Beginning Beekeeping – Before You Start
How Many Beekeepers?
Look before you leap – beekeeping. The UK is home to thousands of beekeepers. Tracking down the exact number is impossible; not every beekeeper is registered on Bee Base nor are they all members of a beekeeping association or trade body. Based on the various sources I’ve seen there are probably around 40,000 of us, but ultimately, who cares? Well, I do, actually.
My reasons for caring about the numbers of beekeepers are mostly selfish. If there are umpteen hives in the same area as me, there is a chance that my honey crop will be adversely effected. Assuming that the amount of forage for bees stays constant, more bees means less honey per hive once an area gets saturated.
However, despite the competition, I’m doing fine for honey, thank you very much. I don’t think we have hit ‘bee-overload’ just yet in my patch. This may well have happened in London, however. On the other hand, the more beekeepers there are (especially new ones) the more customers I will have for my nucleus colonies. This is a good thing; selling nucs early in the season is a great way to get a few pennies to cover the costs of keeping bees.
Why Keep Bees?
None of my business really; it’s a personal decision with possibly hundreds of answers. The reason I mention it is not because I’m nosey, but because many beginners don’t yet fully comprehend the commitment and costs required to do the thing properly. When you keep honey bees in hives, you become a keeper of livestock, which entails a certain duty of care. Not everything will go smoothly anyway; life is like that, and half of the fun is learning from our mistakes. But if you don’t begin your beekeeping journey in the right way, you (and your bees) could be headed for disaster.
I started beekeeping because I am a countryside loving person who has lived in cities for most of his adult life. My bees are on farms out in Cheshire, and when I visit them, I’m escaping from the sounds and smells of city life for something more rustic. The idea of putting my hands into the nests of thousands of stinging insects seemed like an exciting challenge; others do it, so why not me?
Are You Committed?
Some people think I should be committed – to an asylum! But I digress. What is this ‘commitment’ that I speak of? Firstly, it’s best to get yourself some honey bee education before you let yourself loose on the bees. That could be winter evening classes run by your local beekeeping association. As you drive in the cold and dark through torrential rain to a little classroom after a long day at work, you may start to have doubts…but fear not, it’s worth it.
Do you like holidays between mid-April and mid-July? Be warned: this is a time when you need to be inspecting your hives every week, ideally. That means you can get away with a short break, but a fortnight in a far-off place is not a good idea. Of course, you can arrange for another beekeeper to be your bee-sitter, but that takes effort too. I normally stay in Tighnabruaich (Scotland) for a week during May, which works for me, but I have to ensure that my bees have plenty of space before I go.
Money can be a dirty word, but we cannot avoid the issue of cost. Beekeeping ain’t cheap. There’s a giant investment upfront for the bees, hives and other gear followed by the annual costs of mite treatments, winter feed, replacement frames and so on. As the saying goes, if you want to make a million pounds from keeping bees, start with ten million.
Try Before You Buy
I fully understand the powerful urge to rush out there, buy some bees and get on with it. This is why I have ordered a new iPhone 14 Pro. I don’t really need a new phone, but it’s a massive upgrade on my iPhone 11 and I got swayed by those folks in Cupertino with their flashy video event. I just had to have it. Luckily, with bees, I listened to advice and made sure that I actually like honey bees before taking the plunge.
After a six to eight week long winter course run by my local beekeeping association (one evening per week) I knew a lot more about honey bees than I did before. Then, the following May, my tutor held an apiary meeting so that we could all handle his bees and experience real-life beekeeping. I absolutely loved them. Later on, I visited a beekeeper for a practical one-day course, after which I purchased my first bees. While inspecting her bees, which were a little more assertive than I’d seen before, I got my first sting. Ouch! I was not deterred, and the rest is history.
I think it’s good to handle bees alongside an experienced beekeeper before deciding to get started. It’s good to know that you are not terrified of them. If you are, maybe it’s worth tagging along with another beekeeper for a season to see if you lose your fear.
Saving The Bees
If your motivation for keeping bees is to save them from extinction, you can relax. Honey bees are far from extinct, despite the many ‘clickbait’ headlines and ill-informed articles proliferating the internet. So many articles on bees start off with the obligatory paragraph on how vital honey bees are, how they are all dying out blah blah blah…and don’t get me started on that Einstein quote.
The truth is that honey bees are cared for by thousands of beekeepers who do their best to ensure that their bees live long and prosper, as Spock might say. Things could change, but for now, honey bees are doing great. Each year there are losses, for sure, but new colonies replace them (by swarming or the making of splits). The same cannot be said for all manner of other pollinators and wildlife. If conservation of wildlife is your goal, there are many ways to help, such as planting trees and leaving an area of land to go ‘wild’.
A good book to start with: Ted Hooper, Guide to bees and honey
A great blog by Prof. David Evans: The Apiarist
Education by YouTube: Stuart’s Beekeeping Basics