How I Became A... Beekeeper
The Debrief: What's it really like to be a young, female beekeeper?
Phoebe Lamb, 24, is an apprentice bee farmer in her second year of the Rowse Honey Bee Farmers Association Apprenticeship scheme.
We make sure everything's ticking over
‘A beekeeper's job is really just to make sure the bees are operating at the pinnacle of their abilities during each stage of their cycle.
'From about this time of year we endeavour to open our colonies to inspect them probably once every 10 days to make sure everything’s ticking over; that they’ve got enough food, that the Queen is laying and is well loved by her subjects otherwise they’ll do things like throw her out or try and make a new queen.
'This kind of work is thrumming with feminine energy. It’s really quite insane seeing how their social construct revolves completely around the feminine. It’s so interesting.
'There’s always equipment to be maintained. At my family business that I work for, Beeworthy Hives, we make hives at our home in our home workshop using sustainably sourced cedar wood.’
It’s a seasonal job
‘In the Spring you’re waiting anxiously to see what flowers come out in what order and what sort of sources your bees are going to have as they’re coming out of the winter. It’s this time of the year that’s so scary for the bees because it can sometimes just be too cold for them to get any food but then it’s warm enough for the Queen to be laying eggs so it’s touch and go time at the minute.
‘In the mid-Summer you let them get on with it; you make sure they’ve got enough space and enough food and everything’s ticking over.
‘In the autumn you can harvest what honey they’ve produced surplus to their own requirements. In the winter you just sort of hang five, because that’s when they cluster and don’t really do much. They don’t leave the hive because it’s too cold for them – they’re so tiny the cold makes them seize up and not want to do anything.’
I’m doing a 3 year apprenticeship
‘It was set up by the British Bee Farming Association in cahoots with Rowse honey to try and bring more young blood into beekeeping and bee farming. At the end of my three years training I’ll have a Diploma Towards Excellence in Bee Farming. I don’t have exams per say, but I do have practical assessments where someone will come and observe me undertaking different processes. I have to do quite a bit of written work as I’m constantly documenting my learning process. ’
I’m sponsored by a brewery local to me called Freedom Brewery. They’re doing quite a bit of good research into how they can manage a sustainable, vegan, eco-friendly brewery which is something I’m very interested in. Now they have five colonies of bees on site at all times. I made the hives, I keep the bees and I’ll do brewery tours come the summer and to work for them.'
I never really appreciated the outdoors
‘I grew up on a farm and I always took being outside and engaging with the natural world for granted really and I never really felt very connected to the agricultural world.. I would much rather stay in and cook for example, or build my dolls a new house or something like that.
‘I had very little in beekeeping itself to be honest with you. Even though my mum’s always kept bees I was always shamefully disinterested in the goings on in the natural world.
‘I studied script writing and journalism at the university of staffordshire then I moved to London to try and become a writer but I just didn’t find any jobs that were up my street or that I was willing to do. At the same time my sister landed me a job in a fantastic cocktail bar in Brixton and I worked there for almost two years. By the time I left I was sort of sioux chef in the street food kitchen which made me so happy.
‘I was looking for a change because I knew that if I went any further down this route I’d end up being a chef and that’s not really what I wanted to for myself. I love cooking but it was only ever going to get harder from there on.
‘It was at that time when I was considering what I should do that my mum gave me a call about the apprenticeship and I thought it sounded good. She got back to me a week or so later and told me I’d got it!’
It’s the best job I’ve ever had
'It’s just so lovely to be outside all the time. The reason I love it so much is because of the feeling I get when I open up a colony and I’ve been watching from outside. The first thing that hits you is the sound of the bees: they’re humming and the level of vibration that you can use to gage their mood as an entity really. The second thing that hits you is the smell of the bees. It’s nothing like honey but it’s got honey deep within it somewhere. If you’ve never smelt a colony of bees, I can’t recommend it any higher.
'When I have the time to and it’s a lovely day, I sort of go into this detached state where I’m inspecting the colony slowly at my own pace, and taking from it as much as I can. And you’re reading the cones trying to find out where the queen is, what she’s doing, whether everything’s ticking over. And then you put them all back together again. In the sunshine there’s just nothing like it really. ’
You need to have a steady disposition
‘I wouldn’t say beekeeping is stressful, but sometimes you have to think on your feet and be reactive to something you’ve just found out about so it helps if you can be quite relaxed.
‘I think you have to have an appreciation and basic understanding of natural life cycles and how the seasons change and how the flowers affect the animals and how they’re affected by the water and a sun.
‘You have to have a reasonable level of physical fitness too because we’re doing quite a lot of lifting; I make hives myself so I’m lugging bits of wood about.’
I’m not what people expect a beekeeper to be
‘A lot of people are surprised by my age and my gender when I tell them I’m a beekeeper. When you think of a beekeeper you do think of that sort of doddery old gentleman at the bottom of his cottage garden on a sunny afternoon. It’s a very male dominated profession too.’
'You don’t think of waking up at 5am to drive five hours to lift some bees off a truck and let them all fly in the morning or rapidly trying to inspect all these colonies. People don’t think of it as a fast paced exciting job, but I can definitely tell you it’s both of those things in great measure.'
Start by finding out about your local Beekeeping Association
'There’s so many beekeeping associations that meet all around the UK and they’re more than happy for people to just come and have a word.'
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