So you want to keep bees?

Beekeeping is a fascinating pastime. However if you want to keep bees you need to be sure you really want to do it and the following points are some to consider before you spend your hard-earned money. Is it easy to keep bees?

Apiary site

An apiary is where bees are kept from one hive to dozens. Choosing an apiary site is important. A home site can work well as you can keep an eye on your bees however you need to consider if there is available forage within a couple of km and if it is safe to keep them there. What will the neighbours think? Speak to other beekeepers too if you know any. It is also a good idea to have an alternative site – an out apiary – in case of bad temper or for other reasons. What do you have available?  

Allotments can be a good location, however you need to be sure that the allotment committee is happy and have an alternative apiary site if they subsequently change their mind! (And they can change their mind very quickly!).

The edge of woodland or by a farmers field can also work. The 'going rate' for renting a site was always said to be a lb jar of honey per hive.

Is it easy to keep bees?

Expect to be stung

The bad bit first! You should assume that you will be stung on occasions, more often than not as a result of bad handling! Reactions to stinging tends to reduce over time and it can be an annoyance rather than a real pain for most although occasionally, some people can develop severe allergic reactions. It is worth considering or checking whether yourself or anyone nearby is allergic to bee stings. Note that most colonies are well-behaved however occasionally a colony will become unpleasant.

Bee Poo

If food goes in, then something comes out and you will see small spots on your washing and car if the hives are nearby. One or two hives is usually tolerated but if you have lots of hives, then neighbours may complain, especially if they are the sort that wash and polish their car every Sunday. And you can only give a jar of honey as an apology so many times!

How many colonies 

It can be difficult keeping just one colony and you really need a second in case one colony becomes 'hopelessly' queenless - where it is unable to make a new queen. This might be, to give two examples,  as a result of a failed queen mating - it DOES happen - or as a result of the beekeepers ill-advised intervention; yes that happens as well! Therefore it does make sense to keep a couple of colonies as a minimum. Added to that, you should assume that your bees WILL swarm – that is, try to increase - so you will also need spare equipment over and above your ‘base’ number of colonies you intend to keep and you will need to have this equipment in advance - the bees won't wait for you and the suppliers are often so busy in the swarming season that they cannot deliver overnight or they might run out of a critical part.

A bit of learnin'

If you don’t know what you are doing, you will probably just waste your money. There are courses run by local associations and it is worthwhile going to one of them. Some local beekeepers also run courses - check widely first if you can! Read books too. Old books can be an interesting read but can contain out-of-date information. You WILL need to understand what's going on in the hive to prevent swarming for example and understand about diseases. Consider being able to understand the syllabus of the BBKA Basic exam over time even if you don't take it immediately. It's a good qualification to have and is often necessary before you can keep bees on an allotment.

Home apiary in Norfolk NR31

The above picture shows a home apiary site. It might have too many hives for some, however it shows that bees can be placed quite close together and can also not be a nuisance - these were on the front lawn of a house and the postie came by every day and people came and went without a problem. For a small back garden, the entrance of a hive can be pointed towards a fence so bees have to fly up and over. Only occasionally will a colony become troublesome.

How much time does it take to keep bees? 

Let alone beekeeping - where the honey is gathered at the end of summer and there is no colony management - is not a viable proposition nowadays and colonies do need to be managed. This really means that you need to inspect weekly between the middle of April and the end of July at the very least and you'll need to spend other time too; for example could you slip out of work to catch a swarm which has issued from your hive?

A weekly inspection shouldn't take long; maybe 10 minutes once you are togged up and you have lit your smoker. However if you need to do more than check over the colony, then you need to allocate more time. You can't rush them and crash about; they need patient and considerate handling.

And of course with luck, you'll need to extract and jar up the honey.

Can I go on holiday?

Yes - if you know there is enough food and enough space for them, then you can go away without too much worry. In peak season (From mid April to  early June), there will always be a chance of swarming but that's just something we have to live with.

How do I get bees?

If you are still interested, there are a couple of ways that you may be able to obtain bees. If you join a local beekeeping association, they might have a 'swarm list' and give or sell, at a modest price, a swarm that they have caught. Swarms are variable in quality from being very good to horrible or non-viable if they don't have a queen. Also look out for swarms on local Facebook pages. The other option is to buy a nucleus colony. These are usually headed up by a young queen and are ready to expand if you buy in spring or early summer. Large beekeeping suppliers sell them - in spring they are often headed up with an imported queen. If you want to buy a local colony  from us, then see the page on nucleus hives to find out what your first colony of bees will consist of.