Written by Heiloi (Louie) Yip, MSc Bioinformatics and Theoretical Systems Biology
Would you believe it if I told you there are two beehives living somewhere inside Imperial College London’s South Kensington campus? Would you also believe that I, the writer of this blog, also happen to be the current caretaker of these bees? You see, I am the head apiarist (beekeeper) of the Environmental Society (ESoc), and I have been looking after the two beehives inside ESoc’s secret garden for the last three years of my life at Imperial. If you would like to learn more about how I became head apiarist and what the hive is like looking after thousands of bees, I’ll do my best to summarise my beekeeping journey in this short blog.
Becoming a beekeeper
Even though I was (and still am) deeply interested in insects, I knew next to nothing about beekeeping when I first began my role as head apiarist at ESoc. Since I was appointed during the peak of COVID in 2020, none of the past apiarists were present in London at the time to guide me. In short, I was blindly thrust into the job of looking after the bees! Luckily, I managed to learn most of my essential beekeeping skills on the spot, learning how to perform hive inspections and maintenance through online sources and chatting with friends. Opening the beehive at first was definitely nerve-wracking when there were bees buzzing everywhere, but I felt protected in my comfy bee suit, and quickly got used to regularly checking on the bees. And now, in a blink of an eye, I’ve been beekeeping for almost three years! With my Master’s degree drawing to an end this year, I am finally looking to pass on my position to a lucky student (but not before thoroughly guiding them how to keep bees!).
Challenges of beekeeping
The first thing I realised while beekeeping was just how intensive it can be sometimes. The truth is that there are many dangers that could threaten the health of a beehive: bad weather, starvation, parasites and more! I’ve had to learn how beekeepers protect their bees from all those threats, and it’s a sobering thought just how dependent the colony’s wellbeing is on the beekeeper. One consequence of this heavy responsibility is that the beehives need to be regularly inspected once a week, where I check if the bees are healthy and carry out any necessary maintenance on the hive. The inspections need to happen over the spring and summer months when the bees are most active, which means I don’t get summer vacations as a beekeeper!
Why do I keep bees?
Obviously, there must be upsides to beekeeping as I’ve been doing it for so long! Not only have I harvested delicious honey from the hives every year, but I’ve also enjoyed learning so much about the impressive biology of honeybees! Above all, there is something intrinsically calming about opening a beehive and checking in on the bees. Some patience is always required during inspections, mainly in avoiding rapid movements in order to keep the bees calm. Therefore, the act of slowly uncovering the hive, combined with the gentle buzzing ambience of the bees, makes the whole inspection process a relaxing and meditative experience. After a long day of work on campus, I can just pop by the beehives and inspect them as a perfect way to wind down for the day.
If I hadn’t ended up studying at Imperial, I would never have found ESoc and I probably wouldn’t have become the beekeeper that I am today. I don’t have much time until my current course ends, so I make sure to treasure each time I get to visit the bees. After I graduate from Imperial, I’ll very likely continue beekeeping as a hobby, perhaps even open an apiary of my own!
This story is a reminder that you can explore your unique interests as an Imperial student. With more than 300 student-led societies ranging from archery, sci-fi or caving, there’s sure to be an activity you’ll become invested in for the rest of your Imperial life!