For those thinking of starting, or have just started beekeeping
I have been involved with teaching beekeeping to all abilities since the early 1970s, so I think I understand the needs of those who are just starting, or are about to. In compiling this FAQ, I have used many of the questions that I am regularly asked.
My intention was to give short answers here if possible, but I felt in some instances that I needed to give more explanation. When answering these questions face-to-face, there is usually justification for the answer and some discussion, so apologies if some are a bit longer than you expect. For further information, this website contains many pages that can be accessed using the "A to Z" button in the top right hand corner of every page. There is also a "Subject Index" that will help you to narrow down a search.
Beginners, by nature, usually have a thirst for knowledge, which is understandable. I often hear them say they have done a lot of reading, but many soon realise there are lots of ways of achieving, or trying to achieve the same thing, so often get confused. From an early stage, even before you have your own bees, you will start developing your own system of beekeeping. You will probably have started to do that already, if not, then by the time you have read this you will. What you do, needs to fit in with your management system, which may be different from someone elses, so what they tell you may fit theirs, but not yours. I promise that in a short while you will be repeating that to others!
I want beekeepers to start well, as I believe that bees deserve being cared for by knowledgeable and skilled people. To help you, this website gives sound information for all beekeepers, including potential beekeepers and beginners, but you still need to make contact with beekeepers locally. You will find it easier if you try to understand the "basics", then you have a better idea if what you are told is appropriate for you. The basics will be similar wherever you are located, but there will be variations in how you use them, depending on conditions in your locality, e.g. beekeepers in Cornwall, Kerry, Northumberland and Orkney will possibly need slightly different colony management methods, for such reasons as available forage and climate. This website is accessed by beekeepers worldwide and the same applies if you live in Finland, New Zealand, Tasmania or Canada.
Before Starting Beekeeping
Beekeeping should not be seen as a hobby that you can start, then drop, such as stamp collecting or painting. It is irresponsible to acquire bees, then abandon them, as they could swarm and cause a nuisance to neighbours, get disease or starve. In my opinion, the would - be beekeeper needs to do some research and assess their own suitability to keep bees before buying any bees and equipment. To help those who are investigating taking up beekeeping, I have a page especially for you here. I assume you have made contact with a local beekeeping association (BKA), handled a full colony of bees on several occasions and spoken to your family and neighbours. If you have done this preparation, the following FAQs should help you.
Q: What equipment do I need to start beekeeping?
A: A lot less than you may have been told! Be careful of some of the lists available, as they are often "standard" lists copied from elsewhere. There is little point cluttering up your shed with a lot of junk you may never use. In many cases, you can improvise anyway. I think the best thing to do is to buy the absolute minimum, then add to it when you have decided that you actually need something. It is easy to buy things because you are told you need them, or you see persuasive adverts, but often you don't. Be patient, save your money and shed space.
Q: Shall I buy a Beginners kit?
A: These are usually advertised as "All you need to get started" and to a degree they are, but there are often things you may not want, or are of poor quality. They usually have fixed contents that can't be changed, so you have them, whether you want them or not. This means you could have a book, frames, feeder, queen excluder, etc, that you have been advised against. It is easy to see what is included, then look at the catalogue and see how much money you may "save", but in reality, some of what's included could be cheap, shoddy imported kit, that won't last and not the same as you have priced. Buy what you want when you want it.
Q: Where do I get my beekeeping equipment from?
A: Many BKAs sell equipment, or the essentials like frames and foundation. Support them if you can, as it is part of the service offered and the quicker the turnover, the better it is for everyone. Often, you will find a supplier locally, though much can be ordered online with next day delivery. There are long-established major suppliers who usually offer good quality equipment and I don't have a problem with them. They have built up a reputation over many years and need to retain it. They often have sales and flash sales, so keep an eye open, though some items may not be catalogue items, just bought in for the sale, so be careful of quality. Over the years, I have seen many small companies spring up and these are very variable. They don't often make anything, but source from elsewhere, often from low wage countries and from what I have seen, some of the quality is very poor. Who wants a smoker or hive tool they can cut themselves on? I would certainly avoid buying online, unless you know the company, but in any case the prices are often more than you can pay locally, without the benefit of viewing the items. I advise against buying anything until you are absolutely sure you will take up the craft.
