Beginning with Bees
Alan Forskitt, 3 Counties BKA
Beekeeping, or apiculture, is the management of bees in manmade hives by a beekeeper, or apiarist. These modern hives may be dismantled to allow the bees to be inspected for progress, disease and to harvest honey and other hive products without destroying the hive. Honey bees can be kept in urban or rural areas and a collection of hives in one place is called an apiary.
Evidence that humans have been collecting honey from wild bees for 10,000 years comes from Spanish cave paintings, later the Egyptians practiced a form of domesticated beekeeping which is shown in some of their art work as long ago as 4,500 years.
This depicted the use of simple hives and the use of smoke when accessing the hives and honey was found in jars within some of the Pharaohs’ tombs. Bees were kept in similar fashion in rigid or flexible vessels of wood, straw or pottery up until the 18th century when the modern movable comb hives we use today were invented.
How to Start
Traditionally beekeeping was a skill handed down through the generations, these days it is unlikely that any of us have a parent or other relatives to teach us but this method is still the best. We now use local beekeeping groups and mentors to gain insights into this fascinating hobby and the amazing creature that the bees are.
The way to start beekeeping is the same whether you only want a few jars of honey for family and friends or aim to become a commercial beekeeper and that is to join a beekeeping association. By joining a beekeeping association you will have advice close at hand and most associations run beekeeping courses which cover the different aspects of beekeeping with many having access to their association apiary for training. All good associations will arrange for a tutor or mentor for you who will act as a buddy and be available to help and advise you through the years as most beekeepers are very willing to pass on their knowledge at all levels.
The internet is a major source of information these days but do remember that the information may not pertain to local beekeeping in Ireland so be wary that the seasons and climate are different all over the world and that these are the main factors affecting the bees through the year.
There are also a number of excellent books available and any beekeeper or association will advise which one is the best to acquire as many base their beginners courses around one. A very good all round book for beginners is ‘The Haynes Bee Manual’ by Claire Waring which is worth having as a reference book and covers most aspects of beekeeping.
A very important thing to know which could be a lifesaver is whether or not you are allergic to bee stings and if you have any doubts take relevant medical advice before even coming into contact with bees.
It is not advised to purchase bees and equipment before you have assessed whether you will be able to keep bees or not. They are essentially a form of livestock and as such need regular care therefore available time is a great factor in beekeeping with regular weekly visits needed in the summer months. The best time to start beekeeping is around the time that your local association course starts.
Through the winter most groups hold lectures at which you would be very welcome and at these you will be able to meet and talk with beekeepers to start your venture into beekeeping.
Throughout the winter and spring you may participate in their beginners course and read up on the subject then, as you enter the spring and early summer and after the practical apiary visits start, your association will usually be able to provide you with a nucleus or starter colony of bees at a good price and advise you on the most suitable equipment to purchase.
Most beekeepers start with just one hive however two or three are a better number to aim for, this will help you overcome most problems that you might encounter and a good mentor will be able to help out initially. Other aspects of beekeeping to consider before starting out are that it is a physical pastime where the hive parts, when full, can weigh up to 25kg and as custodians of the bees you are responsible for their health, upkeep and feeding throughout the whole year.
Beekeeping is not as simple a hobby as you may think, the bee is a complicated insect with the colony following a seasonal life. Beekeeping is however a most satisfying hobby if you decide to take it up full time.
Equipment & Clothing
There are many hive types on the market and for the hobbyist it is not advisable to mix hive types as a beginner. Without going into too much detail here, the most popular hive for a hobbyist is the National hive and information on these can be found in beekeeping equipment suppliers catalogues, the internet and beekeeping magazines.
National hive parts are in the lower weight range when full compared to many of the others and are all compatible with other national hive parts and dimensioned drawings are readily available for those who wish to make their own. The most likely deciding factor is to use those that are recommended by others in your association but always remember that if you are purchasing a nucleus hive to start with then the hive and nucleus be the same type for the frames to fit.
