Beekeeping in brief

Beekeeping is ideal for urban and rural smallholdings says Helen Babb

Whether you have a large garden holding with every square inch in use or a twenty-acre holding with a bit more space to spare, honey bees are the ideal finishing touch for your smallholding. They’re well suited to either rural or urban holdings. Unlike all other livestock, bees need little extra space or attention. A bee-hive or two will fit into a sheltered corner of the garden or orchard and need, at most, a couple of hours of your time each week. In return for this, bees are highly productive, yielding both honey and beeswax, while improving pollination in every part of your holding, as well as in neighbouring gardens, fields and hedges.

Hives on the holding

Before acquiring your bees, you will need to have a hive ready for them. There are two main types of hive, both consisting of a series of stacking boxes, usually made of wood or occasionally plastic. The ‘Langstroth’ type, such as the popular National Hive, has frames containing sheets of pre-pressed wax hanging down inside the boxes. The bees then construct the wax brood-combs and honey-combs, where the new bees are raised and the honey is stored, onto these sheets. The brood chamber where the queen bee lives is in the bottom part of the hive, while the ‘supers’ for honey storage are in the upper layers. A mesh ‘queen excluder’ prevents the queen entering the supers, so the honey remains clean and free of eggs or young bees.

The ‘Top-bar’ type of hive, such as the Warré hive, has removable bars resting across the top of each stacking box, but no frames. The bees build their wax combs free-form, hanging down from each bar. There is no queen excluder, but the bees gradually build the comb downwards as each batch of brood hatches out and re-use the older comb at the top of the hive for storing honey.

Whichever type of hive you choose, it will need to be sited in a quiet spot away from paths or neighbours, sheltered from cold winds and getting full sun for at least part of each day. You’ll need to allow space for access all around the hive but in a garden setting, positioning the hive with the entrance facing a hedge or fence about 1.5m away will ensure the bees fly upwards before spreading out to forage, so will be less likely to disturb passers-by. On a larger, rural smallholding, the edge of an orchard or woodland makes a good site, as long as the hives are not under the edge of the tree canopy where they will be dripped on. Bees and horses don’t mix, so avoid putting your hives next to the pony paddock!

The hives should be kept off damp ground on a hive stand, which can be as simple as a wooden plank bench or low pillar of concrete blocks. You might want to strap the hives onto the stand, to stop high winds, animals or vandals knocking them off. As bees build their honeycomb vertically, it’s important for the hives and stand to be perfectly level so the comb-covered frames or bars can be removed easily. It’s best to start with just one hive but as you add more in the future, each hive needs to be positioned with the entrance facing in a slightly different direction, so the bees don’t get confused and return to the wrong hive.

Buying bees

Bees are best purchased from a reputable local supplier or apiarist. There are several varieties of honey bee, so a local supplier will be best placed to advise which is best suited for your weather and conditions. The bees are usually supplied as a nucleus, a small, complete colony of bees which is ready to expand and establish. This consists of a young queen bee, worker bees and brood or immature bees, on four to six frames of comb with sufficient pollen and nectar stores to get the colony started. These are mostly available in late spring, which gives time for the bees to settle in to their new hive during the summer and build up sufficient stores to overwinter.

Although they may be going free, as such, it’s better not to start with a swarm of bees. These are generally of unknown provenance so may carry disease or parasites and also have no food resources to help the colony establish well.

Essential equipment

Protective clothing is the first essential, as bees will sting when disturbed. You’ll need a full cover bee-suit and veil, thick boots, and protective rubber gloves. All clothing should be large enough to have secure overlaps so bees crawling up you can’t get inside the suit! A soft brush comes in handy for removing bees from clothing and also any bees on the frames when taking these out of the hive.

For opening the hive to inspect the colony or collect the honey, you’ll need a hive tool and smoker. The hive tool, like a small lever or pry bar, is used to prise apart the frames before pulling them out of the hive, as these tend to get glued into place with stray wax and resin. A traditional smoker, which looks like a large metal spray-gun, contains slow burning fuel that produces thick, cool smoke, which is puffed into the hive before opening. The smoke causes the bees to feed rapidly and become calmer and much more docile. There are also some liquid smoke sprays available, for use with plastic hives.

In bad weather, or when a colony is establishing, the bees will need feeding. For this, you will need a sugar-syrup feeder which are available in various forms. As you get more experienced in your bee-keeping, you may also want more advanced equipment such as a queen cage and marker.

Annual care

The bee-keeping year starts in early spring, when the bees start to emerge with the warmer temperatures. You’ll need to start inspecting the colony and fit the first supers for the bees to store the early honey in. The hive floor should be cleaned or changed, and monitoring for the Varroa mite begins.

Hive inspections and adding of supers should be continued weekly throughout the summer to make sure the bees have enough space so they won’t start to swarm. In hot weather you may need to provide a water source such as a large shallow tray of water with some pebbles in it so the bees won’t fall in and drown.

In autumn, the bees may need feeding to build up their supplies for the winter, particularly if the weather is poor. The hives will need entrance guards fitted to stop wasps raiding and stealing the honey and to prevent mice moving in.

Winter is the least busy time, as the bees are mostly dormant apart from making brief flights on warmer days. You’ll need to make sure the hives aren’t damaged in bad weather, and keep the entrance way clear of fallen leaves or snow. If there’s mild weather in late winter and the bees start to emerge early, they may need some sugar-syrup feed provided.

Harvest time

Honey can be collected whenever an individual frame or super of frames is full. This varies depending on the nectar flows, i.e. what’s in flower when in your area, but the main honey harvests are usually in June and August. A typical yield from one hive is 10-12kg. There will be more honey than this in the hive, but it’s important to leave enough to supply the bees’ food over the winter.

Once you’ve removed the honey-filled frames or comb, it’s time for the sticky job of extracting the honey! Larger quantities can be removed in a hand-turned, centrifugal honey extractor, but for small amounts the comb can simply be broken up and strained overnight through a fine mesh sieve. The honey is then sealed into clean, sterile jars.

The wax from the comb, along with any brood comb, can be purified by melting it within a mesh bag in a pan of gently boiling water. The clean wax comes out through the mesh and sets into a disc on top of the pan, while any detritus remains in the bag. The cooled wax can then be further processed into items such as candles, polishes or cosmetics.

Join the club

More than for any other livestock, it’s important to join your local beekeepers’ association, where you will find more experienced beekeepers to provide help and support. Many local associations also run beekeeping courses, usually in the early part of the year so you will know what you’re doing in time to get your own bees in the summer. If you want to get to know bees a bit more before starting keeping your own, you may find other beekeepers will be happy to site some of their hives on your smallholding in exchange for a proportion of the honey. To find your nearest association, visit the British Beekeepers’ Association website