An introduction to beekeeping

Beekeeping is a fascinating, rewarding and humbling way to spend your spare time – and if done right, it can also help to boost the population of healthy honey bees. While there’s a fair amount of learning and responsibility involved, beekeeping is not as complex as many might think. With Spring on the horizon – and the optimum time to start beekeeping being between April and June – now could be the perfect time to start thinking about your own beekeeping journey.

Like anything, beekeeping is a skill that can be learned and developed. You’ll just need a suitable space, some basic beekeeping equipment, and plenty of patience to get started. Because beekeeping involves the care of living creatures, it’s also important to get as clued up as possible before setting up your first hive, so that you can learn how to keep your bees as healthy and productive as possible.

Here, we’ll discuss what beekeeping is, what the benefits are, and how you can take those first steps towards working with these beautiful creatures.

What is beekeeping?

Beekeeping is the skill of caring for, managing, and breeding bees (usually honey bees) in man-made hives. Some people might do this simply because they have an interest in bees, and want to help boost numbers, whilst others might keep them to produce honey (to eat or sell), or so they can pollinate fruit and vegetable blossoms in their garden, farm or allotment.

If you decide to take up beekeeping, it will be your job to create a safe and secure environment for your bees, that allows them to do what they do naturally. It’ll be your responsibility to make sure that bees are healthy by making sure that they have access to food and water, and helping to protect them from pests, predators, diseases, and adverse weather conditions.

The idea is that both you and your bees can benefit from the beekeeping experience. You’ll engage in an interesting and enlightening hobby that allows you to benefit from organic honey and a healthy garden; and your bees will be provided with an optimum environment for them to thrive; with the added bonus of protection from anything that might harm them.

About honey bees and how beekeeping can help them

Bee-lieve it or not, scientists have officially declared bees as the single most important creatures on the planet. Not only are they our top pollinators, but 70% of the World’s agriculture depends on their hard work. Research suggests that of all the bee species, the honey bee is the most frequent floral visitor, and pollinator, of crops worldwide.

There are 250 different species of bee in the UK: 224 species of solitary bee, 25 species of bumble bee, and one honey bee species. However, at present, 35 species of UK bee face becoming extinct, and all species face threats that could have dramatic consequences for population numbers.

While honey bees are mostly managed by beekeepers in man-made hives, this means that their existence relies largely on people continuing to pursue the activity. For instance, managed honeybee hives in England declined by 50% between 1985 and 2005, which saw a decline in bee numbers.

However, the health of honey bees and wild bees also depends on how well beekeepers manage their hives, as honey bees are susceptible to pests and diseases; particularly the Varroa mite. A Varroa mite is a small parasite that transmits disease to a honey bee by attaching itself to its body, and sapping its strength. There’s some evidence to suggest that honeybee infections and diseases can be transmitted to wild bees; so by knowing how best to protect their beehives, beekeepers can not only preserve the health of their own honey bees, but of wild bees too.

Beekeepers who produce healthy honey bees can help to strengthen the honey bee gene pool by adding thriving bees to the population; and increasing their numbers in a positive way.

The benefits of beekeeping for the beekeeper

The benefits of beekeeping are vast, but some of the main reasons that you might be interested in taking it up include:

  • Feeling satisfied that you are helping to increase the population of healthy honey bees.

  • The opportunity to learn some new skills. There’s always something new to learn!

  • Producing your own honey. Some shop-bought honey products can be diluted with different syrups (such as high-fructose corn syrup), be harvested immaturely, use ion-exchange resins to lighten colour, or be mislabeled. These are problems you won’t have to deal with if you’re producing honey yourself.

  • Selling your own honey. Many people take up beekeeping as a hobby, and then decide to start selling honey as their confidence and experience levels grow.

  • The relaxing effect. Lots of beekeepers find spending time out in nature, and the soothing buzz of the bees, to make for a calming and meditative experience.

