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Downton Honey

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Over the last couple of years I have reduced the number of beehives I keep and generally only have enough honey for my own family's use, and to give away to friends and family. On a good year you may find some of my excess honey for sale at The Borough Cafe in Downton.

Start Beekeeping

I am often asked to give advice on how to start beekeeping. This page contains the essential information that I think you need before setting out.

Honey bees are not pets. Although looking after bees is a lot like managing other livestock, honey bees are wild animals that are potentially harmful to humans. You should take the responsibility of beekeeping seriously and this requires a significant amount of preparation.

I recommend at least 1 year of research prior to getting any bees, unless you have a lot of help from an experienced beekeeper friend.

The following advice is aimed at those starting out in the UK.

Equipment

Don't make the mistake of buying lots of equipment before you have established what sort of beekeeper you want to be. The only essential equipment you need is a good suit and beekeeping gloves. You should be able to acquire both for a total of about £50. You may also decide to buy a 'hive tool'.

Other than books, I recommend this is ALL you buy for the first year of researching beekeeping. Try and avoid buying hive equipment until you are absolutely sure of the system you are going to use for bee management.

There is further advice about equipment below.

Reading

Some books make beekeeping seem very straightforward. In my experience things never go to plan, and the more books you have read the more different approaches you will be aware of to allow you to adapt when (not if) things go wrong. For this reason, you should read a variety of books on honey bees and beekeeping before you get your own bees. I recommend you read at least 4 or 5 books from cover to cover.

Recommended texts include -

Teach Yourself - Beekeeping - Adrian and Clare Waring - (This is a very good place to start, and a very reasonably priced book, well written)

Guide to Bees and Honey - Ted Hooper - (Longwinded but covers everything you need as a hobbyist)

A Practical Manual of Beekeeping - David Cramp - (Although this is written by a commercial beekeeper it is well written and suitable for hobbyists)

 

I advise that you also read at least 2 or 3 other books on bees and beekeeping, perhaps including those that detail certain methods of beekeeping. These are relevant even if you decide to exclude them as methods you use.

Further reading texts include -

The Rose Hive Method - Tim Rowe - (This assumes knowledge included in the books above - I include this on this list because it highlights some of the techniques I have experimented with myself)

The Barefoot Beekeeper - PJ Chandler - (Not how I manage bees, and although I disagree with some of the statements in this book, this is nevertheless an example of an alternative system for managing bees with much to be learnt - This method of beekeeping should definitely be explored by those for whom heavy lifting is a problem)

The Buzz About Bees - Jürgen Tautz - (This is a book for anyone interested in bee behaviour - Contains up to date information about bee research - Although expensive it is beautifully illustrated with the best bee photos published anywhere)

 

Many other books are available, and most have their good points. An understanding of the variety of approach to beekeeping is what matters. Don't start beekeeping with the first method you come across.

Get to know other beekeepers

Accompanying other beekeepers as they inspect their hives is the best way of building confidence in handling honey bees.

Most beekeepers won't have the time to take you to their hives every time they go, and so you may have to link up with several beekeepers in your area. The best way to do this is to join your local branch of the British Bee Keepers Association. There is a nominal fee for annual membership for those without bees. Being an associate member usually means you can go to the local meetings and there you will easily be able to link up with experienced beekeepers. You will also have access to free or discounted literature.

If you show enthusiasm, have read several books on beekeeping, and have your own suit, then beekeepers are much more likely to take you seriously and teach you a few lessons.

Many beekeepers are paranoid, perhaps rightly, about spreading disease to honey bees. You will probably be asked to make sure your suit and gloves are cleaned between every visit, especially if you have been visiting someone else's apiary. Please show every courtesy to any beekeeper good enough to show you their hives.

Do a beekeeping course

Your local association should be able to give you details of beekeeping courses running locally. If you live in the Salisbury ares, then please try the Salisbury and District Beekeepers Association website here - sdbka.org. Book early to avoid disappointment because spaces fill up quickly each year.

