2nd Honeybee Management revision post: how to begin beekeeping

This is a 2nd revision post for the British Beekeeping Association’s Module 1 exam, Honey bee Management, which I’m taking in March.

I’m skipping forward a bit on the syllabus, onto:

“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-

1.6: how to begin beekeeping, including the acquisition of bees, sources and type of personal and other equipment, the approximate costs of equipment and bees and any precautions necessary

This seems easy now, but wasn’t to start with. How to begin? Let’s break 1.6 down a bit.

How to begin

It’s a good idea to find out if beekeeping is really for you before going ahead and spending several hundred pounds on equipment and a few thousand little faces peering expectantly up at you. Some ways to gather information first:

  • Join or at least start visiting a local beekeeping association (in my case the Ealing and District Beekeepers Association, where I keep my bees). Depending on the weather, they should be able to show you inside a few hives.
  • Take a basic beekeeping course, which many associations run annually
  • Read some beekeeping books for beginners, for example Bees at the bottom of the garden (2001) by Alan Campion, which was the first beekeeping book I purchased as part of the Ealing basic course. I now have around 20 books…Keeping bees and making honey (2008) by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum is another good one for beginners, lots of photos. Both of these are UK oriented. Beekeeping techniques vary greatly depending on your climate, so buy a book focused towards your local area.
  • Read the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) About Beekeeping leaflet by Roger Patterson

The acquisition of bees

Once you’ve got to know the local beekeepers, taken an introductory course, opened up a few hives and drunk a lot of tea, you should feel ready to take the first step of getting your own bees. I cheated here – a nice lady called Ann Fox very kindly gave me mine. Most people will need to either buy their bees, as a nucleus or full colony, or wait for a swarm.

– Buying a nucleus or full colony

Most books recommend starting in spring with a nucleus, which is a manageable size for a beginner and you can then watch them expand as the year goes on. A nucleus is a mini hive, containing 4-5 frames of bees and a laying Queen, with healthy, disease-free brood and stores. Keeping the bees in a nuc helps keep them warm during nippy British springs, as it is a smaller space to heat. Once your colony grows and fills all the available space you’ll want to move them into a full size hive. So starting with a nucleus does mean quickly needing to buy more equipment, but then spare equipment is always handy. Below is a pic of our nucleus in May 2011, following an artificial swarm to split one hive into two.

Below are our bees travelling up from the nuc into their new full sized home (we’d already shaken most of them in).

The last of the nuc bees slowly proceeding into their new home

Be careful where you buy your bees from. It is easiest to buy your bees from a local beekeeper who you know and trust and can easily talk to if you have any problems. This way the bees will also be suited to your local climate.

Of course this is not always possible, in which case you need to go to a commercial supplier. The British Beekeeping Association forums have had posts by beginner beekeepers who have been unlucky enough to buy bees from dodgy suppliers – for example, ‘New hive no queen‘. Sometimes suppliers will throw together an imported queen with unrelated bees, which can lead to the queen being rejected and killed by the workers during the stress of transportation. The BBKA has produced Nucleus guidelines which beginners should read before buying. Any substandard nucs should be photographed on arrival and the supplier informed immediately.

– Waiting for a swarm

The patient beginner beekeeper can get a hive ready and wait for a swarm. Beekeeping associations often keep a list of people looking out for one. In the UK they’re likely to turn up between May to August. The main advantage is obviously that they’re free! A potential disadvantage is that they may be bad tempered or carry disease – you take what you’re given. A swarm should be housed away from other colonies at first and monitored for any signs of disease. It helps the colony if you feed them a weak sugar solution, but wait 48 hours until wax-building and foraging are under way before feeding. This ensures that any disease contaminated honey brought in the bees’ honey stomachs is used as energy for wax secretion and not stored in the frames.

Sources and type of personal and other equipment

My previous post on the hive types and frame sizes used in the UK covered some of the hives available. It is often easiest to pick the hive most commonly used in your local area. This means you can take frames from a neighbour’s hive and put them in your own if needed, for example if your hive has become queenless and you need eggs for your bees to raise a new queen. Most beginners in the UK use a National.

A list of equipment needed:

For the hive 

  • A stand to place the hive on, to lift it 15-18 inches off the ground
  • Hive floor (preferably open mesh, so that varroa mites fall through)
  • Brood box(es)
  • Brood frames and foundation – 11 frames in a National box; awkwardly frames come in packs of 10
  • A dummy board – these make inspection easy
  • Queen excluder
  • Super box(es)
  • Super frames and foundation
  • Crown board
  • Clearing board/bee escape for harvesting
  • Roof
  • Entrance reducer for the autumn
  • Mouse guard for winter
  • Feeder

For inspecting the hive

  • Smoker – a large one stays alight longer
  • Bee suit – light-coloured
  • Gloves – these can just be rubber washing up gloves, which are easier to clean than more expensive leather ones
  • Hive tool
  • Wellies – good protection against moody bees
  • Bucket and washing soda to keep hive tool etc clean (if inspecting multiple hives)

The approximate costs of equipment and bees

Often expensive, but I’m told not as expensive as golf.