  • A deeper appreciation for some of nature’s wonderful creatures. It’s likely that the more you learn about the hard work of bees and how they contribute to our planet, the more you’ll respect and feel grateful for them.

  • Having a thriving, healthy garden, farm or allotment, as a result of the pollination work carried out by your honey bees.

The downside of beekeeping

The spread of disease

Beekeeping can be a very useful way to fill your spare time, and to boost the bee population. However, this is only the case if proper hive hygiene and management is practiced – otherwise bees will be more likely to become infected with pests and diseases. These infections can spread to other wild bees through means like landing on an infected flower, or mating.

Although this can be a significant downside of beekeeping, you can keep the risk of your honey bees becoming infected with pests and diseases as low as possible by learning as much as you can about how to protect your bees, and boost their health. We’ll cover some of these steps later on in this article.

Bee sting allergies

It might sound obvious, but beekeeping won’t be the ideal hobby for anyone who is allergic to bee stings. Severe reactions to bee stings are rare, but even mild allergies can become bothersome if you’re spending a lot of time in the company of bees.

If you’re not sure whether you’re allergic to bee stings, then it’s worth having a look at this factsheet from Allergy UK so you can be aware of the symptoms of a reaction, and know what to do if you do get stung.

Interesting facts about honey bees

Honey bees might be tiny, but they live fascinating lives! Beekeeping not only teaches you about the process of developing and harvesting honey; but it will also give you the chance to delve deeper into the world of bees, and learn more about their behaviour.

We’ve put together a summary of some of the most interesting facts for beekeeping beginners – but these really are just the beginning…

  • Each honey bee hive has around 60,000 bees.

  • Honey bees are herbivores who eat nectar (a sugar solution of water and sugar) and pollen from a variety of different flowers.

  • Honey bees live in hives (or colonies) and each group is divided into groups. First, there’s the Queen, who runs the whole hive by producing chemicals that control their behaviour. She will also lay eggs to create the next generation of honey bees.

The Queen has tens of thousands of female workers who are responsible for foraging for food, beating their wings to keep clean air circulating, and building and protecting the hive.

Finally, there are the drones. These are male bees who exist to mate with the Queen, but carry out no other physical work – which means that they are unable to forage for themselves. There’s roughly one drone for every one hundred females; but when the nest goes into survival mode come the Winter and has to reduce its size, it’s the males who are no longer welcome! Unlike the females, drones don’t have stingers, and they die after mating.

  • Every hive needs a queen, so if the Queen bee dies, then one of the newly hatched bee larva will take her place. The hive will feed a select few larvae ‘royal jelly’, which will allow one of them to become the next fertile queen.

  • The Queen can live up to five years, but the average worker bee will live for five to six weeks.

  • Honey bees are pretty nippy! They can beat their wings 200 times per second and fly 25km per hour.

  • Honey bees have a very strong sense of smell. Their antennas contain 170 odorant receptors which they use to recognize and communicate with other bees, and to search for different types of flowers when looking for food.

  • Worker bees perform a ‘waggle’ dance when they return to the hive. This dance, which sees bees moving their body in a figure-of-eight shape, acts as a signal to the other bees about the direction of the best food source.

  • Scientists believe that honey bees make a ‘whoop! whoop!’ sound when they bump into each other, which is caused by a vibration in their wing muscles.

To find out more about honey bees, check out these facts from the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) – or to tell the difference between different types of bees, check out this page here.

When’s the best time to start beekeeping?

Spring is a great time to set up a beehive, because with the arrival of the warmer weather comes more flowers – and more access to pollen and nectar. Starting in spring will also give honey bees several months to reproduce, build up their numbers, and store honey before the Winter.

During the Winter, honey bee activity will reduce dramatically, as they will spend most of their time hibernating. When the temperature drops, the female worker bees will cluster around the Queen to stay warm (kicking out the male drones to die in the process); and feed on nectar from the hive.

