Starting with beekeeping – hobbyists

INTRODUCTION

Having got this far, you probably already appreciate, or can at least guess, that beekeeping involves much more than simply dumping some bees in a box, putting your feet up and waiting for the honey to flow!  The more you know about beekeeping before you start, the more likely it is you will make the right choices, quickly gain the basic skills and knowledge of a competent beekeeper and, importantly, therefore actually enjoy your beekeeping.  Keeping bad tempered, unhealthy bees in an inappropriate hive and using poor protective equipment is highly likely to be frustrating, unpleasant and ultimately unsuccessful.  

The key steps leading into beekeeping are:

  1. Learning sufficient about the craft to decide whether it is for you or not. What are your motives for keeping bees? Have you the interest, potential skills, resources, time and desire to learn?
  2. Identifying where you will keep your bees.
  3. Obtaining a hive and other equipment.
  4. Stocking the hive with bees, typically in June-July (see below).

Beginners often need a couple of seasons of beekeeping to get to grips with the annual cycle and develop basic competence, ideally with some guidance from an experienced beekeeper.

Simply diving in at Step 3/4, getting a hive and some bees, and following your own isolated path, hoping to learn everything from books and your own mistakes is not a good strategy in beekeeping.  It is likely to be slow, frustrating and costly to both you and the bees.  Sharing with, and learning from, others and seeing as many colonies of bees and different beekeeping management scenarios as possible really helps to develop basic competence.

Perhaps the main challenges in contemporary hobbyist beekeeping are:

  • Despite millennia of beekeeping history and a huge body of scientific research, honey bee behaviour is not always reliably predictable nor easily interpretable. It is famously and perceptively said that ‘the bees do not read the books that tell them what they are supposed to do!’
  • Increasingly variable seasonal weather, especially in the critical spring/early summer period, has a strong influence on both bee colony development and the plants on which the bees forage.  Each beekeeping year is different, demanding different husbandry responses by the beekeeper.
  • In the face of environmental changes and awareness of new and potential diseases and pests, much more attention is required in respect of hygienic practices and maintaining healthy bees than in the past.
  • There is a lot of information available and beekeepers usually have an opinion, whether well-founded or not; another famous beekeeping aphorism is ‘ask three beekeepers, get four different opinions!’ Beginners often go through a period of feeling overwhelmed and confused by alternatives. There are often several acceptable ways of achieving a given objective in beekeeping but the beginner is well advised to stick to simple, conventional, common, good practice until sufficient understanding and experience in beekeeping is developed to correctly assess the merits of alternatives in their own circumstances.

There are four principle methods of learning about beekeeping – books, websites and online videos, courses and your local beekeeping association or group.

STARTING TO LEARN ABOUT BEEKEEPING

Books

Books are an easy and relatively cheap way of learning something about beekeeping. The increased interest in the craft in recent years has led to a steady stream of newly published beekeeping manuals. A couple of good, modern manuals are The Haynes Beekeeping Manual (Waring and Waring) and the BBKA Guide to Beekeeping (Davis and Cullum-Kenyon).  These are authoritative, relatively up-to-date and copiously photo-illustrated. Classics include the global best-seller Guide to Bees and Honey (Hooper), Practical Beekeeping (de Bruyn) and the pared back to absolute basics Bees at the Bottom of the Garden (Campion). These classics are all at least 20 years old and the generally narrative, sparsely illustrated, styles look a bit dated. Perhaps they are best nowadays considered as a second, reference, book to own. Make sure you get the latest edition of whatever book you buy as beekeeping practice does evolve with time.

Websites and Videos

There is a vast amount of information about beekeeping and related subjects accessible via the internet. However, websites and videos can be a double-edged sword as far as the beginner beekeeper is concerned. On the one hand they (especially videos) can visually convey a lot of information conveniently, cheaply and quickly.  But the challenge for the beginner with limited knowledge is knowing whether what they are seeing is authoritative and relevant to their own location. Whilst the basic bee biology may be the same, what a commercial beekeeper in Australia, or a hobbyist in the USA, or even a beekeeper in Kent or Devon, uses or does may be inappropriate for north-east Scotland! Beginners are advised to place greater reliance on local UK sources, especially those run by Associations, suppliers or national bodies, in the first instance. It’s probably best to start with a book and use the internet to augment that knowledge. (Visit the Books page for recommended website.)

