Beekeeping in Holloway: a Sicilian’s Experience

Want to know more about honey bees? Ale Sapienza shares his fascinating tales of nurturing a bee colony (or four) in his in-laws’ garden, just off London’s Holloway Road

He spent his childhood growing vegetables in Sicily and longed to stay green-fingered when he moved to London, so Ale’s in-laws lent him a patch of their garden in Holloway for fruit, vegetables and beekeeping 

I couldn’t keep bees in Tottenham, where I live. There are too many houses surrounding our garden and we don’t know the neighbours. So John, my father-in-law, lets me keep my hives in his garden instead.

There are different races of honey bee. I have both carniolan and buckfast. You can research the characteristics of the different races and decide what suits you best. These two are both meant to be calmer varieties.

The way it works is that each hive has one queen bee and lots of worker bees (also female). The worker bees look after the queen – cleaning her and feeding her with the fruits of their foraging.

The queen will only mate one, and the workers never mate. She leaves the hive to find a congregation of drones (males) and mates with as many as possible. The drones die after mating, and the queen keeps their sperm, which lasts her a lifetime.

Some flowers offer nectar, some offer pollen, some have both. The pollen is used by the bees for protein and it is the nectar that becomes honey

So the fertilised queen returns to the hive and for her approximately five-year life, will release eggs each year – up to 2000 a day, less in winter – decreasing in quantity as time goes by.

When she is old, the worker bees raise a new queen by choosing one of the eggs and giving it royal jelly – a superfood excreted by worker bees – to make it bigger than the others. This new queen might then live in harmony with the old queen, recognising that she is not a threat.

If, however, the workers decide that they want a new queen and the existing one isn’t old – so they are displacing her – she might look for a new home, or risk being killed by the new queen.

Depending on the time of her life, the worker bee will either leave the hive to hunt, or stay inside to keep the hive clean and protect the eggs. The foraging bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers; they ingest nectar and carry pollen on their body.

Some flowers offer nectar, some offer pollen, some have both. The pollen is used by the bees for protein and it is the nectar that becomes honey. Bees have two stomachs: one for digestion, one for processing the nectar.

The nectar will be regurgitated by the bees into small cells that they’ve built – a collection of cells becomes a honeycomb – and they evaporate 20% of the water from the nectar then cap the cell so that it keeps until the winter months.

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Once a year, in England, the honey can be extracted from the hives to be bottled up and then eaten. It never goes off. What the worker bees have been foraging determines the taste: lavender, orange blossom, clover, wildflowers.

Some beekeepers take all the honey and feed the worker bees sugar syrup during the winter months, but I make sure I leave enough honey for them to survive. I also provide water, so they don’t need to travel too far from the hive.

In Sicily, where I grew up, people don’t keep bees in their gardens. Their neighbours would phone the police, as they’d be worried that they’ll be stung. But stinging is actually the last resort: if a bee stings, they die.

So it is just people who want to sell honey that keep bees in Sicily. They move the hive depending on what they want the honey to taste like – so near to orange and lemon trees, then on to somewhere with chestnuts, eucalyptus.

My honey is what Sicilians call millefiori – it means a thousand flowers, because we don’t know exactly what the bees have been eating. I’m making honey as a hobby, to share with friends and maybe to sell on a small scale.

As a child, I loved going to watch both my grandfathers working the land. I would grow fruit and vegetables myself, and I had relatives whose business was selling honey

Beekeeping is expensive. It costs about £300 per hive, plus maintenance; such as new frames every two years to avoid disease. Each hive can produce up to 120lbs of honey – that’s 120 large pots.

I started about three years ago. I got a nucleus, like a small hive – made up from about four or five wooden frames. This is where the bees make honeycomb and deposit the nectar they collect from flowers. A full hive has 10/11 frames.

The first winter, my queen bee died – and then all the workers died. So there was no honey that year. If the queen bee dies, it costs £40/50 to replace her so I have made my own queen-mating hive, where I breed queens to replace any that die in my hives.

I have the space in my in-laws garden, which is great because their neighbours don’t mind me keeping bees. I had a swarm that went two doors down, into a neighbour’s tree. They told me, and I took a ladder and shook the bees down into a box.

It’s an unwritten rule that you have to take care of your bees, if they swarm onto someone else’s land. They swarm when the queen bee decides to look for a new home. It was six metres high in that tree – and difficult to get them down.

It requires a lot of maintenance looking after a hive – once a week it needs checking from April through to August. And if they swarm, it’s problematic.

In the winter, the bees cluster together inside the hive to keep warm. The temperature in a hive is always the same; they can regulate it – if it’s too hot, they fan their wings to create a breeze.

As a child, I loved going to watch both my grandfathers working the land. I would grow fruit and vegetables myself, and I had relatives whose business was selling honey. So I’m happy to be at one with nature again, even if I am in living in London.

For more information, you can subscribe to the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) for monthly updates on keeping bees

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