How do I start beekeeping?

You won't need any kind of licence to keep bees but it's worth checking out what's involved before you "commit".

Checking honeybees in a mini hive in early summer

There are lots of reasons to keep honeybees. Having some honey might be your first thought but that's not for everyone. Some people want them to pollinate fruit trees or an allotment and others are fascinated by them as creatures. Whatever the reason, how do you actually make it happen?

Beekeeping is a fascinating mixture of science and craft. It's a great hobby but not for everyone - how can you find out if its for you?

It's perfectly possible to go online and type "buy bees" but before you do, here are a few things to think about first. How much will it cost? Where am I going to put them? How much time will it take? And, last but DEFINITELY not least - how do I actually feel about insects? I know all this sounds a bit boring compared to "buy bees" but stay with me:


Cost - as you can see from the picture, beekeeping needs quite a lot of stuff. Starting from scratch you will need a bee suit, gloves, a multipurpose hive tool (this is the flat metal tool in my hand) and a smoker (to make smoke to puff at your bees when you open the hive). You will also need a hive for the bees to live in. The hive is really a modular set of boxes with a roof and a floor plus "frames" and a few other bits. Frames are moveable parts inside the boxes - they hold sheets of wax which the bees live on. You will also need some bees! Depending on where you shop, the suit and tools start at about £100+. If you buy a wooden hive, it might be about £450 made up or about half that if you buy it flat packed. It will be a lot cheaper if you buy a polystyrene hive (£150) - just like the wooden hive they have pros/cons. If you buy some bees, a starter colony costs about £200+. So, depending on your choices you're looking at about £500 minimum to get going. There are ongoing costs too but its useful to have a start-up price in mind.


Location - you can keep bees in a back garden (and there is lots of PR about people that keep bees on roof tops or balconies) but before you "buy bees" think about exactly where you will put your hive full of stingy things! Most bees are not fundamentally aggressive but think carefully if you live near a school or a bridle path. How close are your neighbours? Will they mind - best to ask! From a different perspective, how accessible is your planned site? Is it really practical if you have to climb up things or over things to reach your hive? Is it particularly cold or windy? Might it flood?


Time - There are different schools of thought on how much you should intervene in the life of your hive of bees. It can be quite a contentious question but the British Beekeepers Association suggests you should spend at least an hour a week on each of your hives during the spring/summer. This hour will involve checking for disease, making sure they have enough food and that they have a living, functioning queen. If we take this as the mainstream view then it's clear that beekeeping does require some regular time commitment. Are you prepared for this? If you decide to keep bees in a different way, do you understand what that involves?


Insects - this seems like a strange thing to mention but it's really important. Honeybees are social creatures and they live in colonies of 50,000+. That's a lot of insects! Whilst some people like the thought of keeping bees, they are completely freaked out when they actually see so many insects crawling about. Before you "buy bees" can you find a way to see how you feel about them "in the flesh"? Which brings me on to my next section.


SOURCES OF INFORMATION?

When I first decided to keep bees, the internet was an obvious port of call. But there is a mind-boggling amount of information/jargon.


A good place to start is The Apiarist website and blog. Written by a beekeeper in Scotland his blogs cover every imaginable beekeeping topic in a fun and friendly way. They are also really well organised so its easy to find a particular topic. There will be some stuff that might be over the head of a complete beginner but its worth diving in as he puts information together really well. Its free.


Another good place is Stuart Spinks at The Norfolk Honey Company. He has a comprehensive website and offers an online beekeeping course plus a YouTube channel. He also offers face to face courses. Lots of information; suitable for more experienced beekeepers too.


If you can, try a training course (Covid willing). A good one day course will give you an overview of beekeeping and you will be able to look inside a hive full of bees. Such a short course can't tell you everything but it's a start point. Seeing bees close up will tell you how you actually feel about them. If they creep you out, you've got your answer!


Even better, see if your local beekeeping association runs "hands on" courses. Cheltenham's association runs a two year course (about 10 Friday evenings in the spring and summer). You get to set up and look after a hive of your own with tutors available to answer questions on every aspect of practical beekeeping. They run a taster session so you can see if bees are for you before you commit to the full course. Check out this link to the Cheltenham association to see more. They fill up fast so make contact early.


If you can't get on a course, or if you just want a written guide for beginners, The British Beekeepers Association has published a useful book that sets out everything a new beekeeper needs to know - click the link to read more about it.


I have also put together some other books that I found useful as a beginner - click this link for the full list.


Finally, I'd recommend Thornes as a starting place for buying equipment. Their New to BeeKeeping page is good and they have a wide range of good quality kit.


If you have any questions about starting out - drop me a line harry@harryshoney.co.uk.


Enjoy!

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