Courses

Most associations will offer entry level courses, ranging from perhaps a ‘taster’ session at an apiary through a multi-week introductory classroom course as ADBKA do, to basic practical training.  Higher level training is then accessible via local Associations and national bodies. It is advisable to do more than a short taster, and experience of live bees is essential, before deciding to take up the craft in earnest. Some people may be very keen in the classroom but after being surrounded by live bees decide that beekeeping is not for them.

Local Associations

Local associations enable you to meet other beekeepers and to benefit from classroom courses, apiary demonstrations, talks and lectures, discounted supplies, loan of equipment, a honey show, a beekeeping library, newsletters and social media, notification of equipment and bees for sale, insurance and so on.  Meeting other beekeepers will help the beginner to build up a network of contacts, including more experienced beekeepers who will generally be happy to help when problems inevitably arise.

National bodies, in our case the Scottish Beekeepers’ Association (SBA) and the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA), offer some of the activities and services of local Associations but obviously also represent the craft at national level.

By The Way – Stings

As a beekeeper you will certainly be stung occasionally. It’s unavoidable. Different people react to stings differently and any individual’s reaction may also change with time. Most people have a minor, local reaction of slight swelling, redness and itching at the sting site which wears off after a day or two. Stings where the flesh is thin – hands, wrists, ankles, and faces – may cause greater swelling. Some people have a more severe response in terms of significant swelling at the sting site.   A small proportion of people may suffer an excessive allergic reaction – anaphylactic shock – in response to a bee sting. This is a serious, potentially life-threatening, condition. If you know you respond like this, (i.e. you probably carry an EpiPen) you should carefully consider if beekeeping is an appropriate activity for you.  EpiPens are prescribed only to individuals and have a short shelf life and so ADBKA does not hold any for first-aid treatment.

WHERE TO KEEP YOUR BEES

A place where honey bees are kept is called an apiary.

Options to locate an apiary are (a) at your home, usually in a garden, but could be e.g. on a flat roof or (b) elsewhere – known as an ‘out-apiary’.  The best sites are close to good forage, sheltered and warm. The full foraging potential of an apiary site – which is one of the main factors in how much honey you get – may not be apparent until a couple of seasons have been experienced.  

Keeping bees at home is convenient but the potential for creating problems for neighbours and members of the public must be considered seriously, and the foraging potential is what it is. If you have a lot of land, then of course it will probably be much easier to find somewhere suitable and relatively convenient than in a small garden.

Keeping bees away from your home at an ‘out-apiary’ will probably be more time-consuming. However, you may be able to find a site that is better for forage than your home location, is more spacious, etc. etc.  Many farmers and landowners will be happy for you to keep hives on their land. Ask permission and jointly identify a suitable site – accessible, protected from livestock, and out-of-sight. Rent is usually paid in jars of honey.

‘Urban’ beekeepers – with hives on flat roofs, balconies, in public spaces, etc. – are becoming more common and may benefit from a wider variety of year-round forage than rural beekeepers. Policies on beekeeping at allotments and community spaces seem to vary; some organisations consider it prohibited ‘animal husbandry’, but others may welcome it if a suitable site is available.

Temporarily moving one’s hives to a nectar-yielding source is also an option.  In the northeast of Scotland, this is commonly done for oilseed rape in the late spring and heather in the late summer.

EQUIPMENT

Choice of Hive

The discoveries and innovations that resulted in the moveable frame hive concept we mostly use nowadays took place from the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century, resulting in the ‘Langstroth’ hive in 1852.  Since then, numerous hive designs and variations have been created, all generally claiming some advantage over alternative designs in particular or general circumstances.  In recent times, new designs often involve modern materials such as polystyrene and plastic. Hive designs continue to emerge, sometimes with significant publicity, which purport to make beekeeping so much easier.  Caveat emptor!

The classic pagoda-like hive that most people think of as ‘a beehive’ is called a ‘WBC’ nowadays uncommon.  The ‘standard’ UK hive design is called the ‘National’ (strictly speaking it is a ‘modified National’). The other common design is the Langstroth.  The small Smith hive is sometimes used, mostly in Scotland.  Hives may be made from wood (traditionally in hard-wearing cedar, but there are cheaper options) or high density expanded polystyrene.

The initial choice of hive design and material is significant step. Because hive parts, including internal frames, are not often interchangeable between designs, (and in the case of poly-hives sometimes not interchangeable between brands) ideally you want to stick with one design as you expand your number of hives otherwise you will end up needing more equipment than strictly necessary. The more invested you become in beekeeping, the more of an issue it becomes to change your choice of hive design.

