The obvious reason to keep bees is the crop of honey they will bring you, so if you think you get a box, put bees in it and take out the honey when it’s ready, think again. There’s much more to it than that. So let me explain some basics so that you can get an idea of how much is involved. During the winter there’s little or nothing to do with the bees themselves: they’re clustered in your hive, only coming out when there’s a warm day. The work starts in the spring and from April through to September regular weekly inspections are needed. (See Beekeeping calendar)
Set up Costs
You will need a hive so what type and how much will it cost? There are many different types of hives available, too many to mention here so it’s recommended that you start with the hive that most beekeepers use in the UK, and that’s the National. When you buy your bees your supplier is most likely to supply them to you on National frames. Now a word about the pretty WBC – that’s the tiered hive that you see in the old cottage garden pictures and at garden shows; this is an expensive hive and requires space around it to do inspections, it can cost up to £450; however it does also take national frames. A national it is then: stand, floor, brood box, queen excluder, a minimum of 2 supers, crown board, and roof. £150 – £200.
It is possible to find second-hand equipment, but a used hive requires not just cleaning but sterilising using a blow torch or washing down with soda crystals. Disease is a problem for bees, more on that later. A used hive may also require repairing or any gaps between boxes will result in your bees succumbing to predators like wasps or other bees, so best advice is buy new if at all possible. Some suppliers do a complete starter kit and this can be an economical way to begin. Although there are some plans available on the internet, I would not recommend trying to make your own hive.
Your personal kit will require a suit, gloves, a hive tool, brush, smoker – costing up to £150.
Your supplier should discuss with you what you will get when you buy your bees. Typically a young mated queen on 2 or more brood frames. Other frames should contain food for the bees. The bees should be disease free; ask your supplier how they treat, for instance, against Varroa and do they keep records. The temperament of your new colony should be non aggressive. For example when the bees are inspected, you don’t want bees that fizz up at you, run all over the comb or follow you away from the hive. You’re new to this, so make sure your supplier knows you want gentle bees. You can buy bees by post from all over the country, however a local bee that’s used to weather and conditions in your area is ideal. You could pay up to £175 for a small colony of bees, called a nucleus.
When’s the best time to start?
You could set up the hive itself in your garden anytime of the year. Place a paving flag on ground and make it level. The best time would be when you get your new colony. This would be around May/June.
Where do I put them?
You need space for your inspections, so not in a tight corner behind the garage. An open area, with the hive entrance facing away from people who may pass by, will be good. Better still if the entrance faces a fence or hedge a few feet away, this will be ideal as bees will fly up and leave the garden. Please be aware of your neighbours or any members of the public who may be near your hive. Also preferred is a light, airy space with the morning sun on the hive and no overhanging trees. If you can, ask a local beekeeper about what forage there is for bees in your area. You may get your bees at a time when no forage is available and so need to feed them or keep an eye on their food reserves (we call them stores). If you are planning not to keep your bees in your garden but somewhere else, make sure you can always get access.
Varroa and diseases
How I wish I could tell you that bees don’t have much disease problems. There is really too much for me to tell here and I will give a brief overview; booklets are available for free from FERA . The main problem we have is Varroa. It arrived in this country by the early nineties. It came across the world from a type of honey bee in Asia that has evolved to live with it. Our European bees sadly as yet don’t have the ability to deal with it and so we have to on their behalf. It’s a little parasite that lives on the bees and on their larvae. Once Varroa is kept down to a low level the bees are fine, however if allowed to grow to large numbers in your hive you risk having weak bees or you may even lose them. Varroa is also a carrier or vector for several diseases which will weaken your colony. Regular treatments are put into the hive to control Varroa. You will need to bone up on how to do this and get help if needed. Essentially if you check for Varroa and treat as needed and keep your bees strong, then all other nasties can be avoided. By the way every bee colony has got it, so assume yours has too.
There’s no law to make you be a member of any organisation and so if you want to keep bees you can do it without joining an association. As you are reading this I can assume that you want your options. Membership of the Southport & Formby Beekeepers Association costs £22 per year (this is approx as there are different status memberships). For this you get a monthly magazine which keeps you informed. There are regular meetings with other beekeepers, and membership includes insurance on your hive(s). Your call.
Southport and Formby Branch’s Introduction Course
The Southport & Formby Beekeepers Association run a weekend course that covers all you need to know to get you started. The cost is £110. Refreshments and lunches are provided to keep your brain cells going. Experienced Beekeepers will tell you about bees themselves, how a colony works and many fascinating facts. They will show you how to make frames, or put together a flat pack hive. You will have the opportunity to look through a hive and learn what to look for and how to maintain your bees. Several practical sessions will be held at our branch apiary for you to attend so you can gain confidence.
Stings and safety
Saved this one for last; however part of me wanted to put it first. You become a beekeeper, you’re going to get stung. If you’ve never been stung then what you can usually expect is a burning feeling which persists for several minutes. The area may swell in a red weal. It may take a couple of days for itching and soreness to go away. That’s the usual. As soon as you get stung if the stinger is left in your skin, scrape it out with a fingernail. Don’t pull as this would increase the dose of venom you get. A painkiller like aspirin may help and so can an antihistamine tablet. Consult your doctor on the best course of action. I am now so used to stings I don’t get the swelling anymore and I don’t need painkillers. Some say that being stung is good for you as it makes your immune system react which in turn makes it strong. Some beekeepers believe that arthritis and cancer are kept at bay by stings. I can’t say as I’m not a doctor (and doctors don’t really know for sure) however much research has been done into the beneficial effects of bee stings and the Chinese have used bee stings as an alternative therapy for thousands of years.
Should you be one of the unlucky people who has the bad anaphylactic reaction or should you be near someone who has this do the following. REMAIN CALM. Remove sting. Move person from area (if near a hive) and make them comfortable, sit them down and get them to relax. Loosen their clothing. They may know they have this reaction and have an epipen with them. They must administer this, not you. The symptoms are breathing difficulties swelling of the throat, light headedness, feeling sick or feeling faint. Always carry a mobile when beekeeping and call for an ambulance. However, bear in mind that this bad reaction is rare and unusual.
How much honey will I get?
Between NONE AT ALL and around 40 lb per hive, sometimes even more. It depends on many, many factors such as the weather, the flowers available, the weather, the condition of your bees, the weather…
Wow do you still want to be a beekeeper?
I wouldn’t trade back. I have made many friends and I enjoy my bees. There is nothing like watching them come and go from the hive on a sunny day, it’s so relaxing. The honey is the best; please see section on raw honey.
Between us beekeepers we have many social events and conferences. So see you there.
Some recommended reads:-
Guide to Bees and Honey (Ted Hooper) Marston House
Pratical Beekeeping (Clive de Bruyn) Crowood press
Bees at the bottom of the Garden (Campion) NBB