Book of the Week: The Idle Beekeeper

7 May|Bill Anderson

Beekeeper Bill Anderson at Port Eliot festival, photo by Louise Roberts

It’s time to embrace the low-effort, natural way to keep bees, argues urban beekeeper and Idler columnist Bill Anderson

Before Notting Hill became desirable, before London was even thought of, before any human made any structure, bees lived in trees. For millions of years a defendable cavity in a rotting stump was their accommodation of choice. How they managed without us for so long is a mystery, but we finally came along with our sweet teeth. And destroyed bee colonies for their honey and their fat-and-protein-rich larvae. For thousands of years.

By 1852 most of us were well over our penchant for wriggly grubs when American Rev. Langstroth patented a hive system that allowed the beekeeper to not only harvest honey without killing all the bees in the process, but also to manipulate them to maximise honey production. And no tree climbing. It’s a system the honey industry still uses today, and it’s all about the beekeeper. Think battery farming.

Now we’re coming to realise that we might be able to do without our honey, but we can’t do without the pollination service bees provide. Not just in the almond valleys of California where bees are fork-lifted in by the billions from all over the USA for the few weeks of the blossom, and then fork-lifted out again before they die of starvation when the blossom’s over. We need them globally, constantly. And they’re having a hard time right now.

So how can we help? Wind the clock back? Let trees rot, form cavities and leave the bees alone? Or if we haven’t the forests or the patience, make bee boxes to give them rent-free homes and let them keep all their honey? Thousands of us already put bird boxes in our gardens in the hope of occupancy but without any expectation of eggs. Or maybe we could co-exist more kindly – honey is so delicious, and the bees often make more than they need…


Bill's urban apiary

Bill’s urban apiary

On my London rooftop I have five People’s Hives, a system devised by a French clergyman Abbé Warré (1867-1951) to be simple, economical and bee-friendly.

In the wild, bees start building comb from the top of their tree cavity, and work downwards to fill it. The queen prefers to lay her eggs in brand new comb that bees make from snow-white wax they squeeze out of special glands. She can lay her own bodyweight in eggs every day for months – that’s fourteen human eight-pound babies a day for an eight stone woman! As the queen works downwards and young bees hatch out of the comb above her, the uppermost comb is used to store spare honey to feed the colony in the flower-free winter. The People’s Hive is a simple series of identical boxes with wooden bars at the top which politely suggest to the bees where they might conveniently start building their comb – no compulsion, the bees are wild animals and will do what they like.

The bees follow their natural instinct to build comb downwards, and when they get near the bottom of a box, the beekeeper lifts the whole hive up and shoves another empty box underneath. The bees are briefly interrupted in their comb building at the junctions between boxes, but quickly discover the spaces between the new set of wooden bars, and carry on building downwards from those new wooden bars into the next box. And so on. It’s like a wild hive but articulated every 8 inches vertically.

Eventually, if there is enough honey to spare at the top of the hive, the beekeeper can remove the top box – full of honey – without destroying the hive, or even inconveniencing the bees much. Apart from stealing some of their winter fuel allowance, obviously. Very great care has to be taken to weigh the hive before harvesting to make sure that the bees will have more than enough honey to see them through the winter. Experienced beekeepers can tell by “hefting” – lifting a corner of the hive and judging its weight. I use a pulley and luggage scales in a hoisting arrangement which is definitively urban.

Having established that there is enough spare honey to harvest, before I actually take it, I give an undertaking to each hive that I will monitor them over the winter, and at the first sign of any shortage, I will feed their honey back. It’s only a verbal undertaking from a mad hippy, but there are a lot of witnesses.

Otherwise I pretty much leave them to their own devices. I bought bees for my first hive, and now have four more – all from wild swarms that voluntarily moved into empty People’s Hives I made available.

Imagine your mortgage lender insisted on structurally checking your home by taking the roof off and lifting out all the internal walls. They put everything back and give you the OK, but the furniture’s in the wrong place and you have to replaster and repaint all the joins. It can take bees as much as two days work to repair after a beekeeper inspects their hive this way, and some inspect every week. There’s a lovely old book called At The Hive Entrance by H. Storch which describes itself as an Observation Handbook: “How to know what happens inside the hive by observation on the outside.”

Sitting for hours watching the diagnostic minutiae of the bees coming and going is simultaneously fascinating, humbling and zen. My kind of beekeeping.

Bill Anderson’s book The Idle Beekeeper: The Low-Effort, Natural Way to Raise Bees (Abrams Press), is published published on 21 May. 

Bill will be teaching us more about idle beekeeping at the Idler Dinner on 10 June. Tickets available here