Beginners are generally recommended to choose a hive design that is locally popular. This helps with transferring frames of bees on frames into your hive as the frame size is mostly particular to the hive design.  It also confirms that the design is suitable for local conditions, and opens a wider secondhand market if you wish to buy secondhand.  A 2019 survey showed 83% of ADBKA respondents use National hives, 11% use Langstroth hives and the remainder mostly use Smith hives.  WBC hives are increasingly seldom used, possibly as they are relatively expensive, more elaborate to work with, and the insulation benefits of the double-walled WBC can be more simply, effectively and cheaply obtained with a poly hive.

Along with hive design, a choice has to be made about materials of construction – wood or poly(styrene).  You can successfully keep bees in either, but there are pros and cons to each. For instance, amongst other considerations; wood is traditional and hard-wearing, poly hives tend to be slightly cheaper and provide greater insulation. Poly hives are probably gradually becoming more popular and are currently used by about a quarter of ADBKA members.

You can purchase new hives from local agents/suppliers or order for delivery from the national beekeeping supplies companies. There are often a range of price points from ‘budget’ or ‘second grade’ hives through to premium quality hives. If you have some basic woodworking skills, buying a flatpack hive is considerably cheaper than a fully assembled hive.  Beginners packages are popular, usually comprising a hive, protective clothing and other accessories. Buying second-hand needs care due to the risk of hive parts carrying disease or pests. Never buy or use second-hand frames for this reason (when you first get bees is an exception, but you can directly see the health of the bees in this situation).  Making your own hive from scratch is possible if you have the skills – plans are available – but if you have to purchase all the materials, especially in cedar, it may not be much, if any, cheaper than buying from a supplier.

Other Equipment

For a beginner looking to set up one conventional hive, the bare minimum to get going is:

  • Hive stand
  • Hive, including (open mesh) floor, brood box, one or two supers, crownboard and roof
  • Frames and foundation to fill brood box and super(s)
  • Queen excluder
  • Feeder (one gallon contact feeder)
  • Smoker, hive tool and possibly a bee brush, although a large feather will suffice
  • Protective clothing (footwear, gloves and veil or jacket/suit with integrated veil)

As soon as you are managing bees through the swarming season (late April to June) you will additionally need:

  • Spare hive or nuc*, comprising at minimum a floor, brood box and roof, with frames and foundation

This is all for one colony of bees. After a season or two you will probably appreciate the benefits of operating a minimum of two colonies, enabling a greater degree of ‘self-help’ in the event of problems.

Honey extraction equipment can be borrowed from ADBKA. Beginners obtaining bees in say June may not get much of a crop in their first year.

Like most hobbies, suppliers’ catalogues will illustrate more gadgets, adaptations and accessories than you ever thought possible.  You seldom see experienced beekeepers using most of them, so as a beginner, stick to the basic kit until you have enough knowledge and experience to know if a particular gadget will be of genuine benefit to you and your bees.

A common saying amongst beekeepers is that ‘you will never have enough equipment’!  You will need space to store what you have.

(*A ‘nuc’ is most simply considered as a half size hive and colony, accommodating five or six frames.)

GETTING BEES

Many of a honey bee colony’s behavioural tendencies are genetic, i.e. arise from its queen. The quality and age of the queen are vitally important.  As a beginner, your priorities should be calm and healthy bees. You are encouraged to obtain bees as ‘locally’ as possible, as they should be adapted to our local climate, and you can meet, and may get ongoing support from, the provider. Ask lots of questions of the provider, and if you are unsure, see if you can take a more experienced beekeeper with you.

You can obtain bees from:

  • Other hobbyist beekeepers
  • Commercial beekeepers
  • Some of the beekeeping supplies companies (but these would likely not be ‘local’ and will  be costly)
  • (With luck) A ‘bait’ hive, set up to attract a passing swarm

Commonly you will obtain a ‘nuc’ although full colonies can also be obtained.  Sometimes you will buy the bees/frames with their hive, and sometimes just the bees/frames, with their hive to be returned to the provider once the bees have been transferred to your own equipment.

Although in principle bees could be obtained at any time of year, most buying and selling activity in the North-East of Scotland is in June and July; it is advisable to obtain as young a queen as possible and new queens cannot be raised and proved viable much earlier than early June round here.