Other more common types of hives are Langstroth, commercial, Warré and top bar hives. None of the parts of these hives are compatible with any except their own design however the outside dimensions of the commercial are almost identical to those of the national but the frames are not interchangeable.Like the national, they are all demountable with removable frames to allow inspection for disease and the general build up of the colony. The box type hives comprise of a floor, solid or open mesh to aid in varroa control, and a brood chamber where the queen is usually kept and the bees rear the brood and store pollen and honey.
On top of this can be placed a queen excluder to retain the queen in the brood box and then honey supers on top of this where the crop is stored. The final parts are a crown board which is initially there to stop the roof becoming fixed to the supers and a roof which is usually insulated. There are vast amounts of information and videos on these available to you on the internet and by following up on this you will also begin to learn how to manipulate the hive and manage your bee colony.
Bee suits come in a vast array of stile and prices. They need to be light in colour and are best made from cotton, you will need several pockets in them and preferably elasticated waist and cuffs with thumb loops to stop the sleeves rising up. As a beginner it is not advisable to wear just a veil.
The main considerations are whether you feel more confident in a full suit or a smock/jacket, the type of hood (round or fencing style) and the cost. Again information can be sourced on the internet and in publications and once again your colleagues in the association will advise you further on the options available. This is a personal choice and economics will be a large factor in your choice.
Gloves & Footwear
Leather gauntlets are available from suppliers but these do have some disadvantages. They can cause you to be clumsy when handling the frames and are difficult to clean thus causing a potential hygiene problem, in fact many associations and other beekeepers will not allow these in their apiaries due to the latter reason. On the plus side it is unlikely that you will receive a sting through them.
Rubber gauntlets are available and are more hygienic as they can be cleaned but are still very clumsy. Domestic kitchen gloves are a good middle of the road option allowing good dexterity and reasonable protection from stings. Many experienced beekeepers wear disposable nitrile gloves to protect the hands from the sticky propolis or no gloves at all.
Ultimately if the bees are bred to be non defensive they will only very occasionally sting.A good pair of boots or wellingtons is essential. It is necessary to keep your ankles protected from the bees due to their habit of walking uphill, any bees on the ground will eventually find your ankles which is a painful place to be stung.
The smoker is used to subdue the bees by making them think that there is a fire nearby in which case the bees gorge on honey and, theoretically, are then unable to sting properly as their abdomens cannot fully flex. Smoke should be used sparingly and only if necessary during inspections but the smoker should always be kept alight in case it is needed.
Again there are several designs available and a budget stainless steel one will be good for a beginner for several years. Personal choice and cost are the main things to look at but initially try to buy one with a heat guard or grille around the smoke box as they can get hot.
A smaller one will suffice for just a few hives and they can be refilled without having to relight them therefore a large one is unnecessary.Smoker fuel is again a personal choice and there are several types that can be bought from suppliers and usually your mentor will advise you on this. There are many free fuels which burn well, wood shavings and /or dried grass work well and are free. Practice is needed to keep them burning so that they the smoke is neither too hot nor does the smoker go out.
Other Basic Equipment
Many suppliers provide basic kits consisting of a suit, smoker hive tools and gloves and sometimes other items which can be economical if you need all of the items. Some kits also include a hive, usually a national type.
Another essential is a hive stand which can be made from concrete blocks and timber bearers or a proprietary one can be purchased from a supplier.Hive tools are required for dismantling the hives for inspection and taking out and cleaning the frames.
They come in a variety of shapes and sizes with most beekeepers preferring a basic stainless steel one, usually a colleague will demonstrate their use to you and you can make up your mind which type to buy.
Another piece of equipment is a honey extractor however this is seldom required in your first year as a beekeeper. These are becoming cheaper in recent years but initially you would be better off borrowing one or hiring an association extractor if they have one.
Having used the extractor you will of course need food grade containers, a means of filtering the honey, jars and lids which are all obtainable through either the beekeeping equipment suppliers or a specialist supplier in large or small quantities. Some of this equipment you may already have in your kitchen which can be adapted, sieves and funnels for example.
Finally you will need a means of keeping your outside equipment together as you accumulate more over time, this may be a small tool box or even a bucket works well as you will rarely be using the equipment in the rain. There is a myriad of different pieces of equipment on the market so be sure to only buy what you know that you need, there is no point in having €10 sitting in the tool kit doing nothing.
