How to: keep bees
Beekeeping: a beginner's guide
Beekeeping is a wonderfully rewarding and relaxing pastime. It needn't take up huge amounts of time or cost the earth, and you'll gain an insight into one of nature's most fascinating creatures, not to mention delicious honey.
A colony of bees contains a single queen, a few hundred male bees or drones, and up to 50,000 female worker bees, which are the common honeybees you see in your garden.
The queen bee is larger than a worker bee and can live for up to three years during which time she will lay more than half a million eggs. Shortly after hatching, she makes a maiden flight, mates with six or seven drones (who will subsequently die), and returns to the hive where all her needs are met by worker bees.
What sort of hive should I buy?
Most beginners start with the National, a square brown box that is easy to use, but you could opt for a traditional, white, double-skinned (ie a box within a box) WBC hive (named after William Broughton Carr), which is a bit more bother but looks more romantic.
Where do I get the bees?
Try your local beekeepers' association to see if there are bees for sale nearby or if they know of any bee auctions, usually held in May and June. Check the classified pages of magazines such as BeeCraft or use a mail-order company such as Thornes or National Bee Supplies. Most importantly, make sure they are gentle: bees differ drastically in temperament and it's best to start with docile ones. Explain you're a beginner and most breeders will find you an easy colony. Contact a local branch of The British Beekeepers' Association for advice.
What kit will I need?
When it comes to clothing, go for maximum protection to avoid stings. An all-in-one suit with veil, together with a good pair of gloves and stout wellies will cost less than £150.
You'll need a smoker' to puff smoke round the hive as you work (bees link it with forest fires and, thinking their home is in danger, concentrate on eating their precious honey, leaving you free to rummage in the hive) and a hive tool to prise apart the various sections.
How much care do bees require?
You can go away without worrying as bees can survive without human input. In spring, when the weather warms up, open your hives for a thorough inspection; check your queen is laying eggs, make sure there are still enough honey stores and give the hive a good clean, scraping away winter debris, removing dead bees and cobwebs and replacing old or broken frames.
Until about July the colony will be growing rapidly and can reach up to 50,000, so you'll need to check weekly to ensure there is room for egg-laying and honey storing, otherwise the bees may swarm. This is when the queen, sensing that space is running out, leaves the hive with half the worker bees to form another colony. Though the bees left behind will survive (they will sense they are queen-less and feed one of the larvae with Royal Jelly to create a new one), you will have lost half your workforce and your honey will be reduced.
Collecting the honey
In August, you can collect your honey, as by then most flowers will have bloomed (unless you live near heather moors, as heather flowers later in the year). In a good summer, you should harvest about 40lbs.
In autumn you need to replace the stolen' honey by feeding your bees a sugar solution. Then, having protected the hive against unwelcome visitors such as woodpeckers and mice, you can shut up shop for the winter.