Beginning with Bees
Evidence that humans have been collecting honey from wild bees for 10,000 years comes from Spanish cave paintings. Later, the ancient Egyptians practiced a form of domesticated beekeeping which is shown in some of their art work from around 4,500 years ago. This depicted the use of simple hives and the use of smoke when accessing the hives and honey was found in jars within some of the Pharaohs’ tombs. Bees were kept in similar fashion in containers made of wood, straw or pottery up until the 18th century when the modern movable comb hives we use today were invented.
Beekeeping has long appealed to people from all walks-of-life. Part of its appeal today is the fact that it can be practiced with success in both town and county. The majority of beekeepers in the UK and Ireland keep a few colonies as a hobby but there are numerous beekeepers operating on a commercial scale, some small scale, some large.
Traditionally, beekeeping has been a skill handed down from beekeeper to beekeeper. This remains the best way of learning the craft and husbandry needed to keep honeybees. Whether your intention is to provide a few jars of honey for family and friends or ultimately to become a commercial beekeeper, the best path to becoming a beekeeper will be through your local beekeeping association.
Local beekeeping associations and beekeeping mentors provide a focused insight into the craft and into the honeybee colony. Most local associations hold monthly lectures and new or aspiring beekeepers are welcome.
Membership of a local beekeeping association gives you ready access to informed and meaningful advice. It places you in a community of like-minded individuals: beekeepers handing down their skill and knowledge to beekeepers. That community will help steer you through the path to becoming a beekeeper.
Most beekeeping associations run beginners beekeeping courses. These cover the different aspects of beekeeping. Usually they will include seasonal access to live honeybees for training. It is helpful to kick start your beekeeping career by joining one of these courses. Many of the courses begin in January or February each year and as you learn and the beekeeping season progresses, your association may be able to provide you with a Nuc/Nucleus (starter) colony of bees and provide suggestions on equipment purchases.
Other sources of information:
Electronic media in its various forms provides much information about beekeeping but please balance the ready availability of that information against the question: “Does this information apply to beekeeping in my locality?” A huge part of becoming a beekeeper is learning what works in your locality and what works for you and your bees. For this reason it is beneficial to learn alongside an existing beekeeper.
- A reasonable introductory book is “The Haynes Bee Manual” by Adrian Waring and Claire Waring. The photographic illustrations of beekeeping in the Manual provide a fantastic reference point.
- Ted Hooper’s book “A Guide to Bees and Honey” is a staple for most beginner’s beekeeping courses and is worthy of a place on your shelf.
- JG Digges’ book “The Practical Bee Guide: A Manual of Modern Beekeeping” presents a nice historic perspective on beekeeping on the island of Ireland.
- The National Bee Unit, Animal & Plant Health Agency – “Starting Right with Bees” [download pdf]
- Beebase : Advice for New Beekeepers [web site link]
- Scottish BKA Bee Basics videos (link)
Have I the space?
A National beehive has a basic footprint of 460mm and its roof has a slight overhang. You will need clear space around the beehive to allow you to work with the colony. A metre or more of clear space around each beehive works well and you will also need good access on foot.
Your apiary could be in your garden, a neighbour’s garden, an allotment, local field or even on a flat, accessible rooftop. The corner of a garden is ideal for one or two beehives.
Is there good access?
By vehicle and by foot. You need good accessibility to carry equipment in and out of your apiary. You will also need to gain access as and when your bees need your attention and that could be at any time of the day from morning to night! Avoid sites that require you to climb fences or clamber across ditches.
Is it safe from vandals?
Bee hives can be targetted by thieves or vandals. It is advisable that you select an apiary that is out of sight and both safe and secure – out of sight is out of mind!
Honeybees and Neighbours or anyone who might be working or walking close to the site (non-beekeepers) must be kept in mind. Honeybees sting. That is a fact. The risk of non-beekeepers being stung has to be managed by the beekeeper.
- Be cautious about keeping bees in small gardens or very close to occupied dwellings.
- Good fences make good neighbours. Tall, solid fences and hedges will cause bees to fly upwards, above head height and reduce the chance that they will come into contact with non-beekeepers.
