To find out more about bees I needed to visit a working hive, so enrolled on a local ‘Meet the Bees’ course with Surrey Bees. Their apiary in Woking offers a range of theory and practical training courses to help every level of enthusiast. We were lucky as they had chosen a beautiful sunny day to visit and explore. On arrival and after check in, we suited up in bee-proof canvas suits and yellow marigold gloves. All bee proof suits were provided and the instructors made sure we were zipped in and safe!
First thing was to learn how to light the smoker – which is used to make the bees think their hive is on fire so they carry out an evacuation procedure (and hopefully get out of your way!). The idea is not to light the smoker with a flame, but to produce a gentle rolling smoke. We watched on as the instructor filled it up with items such as cardboard (particularly corrugated), paper, mulch, wood chips and rotting wood – the key seems to be anything flammable as long as it is not covered in paint or chemicals, as it would harm the bees.
Next we took a short stroll across the field to where the main rows of hives were placed surrounded by a mixture of wild flowers, trees that provide spring, summer and autumnal blooms. The first thing that struck me was how peaceful the area was – that was until we got a little nearer to the hives themselves. As we walked past a hive that had recently been opened and you could see the bees hadn’t quite settled down and were buzzing around still protecting the space in case of further invasion.
We stopped at the hive we were due to explore – number 25. As we got closer I could hear a loud hum – it was quite a relaxing sound and made me think that there must be a lot of bees in there (around 50,000 in one hive we were told!). We carefully took off the top trays with the ‘supers’ safely tucked inside them – surprisingly to me this is where the majority of honey is stored to feed the bees and larvae below, throughout the winter months. Note: the supers were extremely heavy so two people really better to do this job! The instructor showed us how to gently open up each frame below using a special wrench like hook tool to open up each tray of bees – our mission was to try to track down the queen.
Even though it is late in the season we were very lucky to catch a drone still in the hive and could see the different stages of bee growth from larvae to young and nearly ready to hatch bees and all the workers taking care of them. I thought it was funny that some bees had what looked like little pollen trousers on – where they had been collecting! In our group we all took turns to carefully explore each ‘cell’ but didn’t manage to find the elusive queen, until the final frame!
The queen was longer and slightly darker in colour to the rest of the workforce with shorter wings and her ‘ladies in waiting’ were carefully grooming and feeding her, hardly surprising as she lays around 2000 eggs per day – she is one busy lady! Other bees, were doing a special waggle dance at the entrance of the hive to waft pheromones to their fellow worker bees out collecting, this is so they would know which hive to return to.
Before our time was up we quickly got to see the supers where the honeycomb is stored and harvested by bees and human alike! The smell of a live hive was really interesting – you could smell a mixture of the pheromones, pollen, smoke and honey – it was truly beautiful. An overwhelming feeling was how completely relaxed and not scared I felt, having grown up with a mother who goes into anaphylactic shock if stung we always shoed bees and wasps away to loud screams – I can definitely imagine myself both enrolling for the longer course, and one day even starting my own backyard apiary!
As we were walking back we had to check for any stray bees or aggressors trying to see us off from their hive. Eventually we got back to the reception area where I picked up some of this season’s delicious honey to try.
Surrey Bees offer training courses on both the theory and practical side of beekeeping at their training ground near Wisley. For further information, or information on adopting a hive follow the link below: