What started Ann Chilcott on the path to becoming a Scottish Expert Beemaster? Here she explains.

Imagine a hot sunny day in June and a cotoneaster hedge, its tiny pink flowers barely open, vibrating with honey bees almost completely covering the shrub. That’s how it was for me in 2004, but the warmth, colour, scent, and the lulling hum were all real. It was then that I thought, “Hey, little bees, you could be living in my garden and working for me.” I had no idea then that I would end up working just as hard for them.

Vital research

In those early days, I envisaged just keeping a couple of hives and producing honey for family and friends whilst enjoying watching bees alongside all the other wildlife that adds real meaning to my life. I wanted also to satisfy my yearning to be closer to the land and have some useful occupation when my nursing career drew to an end in 2010.

Having had no previous beekeeping experience, I realised that much research was required before a commitment could be made. Growing up on a remote Argyllshire hill- farm in the 1950s and 60s gave me a good understanding of the responsibility towards keeping livestock and caring for them correctly. One of the shepherds kept bees and sometimes we enjoyed Dan’s delicious honey on the comb, warm from the hive - what a delight. Another man in the village three miles away kept bees and I can remember seeing the hives in his garden, but that was my limited exposure to bees until the present time.

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The “wild bees” in their new home. Photo: Ann Chilcott

When one of my sisters later kept bees, I was quite in awe of her but never tempted to become involved until relatively recently. Enjoying a challenge, I got started. “Beekeeping for Dummies” was ordered up on the internet and, despite it being an American publication where beekeeping conditions in the US are different from ours here in the UK, it was a good starting point. The plan was to spend the long dark Scottish Highland winter evenings reading up and planning my apiary before acquiring bees in the spring.

Best laid plans

But, as my famous compatriot poet wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley…” This applied to me. When I casually asked a local farmer’s wife who ran a pet shop from her farmyard and is the font of all knowledge regarding animals, how I should go about getting bees (if I wanted to start up) her answer changed my life. I was told that her husband used to keep bees but was now so allergic to bee stings that he’d given up. He had two colonies of swarm bees that had taken up residence in his ornamental garden hives and was pretty keen to part with the bees.

Just one week later, on Sunday 7th November 2004 at 3pm I became a beekeeper. With help from my tolerant beekeeper’s assistant- husband the bees travelled a few miles home on our trailer, and, as luck would have it, the weather was cold enough for them to have formed their heat-conserving winter cluster and so were not inclined to come out and fly off. What I hadn’t yet learned was that the hives were double walled WBC’s (see photo of one of my hens admiring my ornamental WBC hive). They are designed like a box within a box and you cannot usually move because them as it is impossible to seal the bees inside due to spaces between the boxes.

First look

My sister came up from central Scotland in March 2005 during a warm spell and together we did my first hive inspection which went well. It was when I opened the hive by myself later when the bees had built up in numbers from around 10,000, after winter, to around 30-40,000 bees in June that I felt quite nervous. My heart thumped. I’m sure that the bees sensed my fear and I did get stung a few times. I then started to sing to calm myself down and my movements gradually became slower and more relaxed with the bees noticeably settling down too.

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Ann's first inspection. Photo: Linton Chilcott.

In order to return the ornamental hives to their owner, I had to research and purchase new hives and transfer the bees to their new homes. I heeded advice not to buy second hand hives that may contain the dreaded American foulbrood bacterial spores that can lurk in woodwork for more than thirty five years. That was a big expense and navigating the beekeeping supplies catalogues was like finding my way in a foreign country.

Good company

It was a steep learning curve and I felt quite alone on my journey till one April day a man appeared in my garden as I was watching the bees. “I see you keep bees,” he said. “Yes I do,” I tentatively replied rather fearful that he might want to complain about having been stung by them or that I shouldn’t keep bees in a village.

“Well, I’ve come to invite you to join our local beekeeping association,” he said smiling. That was it, just what I needed. I can’t imagine why I hadn’t gone looking for one myself. Meetings were held in the local village hall less than a mile away.

This was the catalyst needed to spur me on to learn more. I was lured onto the committee at my second meeting where I served in various roles for eleven consecutive years. At that time the members were mostly old men who were very willing to pass on their knowledge and skills, but who were also keen to have a rest from organising things. The president took me under his wing and showed me how to make hand-dipped candles in his kitchen. When he became ill and couldn’t run the local honey show anymore, he asked me to take over, and so I learned a whole new set of skills and carried on as lead organiser for the show for five years.

Joining the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association (SBA) was really important to my beekeeping career, and not just because it provides some hive insurance and third-party cover, the education opportunities through training, conferences and presentations are invaluable. I took advantage of the education system which helped me through the modular exam system of written papers and practical exams at the hive. I progressed to Expert Scottish Beemaster level and then, on a voluntary basis, I marked exam papers twice a year and assessed beekeepers at the hive for practical certificates during the season.

Sharing knowledge

The old adage that if you want to be proficient in a subject then teach it, is so true for me. I now spend much of the beekeeping season helping beginners and new beekeepers in their apiaries. In 2015 I spent over a hundred hours working in other apiaries which made me aware of the need for a more formal mentoring system locally to share the load. New beekeepers are now offered mentoring on joining our local beekeeping association. I’m so grateful to all the folk who invited me to help them because I learned much more than I would have otherwise done just tending to my own small apiary of four colonies and an observation hive in the bee shed.

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Beekeeping usually involves tea and biscuits. Photo: Susan Jardine.

One of my friends, who was general secretary of the SBA in 2014, enticed me into further voluntary service through appealing to my vanity by suggesting that I was just the person to fill the vacant SBA North Area Rep role. This involved becoming a trustee and attending regular meetings in Perth which is 125 miles south of my home near Inverness. The highlight of 2016 was organising, with much help and teamwork, a successful SBA convention in Elgin for 189 delegates with speakers coming from England and the USA.

As area rep, I connected with the secretaries of the beekeeping associations in the north, sharing information and giving presentations when invited. During the season, I answer lots of phone calls from the public and give information on resources, and who to contact when a big swarm lands in their plum tree.

The most exciting call in 2016 was from the Inverness police asking if I could do anything to save bees that had been living in a tree which fell down beside the River Nairn on a wintery day. You can watch the rescue on YouTube by searching for “Wild Bee Rescue: Nairn” . I’m pleased to report that these bees have adapted well to life in a conventional hive in my back garden, shown here in the photo.

We get some fierce equinoctial gales here so all my hives are strapped down to a metal bar underneath a concrete slab. These lovely bees are my best honey producers and last year made 60lbs surplus leaving around 40lbs for their own use over winter.

I would never pretend that beekeeping is cheap or easy but it is one of the most rewarding pastimes that I can think of. If you want to learn more about starting up with bees, join your local beekeeping association or visit a beekeeper. If you choose the latter then leave plenty of time for most beekeepers can talk for Britain about their passion.

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Ann writes each month for Smallholder magazine. For more articles like this subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or buy from a newsagent.