The fantasy of keeping bees.:
- A hive of bees buzzing away at the bottom of your garden.
- In the summer you watch from your deck chair as the workers visit your flowers
- In late summer you collect the honey and sell most of it at a vast profit.
- You spend the autumn making candles from the bees wax whilst drinking a glass of mead
- Christmas presents are a variety of bee products you have made.
The reality of keeping bees:
- It involves more time than you might think
- It is far more interesting than just watching
- It costs money
- Few beekeepers make any money.
So what attributes will a successful beekeeper have - or will develop:
•An interest in the natural world:
When you first open a hive it appears as just a crowd of bees milling around with no specific purpose. How wrong can you bee. All those bees are busy doing what they have to do to keep the colony alive. If you are not impressed by the bees then perhaps this is not the hobby for you.
•An enquiring mind
So you are interested in the bees and how collection of bees can keep a colony thriving whilst each appears to be doing their own thing.. When you look in the colony and you are intrigued as to what each bee is doing and you are desperate to learn more then perhaps beekeeping is for you. For those who want to follow a course in structure learning the BBKA offer both courses and exams. For those who never again wish to sit an exam there is plenty of reading material and videos - much of it freely available.
•A tolerance of setbacks
There will be times when you have read the books and done everything you should and your bees die . That happens. If you find yourself asking why and then making sure that, iof it was your dault, you don't do that again then you have the resilience to be a good beekeeper. We all lose colonies for one reason or another. If we are good beekeepers we do not lose colonies for the same reason twice.
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.
I was almost loathe to put this one in as there have been several articles published recently showing how people with physical issues can still be successful beekeepers. It is possible to keep bees if confined to a wheelchair but for those of us not in a wheelchair the lifting of a super of honey from the top of the hive is not easy. 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!
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. This can often be borrowed
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
•And do I get stung?
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.