Living with a disability makes you rethink many aspects of life, including whether you are able to become a beekeeper, as Zec Richardson explains.

All photos are courtesy of Zec Richardson.

I first took an interest in beekeeping around about 1994. One summer, every lunchtime at work, I would sit outside behind the aircraft hangar where some bees had nested in an old hut that had a hole in the door. I sat close by and some of the bees would land on me before going into the hive. It was then that I became interested in bees.

My wife had always said that if we had a garden over 70 feet long, I could then have a hive as she is not the most confident with bees, wasps or anything that flies near her. When we moved into the property we are living in now, the garden was 100 feet long, but she laughed and said: “no chance”, before I had said anything. So, it was a shock when one day, out of the blue she turned to me and said: “Okay you can have a hive!

Weighing up my options for my circumstances

I am now a wheelchair user, I am in constant pain, I have ME also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which means that I suffer with physical and mental fatigue, so I was very unsure if it was even possible to start beekeeping. The ‘National’ hive that people automatically think of when you mention a bee hive was instantly out of the question. Its height and the weight of the boxes would make it unmanageable for me and so I knew that it would have to be a horizontal style hive.

Accessibility issues face every wheelchair user; access is a consideration that influences any decision about attending somewhere new. There is also my health, which makes me unreliable as I do not know how I will be feeling from one hour to the next. So I knew that attempting to join a beekeeping association and take a beekeeping course would be difficult. Then there is the problem of being unable to work because of my health, which means that the finances are not available to join an association and pay for a beekeeping course. I was determined that the dream of having my own hive was worth me trying everything I could to make it come true.

Information filters are needed

Luckily, we all have an endless wealth of information available to us via the internet. That is, of course, if you can try and figure out whose opinion is the right opinion! I could write about any subject and publish it on my website, but it does not mean I know what I am talking about. I decided that due to finances and making the hive as accessible as I could, I would have to go down the DIY route.

A top bar hive works well for wheelchair users

In the beekeeping world opinions on which hive is the best will always cause disagreements, but without any doubt, the top bar or the Kenyan hive as it is also known, is the most accessible for wheelchair users. Yes, you can make or purchase a long hive that holds the frames but it is not as accessible as a top bar hive for wheelchair users. It is not until you use a wheelchair that you can fully appreciate the issues that are faced and the slight differences between a top bar and a long hive are a lot when you are sitting in a wheelchair. The ‘V’ shaped top bar hive allows me to pull right up to my hive, my legs tuck slightly under, thanks to that ‘V’ shape, and the hive is then almost like a desktop in front of me. If I could not do that, I would be forced to reach forward and that makes tasks more difficult. It takes more energy and I would only manage a matter of a few minutes at the hive. Our kitchen is not accessible and simple tasks become very tiring by being forced to reach forward all the time. A long hive would be a suitable solution if a top bar was not available, but I would have to approach the hive side on and work that way. For me, this would be quite awkward and would cause more muscle fatigue.

Advantages of a ‘home build’

The hive, being a ‘DIY’ job, was built to be the perfect height. The pitched roof means that I can keep a few tools under there, which is handy. Also, because of mental fatigue, having some cheat sheets under the roof with key points means that even if I get what is known as ‘brain fog’ where thinking is like swimming through wet cement, the cheat sheets will be there.

I can pull my wheelchair right up to my top bar hive and inspect the brood with ease without needing to reach forward.

Trouble-shooting as you go

Having taken all of the access and health issues into consideration, there are still issues that mean that I will always need help, and learning to accept that you need help is important. Having said that, if you are mentoring someone with a disability, please remember to ask if they need help, rather than jumping in to assist because you think the person looks like they need help.

Carrying equipment on my lap is possible, but I can guarantee that by the time I have gone from the shed to the hive, every piece on my lap will have fallen off several times and I will have wasted precious energy picking them up every few feet. Also, a lit smoker, as you know, is not something that you want on your lap! So, I tried attaching our garden cart to the back of the wheelchair with a bit of string; it works, it is not ideal but it works. The neighbours’ children find it fascinating and funny watching this procession from shed to hive, the disabled train making its way over the bumpy lawn.