Q: How do I decide on what hive type to use?
A: Oh dear! This is very complex! Just look here and here and you will see several hives, but these are just a small selection. Wherever you are in the world, the box must suit the bees, and that is usually determined by the prolificacy of the queen. This is important, because non-prolific queens that are used in many parts of the U.K, Ireland and Europe will have too much room in a large brood box, yet a small box is unsuitable for a prolific queen. There are ways of overcoming this problem, such as adding another box, but this doubles the number of frames and increases the amount of work.
Some hives have frames with long lugs, others have short. In general, long lugs are only used in the U.K. and Ireland, short lugs everywhere else in the world. Most hives have top beespace(TBS), but the National and WBC have bottom beespace (BBS) as standard. Langstroth hives are the most common throughout the world, but the depth of boxes may differ in different countries. In the U.K. and Ireland, the most commonly used hive is the National. In Scotland and the North of England the Smith is also popular. Although a good hive, the WBC is losing popularity due to higher cost, the extra number of parts and the higher maintenance required. The British Commercial and Langstroth are larger hives that are used in areas where prolific queens are used.
There are a number of polystyrene or plastic hives, but these are too complicated to discuss here, mainly because of the different designs of the different manufacturers, where some are incompatible with others, or their wooden equivalents. There are a small number of hives that are non-standard, but may use standard frames. There have been many introduced over the years and I wouldn't recommend their use for beginners, although you can change later if you wish, having gained more knowledge and experience. In general, you need compatibility with local beekeepers and I suggest you use what the majority of them do. It will be easy to buy frames and foundation and exchange frames on odd occasions. It will also be easy to sell if the need arose.
For those who intend going down the "natural" beekeeping route, there are a few hives made commercially, but they can all be made at home, which is what many do.
Many a new beekeeper has used a calculator to work out what hive to buy based on the cost of the box in relation to the volume or brood area of the frames. This is false logic, as it doesn't work like that. You need the right hive for your situation, remembering that a beehive is a tool of the beekeeper. The bees won't mind what you provide them with. You need to take into account several things, including the weight when full of honey, ease of lifting, second-hand value, cost, etc. I have been the auctioneer at the West Sussex BKA annual auction for many years and I can tell you that uncommon hives sell at very low prices in comparison with the more popular ones.
In the U.K., my own preference is for single brood box National hives using non-prolific queens. I have spent about 60 years beekeeping and have used virtually all the others, or been involved with them and have come to this conclusion. There are a few things in beekeeping that cause arguments and hive type is one. The best hive is the one that suits you, not what someone forcibly says you should have!
I said it was complex!
Q: How much spare equipment should I have?
A: It always makes sense to have some spare equipment for additions, management techniques, replacements or emergencies. If you have a ready source locally, then don't bother too much about it. In your early stages it makes sense to have a spare floor, brood box and at least enough frames to fill it. Foundation is worth stocking, but make sure you keep it carefully, so it doesn't deteriorate.
Q: What type of bees shall I get?
A: This is another complex question! Please read it, because it is very important that you understand the implications at an early stage. Despite what may be commonly thought, not all honey bees are the same, having different characteristics and behaviour. There are several sub-species, that evolved in different parts of the world to suit their local conditions they do well in, but may not elsewhere. I believe it makes sense for beekeepers to keep bees that are best suited to their environment. These are termed "locally adapted".
Basically, there are two issues - prolific and non-prolific, which relates to the number of eggs the queen lays. This is an important point, because there are different management techniques needed.
In general, prolific bees are more suited to the warmer climates, where the weather is fairly reliable. Colonies are large, with a large foraging force, that are capable of storing a lot of honey if conditions are good. In these areas, winters are usually quite short and the queens don't go off lay, though they may reduce to suit the conditions. Bees of this type include Italians (Apis mellifera ligustica - Aml), that in various forms are probably the most used worldwide, because much of the commercial beekeeping is done in the hotter climates that suit these bees.
Non-prolific bees are more suited to the cooler climates, with longer winters and variable summers. The whole of Northern Europe has these conditions and the native bee here is the Dark European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera - Amm). The queens usually lay eggs in response to the conditions and in cold winters will stop laying for a time, perhaps several weeks. They are usually more frugal, looking after their food much better. It has been observed that workers in non-prolific colonies live longer than those in prolific, especially Italians. This means the cost to the colony in development of the brood to emergence is spread over a longer adult life, giving the colony a significant benefit.