They will stay this way until the Spring, when the temperatures start to increase again. It will then be business as usual; which involves building the hive back up, and for the Queen – mating and laying eggs once again.

8 steps to get started with beekeeping

If you like what you hear so far, and you think that beekeeping could be for you, then hopefully the following steps will give you a helpful place to start.

1. Get to grips with the basics

If you’re new to beekeeping, then before you think about setting up a hive, or buying some bees, it’s worth getting yourself a good book, or taking an introductory course to beekeeping. Starting your first hive isn’t something to be rushed. It’s important to gather as much information as you can first to make sure that you’re comfortable with the idea of beekeeping and all it entails, before you create a buzzing community. There’s plenty to learn; from how to set up your hive, to how honey is made, through to how to protect your bees from pests and diseases.

If you’re in need of some literary inspiration, then The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping, The Bee Manual: The Complete Stey-by-Step Guide to Keeping Bees or Collins Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, honey, recipes and other home uses are good places to start.

Or, if you’d prefer to take a course, then you could check out Udemy’s Beekeeping for Beginners: How To Be a Successful Beekeeper course, or this Natural Beekeeping Diploma course from the Centre of Excellence. Although these are paid-for courses, they can prove incredibly useful for helping you to build confidence in your beekeeping knowledge and skills. You’ll be taken on a journey which covers everything from the anatomy of a honeycomb to harvesting honey, through to how to use honey for health and beauty purposes.

It’s also worth getting in touch with your local beekeeping association to find out about courses that you could join – either virtually, or in-person at a later date. You can find your nearest beekeeping association here.

If you’d rather not pay for a course, then it’s worth checking out YouTube, which has plenty of introductory videos created by experienced beekeepers. For starters, have a watch of this beekeeping basics video from The Norfolk Honey Company or this beekeeping for beginners video from Hanna Sjoberg.

There are also some great videos on YouTube that will give you a general idea about what beekeeping entails, and whether it’s an activity that would be right for you. Have a watch of the video below to see a snapshot of a life of a beekeeper!

2. Consider joining a beekeeping association

Before you start setting up a hive and buying bees, it’s worth joining a beekeeping association, so you can get tips from experts, connect with other beekeepers far and wide, and generally keep up to date on all the latest bee and beekeeping news.

The British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) was set up to try and raise beekeeping standards, and to promote the importance and understanding of the different threats faced by bees. Today the BBKA is made up of over 25,000 hobbyist beekeepers from all different areas of the UK. Many of these beekeepers are attached to one of the 270 local associations and branches of the BBKA. Being part of a local association can be really useful, as you’ll be able to gain knowledge and information relevant to the beekeeping conditions in your area.

You can apply for a national BBKA membership on their website here – or to find your local BBKA branch, check out this page here.

3. Make sure you have enough space to keep a beehive

It’s possible to keep bees in both rural and urban areas; and there are varying opinions on the amount of space you need around a hive in order for it to be considered “safe”. Though some beekeepers recommend having a minimum of seven feet around the hive – and if a hive is kept in the garden, it should never be too near to your home in case your bees decide to swarm.

Keeping a hive in your garden

It’s up to you to decide whether you feel comfortable keeping your beehive in your garden – and it’s important to have a chat with your neighbours about this too. While there’s no licence required to keep bees, you should always make sure that your neighbours are comfortable with the idea, and that the hive is positioned in such a way that the bees will not pose a danger to people or pets, or become a nuisance.

If you’re not sure whether your garden would be suitable for beekeeping, or you have any concerns, then it’s a good idea to contact your local beekeeping association, who might be able to offer you some advice on your specific circumstances. Sometimes they will even come out and look at your garden to help you decide where best to position your beehive.

Beekeeping on a farm

Honey bees can also make a great addition to a farm, because of their role as a top pollinator. This, combined with the vast amount of space on a farm, can make beekeeping the ideal activity for farm owners.

