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How to start beekeeping

Updated: Apr 2

Our Top10 tips will help get you started. We begin with a seemingly obvious question before jumping into the nuts and bolts of how to start beekeeping.


Male and female bees at the front of a hive - How to start beekeeping - Cheltenham
Male and female bees at the front of a bee hive

First things first - think about your reasons for keeping bees

The answer to this is more subtle now than when we started beekeeping. More and more, beekeeping is marketed as a way to "save the bees". BUT honeybees are not in decline. It's the UK's other 270+ species of bumblebees and solitary bees that are struggling.


There are lots of good reasons to keep bees (honey, interest, being outside). But if your only aim is to "help bees" I'd say plant more flowers and build habitats for wild bees - rather than start a beehive.


So, how to start beekeeping:


1. See a hive of bees close up - in real life

No amount of YouTubing can prepare you for a full sized hive. At its peak, a hive holds 60,000 bees. That's a lot of insects..


As a new beekeeper, I was amazed. As trainers, we know most people are fascinated. Very, very rarely, someone will be a bit freaked out. All of these are natural reactions.


You won't know what your's will be until you are standing there. Best to find out before you buy bees.


2. Go on a bee keeping course

A bee keeping course is a good way to get some real life experience. A one day course can give you an introduction to beekeeping and time to "have a go".


Make sure the course you choose will get you up close and hands on. The courses we run have a max of 5 people around a hive. Much more than this and you risk just standing about.


A course should also give advice on equipment, where to put your hive, where to buy bees and costs. It's important to know about honeybee diseases - a good course will cover these too.


If a course feels like a step too far, try a bee experience - a shorter session with a beekeeper, looking in some hives.


3. Learn the "standard" way to keep bees first

There are different ways to keep bees. Some of these differences can be difficult for a new beekeeper to assess and challenging to manage.


Learn the mainstream way of beekeeping first. It will give you a starting point - it doesn't have to be how you ultimately decide to keep your bees.


4. Join your local beekeeping association

A local association is a great way to meet other beekeepers. Some associations have a calendar of speakers on interesting bee-related topics. Some run practical skills days.


If you like a cup of tea and a chat, they're good for that too.


The front cover of the BBKA Guide to Beekeeping

5. Read some (more) books

A course and membership of your association will get you going - but they can't cover everything. A few books will help. A good book (and a mainstream view of beekeeping) is:


The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping (2016) by I. Davis and R. Cullum-Kenyon


Have a look at The Apiarist and Stewart Spinks - good online sources of solid and thoughtful information about honeybees and beekeeping.


6. Work out if you have the time to keep bees

The active bee season runs between March and October. You'll need about half an hour a week to look after one hive. It's a good idea to check your bees once a week during the season. Will you be able to do this?


7. Find a place for your hive

The back garden is where most new beekeepers plan to keep their bees. Alternatively, you can keep a hive in an orchard or allotment. Your local association will get requests from landowners who want hives on their land - another good reason to join.


The BBKA Guide lists what you need to consider e.g how close will you be to neighbours? Are you near a school or footpath? A good beekeeping course will cover these points plus you can discuss your own situation.


A national hive of bees surrounded by trees
A national hive of bees

8. Get your equipment

Starting beekeeping needs less kit than you think:

  • A hive with frames

  • A bee suit

  • Cleanable or disposable gloves (not leather ones)

  • A hive tool

  • A smoker


There are lots of equipment suppliers online. Be prepared to spend a bit of time getting to grips with the jargon.


Avoid actually buying a "beekeeping starter kit". As we know from personal experience (!) they are tempting but include stuff you don't need.


Read my blog "How much does it cost to keep bees?" to find out about costs.


9. Get local bees

Local bees will do best because they are adapted to your local conditions.


Most new beekeepers buy their bees. Look for genuinely local suppliers. They might sell bees online like we do (for Cheltenham and the surrounding area). Your local association may have local bees available. Some suppliers will be further afield. Others may sell bees headed by imported queens - so perhaps not quite as local as you might imagine.


10. Consider getting a mentor

Sometimes you'll have a question and no amount of interneting will help.


Your local association may be able to put you in touch with someone who can be your mentor over the first few years of your beekeeping.


If you come on one of our bee keeping courses, you'll always be able to ask Harry. He mentors too - with one off visits for a particular issue or a programme of visits across the season. Contact us if you'd like more information about mentoring.


Conclusion

Beekeeping is a great hobby and one of its pleasures is that there is always more to learn. Our tips on how to start beekeeping will put you on the right track. Get reading, get YouTubing and drop us a line if you've got a question.

Happy beekeeping!


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Sources:

My information on the status of honey bees came from Professor Jeff Ollerton's blog post "Have honeybees declined in Britain? An update of the numbers"

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