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Thinking of Starting Beekeeping?

Guidance notes for those who want to take the first steps.

I have kept bees for over 50 years and taught beekeeping for over 40. I have seen many people come into beekeeping and I think I understand their needs. Although many who think about taking up beekeeping do some research and find out what is needed, a significant number don't and seem to have a "wouldn't it be jolly to......." type attitude. That could be climbing a mountain, hang gliding or beekeeping - "box tickers" I call them. Quite honestly it's at that stage I can tell if they are serious or not! Beekeeping is not just about having a box of bees at the bottom of the garden, doing nothing to them and expecting some jars filled with honey at the end of the season. Beekeeping should not be treated as a throwaway item that you try, then give up and go on to something else. It should be seen as a possible long term committment.

In my view those already in beekeeping, whether they are individuals or a beekeeping association (BKA) should help potential beekeepers.

My advice is always to handle a full colony on a number of occasions and get stung a few times before you make your decision. The dislike of being stung in my experience is probably the main reason people leave beekeeping early. Seeing inside a beehive for the first time is very exciting and it is so easy to let initial enthusiasm guide you, when perhaps a bit more consideration is needed.

At my local BKA (Wisborough Green BKA) we have a process that has evolved partly because we had a high number who bought bees, then came for help and advice afterwards. A significant number quickly gave up soon afterwards for a number of reasons, meaning we wasted resources that could have been concentrated on those who stayed. Our system has worked brilliantly and if possible we like everyone to follow it. This is:

  1. A Beginners Day that is classroom based and tells everyone what they need to know in order to start beekeeping. This includes cost, time needed, what to learn, books to buy, etc. We do give the downsides of beekeeping because we are honest enough to let people know what they are letting theselves in for at an early stage - sadly some tutors don't. Many people have thought they might like to keep bees, but having discovered the committment needed they don't pursue it. This pleases us, as we feel it is much better they leave beekeeping at this stage, than invest several hundred pounds, then find they haven't got time or the level of committment needed.
  2. Preliminary sessions are next where the potential beekeeper can handle bees entirely on their own, but under the supervision of an experienced beekeeper. We give them several sessions to get up to speed, so they know what is involved in managing a hive of bees on their own and more importantly get the chance to have a sting or two. Once again some don't go further. When we are satisfied they have achieved a certain level we allow them to attend scheduled meetings where they continue their learning.

This gives the potential beekeeper a chance to see what is involved in beekeeping without making the investment. They can miss out stage 1. but we don't let them come to scheduled meetings until they have done stage 2.

We guide all newcomers to the craft in this way. It is appreciated by the new beekeepers and we don't have the problem to clear up that is caused by someone buying bees, then abandoning them. I know this approach is different than others and you will have to see what is available in your area.

I see a considerable number of potential beekeepers and the following FAQs are amongst the more common questions to be asked. Please bear in mind that help and advice, whatever the source, varies considerably. There are a lot of different opinions in beekeeping, but I have tried to give sound advice that should be suitable, wherever you live.

Before Starting Beekeeping.

Q: I am not a beekeeper. What can I read for initial guidance?

A: Try here This is for non - beekeepers, but gives you a little bit of information.

Q: What book shall I buy?

A: Bee books vary a great deal and something I have strong views on. There are some that have been written by people who are beginners themselves. It's important you get one written by an experienced beekeeper who gives sound information. Try here. There are only three books suggested, but they are all suitable for the U.K. and Ireland. You would be well advised to read books that are relevant to your location, not other countries such as America or Australia, as many things are different.

Q: What organisations exist that can help me?

A: I always recommend joining a Beekeeping Association (BKA). For the U.K. and Ireland you will find details of some here. In other parts of the world there will be similar organisions providing a similar service.

Q: How are BKAs organised?

A: They vary somewhat, but further information can be found here.

Q: How do I find out what's involved?

A: There is a considerable amount of information on this website. All the 3 books recommended will give you a good idea. A well organised BKA will be able to help you. Attend meetings and "taster" events if you can. Make sure you know what you have to do and when. There is a lot of work needed in the summer, so if you are unavailable for lengthy periods, e.g. work or holidays, you will need to take this into account.

Q: My husband/wife/partner/etc is allergic to bees. Will they be O.K?

A: You need to make sure they are actually allergic first. In my experience it's often a different way of saying they are frightened of bees. Just because someone swells up when they are stung doesn't mean they are allergic - we all do that. If they are genuinely allergic then discuss it with them. Even if you keep bees away from your house there will be the occasion when you will bring a bee home, causing accidental stinging.

Q: How much do I need to know before starting beekeeping?

A: This is a difficult question because everyone learns at a different rate. I have seen some people who have handled bees for the first time and I can tell straight away they will be good, yet others who I think will constantly struggle. The former usually picks things up as they go, the latter often needs continuous help. If you are practical and a quick learner you will need very little initial knowledge.

Some BKAs will prefer you to have no knowledge as we often hear "what the book says", yet they have been reading the wrong book! Other BKAs will appreciate you knowing a little.

Bees are insects, so it would be useful to do a little reading about the different kinds of bees and insects that are often mistaken for bees, such as wasps, hover flies, bee flies, etc. Try to understand the development of the insect and life cycle. The cycle of the colony throughout the year, pollen, nectar, honey, beeswax and propolis would be useful.

What a lot of people don't understand is that much of beekeeping isn't actually beekeeping, it's simply an extension of what we already do in our daily lives. You need to be practical with common sense and the ability to think laterally.