Allotment beekeeping

If you’re not confident that you have enough space in your garden, then you could consider  keeping bees on an allotment; though you will usually need to have sufficient knowledge and experience behind you before you do this.

If you’re new to beekeeping, and are keen to build experience quickly; then it’s worth taking a course through your local British Beekeeping Association (BBKA). You can contact them directly for more details. Most people welcome beehives at allotment sites, as long as they’re managed responsibly, as it can result in higher yields and better quality produce. To find out more about beekeeping in an allotment, check out this information from The National Allotment Society.

Hive hosting

Another alternative to keeping a beehive in your garden is to get in contact with beekeepers who let others keep hives on their land. The BBKA has more information on hive hosting, and how to get in touch with willing hosts here.

4. Purchase the basic beekeeping equipment

Once you’ve done plenty of research and feel confident that beekeeping is something that you want to pursue, then the next step is to get your hands on some basic equipment. There’s lots of bits and bobs you can buy to enhance your beekeeping experience, but for now we’ll just cover the basics. To start with, you’ll need…

A beehive

One of the most important things you’ll need to keep bees is a beehive. This will be where your colony of bees live, reproduce, and make honey. In the wild, bees will make their own hive naturally. They’ll do this anywhere that takes their fancy, and that has a good supply of water and food nearby.

As a beekeeper, you’ll need to create a readymade hive for your bees to be introduced to. Man-made hives are normally made of wood and have several important components. There are also a few different types of hive to choose from – with the most common type of hive in the UK being the National Hive. To find out more about the different types of hive, you might want to have a read of this guide to Popular Hives in the UK from the Fareham Beekeepers Association.

While hive types differ, the majority of modern beehives will have the same basic components, such as a roof, a brood chamber and a floor. All hives also have ‘frame’ inserts which hold the honeycomb, and are an important part of the honey production and bee brooding process. If you want to find out more about the components of a hive, then have a look at the video below.

For ease, you could choose to buy a beehive starter kit, which will usually come with a hive and some basic beekeeping tools. National Bee supplies has a few different starter skits available, as do Caddon Hives. Or if you want to save some money and fancy a challenge, then you could make your own beehive from scratch. Have a read of this guide to making a budget national beehive to find out more – or check out this video which will show you how to make your own bee hive frames.

You will also need to decide whether you want to add a ‘foundation’ to your beehive frames. This is essentially a wire or plastic sheet, which has lots of small holes, and is coated in beeswax. The idea is that this will give bees a headstart when they start building their honeycomb. However, some beekeepers choose to use a foundationless frame, so that bees can build honeycomb with cells that are the exact size that they need. To find out more about foundation vs foundationless beekeeping, have a read of this article from Perfect Bee.

Protective gear

To keep yourself safe while beekeeping, you’ll need to make sure that you have a protective suit. This suit will help to ensure that you get stung less often, and that any stings you do get are less severe.

Protective beekeeping gear consists of:

  • A bee suit. This can either be trousers and a separate top, or a one-piece. A one-piece is usually more effective, as it means that bees can crawl down your trousers or up your top! Bee suits are available from National Bee Supplies, Natural Apiary, or Amazon. Always opt for a bee suit that comes with a veil; as this is important for protecting your face and neck from stings.

  • Gloves. When working with bees, you should always protect your hands by wearing appropriate gloves. These need to be thick enough that a bee sting won’t be able to penetrate them to reach your skin underneath. Amazon sells a range of specialist bee keeping gloves at reasonable prices, as do National Bee Supplies.

  • Boots. These will need to be made of durable, sturdy material and have a thick sole so that bees can’t sting you through them.

Beekeeping tools

The main tools you will need to get started with beekeeping are a:

  • Smoker. This is a device used to calm honey bees and make them less likely to sting you. Bees have a strong sense of smell, and when they smell smoke, they assume fire is near and tend to move away.