Sorry - I don't currently run courses.

Getting your first bees

You can start beekeeping at any time of year, but avoid buying bees just before winter. It is far better to buy a nucleus (small colony on 4 - 6 frames) in spring or summer. Buy from a trusted source in the UK.

Better still, sign up to your local association's swarm list. Some associations charge to accompany you to catch a swarm. Find out how much this would be before setting out. Once you have seen it done once you'll be able to do it yourself the next time for free.

To see how its done see the collecting swarms video on the video page.

Buying equipment

Once you have decided how you are going to start managing your bees, you can start gathering equipment. Once you get going you will find there is no end of stuff you need, but unless money is no issue then only buy what is really necessary.

If I was starting beekeeping from scratch now I would set out to get a swarm or a nucleus in the first year and aim to build it up to a small colony by the end of the season. You should avoid taking honey off in the first year as the bees will need it all to get through winter, and so you will not have any return from your investment in the first year.

This means that for your first year you will only need a nucleus box, or a hive with a single brood box. Having an empty super box can also be helpful for feeding purposes, and you'll need it next year anyway.

Buying in bulk is often a lot more economic, but it is very easy to get carried away by spending that little bit more to avoid postage costs. Remember you will need somewhere dry and bee proof to store your equipment which can mount up quickly.

Buying second hand equipment can save money, but make sure you know where it has been. It can also be surprisingly expensive, and often you may just as well buy new equipment, especially when it comes to hive parts. The main advantage of buying second hand equipment is that it is already assembled.

In most cases equipment holds its value well and so if you decide beekeeping is not for you, you can always sell what you have without losing too much.

Building equipment

A great way to save money is to build your own equipment. I build all my own roofs from old floorboards, covered with a piece of chipboard and shed felt. I also make my own mesh floors - the mesh can be bought from bee suppliers for about £4- £5.

Crown boards and feeding boards are also very easy to make from hardboard. Although I have made my own hive boxes, they are time consuming to build, and so now I usually buy the cheapest flat-pack hive boxes I can find. In this way the whole hive with 2 boxes costs about £60.

I have a preference for queen excluders with a wooden frame, mainly because I keep melting plastic ones with a hot smoker! These excluders are more expensive and this adds to the final cost.

You can save by building with wood other than cedar. Cedar is a lovely wood and certainly lasts a long time - I have one that has lasted for 30 years! Other than looks, the main advantage is you can use linseed oil (cheap and quick) to preserve cedar rather than paint (more expensive and time consuming). Nevertheless, a painted pinewood hive will probably last as long and is much cheaper.

If you are no good with your hands, or have money to burn, then you can buy new hive parts ready built.

Flat-packed hive boxes are much cheaper, but can be difficult to get exactly square and flat. Polystyrene hives have their advantages. As well as good thermal properties thought to be beneficial to bees, they are cheap and very quick to put together and easily assembled so they are square and flat.

Other ways of saving money

- Don't buy a honey extractor. These can be borrowed from your local association, usually free of charge with a deposit for damage.

- Collect beeswax and exchange it for free foundation at your bee supplier. Thorne do this, I'm not sure about other suppliers. When you are producing a lot of wax or have less need for foundation you will be better off producing and selling your own wax products.

- Design and print you own honey labels.

- Now you are into bees everyone will know what you want for Christmas - so make a wish list!

Hobbies within beekeeping

The great thing about beekeeping is that there is a hobby within a hobby for everyone. Beekeeping really is for the all rounder.

Why not try your hand at some of the following -

- Plant a bee friendly garden

- Build your own hives

- Make beeswax candles

- Bee photography

- Design honey labels

- Produce honey, wax or propolis health and beauty products

- Become a bee disease expert

- Do talks or demonstrations at local events or schools

- Make honey mead

- Rear you own queens

- Teach beekeeping

- Build your own beekeeping website :)