In my experience in the U.K., the prolific bees may produce more honey in a good season, but in a poor season, the non-prolific colonies usually perform much better, partly because the queens reduce laying in spells of non-flying weather, thereby conserving stores. We have many more poor summers than good and over a period of several years I have found the non - prolific bees out - perform the prolific. In spells of bad weather, there are many more bees and much more brood to feed in prolific colonies and as the queens carry on laying at the same rate, in a short time, the stores can get seriously depleted, with starvation a distinct possibility - even in the summer.
Prolific colonies need far more food that non-prolific ones do, something my own experience agrees with. If you take into account the difference in the amount of feeding needed, my experience is the non - prolific usually do much better over an extended period.
Apart from a few areas, such as Ireland and parts of England, Wales and Scotland, where there are fairly large numbers of Amm, the majority of bees in the U.K. are mongrels. This has come about by continued importation of foreign races. Many beekeepers are successfully selecting their mongrel queens for Amm characteristics and many of these bees can be excellent.
There are some "hybrids" and what are called "Buckfast" available commercially. If from a good source, they can be quite good, but they are usually based on exotic genetics and subsequent generations often have poor reputations.
Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica - Amc) if pure are gentle, but have a reputation for being very "swarmy", despite what some say. I have seen swarms that have swarmed again in the same season.
What the beginner musn't be fooled by is some of the persuasive sales material. You should understand that queens are replaced by the bees (and often the beekeeper) quite regularly. Queens mate on the wing, with probably 10-15 drones that you have no control over, so although you may buy a queen, or a colony headed by one, that you are told is absolutely wonderful, the next generation may be very different.You can usually buy docile mongrel bees locally from another beekeeper, or native Amm if you are lucky enough to live in an area where they predominate.
So, what do I suggest? Quite frankly, I wouldn't acquire anything other than local. If you buy something pure or a "type" from a commercial supplier, it will only stay that way for the duration of that queen, then to keep the characteristics, if indeed they are desirable in our climate, you will have to buy another one. I have only had "locally adapted mongrels" during my time in the craft and they have served me very well. If your local BKA is good, they should be able to steer you in the right direction. Speak to several members and find out who are the ones who have good bees. Make sure they have been keeping bees several years and have raised their own queens from local stock that has survived in your area for some time, not raised from imported stock.
Q: How do I obtain bees ?
A: There are three main ways and they are all common, two are bees on frames, so there is probably less urgency, one without frames, where you have some work to do quickly. They all have different possibilites, but all manageable, though I suggest seeking help and advice.
A swarm will come from a local colony, but bees on combs may not. If you acquire them locally, the bees should suit your area. You may be able to see and handle them and there will be someone to help you install them into your hive if needed and maybe help you until they are established, so that is my preference. If you buy commercially or on the internet, you don't know what you are getting and it will be difficult to send them back if there is a problem. If you have no local guidance, then how does a beginner know if there is a problem anyway? They may be coming from some distance away by carrier, which could cause them stress.
Before going any further consult the BBKA leaflet L014. This gives good guidance for a nucleus. If you buy commercially, then compare with this standard, but if someone is doing you a favour, then don't expect a nucleus to comply, although, if you are lucky, it might be better.
If you have a good BKA, they should have a way of providing beginners with bees. This could be as part of a structured programme where you will get tuition as well, a simple sale or a swarm that is collected locally. They are all good ways of obtaining bees.
If you are offered bees from outside the BKA, ask for someone to inspect them for you, preferably before payment.
Please remember there are still some areas that are varroa free. If you bring in bees from outside that have varroa, you will be responsible for changing beekeeping forever in that area. That is how we got it!
I know that a beginner can get carried away with enthusiasm, but I strongly suggest waiting until bees become available locally, you don't have to have bees early in the season and in some ways it's better to wait.
Q: Can I keep my bees on my allotment?
A: You will have to find out. Some are very helpful, others less so. I think it unwise for a beginner to be the only beekeeper on an allotment, unless under guidance for a full season. There is advice in BBKA Leaflet L030, that is intended for allotment managers or committees, but it is worth reading.
