Cliff Alderman is director of a two-site small animal practice in Gloucester. He has kept bees since 2007.
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What started your interest in bees?
You reach a point in life where you want another challenge, and as my neighbour, Pam, was a beekeeper, it seemed like a good thing to do. Six seasons on, over a thousand pounds invested in bees and equipment, with little honey to show for it – plus a few stings – I wonder if it was such a good idea.
Tell us about your hives.
I now share my hives with Pam, and we have enough equipment to run about eight hives. We plan to reduce this to four as it is time consuming and the British weather hasn't helped. From April through to July one wants to look at each hive roughly weekly, to prevent swarming and/or bring on new queens for existing hives. Colonies get grumpy if you start messing about when it is cool, windy and wet. I am writing this in mid-June and I haven't been able to look in the hives for about two weeks.
How do you learn to keep bees?
I joined a local beekeeping society in Newent. They're a friendly bunch and I am in awe of the elder statesmen's knowledge, which they are only too happy to impart. To do well in beekeeping you have to think like a colony of bees – something I haven't mastered yet. The society runs courses and provides support for novice keepers, and coordinates the collection of swarms reported by members of the public.
How do bees fit in with your veterinary work?
They don't. I could get a bit political here, but vets have been encouraged by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and the RCVS to support local beekeepers by providing prescriptions for medicines to treat certain bee diseases. The RCVS is clear that the rules have not been relaxed regarding ‘animals under my care’, so I don't know how I am supposed to do this without visiting an apiary, speaking to the owner, checking medicines records – and charging a standard fee for my time. Much like pigeon fanciers, beekeepers are amateurs who won't pay standard vet fees because it would be uneconomic.
Why does beekeeping give you a buzz?
I think it is because I have always liked nature without being a hands-on supporter and doer. I like gardening and I have fruit trees, and we all should know how much we rely on bees for pollination. I also like honey, and had this daft notion that I could sell my excess produce. In six seasons I have harvested a total of about 50 lb (value £200). I am not in it for the money! My poor output, I think, is due to bad luck. The past six years have not been good weather-wise – the right weather at the wrong times (March this year was stupendous, but there weren't the flowers about to support a developing hive).
Is there anything that you don't like?
I don't like being stung. It doesn't hurt much, but I get an itchy patch lasting days, which isn't an attractive sight.
What advice would you give someone thinking of keeping bees?
Beekeeping is a great hobby. Get a couple of books, join a local group, visit a beekeeper and have a go. Secondhand equipment is always available, but make sure that you have enough basic kit to run two hives minimum, because you sometimes need to donate frames between hives.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Keep accurate records at the time of an event. Any decision you make that may be challenged at a later date should be recorded with date, time, person you spoke to, etc. Specifically with my bee-keeping, I never used to make records of what was happening in each hive, and by the following week I would have completely forgotten what was going on. Now, the pen and paper is always present.
Do you have any proud beekeeping moments?
No! Except, I suppose, recognising the queen in a hive of 60,000 other bees in mid-summer.
… and your most embarrassing?
Lots of them, but some are not for publication. One that most vets will recognise: engaging with a client in the consulting room and never quite knowing if it is a man or a woman. Similarly, speaking to someone's ‘partner’ to find out that it is his or her daughter!
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