To anyone interested in keeping bees, welcome to our web site and we hope you will find it useful. It is important to say that although a vast amount of very useful information and help is available online and in many different books and publications, it is a very good idea to join a beekeeping association before starting to keep bees.
Where could I keep them?
There is one essential question to consider when starting: do I have a suitable place to put my hives?
Bees can be kept anywhere in Britain: there are beehives in our towns and cities as well as throughout the countryside.
A beehive can be sited in any corner of a garden, but the bees will do best if they are in a sheltered and warm position. If there are paths or neighbours nearby, it is a good idea to place the hive with its entrance facing a hedge or fence. This will encourage the bees to fly higher, thus avoiding passers-by or neighbours.
A bee will fly up to three miles to find pollen and nectar, and most of their collecting will be done away from your garden. Bees love dandelion, blackberry flowers and ivy just as much as lavender and single camellia. Bee-friendly plants in your garden will help of course.
If you don’t want to have hives in your garden, you may be able to find a friend or neighbour who has a suitable area. Wherever they go, you must be able to visit them easily in the spring and early summer when hives need to be checked regularly.
Buying a hive and bees
Your biggest purchase will be the hive.
The modern hive, with its replaceable frames, is a recent invention, perfected by Langstroth in the mid 19th century. Key to its success is that it largely avoids damaging the colony when honey is removed.
It comes in many forms starting with the most basic and very common British National to the Langstroth and the traditional peak roofed one that we all associate with beehives, the WBC (named after its designer, William Braughton Carr).
Many beekeepers use the National type, and starting with that type is probably a good idea. After you have some experience with one or two hives you might want to try another design.
If you would like to understand what makes up a hive, and read about the different types, here is a good explanation by Mike Alsop of the Fareham and District Beekeeping Association: Hive Guide
Cedar is the wood of choice for hives, so check when buying as some homemade hives may be made of other wood. Cedar wood is preferred because it strong but not heavy and does not need to be treated with preservative.
It’s worth saying at this point that when buying a hive, it doesn’t usually come with bees in it!
Some hive suppliers do also supply bees, but it is best for beginners to buy bees from a local supplier. Locally bred bees are likely to be more successful and easier for a beginner to manage. Bees are normally supplied as a ‘nucleus’ which will consist of four to six frames of brood, food and bees, with a laying queen.
Your local beekeeping association will be able to recommend suitable suppliers of bees, and may be able to sell bees from their own apiary.
Equipment and clothing
You will need to have suitable clothing: a bee suit and veil, suitable boots, and gloves.
A full bee suit gives total protection, though some beekeepers use just a jacket and veil. Wellington boots are fine.
Gloves will get sticky from the propolis in the hive, and could transfer disease from one colony to another, so thin disposable gloves are best. Leather gloves can retain bee stings, which will annoy the bees, and also disease, so are not recommended these days. For all clothing, it is vital to have overlaps to stop the bees entering your clothes as they walk upwards.
Suppliers of clothing are listed in our Suppliers section.
As far as equipment is concerned, as a minimum you will need:
- a smoker
- a hive tool
- a good book for reference
The smoker is used to keep bees away from the part of the hive you are working on. It burns slowly and produces cool smoke which will not harm the bees. When they encounter smoke their instinct is to go to their honey stores and feed, which in the wild would be their way of dealing with a fire which might threaten the colony.
The hive tool is used to separate the parts of the hive when opening it and to free the frames before removing them. A tool is needed because the bees seal small gaps in the hive with propolis, which is essentially a resin glue.
During the early spring and autumn you will need to feed your bees, so you will need a sugar syrup feeder. When clearing the bees before removing honey, you will need a bee escape (a one way valve for bees). For handling and marking queen bees you will need a queen cage and a marking pen.
How much will it cost?
A complete self-assembly National hive will cost about £150. Fully assembled hives obviously cost more.
