First of all, I’m going to apologise if this post sounds like it is a bit ‘hell, fire and brimstone’ but it is a subject that is close to my and heart and I was brought up “Chapel”.
Before you start beekeeping you must consider the following. If you just want to “Save the Bees” and that’s all then stop reading, go away and plant lots of flowers in your garden and encourage others to do the same, that’s the best thing you can do!
I frequently come into contact with keepers of bees, (they don’t deserve the title of beekeeper) who have got bees because they want to save them, but they think you can just put bees in a box and that’s it job done. They don’t want to go on a course, they don’t listen to the advice of more experienced beekeepers, they get bees from a less reputable source, they don’t look after them properly and their bees end up dying. Sadly, I’m coming across this more and more. At the end of the day as a beekeeper you have a “Duty of Care” to your bees. If the RSPCA knew how some beekeepers treated their bees, they would be prosecuted and banned from keeping animals for life.
If you want to start Beekeeping and are willing to learn, willing to listen to what you are being told, have the time, the space, the money, willing to get stung and on the journey help in saving the bees then perhaps Beekeeping may be for you. If you are interested, then keep reading and I will detail some things you should know before you start.
Learning about Bees
This is probably the most important thing you can do before you start beekeeping is to go on a BBKA Approved Beekeeping course. Please do not be tempted to do an online course. Beekeeping is a practical subject which cannot be taught online. An approved Beekeeping course will give you the practical experience that you need to be able to handle Honeybees, teach you how to recognise reportable pests and diseases, teach you about the lifecycle, teach you what to do when they want to swarm plus other subjects.
Learning doesn’t just end when the Beginners Course finishes. Learning in beekeeping is a continuous process, and every responsible beekeeper should make the effort to continue to learn about bees. The BBKA have a series of qualifications where ultimately you could end up as a Master Beekeeper.
Join Your Local Association
Join your local BBKA Affiliate Association. I have to say I can’t believe that there are people out there who don’t do this. You can be involved as little or as much as you want to be with your local association. There are a number of distinct advantages:
- £10,000,000 Public liability insurance.
- Monthly Magazine.
- Access to experienced Beekeepers.
- Access to Beekeeping Qualifications.
Do you have the time to keep Bees?
Bees need inspecting every 7-9 days and this for a beginner can take over an hour per hive. I’ve been keeping Bees now for about 15 years and I can inspect a hive in about 6 minutes providing I don’t have to do any sort of intervention. That is only because I’m experienced, and I know what to look for and were. Even then I can still take over an hour.
When I started keeping bees my mentor said to me “Proper Beekeepers don’t go on Holiday between April and August” and he was right. If you go on a two-week Holiday between April and August, and you can guarantee your bees will have swarmed by the time you get back.
You need to work to the bees’ timetable and not your own. Bees will rule your life between April and August. If you’ve had a period of bad weather, as can often happen in this country, the first day of good weather you need to inspect your bees. It’s almost guaranteed that that will be the day they swarm. Forget going to that family event you’d promised to go to, forget going to the football, forget going to the pub, your priority is your bees.
The bees themselves don’t need a lot of space they just need a box roughly the size of a champagne case (18″ x18″) but you as a beekeeper will need space to be able to work with the bees. You also will always need space for a second hive. As a minimum you can get away with a 6ft x 6ft square, but the space will be tight. Once out of the hive bees fly in a straight line. They will fly down your garden paths they will fly across the patio and if you get in their way the bees will try and move you, ultimately by stinging. I’ve seen back gardens that have become unusable because the bees have taken over. Also, bees are no respecter of boundaries so they will go into your neighbours’ gardens to forage and if they swarm the swarm will invariably land in your neighbour’s garden.Before you start keeping bees think, have I got a big enough garden? What would my neighbours think if a swarm landed in their garden? How would your neighbours react if they were to be stung?
MoneyYou can spend a fortune on beekeeping or in fact very little, but you will have to spend money. If you were to buy new equipment and bees, you could be looking at the thick end of £1000 for one hive. Further on in this page I will be detailing some of the pitfalls that beginners can easily fall into when buying equipment.
Getting StungBees sting it hurts. If you don’t want to get stung don’t keep bees. Bees are probably the most dangerous animal in the UK. A single bee sting can kill you if you happen to be allergic to the venom.
