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Shall I keep bees?

The fantasy of keeping bees.
  • a hive of bees at the bottom of your garden.
  • all summer you watch from your deck chair as the workers buzz back and forth collecting nectar and pollen.
  • In the autumn you collect the honey and sell most of it at a vast profit.
  • You have enough left to give as Christmas presents. You might even take some of the bees wax and make some candles.

The reality of keeping bees.
Beekeeping is not like that. It is far more difficult and far more demanding and far more interesting. I know I have been keeping bees for at least six years.

The fascination
Inside the hive you will find:
  • a queen bee laying eggs.
  • nurse bees feeding the hatched larvae
  • foraging bees collecting nectar and pollen.
  • worker bees making honey
  • guard bees guarding the hive entrance.
The harvest:
  • Honey - better than any supermarket sells - because it is from your bees
  • Wax - which can be made into candles or polish
  • Propolis - which you can harvest though I don't.
The environment:
A third of our food relies on insect pollinators such as the honey bee. By keeping bees you are making a very positive contribution to the population of insect pollinators.

The frustration:
Despite doing my best I have had:
  • Colonies have swarmed and I have lost half my workers midseason.
  • Colonies have starved even though food was right next to them.
  • Wax moth which made a horrible mess of the combs.
I suspect the longer I keep bees the more frustrations I will encounter - but I keep learning.

So what does it take to be a beekeeper?

Keeping bees is not just a matter of putting a hive at the bottom of your garden and popping down for a spoonful of honey at breakfast time. There is a lot more to it than that.
Your hives will have to be visited approximately once a week from spring to autumn.
  • Summer:
    Allow about 20 minutes per hive plus the time to change in to and out of a bee suit then that is about right. What is more you cannot say you will go every Tuesday afternoon. You could find that Tuesday afternoon is thundery. Bees do not like thundery weather and can be very cross if disturbed so you have to find another day that week - and then that turns out to be a really wet day and bees do not appreciate it if you take the roof of their home when it is pouring with rain. You have to be available and flexible.
  • Winter:
    Hives will have to be checked during the winter especially after gales or heavy snow. Winter is quieter but that is the time when you get on with learning more about the subject and clean and repair equipment you have used that year.

Looking after bees can be physically quite demanding. An empty super is easy to carry but at the end of the season when you are lifting a full super it is much more taxing. This is not something you can tuck under your arm but has to be lifted at arms' length. A full super can weigh as much as 30 pounds or 14 kilograms. Try holding a tray of 14 bags of sugar at at arms' length whilst wearing a bee suit in the hot sun!

I am often asked "Do you get stung?". The answer is "Yes - but not often."
When I have been stung it was either because I had done something with the bees and not put my suit on or when I have trapped a bee in the folds of my bee suit. Take simple precautions and you will not get stung - well not much and not often. That brings up the question of allergic reactions.
Allergies are something you do not want to have. For me, if I am stung it is bit painful at the time. Twenty fours later it starts to itch - a lot. Forty eight hours later it is all forgotten. For most of us a sting is painful for a short time but for others it can be life threatening. Alas if you are one of those who has an allergy to bee stings there is little that can be done about it and my advice is to keep well clear of bees.

Bees will not be hurried and nor will they do what you want when you want. Not only that but sometimes they seem to know exactly what you do not wish them to do - and still they do it. There are the days in the summer when you need to do a full hive inspection. It is hot and you would like to be sitting in shorts and a tee shirt in the garden. Instead you have to put on long trousers, a long sleeved shirt and on top of that bee suit including a hat and a veil. If that were not hot enough you now have to light the smoker.

Few hobby beekeepers make any money unless they are very lucky
. To set up your apiary will cost in excess of £400.
  • You need a bee suit - £40 to £140
  • You need a smoker -£50
  • You need a hive - £300 as a flat pack
  • You really should have another hive -£300
  • You need a hive tool - £10
  • Join a local association - about £40

One well known supplier does a complete beginner's kit for £564 including one hive, gloves, a mouse guard and a manual.
Later you will need:
  • A honey extractor - £300 to £500 though often can be borrowed from your local association.
  • A honey bucket - £40
  • Honey jars with labels - £50
Many of these items can be obtained second hand - though it is best to take advice from an experienced bee keeper.
Altogether it is not cheap but my total expenditure on equipment so far is probably less than the vets bills for my dog and you may sell some honey.

You need somewhere to keep your bee hives - the apiary. This may be in the garden and it may be somewhere else - but you need somewhere. There is a fuller discussion on selecting an apiary site here. In addition you need space to keep the equipment. This may be a dedicated garden shed or it may be a corner of the garage but you do need somewhere to keep spare empty supers, the made up frames, the smoker, the spare queen excluder…..

So you have got this far through the article and therefore still interested. What do you do next?
There is nothing more fruitful than meeting up with other beekeepers and discussing your ideas with them. As I write this we are in a lockdown due to the pandemic. However once that is all over then contact the local society and find out what goes on.

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