I’d like to keep bees but...

Intrigued by the idea of a hive of your own? Tamsin Harris has kept bees professionally for 23 years at her farm in Cornwall and takes a realistic look at the pros and cons.

The idea of warm, golden honey dripping thickly onto hot toasted muffins, slathered in proper butter, appeals to us all and the best way to ensure that it’s the most delicious honey ever is to have your own hive of honey bees.

Imagine, if you will, the feel of the sun on your face, goldfinches and blackbirds singing their hearts out and the busy background hum of honeybees - your bees - pollinating the early emerging flowers on the gooseberries in your veg garden.

As a hobby, keeping bees is utterly absorbing. From first taking delivery of the timber hive and smelling the warm cedar and wax scenting your shed, to the sight of full, heavy frames of honeycomb waiting to be extracted at the end of the summer, beekeeping will continually offer new experiences.

Your friends will marvel at your bravery (and look forward to their first share of your harvest), weather patterns and predictions will be observed avidly and planting your garden will drift to a more pollinator-friendly theme. 

Joining your local beekeeping association will result in new friendships – beekeepers are very good at sharing information over a cuppa - and you’ll be floored by how many books and periodicals have been published on the subject. Once the harvest is safely gathered in and the active season is over, then come the honey shows - great fun and surprisingly competitive.

Most of all, you’ll find observing and discovering the complex inner world of these amazing creatures endlessly fascinating Beekeepers do need to be committed however – bad beekeeping can do more harm than good. So the best investment you can make is in education. Contact your local beekeeping association, attend a few meetings and chat to members, they are always eager to pass on good advice and helpful tips. Read a couple of reputable beginners’ books on practical beekeeping - and do it out of love and interest rather than the possibility of making a fortune selling honey.

After all these years I’m still finding out fascinating new things about my bees. I can’t imagine not having hives of these amazing creatures around my place. They are a source of continual learning, challenge and sheer joy.

…I haven’t got time

On average, one or two hives will take up a couple of hours a week of your time. Obviously during the winter this will be a lot less, but during the active season, if you’re organised and have the appropriate kit ready, two hours should be the maximum length of time for hive inspections. Honey bee colonies do need to be inspected every seven days from April through to the beginning of July. After that the inspections are fewer, although it is still necessary to keep an eye on bee health and food stores

…I don’t have a big enough garden

Contact the secretary of your local beekeeping association and ask if anyone has offered to have some hives on their land. Quite often, householders are willing to allow a beekeeper on their land - especially when they learn that rent is traditionally paid in honey!

…Will the bees sting my pet?

This question is dependent on how curious your pets are. I have cats and chickens who like to follow me about. The cats often will sit on a warm hive roof and the chickens will scratch around underneath the hives - but none of them hang around when I arrive to open them up. If the bees are defensive or just get caught in fur or feathers, then the buzzing of a trapped bee that they can’t dislodge can really upset animals. If the sting actually penetrates the skin, then the animal can suffer the same as a human would. Dogs do have a tendency to snap at bees and try to eat them. Definitely not advisable but they learn quickly!

But it’s easy to keep pets away when the hive is being inspected, especially as you need to concentrate on the job in hand rather than worry about Fido.

…I’ll get stung, won’t I?

Probably! It’s a hazard of the occupation. If you were a carpenter you’d inevitably hit your thumb with a hammer! There are a number of factors that may be involved here; the temperament of the strain of bees and how gently you handle them. External factors such as weather or vibration from mowers, too, can all affect how the bees react. But good-quality protective clothing, gentle handling and selecting the appropriate site usually creates a pleasant relationship between you and your bees. Yes, it is painful when you get stung. I’m fortunate that after the initial ‘ouch!’ the pain diminishes in a couple of minutes, leaving a small localised redness. Others react very differently, severe swelling, itching and pain for some time after the sting. These are normal reactions however and it’s very rare to have an anaphylactic reaction.

A major difference between anaphylaxis and normal allergic reactions is that anaphylaxis affects other parts of the body, causing symptoms such as dizziness, cramps and swelling airways. Estimates vary but it’s thought only around 3.3% of the population will suffer this dangerous reaction. If you end up with a very bad-tempered colony of bees, though, get help from an experienced beekeeper to rectify the situation before it gets out of hand and puts you off handling your hive. There is a school of thought, however, that bee venom reduces the symptoms of certain forms of arthritis as the venom contains compounds with anti-inflammatory effects.

…I’ll never be able to go on holiday

Beekeeping can be like having children, where family holidays are limited to the school timetable. The high season months of late April, May and June are indeed very busy for beekeepers as this is the time of year when colonies may try to swarm, need extra space and new wax foundation to work. A colony should ideally be inspected for all the above (amongst other things) every seven days if you are to avoid the potential loss of your foraging force. This is where your mentor, course colleagues or what’s called a ‘bee buddy’ from your local association can often step in. These are experienced beekeepers who will take over one or more weekly inspections for you. The rest of the year isn’t quite so critical but even over the winter months there is some work to do.

…Aren’t cities too crowded?

Looking at the available forage within a couple of miles of your hive will help you get a picture of whether the area is too crowded with bees for your colony to thrive. Both trees and shrubs should be considered as sources of early nectar as well as planting in parks and gardens. Good, varied diet rich in protein-packed pollen and plenty of nectar is what your colony needs, so ask yourself if this is available, or contact the local beekeeping association for their views. (This is a pertinent question wherever you site your bees.)

City/urban beekeeping has the advantage of an average year-round warmer temperature than more exposed rural areas. This will benefit the bees as the growing season is extended. Conversely, there is the question of how much pollution is found on and in the plants that the bees are foraging on and whether this finds its way into the honey crop. Are the planting schemes in parks mass-produced, chemically-treated blooms?

One thing that is vital to do once you obtain your bees, wherever you site them, is to register them on BeeBase. This is the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) National Bee Unit website. It is designed for beekeepers and supports Defra, Welsh Government and Scotland’s Bee Health Programmes. BeeBase supports the aims of Healthy Bees Plan 2030, which focus on protecting and sustaining our valuable national bee stocks. By registering with them, you will have the support of Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors who will be able to notify you should there be any issues with disease outbreak in your area, or come and assess your colony should you have concerns about disease in your hives.

…I’m afraid of bees

Book yourself onto a beekeeping taster day, your local association will no doubt run one or two throughout the season. That way you can experience the buzz of an open hive and see if it’s for you.

…What are my start up costs?

As I mentioned, the best investment you can make in beekeeping is in educating yourself. So search online for your local beekeeping association and sign up to a comprehensive course at the outset, Without knowing about basic bee biology and health you could very quickly lose your new friends. Taster sessions vary from £25 to £100. Comprehensive courses that cover theory and weekly apiary meetings, up to taking your basic assessment can be in the region of £250. Apiary days may be covered by the cost of joining your local beekeeping association (£25-£50). Honey extractors can sometimes be loaned out by your association, too. Good quality protective clothing is essential.

A premium B J Sherriff suit is around £240.00 and will give extremely good service for many years. £90 will buy a suit that isn’t very robust. The hive, tools, extraction equipment, and jars can seem expensive but some bee equipment suppliers do complete starter kits for a little over £200. Your colony of bees can be purchased from a local beekeeper, your local association or from a variety of companies who specialise in supplying honey bees as nucleus (‘nuc’) colonies. It can seem as though you are keeping expensive pets! But with good help and advice your hobby can easily progress to the stage where it is funding itself within a couple of years.