Choosing your apiary site
Of course all of this equipment is of no use to you without an apiary site. This can be in your garden, a local field or in a town on a rooftop. Consideration is needed for your neighbours or people out walking past the site and protection from damage by livestock if in a field.
It is worth considering having high fences or hedges to make the bees fly upwards out of people’s way and also procuring docile bees that will not upset the neighbours. The site needs good sunshine on it but also shade for the middle of the day and preferably a water supply nearby.
Each hive is less than 0.6m square but you need around 1.4m all round it to work properly with good access by foot. The corner of a garden is ideal for one or two hives and the hives are best situated to give some sunshine on the entrance sides at some point in the day. It is also advisable to consider your site with regards to the total number of hives you are likely to keep in the future before setting the apiary up as the area needs to increase proportionally with the number of hives you decide to keep.
On this the best ways to determine the maximum number of hives in one place is with the assistance and knowledge of a local beekeeper as there will be a saturation point due to the limit of the forage through the season and due consideration needs to be made regarding any other apiaries in the area.
Should you decide to expand, more apiary sites can be obtained as out apiaries and it is usual to give the land owner some honey as rent.
Wherever the apiary is always remember that you need good accessibility to carry equipment in and that you will also need to gain access as and when the bees need looking after which could be morning noon or late evening.
Your first bees
Your first bees will almost certainly be from your local association in the form of a nucleus hive. They should be selected for you to be docile and easily manage, healthy and with a marked queen to aid finding her with a good proportion of eggs brood and stores of honey and pollen.
If they are not available from the association try to obtain local bees from a reputable supplier. Do not be tempted to import bees from abroad. There is a high likelihood that they may contain some disease and many areas are voluntary conservation areas for native bees.
Always consider the breeding of the local bees regardless as different breeds may cause problems if they hybridise with each other, once again your association will guide you on this.Buying nucleus hives, as opposed to buying full hives, is better for beginners. When they are put into a full hive they are less difficult to handle than a full hive of bees which can be very daunting for the novice.
Buying the nuc in late May or June and with careful feeding of syrup to build them up to strength you will become accustomed to the larger population of bees and gain confidence while learning your beekeeping skills with them through the first summer. It is unlikely that you will have a honey crop in the first year and in any case most of the honey will be best left with the colony to assist it through the winter.
From this point you have a full hive of bees with a good chance of surviving the winter. It will still take some management to see it through as you will see later.
Another source of bees is from catching swarms. This is not the usual way to start as a beekeeper because you will not know the health status of these bees nor their temperament, therefore swarms are really for a slightly more advanced keeper.
Even with full protective clothing it is impossible to completely avoid bee stings hence the necessity to assess whether you are allergic to them. Stings can be painful and this depends on how quickly you can remove the sting and therefore the amount of venom injected.
Usually there is reddening and swelling around the sting site followed by itching before the symptoms fully disappear. As more stings are received one may develop immunity to them although the pain will always occur and the amount of pain and swelling will vary from place to place on the body. The face for example is both painful and swells dramatically.
Regrettably a few people develop allergies to bee stings usually in the form of swelling, blotchiness of the skin, feinting and breathing difficulties. Medical attention should be sought at the first sign of this and usually an Epipen is held at association apiaries in case of emergency.
Honey crop & other hive products
Once the colony is at full strength there may be a surplus of honey. This can be taken from the bees usually once a year in Ireland in the autumn but this is dependent on local crops and the weather. Without any technicalities the full frames are removed without the bees and taken to the extractor for spinning the honey out.
It is possible to remove the honey without an extractor by cutting out the comb and letting it drain through a filter cloth or sieve or even used straight from the comb. Honey for sale should be strained to remove any wax and debris and labeled.
There are rules and regulations around selling honey as it is a food product however your first crops are more likely to be given to friends and neighbours.Other hive products are bees wax, propolis and pollen. The only one of consequence in Ireland is the wax as the others are more beneficial to be left for the bees.
