn’t going to help that.

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  18. happyhomesteaders2014 says:

    We are brand new at beekeeping as we have only had our two hives a little over a month. I would LOVE to have someone to talk things over with as most times we don’t know if what we are doing is right, are we looking at what we think we are looking at, etc.! All of that being said, I also know that I like to work alone so, after learning from an expert, I suspect that I would prefer to work alone .

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Fantastic, happy beekeeping!

      Yes, I remember the early days when you get confused between capped honey and brood, different pollen colours throw you and swarm control is bewildering.

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