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So you want to keep bees?
7:20am Monday 24th October 2011 in Bees
Top tips and pitfall avoidance techniques from average beekeeper Sanna Sergeant.
Bees are both a pain, sometimes literally, as well as a passion in our household. If you’ve idly considered keeping bees, be aware that caring for these fascinating insects takes time, energy and commitment. I am a pretty average beekeeper: I regularly check my hives, ensuring they’re ‘queen-right’ ie that the queen is present, laying, and there are no problems.
I treat for the dreaded varroa, and check for signs of other disease. I know how to make increase and unite hives, and who to turn to if I have a problem. My apiary is registered with BeeBase, (that monitors bee health and disease in the UK. With varroa endemic throughout the UK, unexplained colony disappearances, and the threat of exotic pests, one can no longer expect to leave bees to their own devices, and cream-off the honey at the end of the summer: Nowadays, if you’re planning to keep bees, you’ve got to be ‘average’ or better!
As a keen gardener, the best thing I ever did (once I had decided to keep bees), was to contact a beekeeper from my most local beekeeping association.
Fortunately, lots of beekeepers when they start-out are ‘know-nothing gardeners’ who want to do the joined-up thing in terms of pollination to increase yields in orchards, soft fruit areas, or vegetable plots, so despite my complete lack of knowledge, my whole family was welcomed with open arms, and invited along to the association’s social events to meet other local beekeepers, make friends, take-in some good advice, and above all, suit-up and see some bees.
I was introduced to my nearest beekeeper, loaned a couple of books, (many associations have a small library of helpful books), and offered huge amounts of practical help and advice, including a visit by an experienced beekeeper to help me decide where to site my apiary. As with any other form of husbandry, it is best to approach beekeeping from a position of knowledge, and all associations offer either courses, or a buddy-buddy relationship with an experienced beekeeper.
Top beekeeping tips Borrow a suit and go and see some bees for yourself before you do anything else: I have known people who are certain they want to keep bees right up to the point that they experience a hive being opened.
n Do your homework: Shadow a local beekeeper, read a recommended book, watch DVD’s and certainly do a course: Most associations offer a six to eight week course which encompasses aspects of both theory and practice.
Contact your local association before you spend any money. Associations usually offer a discount on a first nuc (nucleus, or small colony of bees, comprising a queen, workers, and usually four to five frames of eggs, unsealed and sealed brood). They may have good second-hand equipment for sale, and can advise you on the most helpful books to read, the availability of local courses, events in the area etc. This can both save you money and prevent an accumulation of (useless) equipment: Many associations hire out large items such as extractors.
Ask someone to come and assess your proposed apiary site: Ideally, it should be south-facing, sheltered, on flat ground, with good access, away from public footpaths and in an undisturbed area of your property.
It should be fenced to prevent children or animals from disturbing the bees or coming to harm. My pigs once knocked-over a hive, not an experience I would wish to re-live.
If you ask for advice, do listen to the answer: I eventually had to re-site my apiary, because I ‘knew better’.
Try to get bees as locally as possible as they will be best acclimatised to your site, and you minimise the risk of spreading disease.
Start with a nucleus of bees rather than a full hive. Not only will you stand a chance of spotting the queen, but you will be more confident examining less bees rather than more, at first.
Decide whether you have the time for this.Over the winter there may be little to do, but during the season, colonies have to be opened-up regularly: You will not be popular if you allow poorly-managed bees to swarm, and you won’t end-up with much honey.
Make friends with your local seasonal bee inspector. Go round your hive(s) with him/her, you can learn a lot, and don’t forget to register with BeeBase. There is lots of information on the website.
Are you allergic to bees? If so you should reconsider keeping bees. If you have other serious allergies, or major health problems, you should consult your GP before going ahead.
Finally, don’t expect too much of yourself too quickly. There’s lots to learn, and you will make mistakes, but it’s great fun, and hugely worth-while.