Q: I do not want more than one colony of bees, is that OK?
A: If you only have one hive and there is a problem with it, or it dies, you will need help or more bees from elsewhere, which is a benefit of being a member of a BKA. I always recommend a second hive fairly soon after the first, so you don't have to rely on others so much. One important issue that is often missed is that with two colonies you can compare them, so you can spot their strengths and weaknesses, which will help you improve your knowledge and your bees. You will learn more and that is never a bad thing. It doesn't take twice as long to look after two hives as it does one.
Q: Can I keep bees in my garden?
A: Yes, in the UK there is no legislation to stop you, though this may not be the case in other countries. You should make sure there is room to keep at least 3 colonies, as during the summer months there may be times when you will temporarily increase your colony numbers for management purposes. If your garden isn't very big, or there is a reason why your family don't want bees there, you can have them on someone else's land. This is called an "out-apiary" There is some good advice about siting an apiary on this website and in BBKA Leaflet L011.
Q: How many hives can I keep in one place?
A: This depends on many things, but all areas will usually support a small number of colonies, so there should be no problem for a beginner. See here for more details.
Q: Do I need to belong to a local BKA?
A: In the U.K. and Ireland you don't need to belong to a BKA, but I would always advise it. If you haven't already joined one, then I suggest that you visit all those in your area, see what they are like and join the one that suits you best. This could be because of their facilities, friendliness, experience of members, or when they have meetings. The benefits of a good BKA include help, advice and possibly insurance. Read more here
Q: Should I be insured?
A: It makes sense in these days of litigation and no win - no fee solicitors. With some BKAs, there is a blanket policy for members that may include such things as public and product liability. In England and Wales, beekeepers have the opportunity to insure losses caused by destruction as a result of notifiable diseases. This is where the BKA is a member of Bee Diseases Insurance (BDI).
Q: I want to be a natural beekeeper. What are the issues?
A: The issues are too complex to discuss fully here, but you should understand that no form of keeping bees is natural. This is a myth and misuse of the word "natural" in my opinion. To help beginners, I have a page on "natural beekeeping", that gives some of my thoughts on the topic. You will be given a lot of advice from all sorts of people, which will be confusing to a beginner. There are many ways of keeping bees, some work well, some don't. Personally, I don't mind how people keep bees, providing they understand them and care for them well, but I think it probably advisable to keep bees in a conventional way before investigating other methods, then you have the experience to make your own mind up.
Q: Where do I get help from if I need it in a hurry?
A: It depends what help you need. If you think you may have a notifiable disease, then contact your local Bee Inspector. Identification of diseases should be taught by your BKA. If you need other help in your early stages, then contact your local BKA. You may find answers to some of your questions on this website - you may find some here.
Routine manipulations and inspections.
Q: Do I need to keep written records?
A: There is a legal requirement to keep records of treatments for food producing animals in the U.K, which is very easy to do. You will have to check what the situation is elsewhere. A recording form is available here. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate website can also be consulted.
Colony records are useful, so you know what has happened in the colony and to help you prepare for your next inspection. Records are helpful if you are ill or away on work or holiday, so someone else knows a little about the colony. In my opinion, the vast majority of record sheets are very complicated and in many cases the information recorded is unnecessary. I designed a simple sheet for Wisborough Green BKA members that is easy to fill in and understand. It can be easily modified. Guidance notes on how to use the sheet will explain how to use it.
Q: What should I record?
A: It depends what you want. There are several areas to consider and these could include: -
It is common for enthusiastic beginners to record far more than they need. This often results in confusion and the abandoning of recording, which is a pity. In my view, it is better to start with simple things and make additions when you want them. It is so easy to design your own record sheet on a computer, where you can add or delete things to suit you.
Q; How do I make a frame up?
Q: How do I unite two or more colonies?
A: See here. There are some precautions you will need to take, so learn about them. In most cases the "newspaper" method is the most suitable.
Q: Do I need to clip and mark a queen and how do I do it?
A: No, you don't need to do either, but there are benefits for the beekeeper. Marking with a water based marker will help you find the queen more easily, although there is a view that if you don't, you will be looking for a queen, not a coloured spot, so improving your skills. Clipping one of the queen's wings delays the loss of a swarm for several days, because the queen can't fly. See clipping and marking page for how to do it.
