Interested in Bees?

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This was created on the 8th June 2009.

Most frequently asked questions about starting beekeeping. Answer 7 updated on 28th February 2014

Q1 I have been thinking about beekeeping for a while now and would like to know how to go about starting.

A1 We have always taken the view that when starting beekeeping it is best to belong to a local group for a while before having bees as it gives you the opportunity to see what equipment, clothing etc., that is needed, to see people handling bees and by the time you are ready for bees you will know plenty of people who are only too willing to pass on advice and maybe even a swarm to get you going. It is a very “hands-on” hobby and practical demonstration is by far the best way of learning. Membership of our Association is £7.50 per year – not a lot for all the information you may acquire during the year.

Q2 What protective clothing will I need?

A2 It is very important to feel comfortable looking at bees. If you are anxious about getting stung you can become clumsy which then causes more problems and things can soon get out of hand. It is obviously best to aim eventually for the full purpose-made protective clothing, but to start with you can make do with inexpensive decorator’s “paper boiler suit” from a DIY store, “wellie” boots, fairly heavyweight kitchen gloves with longish cuff which can be tucked in at the wrist and if possible a firm hat with a brim. Our group has access to some simple veils for loan that will serve to introduce you to beekeeping. The problem is that it is a chicken and egg situation – you need protection to find out whether or not beekeeping is for you so it is best not to spend a lot of money until you do know. Later on you can add a jacket with an integral veil to your boiler suit or even get a complete kit.

Q3 What equipment will I need to start off?

A3 (a) A beehive consisting of a varroa monitoring floor, brood box, crown board, roof and honey supers per colony. It is always best to have 2 colonies.

      (b) A smoker – bees are pacified by smoke and although you can overdo it and stress them with too much a smoker is part of basic beekeeping equipment and serves to make handling them easier.

      (c) A hive tool; again basic equipment for prising frames apart and scraping away excess wax and propolis.

When thinking about equipment it is well worth asking for a catalogue from EH Thorne (Beehives) Ltd. E-mail sales@thorne.co.uk who are the main beekeeping suppliers in the country. It is more than a catalogue in that it gives a lot of beekeeping advice. We are fortunate to have as one of our members, Arthur Hill at Orrin Bridge, who is an agent for Thornes so equipment is readily available locally. Arthur sometimes has second hand hives available as well. Our "Market Place" page on the web site will carry adverts. for bees and equipment from time to time.

Q4 What type of beehive should I be looking at?

A4 The standard beehive for hobby beekeepers is the National hive – it is single walled – is basically 18” square and extra equipment such as frames, queen excluders etc are readily available. They are easily strapped together for moving (to the heather) if you so wish. See Thorne’s catalogue. It should be remembered that when using second-hand hives, either purchased or fallen heir to, that they must be thoroughly cleaned and blow torched to eliminate disease and wax moth larvae.

Q5 Can I make my own hives?

A5 Yes, plans are available but internal measurements need to be precise to suit British Standard frames with a ⅜” bee space in the appropriate places. The quality of the wood is also important and the best hives are made from Western Red Cedar. Fittings can be bought from Thornes ie frames and wax foundation and frame runners etc.

Q6 Do bees involve a lot of time spent on them?

A6 Beekeeping is one of those things that doesn't need regular attention except perhaps May - July when it is the swarming season. You set them up for winter in September time by making sure they have enough stores to see them through the winter, protect the hives against mice and treat them for varroa, then they can be left alone until at least March time. You need to check the weight of the hives for stores around Christmas time and do another varroa treatment at about that time which only takes 5 minutes per colony.

You don't look inside them until it is warm enough to be outside in shirt sleeves so that can be the end of April.  Until then it is observation at the hive entrance watching for pollen going in so that you know that the queen is laying. After that more regular attention is needed from May onwards. Checking for queen cells (sign of intent to swarm) at least every 9 days till the end of June is necessary if you want to prevent them swarming, which you need to do if you want any amount of honey.  After July they will not need attention except to make sure they have enough room for any honey they may collect i.e. heather.  As all bees are basically wild they can look after themselves, all we have to do is try to encourage them to store more honey!