  • Hive tool. Bees naturally line their hives with propolis – a sticky, resin-like substance. However, it’s very strong and can glue hive frames together in such a way that makes them difficult to pull apart. This is where the hive tool comes in handy.

  • Bristle brush. Can be used to move bees away from the edges of the hive when putting it back together, to avoid them getting crushed.

  • Queen bee catcher. When inspecting the hive, it can often help to separate the Queen so that you don’t lose her – so this tool can be very useful.

  • Uncapping knife or fork. This is used to ‘uncap’ honey cells, so that they can flow freely during the extraction process. To ‘uncap’ simply means to remove the layer of wax capping that would otherwise prevent the honey from being extracted from the honeycombs.

  • Honey extractor. This is a device that will extract honey from honeycombs without damaging or destroying the combs. The type of extractor uses will depend on the size of the frames that you use in your hive.

All these things are available to buy, or you could also contact your local beekeeping association to find out whether there are tools and equipment that you can hire.

5. Buy your bees and introduce them to their new hive

Once you have your hive set up and you’ve decided where you want to position it, the next step is to purchase your bees! You can buy live bee packages from local suppliers, or online from companies like BS Honey Bees or Thorne.

Bees are usually sold as ‘nucleus colonies’; small working groups of around 10,000 bees. Most times, the Queen bee will already be marked so that you can keep track of her.

Alternatively, if you become a member of a beekeeping association, then you could connect with other beekeepers who might be able to supply you with an established colony of 50,000 or so bees.

To help to make sure that you’re buying a healthy colony and that a supplier is following best practice guidelines, it’s worth reading this advisory leaflet from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA).

Then, to learn more about how bees are introduced to a new hive, have a watch of the video below – or have a read of this handy guide from Dummies.

6. Learn how to maintain your hive

Beekeeping requires a lot of patience, as you’re essentially letting nature take its course while doing everything you can to support bees with honey production and brooding. There’s a lot of waiting and watching involved, but there are also steps you’ll need to take to make sure that your beekeeping experience goes as smoothly as possible, and that your bees remain in good health. These include…

Swarm control

After showing your bees to their new home, it’s important to check in on them weekly. If left unattended, bees will eventually ‘swarm’, which means the Queen bee will leave the nest with a large amount of female worker bees in tow. Swarming usually happens when a colony reproduces to the point that the beehive becomes crowded, and there aren’t enough food stores for everyone – or when the hive identifies newly hatched bees (larvae) that have the potential to become the next queen.

While swarming is a normal process for bees, beekeepers will exercise ‘swarm control’, to avoid swarms becoming a nuisance or a danger to neighbours, and to maximise honey production in a single beehive. Swarm control involves giving your bees more space before they get too cramped, and regularly inspecting the hive for queen cells (larvae that are being raised in a special place in the hive to prepare them for royalty) and removing these. For more information on swarm control for beginners, have a read of this guide from the BBKA.

Feeding

Other ways to maintain your hive include checking that your bees have enough honey stores to feed off, and topping up their food supply where necessary. You can feed bees a solution (ratio 2:1) of sugar and water. To find out more about how to make a sugar solution and what types of feeders to use, you might find it useful to read this leaflet from FERA. You can also buy ready-made syrups and feeders from National Bee Suppliers.

You’ll also need to check that your bees are getting enough pollen and water. It’s worth reading FERAs advice leaflets on this to learn more.

FERAs advice on giving bees water 

FERAs advice on feeding bees pollen

General maintenance

Your hive is much like any other home: at times it might need repairs, such as mending broken frames. You’ll also need to clear away cobwebs, debris and dead bees to maintain good hive hygiene, and help to keep the hive healthy.

7. Protect your bees

Common threats to honey bees include pests, predators, disease, and adverse weather conditions; so it’s important to protect your bees the best you can.

