A practical guide to getting started from beekeeper, Paul Hirons:-
The best time to take up beekeeping is in the Spring. Bees will have been in a cluster all winter and in late March or early April they will start to emerge. They may be about much earlier if the temperature isn’t too cold; they have been known to pop out for cleansing flights all through the winter. In Spring the fruit trees and flowers in bloom will supply the new colony with sufficient nectar and pollen to encourage the queen to start laying.
If you have never kept bees before, start with just the one hive. Being a beekeeper is not only a hobby, but a magical, enchanting ancient craft. You will be joining a long line of beekeepers going back hundreds of years. Enjoy the experience, read about beekeeping and take it easy, there’s no rush. Acquire your new skills with patience and care.
Who can keep bees?
Beekeeping can be a family hobby. It is suitable for the young and old. It is an ideal retirement hobby, or a very relaxing pastime for the busy executive. Landowners, woodland owners and gardeners would all benefit from keeping bees. I’ve met beekeepers that are surgeons, and others who sweep the streets, shoulder to shoulder at the local beekeeping association meetings.
You can keep a hive in the bottom of the garden or in out apiaries on your local farms. Farmers love bees and you should be able to find a number of quiet sites. When you site your hives, sort yourself out a seat to sit and watch your bees working. Watch them land and takeoff. Heathrow couldn’t beat your healthy hive for the number of takeoffs in one minute. At the entrance there will be bees just fanning air into the hive, others on guard. Watch the drones circling over the hive. Beekeeping is a relaxing hobby and an excellent contrast to a hectic work life.
Why keep bees?
Well, bees produce honey, they produce beeswax and they produce propolis (the only varnish used on the Stradavarius violin). They also produce royal jelly. And bees will produce more bees! Queen bees sell them for about £38 a time or you can take the honey. Good hives will produce over 20lb of honey a season. You might also be able to sell beeswax. A hive can be made to pay its way if you want to. Your personal reason for keeping bees can be your own choice but you’ll join a wide band of fellow beekeepers worldwide.
Siting your hive
You can keep bees in your garden but please consider your neighbours. They might not like the idea of being in the flight path of thirty thousand bees! If you do have a big garden then site the hive with the entrance facing an obstacle like a hedge or a fence. This forces the bees leaving the entrance to circle like mini jumbo jets to gain height to fly away to forage. Incoming bees will also stack and wait to come down. You could ask local farmers or your local council for a site. A little research and you could have your hives sited in the gardens of the local stately home or rear of a garden centre. You’ll be surprised how many landowners welcome a well-mannered beekeeper. Remember the Country Code!
Many years ago when the kids were toddlers my wife pointed out that my hive warning signs were spelt wrongly. I had made several signs saying, “Bees Sting!” My wife said it should be “Stink”! Well, bees don’t smell unless it’s the scent of honey and beeswax. However Bees do sting, and will sting the curious and the foolish that disturb them. Bear this in mind when siting your hives and keep them away from places where people walk dogs, schoolchildren may play or vandals might decide to knock the hives over. For some reason bees do not like horses, so don’t put your bees on the side of a field containing horses.
The livestock - buying bees
Usually you buy what’s called a “nucleus of bees”. This is a small colony of bees on five brood frames and comprises a young, laying queen and a retinue of worker bees and brood in the comb. You’ll see these advertised by beekeeping equipment retailers. They are usually available around April or May. You can save money by shopping around for a nuc. The major retailers charge £200 plus for a nuc. Your local Bee Association may be able to supply one for only £95 with loads of free advice.
When you buy a nucleus of bees you will need somewhere to hive them.
A British National Hive comprises of the following:
- a flat roof –probably about 4” deep and capped with tin to keep out the elements.
- a crown board – sometimes called a quilt, the crown board is a framed flat ply board with a hole in the middle. Useful for putting a feeder on the hive, clearing supers and sits under the roof on top of the honey super.
- a honey super holding 11 shallow frames. This is a square shaped box with no bottom or top and has a rebate in each side. 11 frames sit on the rebates and hang in the box. The frames are fitted with wax that is called foundation and is used for the storing of honey.
