Lots and lots of people have taken up beekeeping in the last few years; most of them have struggled and found there’s more to beekeeping than they first realised.
One person in Bedfordshire wrote, “After the first year, I knew everything. By the end of the second year, I knew some of what I needed, and at the end of the third year, I realise finally that I know nothing. I could have easily given up on several occasions… support at that difficult time was appreciated enormously.”
A beekeeping magazine says, “We have a duty of care to our bees and if we don’t try to understand their needs, treat them properly and relate to their behaviour and maladies, we really should not be in charge of them.”
An international journal quotes, “75% of beginners give up beekeeping within three years.”
This is why you should read on and discover some things that might help you make an informed decision about whether beekeeping is for you.
- It’s a mixture of practical craft and biological science.
- Beekeeping is fascinating; you become more aware of the natural world, the weather, the crops, and the changing seasons.
- It’s hot, sweaty and involves heavy lifting.
- Beekeepers should have a calm temperament. (As should their bees).
- It can be “a lifelong love-affair” – with all of the dangers as well as the life changing consequences!
- Nothing will ever taste as sweet as your first honey.
- It’s a very steep learning curve for the first few years.
- Is enjoyed by men and women, young and old from all walks of life.
- Bee stings hurt and for a few people stings are life-threatening.
- Equipment and honey take up space.
- Beekeeping involves lifelong learning. They say even after 50 years keeping bees you will still see new things.
- Beekeeping can provide something for everyone; honey cookery, making beeswax candles, photography, microscopy or skep making.
The best place might be a tucked away corner, where nobody goes.
Bees need shelter from the prevailing wind, preferably a site facing south east, adequate forage all year round and a water supply all year round.
The beekeeper needs good access 24/7; preferably by car or at least by wheelbarrow, space around each hive to work and space to store spare equipment.
Other considerations: Avoid keeping bees in small gardens or close to neighbours or footpaths. Keep hives out of sight from vandals or thieves. Use stock proof fencing where necessary. Ask an experienced beekeeper to look at your chosen site before you start.
More than you might think. A successful beekeeper does the right thing with their bees, at the right time. Bees work to their own timetable, and according to the weather and crops. No two years are the same. The beekeeper must learn to assess the condition of each colony and manage their bees appropriately. Hives should only be opened in good weather; preferably sunny, above 16C with little wind. Certain other jobs, such as feeding, should be done in the evenings. Beekeeping does not follow a timetable; however, there are some times of the year that are particularly busy. To try to give an overview:
October to March – Hives should not be opened, but will need checking, maybe once a fortnight, to assess the food reserves remaining. They will also need protecting from wasps, mice and woodpeckers.
April to July – This is the most active season for bees and therefore beekeepers and you will need to be available to inspect colonies at least weekly. When bees prepare to swarm, effective swarm control should be carried out immediately. Honey needs to be extracted once the oilseed rape has finished flowering, about the end of May. Beekeepers can’t take prolonged holidays during this time.
August to September – Much preparation must be carried out to prepare the bees for winter. Honey must be extracted, effective treatment for Varroa mites should be applied, and colonies fed.
As well as considerable time commitment caring for your bees, you will also need to spend time learning about bees and how to look after them.
Bedfordshire Beekeepers Association provides training:
There are two training apiaries, one in Bedford and one in Luton where members can learn the practical skills needed to handle bees safely from experienced beekeepers.
Early each year Beginner Theory Classes are held in Bedford and Luton – see https://www.bedsbka.org.uk/training/introduction-to-beekeeping/.
One of the best ways to continue learning and build up essential practical experience is to pair up with a qualified beekeeper and have a sort of apprenticeship; with a mentor to help you up the steep learning curve.
There are Improvers’ Groups around the county; these are small local groups led by a qualified beekeeper where questions can be asked and more can be learnt.
Open apiaries (e.g. for improver groups) are held in summer and a winter lecture programme organised.
Where possible, Coaching and Study Groups are organised for those wishing to take beekeeping qualifications.
The Association also has a library, yearbook, website, and newsletters.
The initial outlay is considerable, but if you learn how to look after your bees, keep them healthy and prevent them from swarming, then it’s a hobby that should pay for itself long-term with money from your honey sales. Very few people make a living from beekeeping.
You will need personal equipment, empty hives and bees. There are lots of suppliers so do your research, ask for recommendations and try before you buy.
Personal equipment: you will need a bee suit, smoker and hive tool, which may cost £150 plus.
Empty hives: Hives (plural) because keeping two colonies is a sensible minimum, so if one colony becomes queenless you can rescue the situation with eggs from the other. But to keep two colonies, you will need four hives because most colonies try to swarm most years and you need to split them into two. You can unite them together again later. It may be wise to stick at two colonies until you’ve got to grips with all that’s involved with beekeeping. New empty hives will cost £150 plus each. Second hand hives will cost less, but second hand equipment must be sterilised before use. Homemade hives may cost less again, but dimensions are important – ensure you understand the concept of bee space before you start building. Everything will be easier if you choose one hive type and stick to it, so that all your equipment is compatible.
Bees: If you start with a swarm it is usually free. If you buy a nucleus colony, it can cost £150 plus. Please source bees locally because they will suit local conditions and moving bees around the country runs the risk of spreading serious diseases over long distances.
We hope this answers some of your questions honestly and helps you make a better informed decision about whether beekeeping is for you.
One way to find out about beekeeping would be to join Bedfordshire Beekeepers and, places permitting, come along a few times to the training apiary (you can borrow protective clothing).
Even if beekeeping is not for you, then you can still support the bees by planting bee friendly plants flowering in each month of the year.