Protection from pests and diseases

Each time you inspect your hive, you should check for pests and disease. To be able to do this, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re clued up on common pests and diseases that can affect honey bees, and what the symptoms are. Some of the most serious diseases that honey bees can face include Varroa mites, American Foulbrood (AFB), and European Foulbrood (EFB).

Pests and diseases can spread rapidly from colony to colony. If you realise that your bees are infected, then you must let the National Bee Unit (NBU) or your local bee inspector know immediately – it’s an offence not to. It’s also a good idea to register your details with the NBU as soon as you start beekeeping. This will help them to control and monitor disease and pests infestations – plus, you’ll receive up to date information on how you can best protect your beehive, and get notified if there’s a specific threat to bees in your area.

Protection from adverse weather conditions

To protect your bees from extreme heat, you can make sure that the hive is placed somewhere with shade, and that your bees have an adequate supply of water.

In the Winter, you can also help to protect bees from cold weather conditions by reducing the size of the hive entrance, and putting a small fence around the hive, to help block the worst of the wind. For more winter bee care tips, have a read of this article from Morning Chores.

Protection from predators

When it comes to predators, the biggest threat faced by honey bees in the UK is the Asian Hornet, as sightings of these large insects are becoming more common. Asian hornets feed on honey bees, so it’s important to make sure that you know what they look like, and how you can protect your beehive. Check out this information from the BBKA to find out more.

Avoid using pesticides

Pesticides can be incredibly harmful to bees, and are thought to be largely responsible for a decline in bee numbers. This is because they either directly poison bees, or kill off food sources, such as dandelions and buttercups. For this reason, it’s best to avoid using pesticides, and to consider keeping pests away by natural means instead.

8. Harvest your honey

During a good year, bees can produce 27kg or more of honey. Honey is usually harvested between August and September when flowers have finished blooming, and when bees have ‘capped’ honey combs with beeswax. Harvesting your honey for the first time can be incredibly exciting; and will usually be an experience that you’ll treasure, because it comes with a great deal of satisfaction.

When harvesting your honey, It’s important to make sure that you leave your bees with enough honey to live off over the Winter period, and that you replace lost honey stores with a suitable syrup. To learn more about the honey harvesting process, have a read of this article from Beehive Hero – or have a watch of the video below.

Other ways that you can help bees

If you decide that beekeeping isn’t for you, then there are still plenty of other ways that you can help bees in your garden, such as:

  • Planting bee-friendly plants, such as pussy willow and lavender.
  • Letting your grass grow a bit longer to give bees shelter and a place to feed.
  • Avoid using pesticides, as these might harm bees.

For more tips on how to help bees in your garden, have a read of this article from Friends of the Earth.

We also asked Rest Less member and experienced Beekeeper Pete Watt for his top beekeeping tips…

 Pete’s top 4 beekeeping tips

  1. If a colony seems to be queenless it is very unlikely that it is. Unless you the beekeeper killed the queen knowingly, there is more than likely a queen of some sort there.
  2. To check whether a queen is present, use a test frame containing larvae young enough to be turned into queens (less than 3 days old). If queen cells are produced, then the hive is queenless.
  3. Keeping bees close to people generally leads to grief – so it’s good to be wary of this.
  4. It’s worth having two hives, as if one is going wrong, then material from the other can be used to sort it out.

Final thoughts…

If you love nature, and you’re looking for a hobby that keeps on giving, then it’s worth considering whether beekeeping would be a good fit for you. Like bird watching, beekeeping is an activity which has the potential to unlock a whole new world.

Bees are hardworking, intriguing little creatures with a lot to offer; and by getting to know more about them, we can have an enriching experience, while helping them out along the way.

Are you a beekeeper? Or perhaps you’re thinking about setting up your first hive? We’d love to hear from you! Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

Links with an * by them are affiliate links which help Rest Less stay free to use as they can result in a payment or benefit to us. You can read more on how we make money here.

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