I actually come across a lot of people who claim to be allergic but when you ask how they react they tell you that they swell up in the place where they have been stung. This is not an allergic reaction this is just a normal histamine reaction. Allergic is when you start swelling places you haven’t been stung, your face goes red your throat starts closing, you have difficulty breathing, you go into anaphylactic shock and ultimately die. This is an allergic reaction not a bit of swelling and a bit of pain.
There is nothing to stop people in the UK keeping bees but consider this:
In the UK we have two reportable diseases and two reportable pests. By reportable I mean that you as a keeper of bees are legally required to report these pests and diseases to the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) and if you don’t report them, you can be liable for a considerable fine. APHA run teams of Bee Inspectors that cover the UK and they have the legal right to enter a premises where bees are kept and inspect the bees for disease. It doesn’t matter if you are there or not, if a reportable disease is found, then they can issue a destruction order on your bees. Now I’m not trying to frighten people, well perhaps a little bit.
The Inspectors are quite nice people who are always full of useful information. You can register with APHA through the BeeBase website, and I would recommend that all responsible beekeepers do this. If you do register you will get an inspection roughly every three years which is always a good learning experience. I always find them really enjoyable. If you don’t register don’t worry other beekeepers in the area soon work out where you are, especially the local Swarm team, and in the event of a diseases outbreak they will have no qualms in passing your details onto the inspectors.
The production and sale of Honey is regulated under the Honey Regulation 2015. All honey sold in the UK must be labelled correctly. If you are selling through shops or Farmers Markets you need to be registered with the Food Standards Agency.
The best bees for a beginner to start with are always locally produced bees and by local I would say within 20 miles. You can spend a lot of money on bees. I’ve seen adverts offering a nuc (Half Hive) of bees for £400 which quite frankly is extortionate. If you’re paying more than £150 for a nuc your being fleeced. Always try and buy a nuc of bees never be tempted to buy a package of bees. A package is a mesh box with approximately 3lb of worker bees and a Queen. Often the workers and queens come from different colonies and in some cases even the workers are mixed from other colonies, they have no comb and very little food when being transported which can stress them out. Your best off buying a locally sourced nuc.
Stay well clear of imported bees. After Brexit bees cannot be imported into the UK although there is a loophole that allows them to be imported via Northern Island. Most bees imported from the EU via NI are from the southern tip of Italy and there are a few reasons why you should not be getting bees from Italy:
- Pests – The area where most imported bees come from in Italy has had an outbreak of Small Hive Beetle (SHB). This is a reportable pest and if this pest got into the UK it would decimate the UK Bee population. Although bees imported via Northern Island are inspected by APHA. The inspectors are very stretched and could easily miss SHB.
- In Sicily honeybees can forage all you round consequently they are not very frugal with their stores. In the UK honeybees don’t forage for nectar between October and March (ish) so our honeybees have to make their stores last through the winter. Italian bees are not acclimatised for our weather so if you get Italian bees you have to feed them really well and even then, they are more likely to eat all their stores over winter and starve.
By bringing foreign bees into an area and by foreign, I mean more than 20 miles, apart from the risk of importing disease, you also risk the damaging the genetics of the local bee population. When you bring foreign bees into an area the drones from that colony will go out and mate with local queens this results in hybridisation, now this can lead to better bees but more often than not it affects the temperament of the local bees. Temperament is genetic. I’ve seen in the area around where I live, where I’ve collected swarms from for years, that have been lovely bees that are really nice to work with and recently the temperament of the bees in this area has changed and I know they have hybridised because they have changed colour.
I talk to Beekeepers who have acquired their queens from some mystic isolated source, often for a considerable price, where they are pure bred lovely well-tempered bees, and that may be true. I can guarantee though that by the time they have swarmed, and the new queens have hybridised with the locals they will have turned into the bees from hell and your local swarm collector will of acquired an expensive queen.
They best thing to do if you want bees is to talk to your local beekeepers who can point you in the direction of someone selling, or if you’re really lucky, giving away bees locally.
New Beekeepers tend to go into an Equipment Frenzy and can end of buying everything they don’t really want or need.
Tin Plate Honey Extractors
Every year I seem to come across someone who has managed to buy an old tin plate honey extractor. It’s always for a really good price the problem with them is that you cannot use them to extract honey. Honey is acidic and reacts with the tin plate on the barrel and will taint the honey. At the end of the day, you are just buying someone else’s mistake. If you do accidently purchase one the best thing you can do with it is to weigh it in at the scrap yard. New beekeepers shouldn’t need to buy an extractor in their first season. It’s an expensive purchase and you probably won’t get enough honey in your first year to make full use of it. If you join your local beekeeping association, they should have extractors available to borrow or rent. If you must buy one get one that is either food grade plastic or stainless steel.
