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Page last updated at 14:43 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 15:43 UK
Washington Old Hall staff learn how to keep bees
Washington Old Hall's parterre gardens
Won't the bees love this on their doorstep?

As if working for the National Trust at Washington Old Hall wasn't hard enough, she's now a beekeeper too.

Sarah Murray is learning how to start a hive, keep the bees alive and stop the queen from taking umbrage and flouncing off with her brood.

The Hall is one of many sites across the country joining the BBC project Bee Part Of It.

Sarah will be writing a novice beekeeper diary for the BBC Wear and BBC Tyne websites - warts and all.

She's being taught by local beekeeper Jimmy Short, a man experienced in the convoluted behaviour of the honeybee.

Classes are also available via The British Beekeepers' Association which has branches across the country.

Moving day

Sarah will be starting with a nucleus hive with a queen and a small colony of bees - nowhere near the 50-60,000 that would live in a full working hive.

Honeybees don't much like moving house but, as long as the queen stays, they won't abandon the hive.

Queen excluder
This handy grid stops the Queen escaping from the hive

To this end Sarah will need a queen excluder - a metal rack with bars close enough together to allow worker bees and drones through, but not the queen, who's bigger.

Jimmy Short advises moving them into their new hive late in the evening and hooking up a feeder of sugar syrup so they have something to eat until the bees start foraging.

After that it's (gloved) fingers crossed.

The bees start to bring in water, pollen and nectar and, once the queen starts to lay, the chances are she'll stay.

Sarah has been drilled in bee health, what to look out for on the disease front and how to spot grubs and mites. She says: "I feel a bit bombarded with information and have very basic knowledge to get started.

"I am glad that Jimmy lives around the corner. We have pestered the life out of him and I've said to be prepared to be pestered more."

Abundance of food

Sarah feels the responsibility but is also excited to have a hive at the National Trust property: "It's a lovely environment. There are plenty of wild flowers.

"In The Nuttery, where the hives will be, we have all the hazel trees and it is quite a wild area. Then when you go next door we have our allotment which is the schools' garden project.

View of Washington Old Hall from The Nuttery
One potential site for the new hive - in The Nuttery

"In the next garden along, which is the 17th-Century parterre, there is an abundance of fruit trees and herbs and flowers in there as well so they won't have to fly too far afield to have lots of nectar."

In fact, honeybees forage within a three-mile radius of their hive; it's hard work for the all-female worker bees and will kill them quite quickly.

Jimmy says: "When a bee's born you can tell it's a young bee, it's wings haven't unfurled properly and it's hairy and it looks young.

"As time goes on it gets stronger and does menial jobs such as cleaning the cells out after a bee's hatched from it, she feeds the larvae, she does guard duty at the entrance to the hive, inspecting bees that are coming in, keeping wasps out, that sort of thing.

"Dead bodies or bits and pieces she takes out. She does all the work."

Worked to death

The worker bee eventually progresses to being a forager, bringing in nectar, pollen and water.

This goes on for about 6 weeks as they gradually work themselves to death.

Jimmy says they're run ragged: "How you tell an old bee from a young one, as it gets older, becomes a forager, it loses all the hairs because it's going in and out of flowers, it's going into a hive where there are thousands of bees, it loses all its hairs and its wings become tatty".

Contrast this with the male bees, the drones, whose sole purpose is to mate.

Learning about bees

Over the summer months, Sarah will be tending her new family and showing them to the assorted schoolchildren and visitors who come to the Old Hall.

Preformed wax sheets inside a hive frame
This could end up as a slice of honeycomb on your toast

She might even take Jimmy's advice and mark them so it's easier to see which is the queen, which are workers and which are drones.

Jimmy makes marking bees sound simple - pick them up by their wings, hold their legs (carefully, although he says they don't easily come off) and dab their head with a pen. You can even number them if you like.

If this doesn't appeal, take comfort from the thought that the queen won't sting you. Any of the 50,000 others might, but they'll die afterwards if that's any consolation.

You can keep across the life of Washington's Bee Part Of It hive with Marian Foster and Jonathan Miles on BBC Newcastle.

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