Beekeeping with children: love and connection through tending the hive

Beekeeping with children: love and connection through tending the hive

I keep bees because I love my dad. Spending time in the heat, smoke and buzz of a beehive is a way of connecting with him even when he isn’t there. Years ago, my mum would peg old net curtains to me; a small child desperate to join the world of beekeepers. I was blown away by the overpowering warm smell of honey and beeswax when my dad cracked a hive open with his pocket knife. Mostly I remember coming back to the cool kitchen to push a watery lump of bicarbonate of soda around a cereal bowl when I’d inevitably been stung! I remember the whir of the old honey spinner at the end of a warm summer when everything was sticky. I remember breaking through the crust of honey with the butter knife and tasting all the summer flowers on my bread. I hope my own children will have the same deep sensory memories of beekeeping.

I wouldn’t call myself a beekeeper: I’m far too shambolic for that. My partner, Laurie, and I have four children, a scribble of a dog and a cluck of hens. We run our own business and I have two part-time jobs. Beekeepers are organised and methodical – I am not – but I do keep bees. They are my favourite pet because they sleep through the winter and are not very needy!

Our bees chose us. My dad gave me some old bee equipment, which I kept in a shipping container, waiting for when I had time to set up a hive. One summery afternoon, there were bees everywhere, but when I looked closer, the old hive was completely empty. These were scouts, clearly delighted to have found a new home for their queen. She came the next day. My son, Zephyr, said it felt like getting a new pet. For me it was like waking up to snow: peace and perfection! We moved our swarm into a more comfortable hive, and they are really happy with us. I know this because every year the bees make plenty of honey, rear thousands of worker bees, and produce many queen cells to build new colonies.

I have indulged my children in a bee suit because net curtains are tangly for bees and not for the faint-hearted! First, we light the smoker, which is a tricky job. We have been collecting smoker fuel all year: dry rotten wood, thistledown, rosebay willowherb fluff, birch bark. We need cool smoke to trick the bees into thinking there is a forest fire, so they will fill themselves up with honey and be much less stingy. In the small hands of my son, the smoker always goes out. We can easily spend as much time wrestling the smoker as actually visiting the bees. The chatting is constant as we tug on our suits and doesn’t stop until we take them off again. When the children were tiny and the suit was ridiculously big for them, it felt like visiting bees with ET.

I love the way all my children gently stroke our bees as though they are one warm, soft animal. There have so many questions. And the following year they always know so many answers! This year, Zephyr asked where the big bees with the flat bottoms and no sting are – the drones – and we talked about how they were pushed out of the hive in the autumn, and the queen would soon be laying new drones so there are plenty of male bees to fertilise the new queens that hatch this year. The time we spend together visiting the bees is time when I am the parent I really want to be: calm, patient, quiet and sharing an awe of the natural world. It is a time when I can listen and watch with my children and we can learn together. Bee time is a time when I can share their childhood with them on a level where everything feels new and amazing.

I always feel guilty when I crack through the propolis and break into their beautiful, ordered world. We are on the hunt for long, wax, droplet-shaped queen cells, a sign that the queen is ready to make a new colony. A swarm of honeybees in the wild is unlikely to last very long. They can carry such a high parasite load that they really need beekeepers to help them thrive. A queen cell is a sign to divide the hive. Finding one is like finding gold. We carefully take one queen cell, a small cluster of nurse bees and plenty of honey to make a new colony and pop them into a new hive.

Sometimes we miss a queen cell and our bees swarm. We zing together as a family, race back from the seaside, stop halfway through the shopping, climb trees with a saw, just for the joy of watching bees march up a white sheet safely into a new home. Catching swarms is just the best. They always find the most difficult-to-reach places and we have to work together to house them safely, stretching every problem-solving muscle we have.

I am lucky to have three brilliant beekeeping uncles to lean on with my own beekeeping questions. They share over a century of experience! One of my uncles has developed a new way of beekeeping called ‘The Rose Hive Method’, which doesn’t use a queen excluder. I use this method because it means the queen can be anywhere in the hive and I can support her to do more of what she is doing anyway, giving her more space to lay eggs in the place she has chosen for a nursery, or more space to store honey when the nectar is coming in fast. We have looked after queens that we have never seen, though we know they are thriving because they are laying eggs and their bees are happy. We don’t trawl through the hive looking for the queen, but occasionally we do see her and that feeling of awe intensifies. The eagle eyes of my children will always be the first to spot her long, pointy abdomen and determined stride.

We keep bees because we love them: the concentrated calm of looking through a hive, the adrenaline buzz of catching a swarm, the connections we make through beekeeping, both human and animal. Finding a way to spend more time with bees will add a layer of wonder to your life. Maybe start by meeting bees in the summer flowers. Watch how they lick their legs before brushing their dusting of pollen into the pollen baskets on their hind legs. Notice that all bees look different. My Welsh bees are very small and a beautiful dark brown. My uncle in the Midlands keeps big yellow bees like in the movies. The more time you spend with them, the more you will be amazed by how much you can love an insect! I think the love is returned. A few summers ago, my parents, who have been looking after bees for years, had a family of bumblebees move in under their bed. Every morning, they had to open the window to let them out. The bees knew that they would be accepted (maybe a little begrudgingly!) under this bed and in turn they helped my parents greet each new summer’s day with fresh air and buzzing!

I’m sure all my children will be far better at looking after bees than their mum. It is a complete joy to join them on this journey, to help them find a deep connection with the ecosystem they live in, and to understand a little about another kingdom… or perhaps, in this case, queendom. Maybe one day they will also feel close to me when they are with their bees, still trying to lick drips of smoky honey through their bee-suit mesh!


Thea de Klein lives on an organic farm in Ceredigion with her four children and her husband, Laurie. They run a tiny, elemental, eco-glamping site called The Wood Stars. They are traditional timber frame builders and are currently making a wood-fired sauna and a natural swimming pool for their guests to enjoy. Thea is very proud that all her children can confidently feed themselves from the hedge and love getting muddy.


First published in Issue 83 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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