Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Beekeeping and the Steampunk Gardener!

Head Gardeners have often kept hives to provide honey for the ‘Big House’ and bees to ensure pollination in their garden. Without pollination flowers don’t turn into fruit.  In many ways bees are the real Undergardeners in any productive garden. Coming into Spring it’s time for this Undergardener to tend her bees.

A smart bee sting or two in hot, sultry weather benefits gardeners by causing them to perspire more freely, and feel much lighter afterwards. Journal of Horticulture 1871

I have always been fascinated by bees and I have a hive of my own. I’m still a beginner and very much the apprentice to a few more experienced Beekeepers who live locally. Beekeeping is my first authentic experience of the apprentice – Master relationship which was the foundation of how men learnt their trade in gardens during the Victorian era. I’ve always been very comfortable learning from books. With bees it’s different. No matter how much I read my hands and my eyes need ‘to do’ and ‘watch’ to learn this skill. Like the ancient trades this has to be passed from Master to apprentice with time, care and many stings.

After a long winter hiatus it is time for this apprentice to begin actively managing the hive towards the reward of robbing honey.

I’m reading a lot about the history of beekeeping at the moment. I have learnt that how we tend bees today has changed very little since the Victorian Era. In fact the Victorian Era saw the innovations that created the modern box bee hives.

Straw Skep

Before the Victorian Era bees were kept in straw skeps. Skeps are essentially upturned straw baskets under which bees form their naturally curvy honey comb. In this system when the beekeeper collects honey the swarm of bees are killed or made homeless in the process. This means that each year the beekeeper needs to start again by collecting a new wild swarm.

The Victorian Era saw the rise of the amateur naturalist. Bees were cultivated by middle class gentlemen not for honey but science. The most famous of these amateur beekeepers was Charles Darwin who kept at hive in the garden at Down House. Darwin marshalled his children into an army of laboratory assistants in order to track the flight paths of Bumble Bees. It is postulated that keeping bees helped Darwin formulate his theories on evolution.

Nor ought we to marvel if all the contrivances in nature be not, as far as we can judge, absolutely perfect, as in the case even of the human eye; or if some of them be abhorrent to our ideas of fitness. We need not marvel at the sting of the bee, when used against an enemy, causing the bee’s own death; at drones being produced in such great numbers for one single act, and being then slaughtered by their sterile sisters; at the astonishing waste of pollen by our fir-trees; at the instinctive hatred of the queen-bee for her own fertile daughters. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species 1859.

In 1860 another amateur naturalist the American Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth patented his design for a box hive. With only slight regional adjustments the Langstroth hive is the standard box hive still used by 75% of the world’s beekeepers. The Rev Langstroth designed a hive that provides bees with frames in which to build their comb and store their honey.  The advantage of this design is that beekeepers can remove the frames to check for disease, control swarming by removing cells that will lead to the birth of Queen Bees and rob honey with out destroying the hive. This potentially allows beekeepers to increase the yield of honey they can rob each year as the hive builds its numbers.

An open hive box showing the frames.

The clever thing that the Rev had realised is that bees build their natural burr comb in sheets separated by a standard distance, the width of a bee, now called the ‘bee space’.  By designing frames a ‘bee space’ apart the bees don’t glue the frames together or to the hive box with comb. This is what makes the frames ‘removable’.

The second clever thing about the Langstroth hive is that by placing a grille (the Queen Excluder) between the box containing the Queen Bee and the boxes from which you wish to collect honey (called the Supers) you can stop the Queen from laying brood in the honey. The grille is also based on the ‘bee space’ – worker bees can fit through to stock honey, Queeny can’t get into to lay eggs – genius.

Hive frame with comb and bees.

Here in Australia there are more than 1500 species of native bees.  Most of these are solitary bees that don’t form large combs or colonies this makes them mostly unsuitable for hiving.  There is a native sting-less bee that can potentially be hived but not in the cool south were I live.  In order to ensure the pollination of the crops that European settlers brought to Australia eight hives of the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) were first brought to Australia in 1822. Unfortunately they don’t record how they managed to bring hives of bees safely to Australia across rolling, boiling seas for six-months. I imagine that they feed the bees on honey or sugar-water and lashed the hives down tightly in the hold. Possibly the boxes were marked with a big ‘Don’t unpack mid-voyage’ sign.

I enjoy the fact that in keeping bees and learning from other more experienced keepers I am participating in an authentically Victorian gardening activity – this is the most steampunk gardening gets!

Mr. White, the naturalist, says, that both horse-beans and peas sprang up in his field-walks in the autumn; and he attributes the sowing of them to birds. Bees, he also observes, are much the best setters of cucumbers. If they do not happen to take kindly to the frames, the best way is to tempt them by a little honey put on the male and female bloom. When they are once induced to haunt the frames, they set all the fruit, and will hover with impatience round the lights in a morning till the glasses are opened.  Mrs Beeton HM

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