“And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey …’’ By his own admission Winnie the Pooh is a Bear of Little Brain but he does know a bit about bees.
So you’re thinking about keeping bees
You’ve been thinking about it for a while but now you’ve decided – or almost. Before you venture into bee-keeping do seek the advice of an expert and the best way to find one is through your local bee-keeping association. Bee-keepers tend to be a friendly down-to-earth crowd and most would be happy to meet you and answer your questions, to encourage and reassure, and explain and demonstrate the principles involved.
To find a bee-keeper check out the website of the British Beekeepers Association. There you’ll find details of your local groups. Try a few within reasonable travelling distance as the groups will vary and you may find one more helpful than another. Some groups organise regular demonstrations of bee-keeping.
In the meantime let’s try and answer a few of your questions.
I know I want to keep bees so how do I start?
You will need some equipment but don’t get carried away straightaway; see how you get on before you invest too much money in equipment you may never need. The basics are: a hive, protective clothing, a hive tool (to move frames in the hive), a smoker (to calm the bees) and a bee feeder.
There are various sorts of hive available but the best ones for a beginner are either the National or the WBC. The National is a basic square hive while the WBC is the sort you’d picture in a country garden on a sunny afternoon. A wooden National hive will cost anything from £100 – £250. Alternatively a beginner’s kit containing the basic essentials can be bought for £300 – £600.
Of course buying second-hand or making one yourself from recycled wood are other alternatives. If you buy a used hive ask an expert to go with you to check it out for signs of damage or disrepair, and treat the wood before use to ensure it’s free of disease. Hive drawing plans are available if you choose to make your own.
At the very minimum you will need a hat and veil and preferably gloves. A tunic with elasticated cuffs is useful but the important thing is to be covered with as much as possible tucked in to leave no gaps for the bees to get at your skin.
Does it matter where I site the hive?
A large garden is ideal but some city-dwellers keep bees on their balcony or roof. The hive entrance should face a southerly direction but not directly onto a footpath or over your neighbour’s fence. If you have enough space plant wild flowers around about to encourage the sort of habitat that will support bees.
Will I get stung?
Yes. You can’t call yourself a proper bee-keeper until you have been! Having said that, the more experienced you are the less you should get stung as you begin to recognise the mood of the bees. Some people are naturals and quickly pick up the art of bee-keeping without being stung too often; others take a while.
Does bee-keeping take a lot of time?
During the summer months, or say from March to October, you may need to spend an hour or so a week; in the winter it’s much less. In summer you need to be checking for swarming while in the winter it’s a case of maintenance and checking they have enough food, maybe once a fortnight. Opening the hive too often in winter lets the heat escape so is discouraged.
Where do I get the bees to start with?
Contact your local bee-keepers’ group. It may be possible that one of them has bees to sell. Or they will be able to provide you with the name of a reputable breeder. British bees are best rather than imported varieties.
You can learn much from books, magazines and the internet – and it’s advised that you study and familiarise yourself with the life cycle and habits of bees – but nothing compares with meeting a bee-keeper and experiencing handling bees for yourself.
So get along to a local bee-keepers’ group meeting, talk to experts, ask them the questions we haven’t answered.
Then look forward to the rewards: discovering the delights of fresh real untreated honey; watching your garden blooming extravagantly as the bees pollinate your flowers and vegetables; and at the end of a busy day sitting back and relaxing, watching the bees buzz peacefully to and fro.