There are in use in the UK today about 15 different types of hive and some of those have different variants. So, when choosing a hive type it is probably your most important decision when starting out. Once you’ve chosen it’s not easy to change to another hive as the parts are often not interchangeable. You’re best off choosing the hive type that the majority of other Beekeepers in your area use. This is because when you source your first nuc of bees you want the frames that come with the nuc to be able to go into your chosen hive. As a new beekeeper you don’t want to be messing about with adapters when trying to get you bees to move into their new home.
These where first produced in Australia and everyone thought what an excellent idea, just turn a tap and watch the honey flow out, except more knowledgeable Beekeepers and here are the reasons why:
- Australia is a lovely warm country, and the honey doesn’t crystallise very quickly. In the UK it is cold, and damp and honey can crystallise very rapidly especially if you are within 3 miles of an oil seed rape field. If the honey crystallises in the hive it will gum up the works making life very difficult when you want to get the honey out.
- These hives are based on the Langstroth Hive. 90% of Beekeepers in the UK use the National Hive or one of its relatives and as the two styles of hives have a different cross section the parts are not interchangeable.
Second-hand HivesNow I’m not against second-hand hives if they are treated with caution. If you buy second-hand hives, they need to be cleaned and sterilised thoroughly before use. We have two reportable diseases in the UK, American Foul Brood (AFB) and European Foul Brood (EFB). In England south of the M62 EFB is getting to the point that it is endemic. So, if you buy second-hand equipment hives there is a good chance it could be infected and will need sterilising with a blow torch. If the hive contains frames, then the frames should be burnt.
Top Bar Hives
In the UK you mainly come across two types of top bar hive. The African long hive and the Warre Hive.
African Long Hive
African Honey Bees are different to our European Honey Bees in that they require different management practices. For starters they are migratory in that the colonies move themselves depending on the location of sources of forage and the season. This can result in them leaving the hive full of stores which makes it easier to harvest especially as they can be somewhat bad tempered and will chase the beekeeper for some distance.
In the UK due to the prevalence of disease on a regular basis for this you need to manipulate the combs. Our UK frames have wooden bars all around, hence a frame, this means the bees can fix their comb to the frames and this makes manipulation of the frames easier. Top bar frames as the name suggest consist of, just a top bar. Consequently, you have to manipulate the bar very carefully otherwise the comb will fall off the top bar. They can also join the comb to the outside of the hive which means the comb could break when you try and remove the frame.
Now there is a school of thought that says that because you don’t stack the boxes on top of each other and therefore you don’t have to lift the boxes on and off again, that these are more suitable for disabled beekeepers. The answer to this is that you can buy double width National Hives that can be used for the same way.
Warre Hives are similar to our UK hives in that they are a series of boxes that stack up on top of each other. They have the same issue with the top bar as the African Long Hive when it comes to doing manipulations. The issue they have is that Bees are very good at gluing hive parts together. In the normal UK hives having the bottom bar means the bees build the comb from the top bar down to the bottom bar of the frame and then stop. On a Warre hive they build the comb from the top bar of one box to the top bar of the box below. Hence joining the boxes together. The only way to get the boxes separated is to use a cheese wire to slice between the boxes. This has two disadvantages.
- You may kill the queen without even seeing her and then if it’s the wrong time of year you’ve killed the colony.
- As you cut through between the boxes you will inevitably kill bees, when you kill bees, they release an alarm pheromone which signals the other bees to attack, which will result in the beekeeper getting stung.
eBay can be a good source of equipment, but it is full of things beekeepers don’t need. If you see something that looks amazing that you think will revolutionise beekeeping, then please ask a more experienced beekeeper before purchase.
I’m not trying to put people off beekeeping, but I want people to take up beekeeping for the right reasons and when they do start beekeeping, they don’t fall into any of the pitfalls.
Finally, a responsible Beekeeper should:
- Go on a BBKA approved course.
- Join your local BBKA affiliate Association.
- Register with the National Bee Unit.
- Have the time and space to keep bees.
- Be willing to learn.
- Be willing to listen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Steve Jacklin – Master Beekeeper.