Beekeeping (or apiculture) is the maintenance of honey bee colonies, commonly in man-made hives, by humans. A beekeeper (or apiarist) keeps bees in order to collect their honey and other products that the hive produces (including beeswax, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly), to pollinate crops, or to produce bees for sale to other beekeepers. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary or “bee yard.”
Beekeeping is becoming an increasingly popular pastime. The health (and taste) benefits of natural honey, the relaxing qualities of caring for your swarm, and the opportunity to undertake this activity in the wonderful outdoors act as a draw for many budding gardeners and country folk.
A bit about bees…
A colony of bees contains a single queen, a few hundred male bees or drones and up to 50,000 female worker bees, which are the common honeybees you see in your garden.
The queen is larger than a worker and can live up to three years. She will lay more than half a million eggs. Shortly after hatching, she makes a maiden flight, mates with six or seven drones (who will subsequently die), and returns to the hive where all her needs are met by worker bees.
What sort of hive should I buy?
Most beginners start with the National, a square brown box that is easy to use, but you could opt for a traditional, white, double skinned (ie a box within a box) WBC hive (named after William Broughton Carr),
There are two main systems that are used in beekeeping. One is called the Langstroth hive, and it’s composed of boxes that are stacked on top of each other, each containing frames where the bees build their comb and store honey. You pull the boxes out like drawers to access the bees, harvest honey, and perform maintenance tasks. You can add boxes vertically if your hive needs more space.
The other is a top-bar hive, where the bees’ frames are arranged horizontally, not vertically. The bees make comb without foundation in this system. Each bar, containing comb and honey, is pulled up out of the hive from the top.
You’ll need to choose which system is right for your needs
What beekeeping equipment will I need?
When it comes to clothing, go for a maximum protection to avoid stings. An all-in-one suit with veil, together with a good pair of gloves and stout wellies will cost less and and feeding supplies.
How to look after bees?
Month by month, season by season, bees need ongoing care. But they don’t require a huge time investment. It’s important that you check on them somewhat frequently, but observation is a good percentage of what you’ll do to keep your bees happy. Just watching hive activity can be relaxing and informative. You can organize beekeeping tasks by the season, from setting the bees up in spring to harvesting honey, to preparing the hive for winter.
You can go away without worrying as bees can survive without human input. When the weather warms up, open your hives for a thorough inspection; check if your queen is laying eggs, make sure there are still enough honey stores and give the hive a good clean, scraping away winter debris, removing dead bees and cobwebs and replacing old broken frames.
Until about July the colony will be growing rapidly and can reach up to 50,000 so you’ll need to check weekly to ensure there is room for egg-laying and honey storing, otherwise the bees may swarm. This is when the queen, sensing that space is running out, leaves the hive with half the worker bees to form another colony. Though the bees left behind will survive (they will sense they are queen-less and feed one of the larvae with Royal Jelly to create a new one), you will have lost half your workforce and your honey will be reduced.