Beekeeping for beginners in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 15:11 12 June 2012 | UPDATED: 12:21 16 September 2014
With Britain's honeybees disappearing at an alarming rate, there's never been a better time to think about keeping your own - and we know just the person to help get you started. Here, Helen Gazeley picks up a few beginner's tips from 'The Surrey Beekeeper' himself, James Dearsley, whose blog about beekeeping has become a worldwide sensation, and finds out about the new DVD he has just made with Charlie Dimmock in the garden of his Newdigate home
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2012
When Charlie Dimmock, intrepid celebrity gardener, wanted to learn the art of beekeeping, she turned to someone deep in the Surrey countryside – a man called James Dearsley who is rather better known these days as ‘The Surrey Beekeeper’ thanks to his hugely popular blog of the same name.
Now their collaboration has resulted in a two-hour DVD, Beekeeping for Beginners, in which James teaches bee basics to Charlie in his garden in Newdigate. Their mutual enthusiasm is clear from the start, and it’s not just about the honey, either. “The honey is great,” says Charlie, “but probably I’ll use two jars a year. It’s more about the keeping of bees, and the enjoyment of looking after them.”
James, who took up beekeeping about four years ago, agrees. “I’d read a lot in the newspapers at the time about the problems: vast quantities of bee colonies being wiped out every year, due to a whole variety of factors – from different agricultural practices to climate change and disease – and I wanted to help.” So he immersed himself in beekeeping, taking the academic route, going on courses and learning as much as he could as quickly as possible.
A species at risk
The British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) hopes that more people will follow James’ lead and take up the pursuit. While honeybees aren’t the only pollinators whose numbers have declined, they do have the advantage (unlike bumblebees, for example) of not relying solely on long-term habitat improvement for their recovery. Honeybees can be actively propagated and, encouragingly, interest is growing. Beekeeper numbers have increased markedly in recent years, with Surrey membership of the BBKA alone rising from a low of 394 in 2006 to nearly a thousand last year.
In fact, here in Surrey, it seems we are well placed to help our struggling bee population. Recent research implicated ‘neonicotinoids’, used as pesticides in the UK and USA but restricted in some European countries, in the mass decline of bees. So, unlike much of our farmland, gardens can offer a pesticide-free haven – and, given that Surrey seems to be a county of gardeners, it’s an ideal place for bees. No wonder that the Surrey Beekeepers Association is the fifth largest in the country out of around 60.
Pesticides aren’t the only worry, though, with the varroa mite, the pest that preys on bees and affects their immune systems, continuing to cause havoc in many hives. As James is at pains to emphasise, modern beekeeping is as much about managing disease as about managing bees.
This isn’t a reason to be put off, however, and Charlie and James jumped at the chance to make the new DVD with Stitchcombe Productions, hoping to encourage more potential beekeepers to take the plunge, and working hard to present, logically and simply, the steps involved. “It goes right across the board,” says Charlie, “through all the bits and bobs, but it’s simple speak.”
For Charlie, the chance to learn from James was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. She has fond memories, from her days as manager of her local garden centre in Hampshire, of ‘Cyril the beekeeper’ on Romsey’s water meadows. “I’ve always been intrigued,” she says. “When I go to gardening shows, I always end up in the bee bits where you get to see the half-hive.”
James, meanwhile, finds bees endlessly fascinating. “Once you learn just one little fact about them, you become passionate,” he says, before embarking on an enthusiastic tour of bee facts – describing how they keep the queen at a constant 32°C in winter, by huddling around her and each taking their turn on the outside of the group, then waxing lyrical about the waggle dance, the seductive little shimmy by which the foraging worker bees direct their pals to newly discovered flowers.
A relaxing pastime
It’s difficult to imagine anything more restful than sitting in James’ garden while the bees busy themselves among the flower beds. For James, his hives are now a vital part of the picture. He works as sales and marketing director of an overseas property company, which involves long hours and extensive travelling. In fact, another of his reasons for taking up beekeeping was to create some ‘down time’. Perhaps unexpectedly, keeping bees fits in well with a hectic life as each hive only requires around half an hour’s attention each week.
Ironically, though, beekeeping seems to have made James even busier. He now devotes early mornings and late evenings to his blog, The Surrey Beekeeper, which has become an internet sensation, and his Beginner Beekeeper page on facebook, with over 3,500 followers from as far afield as the Philippines, Africa and Australia. “I’m trying to connect beekeepers around the world, but it’s very informal,” he says.
The rest of the time James spends with his wife Jo, whom he describes as “patient”, and his two little boys Sebastian and Edward. He well remembers his own childhood in Farnham, being paid by his parents “a paltry sum” to dig up weeds, an activity that, nevertheless, started his love of gardening and appreciation of bees. “Bees change your habits in the garden,” he says, pointing out that he now has plenty of bee-friendly plants such as lavender and salvia.
So will Sebastian and Edward be following their father’s footsteps in the garden? “Let’s just say that they might soon be digging for weeds to earn their pocket money,” laughs James.
Find out more about beekeeping…
- Joining your local beekeeping group is a great way to learn more, gain experience, and, if you don’t have a suitable space, find somewhere to keep a hive. Why not go along to find out more this summer? For details, visit the website: www.bbka.org.uk.
- To learn more about James Dearsley’s own beekeeping experiences, visit his blog at: www.surreybeekeeper.co.uk.
- Also available: the Beekeeping for Beginners App for iPhone and iPad at an introductory price of £1.49. Search for “Charlie Dimmock” in the App store.