Are you concerned about the reported decline in bee numbers? Do you have a desire to get back to nature, and collect your honey from source? Perhaps you just want to help support the development of bee colonies?
Long has beekeeping been an accepted practice, supporting the delicate eco-system of the food chain, by encouraging pollinators. The beekeeper and the hive is a symbiotic relationship, as old as time itself.
- How To Start Beekeeping
- How to start beekeeping in your backyard
- An introduction to beekeeping in the UK -
- Positioning your hive
- General tips
- Avoid falling into some of the pitfalls experienced by novice beekeepers.
- When is the best time to start a beehive?
- Costs of starting a beehive
- How To Start a Beehive Without Buying Bees
- Do bees migrate to beehives naturally?
- Which flowers do bees prefer?
- Interested in starting beekeeping?
- Open the comments form below and share your thoughts
The most obvious reason, of course, is that keeping bees produces honey. Store-bought honey often goes through a series of processes to ready it for jarring and distributing. Honey taken directly from the hive is the freshest you can get - natural honey from the hive tastes better.
Local honey is potentially more than a tasty topping for your toast, or some sticky sweetness for your stir-fry. Some believe that eating local honey can reduce the symptoms of hayfever. There’s little in the way of evidence to support this claim; but if it works, it works.
However, there is evidence supporting the idea that propolis - the waxy “glue” that the bees produce to create the hive structure - has medicinal properties, inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. It also helps to treat burns, dental cavities, warts, and more.
The bees’ wax is a valuable, natural treasure. It can be used to make candles and lip gloss, and as an ingredient in a wide variety of household and cosmetic products.
Bees are pollinators, so they support your garden’s flower-factory. An abundance of bees helps to supply a spread of beautiful blooms - they pollinate your fruit bushes and trees and help support the life-cycle of your garden plants.
Beekeeping is something that anyone with a little know-how can do. If you have the time to keep bees, and a caring approach, then beekeeping could be a great hobby.
Dependent upon the number of hives you wish to develop and maintain, most areas don’t require that you obtain a permit. You should check with your local council - there may be regulations that could stock a surprising sting in the tail if you set up without following the correct procedures.
Bees can be happy anywhere, as long as there are plenty of flowering shrubs, trees, or plants nearby. Both hot areas and cool spots are suitable. Continuously wet environments can promote mold within the hive, so need to be avoided. Wet bees aren’t happy bees.
Bees are very resilient and can thrive in most environments - cities, towns and the countryside.
The ideal location for your beehive is -
- Easily accessed
- Close to a water source
- In dappled sunlight
- Sheltered from wind
If you place your hive in a south-easterly direction, your bees will receive the first-morning sun; this will encourage them to rise early and get a head-start on their foraging.
A honey yield can be substantial, so you don’t want to be lugging kilos of honey up or down a hill, or down a fire escape.
Try to find a spot with a natural windbreak (or create one with a strategically placed shrub or tree). Harsh, winter winds can stress your colony; so keep them shielded.
Full- or direct sun can cause the hive to overheat. A hot hive forces the bees to focus their energy on cooling down the hive, rather than producing honey. Deep or dark shade, on the other hand, can cause internal hive dampness and your bees will be listless.
Your hive requires adequate ventilation, so choose an area of your land with good air-flow. The top of a hill is not recommended, as the hive will be exposed to the winter elements, with limited protection.
Your hive should be precisely level from side-to-side, with the front of the construction slightly lower (by around an inch) than the posterior. This will help drainage if any rainwater gets in.
The hive should be located on firm, dry land.
Decide on your spot before you receive your beekeeping kit!
Rooftops can be perfect, but -
- Consider how you enter/exit. A fire escape, rooftop hatch, or ladder can be dangerous when you’re holding heavy honey yields.
- Don’t place your hive too close to the edge of a rooftop. If a bee decides to explore your trouser leg, your sudden reaction might have unfortunate results.
- Secure the hive using crank-straps. Roofs are likely to be windy.
Bee activity is dictated by the season, so understanding bee behavior is essential when deciding when to start your colony.
Winter is not a good time! Worker bees form a tight cluster around the queen during cold weather. The workers force the drones out of the hive, and they need to feed on existing food reserves.
Winter presents a natural fast for bees - their natural reserve of food will usually run out before the beginning of spring. Once you've established your hive, you’ll need to provide an emergency supply of sugar syrup to keep them going until Spring.
Spring is the best time to set-up your beehive. Once the weather has started warming up, the queen produces eggs.
Make sure that nearby flowers have broken into bloom before housing your bee nucleus. Starting in early Spring provides the bees with the time to gather as much nectar as they can. The hive should be established by the autumn.