- a queen excluder – a mesh screen that sits on top of the brood box and stops the queen getting in to the honey super and laying eggs in the honey comb.
- a brood box containing 11 deep frames - very similar to a honey super but much deeper. This has 11 suspended frames and is where the brood live. The queen lays her eggs in the wax cells of these frames. This is called the brood chamber and the brood nest is spread across these frames.
- a varroa floor -This is a mesh floor. When the bee grooms off the varroa parasite it falls straight through the mesh. Older hives had a solid wooden floor and it was found that the varroa stayed on the floor and hitched a lift on the next available bee.
The hive stand
This can be a hand made wooden stand, a milk crate or a couple of breeze blocks. It keeps the hive off the damp ground. I make a bench out of old planks or joists and sit a couple of hives on that. I also ratchet strap my hives to the bench. Keeps the hives together in high winds and stops vandals pushing them over.
The beekeepers protective clothing and tools
- the beekeeper’s jacket – this is usually white and fitted with a hood and veil. It keeps the bees off your face.
- gloves – soft gloves are essential to stop the bees stinging your hands. Don’t buy expensive suede gloves; buy cheap blue rubber gloves just a bit thicker than Marigolds. (Marigolds tend to rip)
- the smoker – the smoker is used to calm the bees down when inspecting the hive. The smoker as its name suggests burns small chips of wood or rolled paper and smoke is gently puffed into the hive entrance. The effect of the smoke is to make the bees think they may have to evacuate the hive so they gorge themselves on honey. This stupefies them and they become more docile.
- the hive tool – a simple lever similar to a pry bar about 7” long and used to prise hive parts apart. I use a small packing crate tool sold in B&Q for £3.45. You’ll lose these so don’t bother buying the expensive stainless steel ones.
- the bee brush – used when you take the hive apart. Bees invariably crawl onto the sides of the hive boxes. The brush is used to gently clear away any bees that might otherwise be crushed.
The bottom line - the start up costs
- It’s not necessary to spend thousands of pounds on kit to enjoy beekeeping, but don’t buy anyone’s old hives unless you have them looked at by an experienced beekeeper. Why did the colony die? Did the hive die of disease. A few quid saved on the hive could lose you hundreds if disease takes hold of your future colonies. Disease doesn’t always occur immediately, it could take years to emerge.
- You can buy a good healthy nucleus of bees treated for European Foul Brood and Varroa for £145. You usually have to collect the nuc from the supplier.
- A hand made complete hive in white pine is about £140 with a ridge roof (very pretty) for an extra £25. Painted with Cuprinol it will last years.
- The 11 brood frames and 11 super frames cost approx £1.50 each. You can buy the 11 brood frames and 11 super frames and the brood foundation and super foundation from Thornes Beekeeping Ltd. Wax foundation is simply a sheet of wax impregnated with cell walls. It makes it easy for the bees to draw out the wax into honeycomb.
- a bee jacket on Ebay - £39 plus postage
- a hive tool from B&Q £3.45
- a bee brush from eBay £3.95 plus postage
- a smoker, about £21 plus postage, these seem to be quite cheap on eBay. Buy a nice big one that will stay alight. Don’t buy any fuel for your smoker, it’s fun to make your own smoker fuels - use old cardboard loo roll centres, collect dry wood and bark, use wood shavings etc. Buy a box of the longer cook’s matches for lighting the smoker.
Some Useful Links:
www.dave-cushman.net – excellent beekeeping site.
http://www.beehivemaker.co.uk/ – hand made, quality, cheap hives.
http://www.britishbee.org.uk/ - British Beekeeping Association.
http://www.thorne.co.uk/ – Thornes Beekeeping, always a bit pricey
http://www.bees-online.co.uk/ - Maisemore, usually cheaper than Thornes
http://www.scottishbeekeepers.org.uk/ – excellent beekeeping info
http://www.beekeeping.co.uk/ – National bee supplies, good range.