A nucleus from a commercial supplier containing the nucleus and bees can cost £130-175; less if you buy one from someone nice locally.

A flat pack National hive on its own costs around £125. A kit of an empty hive plus suit, gloves, smoker, feeder and hive tool from a big national supplier like Thornes will cost around £275-350. A fancy Omlet Beehaus costs £495, so be really sure you like bees before buying one of these. A boxed package of 10,000 workers and a laying queen can then be bought separately and placed in the hive. The disadvantage of packaged bees is that they only contain feed, not brood, so you need to wait three weeks before the colony has new young bees.

Second-hand hives sold locally or online will be cheaper, but beware of old wood containing disease or lots of holes, which wasps or other bees could get through to rob. One tiny hole in a super could lose you your entire honey harvest during the 24 hours you put your bee escape on before taking the super off, as I know from personal experience (arrrgh). Especially avoid second-hand brood frames. They may look fine, but nosema spores are invisible to the human eye.

Clever people can save money by constructing their own hives. Drawing plans for many types of hives are available online. Check that you are using plans compatible with the frame sizes or any other equipment you plan to buy.

Another way to save money is buying equipment through your local association. Because they are buying in bulk, they can get discounts from suppliers, which they can then pass on to you. Similarly a new honey extractor costs a lot of money, but associations often loan them out to members on a rota basis.

Taking all this into consideration, you can see that initial costs can vary greatly depending on how you go about things – whether you buy bees or wait for a swarm, what type of hive you choose, whether you buy it new or make it yourself. For a beginner buying everything new, in 2012 the costs could easily come to £400-£500 for your bees and equipment, and more if you buy a fancy Beehaus hive.

…and any precautions necessary

Take into account your neighbours. If your next door neighbour is highly allergic to bees, maybe you don’t want to keep bees in the bottom of your garden (even if they are really annoying). Also bear in mind local restrictions, for example not all allotment managers allow bees on allotments so check first.

Make sure you have enough spare time to look after your bees properly, especially in the summer. Your neighbours won’t appreciate your bees constantly swarming, and other beekeepers won’t be pleased if your bees are spreading disease.

Joining either the BBKA or a local association that is a member of the BBKA will provide you with public liability and bee disease insurance as well as other membership benefits like the regular magazines. As a beekeeper, you need to ensure that you are protected should you or your bees be accused of causing damage to other people or their property, whether the event relates to your apiary, collecting a swarm of honey bees or participating in a show. Bee disease insurance covers against losses of beekeeping equipment as a result of notifiable honey bee diseases.  The joining fee is small – £33 annually for the BBKA at the moment.

Beekeepers in England, Scotland and Wales can sign up to Beebase, run by the government’s National Bee Unit. You will then receive a free annual visit from a qualified bee inspector who will check your hive for any signs of disease or pests. We’re very lucky to have such a scheme and it’s well worth taking advantage of.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
This entry was posted in Colony management, Exams and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 2nd Honeybee Management revision post: how to begin beekeeping

  1. mike mack says:

    Very interesting to learn about the different styles of hives options you have overseas. Here in the states, It’s the langstroth style over 80 % of the time. There is now a top bar movement gaining lots of attention in Minnesota . Good luck with that syllabus study guide.
    Happy holidays,
    Bee peaceful ,


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Mike! Top bar beekeeping is becoming more popular here too, I know a couple of people using a top bar hive, with mixed success. One has done very well, the other lost one hive overwinter and their second hive was doing quite well until a tree fell on it.

      Happy holidays and happy bees to you too 🙂



  2. hencorner says:

    A fab post again, Emily, Thanks!
    I checked the inspection board 8 days after the Oxalic Acid trickle and found counted 250 mites in 8 days since treatment = 32 per day, does this seem about right?
    The board is out now for ventilation.
    I’ve signed up to Beebase and have a Beehaus on my Christmas list – not that Santa will fit it down the chimney!

    Have a lovely Christmas, Sara


  3. Very fascinating post. I love bees and wish I could have a hive. I did not realize how much there is to learn about them. Learning is important too since the bees need to be happy, healthy and productive. Also that there are bee ‘schools’. I thought waiting for a swarm would be a fun way to start, but you mentioning them possibly being ill-tempered would prevent me doing that ever.


    • Emily says:

      Thanks! Think I could study bees my whole life and never stop learning. I didn’t mean to put anyone off getting a swarm, I was just trying to list all the pros and cons of the different ways of getting bees. I know lots of people who’ve got very nice bees from a swarm, and if they do turn out bad tempered you can requeen.


  4. molly says:

    What a collection of productive advice. Having all this information in one place I am sure has benefited many a bee keeper, maybe even inspired some to start!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.