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. There are WBKA-affiliated associations across Wales. Find one local to you here.
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.
What training is needed?
Many associations run beginners courses. It is recommended that all beekeepers undertake a training course because keeping healthy and productive bees takes knowledge and skills and not just provision of a box for them to live in.
Where could I keep them?
Bees can be found everywhere, in our towns and cities as well as in 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. 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. If there are paths or neighbours nearby, it is a good idea to place the hive with its entrance facing a hedge or fence to encourage the bees to fly higher, thus avoiding passers-by or neighbours. 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 you keep your bees, you must be able to visit them easily as hives need to be checked regularly.
Buying a hive and bees
Your biggest purchase will be the hive. The modern hive, with its movable frames avoids damaging the bees when inspecting and removing honey. It comes in many forms each with their pros and cons. Many beekeepers in the UK use the Modified National hive type. Starting with a National hive is probably a good idea but after you have some experience with one or two hives you might want to try another design.
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 to buy bees from a local supplier. Locally bred bees are likely to be more successful as they are locally adapted. 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.
Do I need to register my bees?
Although it is not mandatory, it is highly recommended that you register yourself as a beekeeper with the National Bee Unit (NBU) which is the part of The Animal and Plant Health Agency. Once registered, you will be informed of serious disease outbreaks in your area. Their web site, BeeBase, has lots of useful information including Advisory Leaflets, Best Practice Guidelines, and Fact Sheets.
Protective Clothing and Equipment
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.
As far as equipment is concerned, as a minimum you will need a smoker, a hive tool, and 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.
How much will it cost?
As a beginner it is safer to buy new equipment. Second hand equipment is available but can be a reservoir for disease which would be passed on to your bees.
- National Hive: A self-assembly hive will cost about £150.
- Nucleus of Bees: Varies according to supply and demand, but is normally over £150. The best price will probably be from your local association.
- Bee Suit: A decent bee suit will cost in the range of £100-£150.
- Smoker: A smoker will cost in the range of £20-£40
- Disposable Gloves: A box of 100 costs about £6
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.
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. Details of the beekeepers year can be found here.