The price of a nucleus of bees (on about 5 frames) varies from year to year according to supply and demand, but is normally over £100. The best price will probably be from your local association.
A new bee suit with veil will be between £60 and £100.
A new smoker will cost £20 to £40.
Disposable latex gloves cost around £6 per hundred.
It is possible to get complete beekeeping starter kits for £250 upwards, which include the hive, protective clothing, smoker, beekeeping book and often other useful gadgets.
You can get hold of cheaper second-hand equipment, especially in the spring when many clubs have sales of second-hand gear and bees. If you are a beginner do get advice before buying any second-hand equipment. It is vital to make sure that hive parts do not carry any diseases which could be passed on to your bees.
The most expensive piece of equipment which beekeepers use is a honey extractor, and these start at around £175. Most associations have arrangements for members to borrow or hire honey extraction equipment.
How much time is needed?
Beekeeping is a seasonal hobby, so the time needed varies over the year.
In the middle of winter there is practically nothing to do, except to occasionally check for physical damage or snow blocking the entrances. The busiest time is the early summer when each hive should be checked weekly to stop swarming and add supers.
The work in your first year will depend on exactly when you get your bees and how prolific they are.
As a guide, these are the normal monthly tasks.
January Check roofs and entrances for blockages by leaves or snow.
February Check hives for food, feed as necessary
March Change or clean the hive floor. Continue to monitor food levels. Monitor Varroa levels, and continue monitoring from now on. High levels of mites should be treated quickly.
April Carry out the first full hive inspection on a mild day, checking the colony is healthy, has sufficient food, and has a laying queen. Replace old comb.
May Start weekly swarm prevention inspections. Add supers (honey boxes) as necessary to ensure that the colony always has enough space. Start to breed new queens as part of swarm prevention and good management. As the breeding progresses more hives can be added.
June Continue weekly swarm prevention inspections and add supers. If the bees collected nectar from early oil seed rape then the honey they have produced will need to be removed now before it crystallises.
July Continue adding supers and inspecting for swarming
August Remove the main honey crop. After taking the honey is the best time to treat for Varroa. Restrict the entrance to prevent other bees or wasps from robbing your hives
September Feed the colony so that they build up their stores for the winter. Remove any Varroa strips or gel at the end of the treatment period. Decide how many hives you want to have for the start of next year and reduce your hive count by combining two into one.
October Do not fully open the hive from now on. Fit mouse guards before the onset of winter.
November Check the outsides of the hives routinely, and especially after severe weather in case there is storm damage.
December As November but attend your local association meetings and make your plans for next year based on this years experiences. Varroa can be treated with diluted oxalic acid.
It’s a very good idea to join an association before you get started with your own hives.
You will get good advice and some practical experience in addition to picking up tips from more experienced beekeepers.
The best time to start beekeeping is in the period April to June, when bees are actively building their colonies. If you start with a nucleus of bees then, they will have enough time to build new comb and stock it sufficiently with stores for the following winter.
Many associations, including Dean Forest Beekeepers, run beginners courses, and they are normally held early in the year so that new starters can complete the course before buying their bees.
You’ll probably find that there’s a local beekeepers’ association not far from where you live. If you live in Gloucestershire there are seven branches of the Gloucestershire Beekeepers Association.
Links to other UK associations are available on the BBKA web site.
Books for beginners
We recommend two books for beginners:
The BBKA Guide to Beekeeping (ISBN 1472920899) by Ivor Davis and Roger Cullum-Kenyonby, which is now in its second edition. This is the best book for those starting to keep bees, and is stocked by all the major booksellers and beekeeping equipment suppliers.
The Haynes Bee Manual (ISBN 0857338099 ) by Clare and Adrian Waring, which gives a clear and concise introduction into the fascinating world of the honey bee and the addictive craft of beekeeping.
The Beeginners web site by Graham Law is very good and will answer most questions about starting beekeeping.
The late David Cushman developed a comprehensive web site with a very good section for new beekeepers: David Cushman