UNSEASONAL golden sunlight filters through the trees and onto a line of wooden hives, around which honey bees are buzzing as they set off and return from late pollen gathering.

Swindon beekeeper Stephen Greenaway, dressed in his beekeeping suit, his head covered by a veil, approaches the hives with a canister and gently puffs some smoke into a hive. The bees respond to the smoke by filling their bellies with food, he explains, as they anticipate the possibility of having to abandon their hive because of an approaching fire. The smoke has the effect of calming them.

The bee smoker is set to one side, still breathing a little smoke into the sunshine, and Stephen carefully lifts the lid from the hive. He estimates some 10,000 bees live in this wooden container, but they do seem remarkably relaxed about this intrusion into their living space, effectively a bee palace, stronghold of the Queen, with its workers and guards, full of precious, glittering liquid gold.

Stephen is vice chair of the Swindon and District Beekeepers, which has around 90 members who meet up, share information and ideas and offer training and support to people thinking of setting up in beekeeping. They meet at 7.30pm on the last Thursday of each month, at the Haydon Wick Club.

The club, along with the Kennet, Melksham and West Wilts branches, is a part of the Wiltshire Beekeepers’ Association, which publishes the Honey Bees Times and organised a Wiltshire Bee and Honey Day – held recently in Devizes.

Stephen, 67, from Wroughton, has been a beekeeper for 12 years.

“It was always in the back of my mind I wanted to keep bees, I don’t know why. I had that curiosity.

“Twelve years ago I had a change of direction. I like the countryside and I can do this without travelling too much.”

Stephen said he went to the Swindon beekeepers and learnt what to do.

“Various people helped me through. There are different training systems, though now it’s better established than it used to be.”

Stephen checks his hives every ten days or so during the summer, checking for activity that suggests imminent swarming, to see what the queen is doing, how much food is present and the general health of the colony. As the year winds down, the bees are getting ready for winter.

“In October we feed them with sugar syrup or make sure they have enough of their own supplies to feed themselves over winter,” he explained. “When the temperature starts to drop, the colony gets into a cluster.”

In the winter cluster, the queen is kept warm in the middle, while the bees on the outside use their wing muscles to generate heat. The cluster keeps moving, so different bees are on the outside doing the work. As the outside temperature decreases, the cluster becomes tighter and the bees cling to the combs in the hive. Last winter was particularly hard on the Wiltshire beekeepers.

“We had a very unfortunate situation. We had a late winter. It was very cold, then very warm so the bees thought it was okay to break the cluster. Then we had a couple of very cold nights, down to minus ten degrees. It killed a lot of colonies. I lost four colonies.”

Once spring does arrive, and the temperature is above 10 degrees, the bees will start to fly out and collect pollen and nectar. Three sorts of honey bee live in the hive – one queen, a host of female worker bees, which make up about 90 per cent of the hive’s population, and the rest are male drones.

“If the colony gets completely full and needs more room, that’s when you get a swarm,” Stephen said.

The worker bees build special wax cells for the new queen, who will take over her mother’s hive and begin laying eggs. The older queen will take half the workers and leave the nest, in search of a new home.

“When a queen does her first flight, she will go to a drone congregation area. The queen will mate on the wing with the drones there. She takes their semen, kicks them off, then goes to the next one. She will mate with between three and 30, then takes the semen back to the colony, which she can then release to make drones or worker bees.”

The workers have a short, hard-working life of about six weeks. The first half of their life is spent in the hive, looking after the queen and the larvae, and producing wax to build the structures in the hive.

During the second half of their lives, the workers start foraging outside of the hive, collecting pollen, nectar and water. They last about three weeks in the middle of summer, although that can vary.

“If the weather is wet, they will stay in the hive and may last about eight or nine weeks,” Stephen said.

Out foraging, they can fly about 500km before their wings start to wear out, they fall down and die. They could also be eaten or poisoned or caught out in a storm. The queens live for up to four years.

“I like looking after them, and it’s fascinating for people to see inside a hive for the first time when I open it,” Stephen said. “Whether it’s a child of six or seven, or an 80-year-old, you are able to give them, as a beekeeper, something they would never normally see.

“With the right equipment, you can stand around the hive and see what the bees are doing, take the frames out and brush the bees off. And when you get back you can break it open and get the honey.”

Stephen said the honey tasted different, depending on the source. The bees in his hives visit lime trees, wild flowers, catkins, oilseed rape fields and more, depending on the season. He said the pollen provided protein and the nectar, carbohydrates for the bees.

Although harvesting honey is not his main aim in beekeeping, he said the fruits of his bees’ labour made great gifts for people, and he does sell some honey.

“If I really concentrate on making honey, my second hive has produced 130 pounds in a summer,” he said.

It costs around £175 to £225 to buy a colony of bees, and a flat pack hive costs around £120 to £300. If you fancy your hand at beekeeping, the Swindon Beekeepers can give lots of practical advice and help, with taster days as well as training courses.

And does he ever get stung?

“Not very often. When I try and cut corners with clothing and at certain times of the year. If you are quiet ad gentle, they are not aggressive,” he said. “This year I’ve had three stings.”

For more information and the Swindon beekeepers, visit their website sdbka.co.uk.