Beekeeping is a long-established art and science to which many books, journals, websites and much else have been devoted. A short article can only supply a few of the basics in terms of guidance, with “starting” being the optimum word.
First of all, why do you want to keep bees? Are you primarily interested in making honey, or are you more interested in supplying insects that will pollinate your garden crops and those of your neighbours? You can of course do both at the same time, but your decisions might be influenced by local circumstances, such as the predominance of certain crops in the locality which could add a strange flavour to your honey!
Think carefully about the practicality of keeping one or more beehives on your property. If your neighbourhood consists of acres of concrete with not a plant in sight, or even well-manicured lawns with few trees or flowers, your bees are unlikely to thrive with no nectar to collect.
Think also about the wishes of your neighbours. Honey bees are more welcome guests than wasps, but some people are highly allergic to bee stings, which can even prove fatal. Is it socially acceptable to bring such a risk into the neighbourhood if there are people nearby with such an allergy? Even if such an extreme outcome is not a risk, it is a good idea to let your neighbours know what you are planning.
Before buying and stocking a hive, it is vital that you understand how a bee colony works and its life cycle. You need to know all about queens, workers and drones. You also need to know what happens to a bee colony during every month of the year, so that you can look out for problems and deal with them before they become serious. For example, colonies can die of starvation if egg production by the queen exceeds the rate of nectar production by the workers.
You need to be prepared to tackle a wide range of incidents and problems, not the least being that of swarming. This is when the colony divides and around half of it leaves to find a new home. The process of “taking” a swarm, possibly from a neighbour’s tree or roof cavity, can be daunting for the beginner, so prior knowledge of what to do is essential.
What all this boils down to, long before hives are bought and bees inserted, is that preparation and learning are vital. There is no better teacher than an experienced beekeeper, so finding your local enthusiasts is a good idea. They will doubtless be very pleased to pass on their knowledge to a beginner and offer all sorts of tips and advice.
Along with preparation goes planning. How many hives are you going to have, and where are you going to put them? A good plan, for example, is to always have a spare hive to hand in which a swarm can be housed. There are various types of hive on the market, such as the “WBC”, the “National”, “Smith” and the “Langstroth”. You need to learn the in and outs of the options available to you.
As for siting your hives, considerations will include closeness to people, so as to avoiding accidental stinging, and prevention of flooding, e.g. from overhanging trees, because bees like to be dry and warm. If the hive entrance is close to a high wall, the bees will have to fly above head height, thus preventing too many collisions with people!
Intending beekeepers need to acquire suitable clothing, including a “bee suit”, wellington boots, gloves, hat and veil. The obvious purpose of these is to prevent bees getting to your skin and stinging you.
Other equipment to buy includes a smoker, which puffs smoke into a hive to subdue the bees before you inspect the frames. You also need a tool to prise the hive open and loosen the frames, which will soon get glued together when the bees are active. Of course, you will also need to be prepared to collect and store your honey!
Last but not least, the new beekeeper needs bees! These can be bought from a reputable supplier, or a swarm without a home to go to can be acquired, although this will mean a one-year wait before any surplus honey can be taken.
As mentioned earlier, this is only a surface skim over the business of beekeeping, with many important topics not even touched upon. However, people who are interested in taking up this fascinating activity are unlikely to regret it, although the occasional sting is inevitable!
Bee populations have been in decline in many parts of the world in recent years, which is a serious matter as the effect on pollination of food crops cannot be ignored. The decline in the United States, for example has been estimated as being as high as 30% in a single year. The causes of this decline are not known for certain, although the use of cell phones (mobile phones) has been cited as a possible contributing factor (see http://bit.ly/9M859h ). Anything that amateur beekeepers can do to arrest this trend is therefore to be welcomed, in any part of the world.
One source of further information is the British Beekeepers’ Association (website: http://www.britishbee.org.uk/ ). They produce their own publications, and can put enquirers in touch with local beekeeping associations.