Q: How do I find the queen?
A: Finding queens is easy! I have been doing it for about 60 years though! In my experience, many beekeepers decide they can't find queens, so are beaten before they start. Be positive with an attitude of "I will find the queen!" You are nearly there then, but you need to know what you are looking for.
I think it's difficult to teach people how to do it and it's much better to develop your own technique. Fertile queens will move away from the light if they can, so when you take a frame out of the brood box, it immediately exposes one side of the next frame to the light. This I term the "light" side, the "dark" side is the unexposed side. If the queen was on the light side of the adjacent frame, she will probably have moved to the dark side by the time you take it out, so that halves your work.
When removing a frame from the brood box, I look at the dark side first, round the outside, starting with the bottom, then scan the surface of the comb, but this is habit. You will find your own way, but if it's any encouragement, I find there are some raw beginners who are very good.
Q: How do I light my smoker?
A: This is one simple task we all have to do, but so many have a problem with. See here.
Q: How and when do I feed my bees?
A: Bees are generally fed for two reasons, firstly so they have enough food to survive the winter, secondly to avoid starvation. There is some useful information here.
Q: How do I make up syrup to feed my bees ?
A: By dissolving white granulated sugar in water at the rate of 4kg sugar to 2½ltrs of water. See here
Q: Do I need to feed the bees candy ?
A: Candy is an old term, that is now taken to mean fondant, that is either obtained from bee suppliers, or, many use bakers or confectioners fondant. I have rarely used fondant. If you feed sufficient syrup in the autumn, there should be no need to use it at all. There are some beekeepers who feed only fondant and it is successful for them.
Q: Can I feed honey to my bees instead of sugar?
A: Careful! Honey can be infected with disease, including one of two notifiable diseases collectively called Foul Brood. If the honey has come from a known source it will probably be O.K., otherwise I would leave it well alone. In England and Wales we have one of the world's best bee inspection services, who help keep the levels of Foul Brood very low. In some countries, Foul Brood is a widespread problem and the feeding of foreign honey may infect your bees.
Q: Why should I replace combs and how should I do it?
A: The thinking behind changing comb is to remove some of the causative organisms of bee diseases. This is for brood comb only and the normal age is reckoned to be around 3 years. I have heard it said that if you can't see light through a comb it is too old. The normal method of changing combs is called a "Bailey Comb Change". Details can be found here and here.
Q: How much honey can I expect to get from a colony?
A: It will depend on a lot of things, including the part of the country you live in, the forage available, if you have a single crop e.g. oil seed rape (OSR), borage, heather, etc, the strength of the colony, if the colony has swarmed, your management, etc, etc. In fact, many small-scale beekeepers with several colonies in the same apiary, often have vastly differing amounts of honey on each hive. In most years, you should expect some crop and although 0-100lb or more is possible, you should expect an average of perhaps 30-50lb p/a in most areas. If you work your bees for comb honey, they will have to build the comb, which will reduce your crop. Don't forget, when thinking how much honey you will get, to subtract the amount of feeding you will have to do, as some types of bees need a lot more food than others.
Q: When should I take the honey from the bees?
A: If you live in an area with OSR, you will need to take honey as soon as the crop is predominantly green, otherwise it will granulate solid in the comb and be difficult to extract. The main crop will be taken when there is no more coming in. This varies with the district, but anywhere between late July and late August. If you live in a heather district it will be September.
Q: How do I get my honey from the bees?
A: You will need to remove the bees from the super combs and there are several ways of doing this. Clearer boards are probably the easiest, but smoking and shaking is an alternative for a small number of colonies or frames.
Q: Will I need a honey extractor?
A: If you work for extracted honey you will need an extractor of some sort. Many BKAs lend or rent extractors and this is probably the best for a beginner. See what is available locally.
Q: How do I uncap frames and use an extractor ?
A: This is quite difficult to describe here and in any case is probably better learnt at your local BKA, where you should see it being demonstrated, ask questions and do it under supervision.
If you are a beekeeping teacher please feel free to take any of this material to help beginners. That's why it's here. If you are a webmaster, or think a link to your own BKA website would be beneficial, please feel free to do so.
Originally written by Dave Cushman. Edited and additions by Roger Patterson.
Page created pre-2011
Page updated 03/01/2023