Bees are livestock and as custodian of the bees we have a duty of care to them. They need to be kept healthy and fed. In general, the fewer interventions the better.
One of the biggest problems with novice beekeepers is their understandable desire to look inside the hive too often which is very disruptive to the colony, think how you would feel if someone took the roof off your home to look in!
Likewise, just checking on their stores will not produce a good crop and neither will it enable your stock to be increased.
Winter management from October to March is minimal and is nothing more than checking on the bee’s health and food stores and giving treatments and feeding if necessary.
From March through to September is the busy time. Obviously they need checking to see that they have adequate food, this can actually diminish if there is no nectar flow and they are rearing brood. Routine health checks also need to be made. The main amount of time needed to look after the bees is from May through to August.
The amount of work depends on how many hives and apiaries you have, although two hives take only minutes more to inspect than one, whether you want to increase stocks and swarm control which increases your harvest by keeping more bees in the hive.
Swarm control needs regular weekly visits in the summer to achieve a good crop however this is not a required part of beekeeping, you may decide to make fewer interventions and sacrifice some of the harvest.
Some time needs to be set aside mainly during the late winter and spring for cleaning and sterilizing equipment to stop the build up and spread of pathogens and assembling new equipment, this is directly proportional to the amount of equipment that you have and so needs more time the more hives that you have. Routine apiary hygiene is important.
Keeping the apiary and areas around where you store and clean your equipment clear of old frames and wax is most important. Also your tools and regularly used equipment will need sterilizing throughout the season, especially between apiaries if you have more than one, to prevent the spread of pathogens.
Your bee suit is also capable of spreading diseases if it is not regularly washed.
In general the bees and the seasons dictate the management year and the beekeeper can then decide to which level he looks after the bees to get the most satisfaction from their commitment to the bees.
Threats to Bees
The main problems that bees face are Diseases and pests, chemicals and loss of habitat.
Insecticides and pesticides affect bees and they need to be protected from these to stop any serious damage to your bees, for example, by liaising with farmers to find out when they are spraying crops so that you can coordinate this with keeping your bees in the hive for a period of time.
Loss of habitat is mainly due to the loss of hedgerows, changing land use to monoculture crops and the use of weed killers which reduces the amount of flowering plants growing in the crops and verges.These are areas where beekeepers tend to be very active in lobbying against, not only for the benefit of honey bees but for all pollinators.
Hygiene & Disease
Hygiene & Disease is a separate subject that requires knowledge that will be gained in time through reading literature and experience. You will always find that associations and mentors will help on this matter. Usually you will find a routine as you progress with beekeeping and it will become a regular part of your hive management protocol.
This is merely an overview of beekeeping in a nutshell. It is a pastime that is flexible but the principles are the same whether you have one hive or a hundred.
The enjoyment that you can gain from beekeeping is immense, it has a great social side to it and beekeepers are renowned for being very helpful and passing on advice, they have all gone along the same learning curve.
The study of the social life of the workings of a colony is almost unbelievably interesting with many excellent books written on all aspects of bees and beekeeping and ranging from very basic information to highly technical and scientific papers.
Once the bug has bitten reading can take up a great deal of time in the winter months.Even if you were not particularly interested in nature before starting beekeeping you will almost certainly learn to appreciate the seasons, the weather, the country side and flowers more, especially when related to apiculture.
Buying second hand equipment carries a risk of transferring disease and pathogens into your apiaries and is not advised. If you have any wood working skills they can be used to make hives very economically.
For the same reasons do not be tempted to import bees. It is recognized that the native and locally adapted bees are the best to use and this also reduces any risk of importing disease.
There is a wealth of information on the internet but, as before, be careful of the source and if in doubt take local advice. There are many Irish and British sites with excellent information on them although some are for members only, one of the best is the British government funded one known as Bee Base (http://www.nationalbeeunit.com).
Very good information from a country with a similar climate to ours but be aware that the legal and regulatory parts are not always relevant to Ireland.
There are also many good videos on youtube regarding beekeeping. Some of the best are from The Norfolk Honey Co. on beekeeping and The National Honey show series of lectures which are a little more advanced but both will link onto other similar videos.