- Consider whether fencing is needed to protect the beehive(s) in your apiary from damage by livestock.
- Source docile bees that will not inconvenience your non-beekeepers.
Is drinking water available?
Honeybees need to drink and will choose to drink from nearby places and whilst those places may suit the bees, their presence could alarm non-beekeepers e.g. bees drinking from a hot tub, ornamental pond or dripping garden tap.
- Provide water in your apiary for your honeybees. Bees can be encouraged to drink from a particular water source chosen/provided by the beekeeper.
- They prefer shallow water reservoirs that warm up quickly in the sun. A good way to provide a shallow drinking spot is to stand a plant pot full of turf in a bucket of water. The turf wicks up the water and the bees will drink from this. Alternatively, a bucket filled with large pebbles can be topped up with water and left for the bees. Do not let these water sources dry up.
How many colonies can I keep in my apiary?
Consider your potential apiary site with regards to the total number of hives you are likely to keep in the future before setting the apiary up.
- The size of your apiary needs to increase in proportion to the number of beehives you decide to keep.
- Is there sufficient forage for your honeybees around your prospective apiary site?
There will be a saturation point due to the natural limit of forage during each season and the impact of other apiaries in the area. One of the best ways to determine the maximum number of hives appropriate to a particular site is with the assistance and knowledge of a local beekeeper. Honeybees forage for pollen and nectar in an area around the beehive of up to 5 kilometers.
Most beekeepers start with a single colony of honeybees however, two or three colonies may be better as the additional colonies will provide resources that can help overcome many problems that beekeepers encounter. The members of your local beekeeping association will also be able to offer advice and assistance.
Sunshine, Shade and Shelter!
- An apiary site needs some sunshine on it but will equally benefit from some shade in the heat of the day.
- Honeybee colonies benefit from a location where they get some sunshine on the entrance and sides of the hive during the day. This is particularly true during Winter.
- Avoid excessively overshadowed sites
- Avoid low-lying sites that may be
- Prone to flooding
- Frost pockets
- Does the potential apiary site offer shelter from prevailing winds? Honeybee colonies may struggle on sites that are too exposed.
Should you decide to expand, more apiary sites can be obtained as out apiaries and it is usual to give the land owner some honey as rent.
Honeybees are livestock. As beekeepers we have a duty of care to them. They need to be kept healthy and fed but unlike other livestock they do not need daily attention and it is sometimes observed that the less you disturb a colony of honeybees the better. Weather permitting, honeybees forage for themselves. From Spring to Autumn they collect pollen and nectar from a succession of flowering trees, shrubs and plants.
One of the biggest problems with new and novice beekeepers is their desire to look inside the hive too often. This can be hugely disruptive to the colony. Think how you would feel if someone took the roof off your home to look in! Likewise, just checking on their stores will not produce a good crop and neither will it enable your stock to be increased.
Winter management from October to March is minimal and is nothing more than checking on the bee’s health and food stores and giving treatments and feeding if necessary. Time needs to be set aside during the quiet months for cleaning and sterilizing equipment to prevent the build-up and spread of disease, for repairs and assembling new equipment. The time needed is proportional to the amount of equipment and colonies that you have.
The months of April through to the beginning of September are generally the busy times. Beekeepers always need to ensure that their colonies have adequate food. Food reserves can be rapidly depleted or exhausted if there is no nectar flow or if the weather turns cold and wet. Periodic colony health checks also need to be made.
The volume of work and time required depends on how many hives and apiaries you have. Swarm control needs regular weekly visits in the summer to achieve a good crop however this is not always a key part of beekeeping: you could decide to make fewer interventions and sacrifice some of the potential honey harvest.
Apiary hygiene is important. Keeping the apiary and areas around where you store and clean your equipment clear of old frames and wax is crucial to maintaining healthy honeybees. Tools and regularly used equipment will need regular sterilizing throughout the beekeeping season. Your bee suit is also capable of spreading diseases if it is not regularly washed.
Your honeybees and the Seasons dictate the management year.