Photo by Helen Upshall

Rather ironically given the thousands of bees typically in each hive, beekeeping itself appears a rather solitary hobby. Swaddled in protective, noise-dampening clothing and with the loud hum of buzzing bees for company, it isn’t exactly the perfect place for conversation. None of the chatter over courgettes that you might find in a communal garden or allotment.

And yet despite the conversational difficulties, in the past couple of years there has been a sharp rise in the number of community beekeeping ventures across the country. Small groups where aspiring apiarists and enthusiastic gardeners join forces to keep bees and harvest local honey.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this rise, is the cost of setting up a personal hive. Not only are there the expenses of the hive and the bees themselves (unless you’re lucky enough to gather in a local swarm), but also training, personal clothing, and the equipment needed to extract honey at the end of the process. Where as to join Bungay Community Bees in Suffolk  costs the paltry sum of £20 per year, and enables members to get involved with a whole range of projects, from hive building to planting wild flowers. This additional social element that comes from joining a group is also evidenced at Bristol Beekeepers, which offers members apiary days at their Honeycomb Farm Apiary alongside tours of nearby gardens and talks by guest speakers. Plus members are encouraged to enter the annual Bristol Open Honey Show.

Another advantage of community beekeeping, a hobby that straddles the border between horticulture and agriculture, is that it allows the enthusiastic novice a safe and controlled environment to learn the craft. Notoriously fickle and varying hugely in success from year to year, beekeeping isn’t easy and without due care and attention you are at risk of both losing your hive and getting injured. Most community groups however, have experienced mentors who are able to impart advice in a friendly and social manner and to guide you to take a full training course yourself as your enthusiasm blossoms. And if you’re interest in setting up your own community beekeeping project we recommend that at least two or your prospective members receive recognised training. For more information on training courses see the British Beekeepers Association for details.

Finally, as with other community groups or local agriculture initiatives, community beekeeping affords a novel way of giving something back to the local community in outreach work. BeeUrban, a London group that uses Kennington Park as its hub, places a great emphasis on teaching life skills and job skills to both school children and vulnerable adults, helping them to develop confidence in a fun and enjoyable environment. Using beekeeping as a means of positive social change has also been used in other European countries, such as Denmark where Copenhagen’s Urban Bees project employs homeless and other socially disadvantaged people to extract and sell the honey.

With evidence suggesting that neonicotinoid pesticides are severely damaging our native honeybee population, now is the perfect time to join a community group and do your part to help the species. We guarantee it’ll give you a real buzz…

Words by Hugh Collins

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