Q7 Where do I get bees?

A7 There are three main sources of bees.

(a)   You can buy a complete colony from a beekeeper who is wanting to sell up. Usually in that case it will involve purchasing beehive etc. as well. You are then open to the risk of bad infestations of disease, the unknown age of the queen etc. This method is best done by recommendation. Cost could be £150 + for a 5 frame Neuc and £250 + for a full-size colony.

(b)   By acquiring a swarm from a fellow beekeeper who has either not enough equipment to house the swarm or has been called to collect a feral swarm which he doesn’t require. These would probably need to be treated for varroa as soon as they are hived if it is unknown where they are from.

(c)   You can purchase a queen which arrives in the post with a few bees as attendants, cost about £30. This will require a friendly and experienced beekeeper to set up a nucleus for you using frames from his/her colonies.

Q8 What is the ideal situation in which to keep bees?

A8 A large garden is perfectly OK as long as you can position the hives so that they are well away from any public footpaths etc. and obviously not in a position where they could interfere with normal garden occupation such as putting out the washing (they can splatter washing with droppings especially in Springtime), children playing, sunbathing(!) etc. They are best placed facing out over a field but not too open and susceptible to strong winds. They should not have trees overhanging which will constantly drip onto the hives and cause annoyance to the bees. They are best not put into a frost pocket and should catch as much sun as possible. Definitely not in a damp boggy area or where livestock can use the hives as scratching posts. We are often told that bees and horses don’t mix. You must always bear in mind that it is virtually impossible to get Public Liability Insurance to cover you for a claim against you by someone who thinks your bees have caused problems. The answer is, of course, that they have to be able to prove it is your bees that did the deed.

Q9 Can you recommend a good book?

A9 The most popular book on beekeeping these days is; “Guide to Bees and Beekeeping” by Ted Hooper. There is also a “Beekeeping for Dummies” and don’t throw away your child’s Ladybird book “The Life of the Honeybee” as it is a good easy reference to basic facts.

Q10 Are there courses run for beginners?

A10 Our Group doesn’t run formal indoor beginners’ courses. Occasionally we hold Saturday afternoon sessions starting at 2pm  to enable new and would be beekeepers an opportunity to see inside a colony of bees and to acquire some basic knowledge about beekeeping. Larger Groups, such as Inverness sometimes hold indoor courses over winter usually open to non-members. There is one beekeeping advisor in Scotland, Graeme Sharpe, who is based at the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), at Auchencruive, Ayr. He is funded by the Scottish Government to run one day courses on various aspects of beekeeping and some of these are held at SAC Drummondhill, Inverness and you would be notified when they were being held.

Other questions that could be asked.
1. Is Beekeeping frustrating?

Yes – the bees never do exactly what you want them to do. As they say – the bees don’t read the same books that we do.

The weather is never quite right and if it has been good and the bees have stored plenty of honey they can just as quickly use it all up again if the weather turns bad for a prolonged period. If you are quick and get the honey off the hive you may land up having to feed them to keep them going having raided their larder.

Swarming is not completely controllable as it is one of the bees’ basic processes of regeneration and always happens when you are least prepared.

The weather may be good but if there is not enough moisture in the air the nectar flow in the plants may be poor.

There is no guarantee that you will get honey every year.

2. Is Beekeeping addictive?

Yes – the more you see bees working as a colony and you wonder at the organisation of workers and the sheer fecundity of the queen you cannot fail to be entranced with watching them go about their daily business even supposing you never harvested a drop of honey. We are constantly being reminded of how valuable bees are to life through pollination of crops etc. and for that reason alone we can only be constantly amazed at the value of such small creatures.

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