Clothing is also something that can cause issues. I had just assumed that I would get a beekeeping suit. When it arrived, I discovered that trying to get it on was too much hassle. I lay on the bed trying to get into it.  When I did and once I had ‘plopped’ myself back into my wheelchair, which is never very dignified, it was pulled too tight here and not right there, despite being a good fit. The effort of putting the suit on, used up precious energy. So, it was decided that a jacket and veil would be an easier option and this is what I now use.

Working at the top bar hive is like working on a desktop.

The ‘big day’ arrived

After a lot of decisions, a lot of experimenting, I finally sat in my wheelchair at the hive. The smoker was lit, I had all of my tools and the roof was open and I looked at the row of top bars. This is another plus for the top bar hive; it gives me more time to think as even though the roof is open, a top bar hive is still sealed at this point.

Even though a lot of thought and preparation went into making my hive as accessible as I could, there will always be problems. Of course, problems may differ with each and every disabled person; our disabilities vary as much as the opinions of three beekeepers having a chat! In my case, a restriction I face is that once I am holding one of the bars with comb on and bees are walking all over it, I am only able to pick it up, inspect it and put it back into the hive. My hands are full. I cannot physically go anywhere, unless someone pushes me. I also discovered during a ‘quick peep’ into the hive at the end of the season – and yes, I made the mistake of thinking I would not need to be suited up – the big issue of being in a wheelchair is the inability to run away! I was in shorts and a tee shirt. I cracked open the follower board at the end of the hive space. I was confident, as the colony was a very calm, placid one. Yes, I know at this point, that you are either laughing or shaking your heads as you read this. My previously calm colony was now, as I discovered to my peril, very defensive of their stores at the end of the season. As soon as I pulled that follower board away, I knew I had made a mistake. The hive went from a dull buzz to a roar and they poured out of the gap like a scene from a cartoon, and they were after me.

My escape route is over bumpy grass, not a smooth surface, and so any getaway will not be quick. My brain urged me to leap up and run. I wanted to close the hive, but that was not an option with angry bees everywhere, and so I did all that I could and sat there and got stung! I guess this is one negative aspect of a top bar hive. I had opened up the gap between the follower and the row of bars, but I could not just close it without crushing the bees that were now exiting and all over the follower and bar next to it.

My nice, calm colony can be inspected with just a little smoke usually.

An overwinter success

That was my first season and this year, after the snow, I saw bees flying so I was confident that my colony had survived. However, we then had that very cold, wet and windy couple of weeks and after that there was no activity at all. I was checking the hive through binoculars as the ground was very wet and muddy and it would have been impossible for me to reach it. This emphasises the importance of access; I do not have full year-round access and so I had to wait weeks for the ground to dry out to inspect properly. My fears came true; the hive was quiet and I had lost the colony. I worried that it was my inexperience, as there was a lot of stored honey still in the hive, the dead bees showed no signs of any deformities and everything looked okay. I am now hoping that I manage to lure a swarm, because purchasing a nucleus is not financially possible for me.

A plea to other beekeepers

I urge beekeeping associations and beekeepers to make the world of beekeeping more accessible. Not only to people with a disability and or chronic health condition, but also to people who are financially unable to become involved in beekeeping. I realise the top bar hive is frowned upon by some, but for many people it really is the only hive that they could manage due to a disability, poor health or even old age. Having a top bar hive for people wishing to participate in beekeeping could encourage these people to become involved.

A final word of thanks

I finish this by thanking the beekeepers who have supported my journey into beekeeping, and this has been via Twitter. They have taken the time to answer my questions and one beekeeper gifted me a year’s subscription to the BBKA and hence to BBKA News. Another took the time to contact my local BKA last year and, because of that, I was given a swarm.