Q: How much time does beekeeping take up?

A: This varies through the year. From April-August allow about an hour a week for the first colony and half an hour for each subsequent one. Some weeks will be more, some less. An experienced beekeeper will take well less than half this. You will need to do things like light a smoker, assemble all the kit you need, put on and take off protective clothing etc. This takes the same time for one colony or twenty. There are other things that need doing like extracting and bottling honey and feeding that will take a little time. From October - March there is very little to do except prepare equipment for the next season. Don't forget to add the time taken to go to BKA meetings, reading, chatting to other beekeepers, etc, as this is never considered!

Q: Can my family get involved?

A: Only if they want to. We regularly get people dragged along by the one who wants to be the beekeeper, so they have some help. This is always a huge mistake. If they are interested then let them get involved at their own pace. Some don't want to get involved with the "beekeeping", but often do other things such as extracting the honey, making up or mending equipment and using the hive products.

Q: Shall I tell the neighbours?

A: You know them better than I do! In general I think it's a good idea to tell them you are investigating keeping bees as early as possible. If they object you will soon know! If they are sympathetic then develop the subject gently - you may decide not to go ahead. If they can see you are seeking good advice and learning how to keep bees responsibly, they should be far more supportive. I have seen many cases where the neighbour has started as well and this is good, as there is constant help.

Q: How much room will I need?

A: This is always a difficult question. If you are competent and know what you are doing you don't need much room, but if you are a beginner in a small space I would seek an alternative. I think you need to speak to a good local beekeeper - not someone who gives you the answer you want. Larger areas are usually no problem, but with smaller areas you will need room for your hives and space to allow you to put your equipment. There are simple ways of guiding bees above head height so they aren't a nuisance.

Q: Will I require a licence to keep bees?

A: Not in the U.K. or Ireland, but in some countries you do. Check locally.

Q: What does it cost me to get started ?

A: Yet another difficult question. You could be lucky enough to be given all you need. There have been many cases where someone giving up has given their entire outfit to a keen beginner. If you make all your hives, are lucky enough to be given a swarm and hire honey processing equipment, the cost is small. At an extreme you can buy top quality equipment, although this is not necessary. I won't give figures here because it will date it and this website is visited by people from around the world.

I suggest you check with a couple of established suppliers online with a minimum of - smoker, hive tool and protective clothing. These need to be good quality. Hives that are "seconds" are normally quite adequate and around 50% of premium quality price. For bees ask in your local BKA. Please don't buy anything at this stage.

Q: I have read a lot about natural beekeeping and want to keep bees naturally. Should I do it?

A: "Natural" beekeeping is a different way of keeping bees, but may not be as natural as is sometimes indicated. Look here.

Q: Do I have to be fit?

A: I always ask people to think of the bees. If they are treated roughly because the beekeeper has a physical problem, then that in my view should be the first concern.

A full broodbox of the smallest size weighs around 55lbs(25kg) and the smallest super around 35lbs(16kg). Larger hives can be considerably more. There could be 3-4 supers on a colony. There are hives available that reduce lifting. You will need to be quite active as there is bending and stretching as well. Declining health is not ideal. You will need good eyesight because eggs are quite small. I have advised several people they are too frail, as you are dealing with a boxful of wild animals that could become aggressive and need dealing with in a split second. The decision should be yours, but if you think you have a problem I would seek advice.

Q: What equipment do I need to start beekeeping?

A: If you start in the way we do at Wisborough Green you will need absolutely nothing. This is why we do it that way. The best bet is to make sure you contact the BKA and ask what protective equipment they have for newcomers like you. A good BKA will be well prepared. If they have nothing, that might tell you something. The exception of course is a book, but that's not really equipment.

At Wisborough Green we ask people not to buy anything until they are sure they want to start on their own. We can then advise them what to buy, and more importantly what not to buy. When I started keeping bees everything could be relied on to be good quality, but I'm afraid there is quite a lot of poor quality kit these days. I have seen protective clothing that is made from material that is like cheese cloth. Wait until you have spoken to your tutor - a good one will give sound advice.

Q: I have heard that some give up beekeeping quickly. Why is this?

A: Well, actually I can't ever remember being asked that, but I'm going to tell you anyway! I think it's important. It generally happens when people jump in with both feet, all full of enthusiasm, without doing any preliminary work first. There is no room in beekeeping for the "I want, I want, I want - and I want it now" mentality. Beekeeping is something that should be carefully considered.

It is surprising the number of people who ask if we get stung! I would have thought it was pretty obvious, but a large number give up after a sting or two, often claiming they are "allergic". It's simple in my book - if you don't want to get stung or don't like it, then don't keep bees.

The "churn rate" in BBKA in 2012 was about 25%. At Wisborough Green it used to be similar, but since we introduced the structure mentioned above it is around 5-10%, with some of those leaving the district. In my opinion well run BKAs will help reduce the numbers of those giving up soon after starting, by giving them more help in the first place.

In my experience the good or potentially good beekeepers don't give up easily, even though some of them have bad luck in their early stages.

In giving the above advice I may appear to be a bit forceful or perhaps negative, but I have seen many people start beekeeping that were not well prepared, or simply not capable of it. At the hands of these people it is always the bees that suffer, or someone has a chimney full of bees they don't want, because an abandoned or badly managed hive has swarmed. In my view there is plenty of room in beekeeping for the responsible and responsive person who is prepared to learn and treat the bees with respect. If that's you, then please take the next step and investigate further. Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby and there are some really nice people in it.

Roger Patterson.