So you are interested in becoming a beekeeper? Good for you! You will no doubt be very excited to dive in and get started. But before you rush off to fill your garden shed with equipment and source some bees you should make sure you are properly informed and prepared, for your own sake and that of the bees.
Being a successful beekeeper and keeping healthy and happy bees requires some basic understanding of bee biology, behaviour and beekeeping methods and equipment. Don't let this intimidate you, learning and networking with other beekeepers is one of the most fun parts of the hobby, and allows you to appreciate your bees all the more once you get them.
RBKA hold meetings on the 3rd Wednesday of each month during winter. Anyone interested in finding out more about bees would be more than welcome to attend these, there is no obligation to join right away. The winter programme dates and topics for 2019-2020 can be found here.
We run a beekeeping course for beginners each spring and we strongly advise all new beekeepers to attend a course before acquiring bees and spending money on equipment.
There are many many beekeeping books you can buy, and not all books advocate the same practices. One thing to be aware of when buying books is when the book was published (is it recent enough to advise on the management of varroa, which was first discovered in 1992 in the UK). And another is where the author is from; advice from a beekeeper in Cornwall, which is generally more temperate than Yorkshire, may not be as appropriate to a northern beekeeper for example.
RBKA recommends any of the following books as a good first choice:
Bees at the Bottom of the Garden by Alan Campion and Gay Hodgson seems to be a good guide.
Teach Yourself Beekeeping by Adrian Waring
Guide to Bees and Honey by Ted Hooper
Okay, I've done my homework. Now what?
So you have read about swarms, stings, foulbrood, varroa and drone layers. You feel prepared and are still keen to get started. Good stuff!
You will need to buy some equipment before you get your bees. There are many different types of hives available and it is useful to have guidance before making purchases. The vast majority of hives in the UK are of the British Standard (BS) National type. These are the hives deemed most appropriate for use in the UK climate and we would recommend them as the best choice for new beekeepers in the UK. See this page for an overview of some of the most common beehive types available.
Acquisition of Bees
If you decide to keep bees, then you won't normally be able to get them until May/June.
In September the bees are starting to go into winter mode, and will stay closed up till the next spring. Which means that in the apiary there is not much going on, the bees will live through the winter on the honey stores collected during the past year.
Buy in late spring and choose queens raised in the year bought. This will be a young healthy queen. The hive should build up well during its first year with no risk of swarming. Hive examinations will be easier with a small colony to begin with. Local bees - adapted to local conditions - are best. RBKA can help you in sourcing healthy bees from trusted sources.
Buying from a commercial supplier (e.g. Thornes or other commercial breeders recommended by the association) is not the cheapest option but they will be certified disease free and good quality bees which will be suitable for beginners.
Buying at auction; these will have been checked by a bee inspector prior to sale - but not the easiest option for a beginner.
Buying from local beekeeper; IN THIS CASE IT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO HAVE THEM CHECKED BY THE LOCAL BEE INSPECTOR OR AN INDEPENDENT BEEKEEPER EXPERIENCED IN DISEASE DETECTION.
EFB is readily spread from one hive to another by drones (they can, and do, fly into other hives and may end up miles from home. Early (or mild) infection with EFB is difficult to spot, but can be treated and the bees saved, but if left to get established can mean the bees need to be destroyed.
The bee inspector will be happy to inspect hives. It is his job to ensure disease is not spread.
Once you have your bees
Congratulations! Now you should become a paid up member of a local association and register you hive on Beebase. Becoming a paid member of an association is important as it grants you third party and public liability insurance through the BBKA.
BeeBase is a valuable source of information and news which can be easily accessed via its RSS feed (rich site summary). This can be accessed by clicking on the NBU's BeeBase RSS button in the left hand column of the BeeBase homepage here.