Don’t let enthusiasm get the better of you - installing your bees before the weather has warmed up will not benefit the hive.
There are several beehive designs. The Langstroth hive is expandable, has standard measurements, and is widely available. In the UK, the Langstroth is the most recognisable hive.
It’s entirely possible to build your own Langstroth hive if you have reasonable carpentry skills.
This video provides a step-by-step guide for building a Langstroth hive.
Langstroth hives are divided into separate boxes (or “supers”) which house the bees and the frames. Many consider the supers to be cumbersome - they become very heavy and can potentially harm your bees as you reconnect the supers after inspecting the colony.
The Top Bar Hive (TBH) is easier to build, as there are no removable supers - it’s a long, narrow box, with several single bars that the bees attach the comb to. Langstroth hives use square frames (often with foundations) - the TBH is considered by many to be the more natural method of beekeeping.
The National Hive is similar in build to the Langstroth hive and is widely available to buy pre-built.
To start beekeeping, you’ll need some essential pieces of equipment -
- Bee suit and veil
- Suitable boots
- A Smoker
- A hive tool
A full bee suit provides total protection for the body and head, although some beekeepers just use a jacket and a veil. Durable boots are recommended - Wellingtons are fine.
Gloves can get sticky from the propolis produced in the hive and can cross-infect colonies if disease is present. Thin, disposable gloves are recommended. Leather gloves have gone out of favor because they can retain bee strings which will irritate the bees.
All clothing needs to overlap to prevent bees from entering. Bees walk upwards, so overlapping clothes will prevent them from entering your clothing.
The smoker keeps bees away from the part of the hive you are focusing on; producing cool smoke which prevents harm to the bees. The smoke triggers the bees’ natural instinct to return to their honey stores where they can feed.
The hive tool helps separate the supers and frees up the frames before removing them. Bees naturally seal small gaps in the hive with propolis, so this needs to be gently removed to access the frame containing the comb.
A complete self-assembly set for a National Hive costs around £150. Hives can be purchased fully assembled but will set you back considerably more.
A nucleus of bees (on five frames) will cost around £100. Check with your local bee association.
The bee suit, including the veil, costs between £60 and £100. The smoker costs around £20-£40.
Bee suit and veil
Nucleus of bees
Latex gloves (per hundred)
All of this equipment could be obtained cheaper if you look for second-hand gear. However, hive parts can contain disease, so it’s recommended to buy only from reputable sources.
If you create a pleasantly-smelling, hospitable hive, then bees may very well adopt you.
You can attract bees to your brand new hive by rubbing the inside of the hive with pure beeswax impregnated with a few drops of citronella or lemongrass oil.
Spring to early summer
Often referred to as the Pale Purple Coneflower, this beautiful plant is in bloom for up to three weeks, providing plenty of nectar for your bee colony. They also attract butterflies.
Common yarrow flowers profusely; and bees can’t get enough of them. The flowers grow in bunches of tiny daisy-like flowers and provide great colour in the garden. There are multiple varieties - bees particularly love “Strawberry Seduction” which has rich, red blooms, and “Wonderful Wampee” which bursts with lovely pink flowers that fade to white as the season develops.
Sunflowers sit at the top of the menu for bees. Their huge blooms provide plenty of nectar for busy bees, who pollinate the plants which produce oil-rich seeds that are enjoyed by the birds and humans alike later on in the season.
Blue Giant Hyssop
This attractive plant blooms in purple spires that get covered by bees throughout the summer. It’s a member of the mint family, making it particularly tough and hardy.
The long-blooming Horsemint is a particular favourite of the discerning honey bee. And with tons of pink and white blooms, this is sure to cheer up any garden.
Honey bees absolutely love these prolific yellow-petalled blooms, with a black centre. Nothing says “it’s Summer” like a bed full of Black-eyed Susans.
Late Summer and Autumn
Bees go bonkers for the pretty pink, blue and purple flowers of autumnal Asters. There are lots of varieties - bees love them all without prejudice.
The big, fuzzy heads of the Joe-Pye Weed are full of nectar and pollen and will make your colony very happy indeed.
Goldenrods are so attractive to bees that you could be forgiven for believing that the plant itself produces a buzzing sound. Goldenrod honey is a delicacy - recognisable by its dark colour.
Beekeeping is hugely rewarding. It provides the opportunity to help combat falling colony numbers and support the natural eco-system and returns your love and attention with an abundance of delicious honey.
Setting up need not be costly, and an average beehive will last for at least 20 years if cared for and maintained.
Each locality presents specific challenges, so making friends at your local beekeeping association will help you gain information regarding best practices for your area, and the types of flora that will best attract your buzzing friends to produce the most abundant yields.