Philippa O'Brien: These urban types are intelligent and endearing

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The Independent Online

Beekeeping is like playing chess against the bees. Trying to get these wild creatures to obey you is a complex challenge. If they were left to their own devices, there would be swarms of them – and, with each swarm made up of hundreds of insects, this can be dangerous. Instead, you must outwit them.

Beekeeping used to be a simpler, less exacting task: put bees in hives and check for honey at the end of the summer. There would be the odd disease but one didn't have to be so diligent about checking.

Now you must be more proactive – your bees can be dead within a year unless you master pest control. The varroa mite, which attacks bee larvae, is endemic, affecting colonies everywhere in the UK, apart from northern Scotland. One way of controlling the mites is to sacrifice drones, the male honey bees, who have more mites in their cells. This way fewer mites hatch. But the problem is that then there aren't enough drones for the Queen and so bee populations struggle.

So we came up with an unusual solution: we started covering bees with icing sugar. They lick it off each other, knocking off the mites. The sugar also gets stuck on the mites' feet and keeps them away from the bees.

Perhaps surprisingly, bees thrive in towns because there is fantastic foliage and a huge variety of trees blossom throughout the year. The countryside can suffer from monocropping. The urban beekeper needs only a little training, some friendly advice and to set aside a small space – a rooftop is ideal. The main requirement is a clear flight path so that the bees are above head height and avoid flying into people.

These are intelligent and endearing creatures. They can even help you predict the weather – it will be pleasant if you see them preparing (the queen moving a lot, the hive very active), whereas if they shut down, expect rain. Bees are intriguing.

The writer is an urban beekeeper and garden designer