Although I had the chance to see his beautiful paintings hanging everywhere in his house, it is not the reason why I visited artist Peter Sorrell*. Peter is also a passionate beekeeper. I would like to have a beehive in my garden so I asked him what I must know about keeping bees. This is what he told me.
a beekeeper or a person who keeps bees?
Peter immediately makes the point - there is a difference between a beekeeper and a person who keeps bees. A beekeeper looks after all their needs and wellbeing. A person who keeps bees does so to get as much honey as possible from their bees and success is measured on the quantity harvested at the end of each season. Bees are the sole pollinators of 60%-70% of everything we eat. So if we help bees, we maintain the ecosystem and we help ourselves.
And help they do need…. bees are under great pressure from insecticides, used both commercially by farmers and also from people who go for the chemical solution in their gardens. One of the other problems is monoculture, large fields of one crop that bees cannot profit fully from, say a field of sunflowers. They are all in flower at the same time, and then there is nothing. If these fields were seeded with wild flowers, even just clover, or left fallow every third year as they used to be for weeds, there would be pollen for the bees throughout spring summer and autumn.
Don't bang on their hive
Beekeeping is very simple. There is nothing mystic or complicated about it. Bees are not aggressive unless you disturb them doing what they do while they are at their home. You need of course a proper hive. Invest in, or build a hive from untreated wood (no plastic). Place the hive preferably facing sunrise in a part of the garden where you wont disturb them, when mowing the lawn or gardening. It is possible too to put the hive in the roof if there is an opening to the outside world for them. The hive must have a clear approach route (not next to a path). If you have children fence the hive off. Bees need water for making honey. A pond with water lilies so the bees can easily reach for the water is perfect.
Dirty queen = dirty bees
People can offer you a swarm of bees but you cannot be sure of what you have got. It is the same as a pedigree dog or a street dog. Vicious queen = vicious bees, dirty queen = dirty bees. To be sure of having healthy bees with good habits buy a (pedigree) queen bee for around 85 euros.
Furthermore: Don't open your hive unnecessarily and don't be greedy. If you want to take the honey take it in spring so that they can restock themselves. Bees can look after themselves. If you harvest the honey in the late summer, you will need to provide an autumn meal of cane sugar syrup to carry them over the winter months. Most people think it is not possible to have bees. But it is ever so simple, and they are a pleasurable thing to have in your garden.
A Fragile Colony
Once in a while something can go terribly wrong. A half-year ago one of Peter's hives was invaded by moths, and the bee population was destroyed completely. It can take one moth to do that. Peter tells me that if you start your beehive with a pedigree queen this may be less likely to happen as these bees won't allow the moth to enter the hive. Some do, some don't. Peter wants to show me the damage moths can do. We open the hive and what we see is a big mess. And this was an empty hive that the moths came back into when there was not even any comb left for them to exploit.
Franck, one of Peter’s beekeeping friends, also had an attack of moths. Why? Perhaps because of the mild winter? They don’t know. If you are going to have your own hive and you have problems you can always ask for help from an experienced beekeeper.
I leave Peter’s house inspired and with a bag full of wild flower seeds which he collects each year to give to someone to spread in their own garden. I’m not only going to spread the seeds in my garden. I’m going to do some guerrilla gardening too.
Plants that bees like
So for keeping bees you basically need three things. A healthy queen bee and bees, a good hive and plants the bees like which I will be talking about next month. Thanks to Peter we know now about the first two. I’ll help you with the latter; the right plants and how to get them around your beehive.
Recommended reading: Keeping Bees and Making Honey by Alison Benjamin
Fiction for bee-lovers: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd - (also made into a film)
*To see the figurative paintings of Peter Sorrell, visit
Hameau de Fontenille
19, Rue du Ponceau
+33(0) 386 18 19 44 +33(0) 6 4015 4793
In 30 BCE the Roman poet Virgil included 'The Life of Bees' in The Georgics explaining the working of the hive. In 1469 this document
was located in the Bibliotheque Municipale in Dijon.
'Aware that winter is coming, they use the summer days
For work, and put their winnings into a common pool.
Some are employed in getting food, and by fixed agreement
Work on the fields; some stay within their fenced abode,
With tear of daffodil and gummy resin of tree-bark
Laying their first foundation of the honeycomb, then hanging
The stickfast wax: others bring up the young bees, the hope
Of their people: others press
The pure honey and cram the cells with that crystal nectar.
Some allotted the duty of sentry-go at the gates...
Relieve incoming bees of their burden, or closing ranks
Shoo the drones-that work-shy gang-away from the bee-folds.
The work goes on like wildfire, the honey smells of thyme.''