Bee keeping is a fascinating and rewarding retirement hobby. Although there is an initial money outlay when you buy the necessary equipment to get started, you can easily make it back by selling surplus honey and other bee related products. Even in the summer bee keeping need only take up a couple of hours each week.
Most of the honey consumed in the UK has to be imported, and there is always a ready market for home produced honey. And on top of all that you will be helping the environment because bees are important pollinating insects.
So if you are retired or thinking about retiring it’s worth thinking about bee keeping as a retirement hobby. Whether you are an amateur or expert, there’s always something more to learn.
How to get started
To find out if bee keeping is really for you, you can obtain a huge amount of information from the British Beekeepers Association website. This will also help you with the contact details for your nearest affiliated branch. There are dozens of branches across the UK, both at district and county level, and membership is very cheap. Included in the annual subscription is basic insurance cover and subscription to the monthly magazine. The vast majority of the members will be amateurs like you.
Most branches run starter evening courses for beginners in the autumn or early in the New Year. These last anything between 6 to 8 weeks, one evening each week, and are followed up with practical sessions at an association apiary when beginners can get experience of handling live bee colonies.
The National Bee Unit is part of a government agency and provides national support, assistance and advice. The NBU also runs the Beebase website. Registered members are invited to provide details of where their hives are located. This enables Beebase to monitor the bee population and notify bee keepers by email about any relevant news or events in their area. That’s all free of charge.
Above all, your local BBKA branch will provide all the support you need to get you started. Bee keepers are a sociable and generous bunch and are always ready to share their knowledge and experience. Our own district branch runs a website and facebook page, and will shortly be setting up a Whatsap group to support beginners.
Equipment and clothing
Once you have had a bit of experience of bee keeping in the association apiary, you can start thinking about getting a hive and some bees of your own.
The cheapest option for buying a new hive is the package offered by Thornes’ Bees on a budget. This includes a brood box and two supers and a floor and roof, and comes with all necessary frames and wax foundation and other bits and pieces. Most hives are supplied as a flat pack kit but construction is very simple and there are plenty of YouTube videos to show you how. Thornes’ themselves have published a whole series of videos.
You will also need to buy a protective bee suit. There are dozens of suppliers, many advertising on ebay and Amazon, or you can go to any of the online sellers. You may be lucky enough to live near a bee keepers’ shop, although these can work out more expensive.
When you start you would probably prefer to have a complete beekeeper’s suit. This is like a full overall with elasticated ankles and wrists, and a veil or mesh helmet attached by zippers. These give complete protection but can be a bit cumbersome and hot to wear. When you get more confident with experience you may prefer a smock and veil, which only covers you from the waist up.
You still need to wear long trousers or jeans to protect your legs. Some hardy and brave experts do not bother with protection and even wear shorts. This is not recommended for beginners – bees tend to crawl upwards and into darker corners, so wearing shorts can lead to undesirable outcomes!
When you start bee keeping you should always wear gloves. You can still buy traditional leather gauntlets, but most people find these too clumsy and they can make your hands very hot. I much prefer rubber household cleaning gloves such as Marigolds. These are very much cheaper and give more than adequate protection from stings. It’s also easier to manipulate hive tools with rubber gloves.
Some people wear thin latex gloves, but be warned – they don’t always give complete protection from stings.
Where to keep your bees
You need to think carefully about where to keep your bees. Bees are not aggressive by nature and are very tolerant of us humans. However you should bear in mind:
The neighbours. If you have a large garden, you might well be able to find a corner well away from your neighbours’ houses so they won’t have any cause for complaint. Most people will share your opinion that bees are “a good thing”, but if your neighbours don’t know very much about bee keeping they might get a bit nervous about being stung. Worth chatting with the neighbours first before setting up a hive in your garden. Also bear in mind that you might want to add more hives at a later time.
Passers by. Bees normally fly well over 2 metres above the ground so passers by would probably not even be aware of your bees. If you choose a spot which is very close to a footpath you can always put up some screening, which will encourage the bees to get up and out of the way quickly. Unfortunately there have also been cases of wanton vandalism to hives and even theft, so proper fencing is advisable.
Other options. Local authorities and institutions are keen to show they are environmentally aware and may have small plots of land tucked away out of sight. These are ideal as often they are surrounded by uncultivated ground colonised by nectar rich wild flower plants. Your local association may be able to point you in the right direction. Bees are very tolerant of noise and activity provided it is not too close to the hive. One of our local association apiaries is located right next to a busy dual carriageway, and hives have even been set up on commercial aerodromes – they don’t seem to mind in the slightest.
Large companies are often sited in parkland, and may be quite willing to accommodate your bees. They might even be prepared to sponsor you! And don’t forget country hotels or National Trust properties with large gardens – they are sure to want to offer their customers home-produced honey. The traditional annual “fee” for providing a home for your bees is one jar of honey per hive.
Other considerations. Your hives are best located in a sheltered spot, preferably where they can catch the early morning sunshine to get the bees out foraging as early as possible. Your bees will need a source of water. This doesn’t have to be pure water; indeed bees seem to prefer muddy or stagnant water perhaps because they benefit from a higher mineral content.
Also you should have reasonable access by car. Carrying heavy supers of honey a long distance is no joke, particularly if you have to walk across rough ground.
Getting your first bees
So now you are set to start beekeeping, all you need are some bees.
First a brief word about the bee year. Bees do not hibernate in the winter, but cluster together within the hive to maintain their body temperature. In the spring the queen starts to lay eggs as soon as the temperature outside starts to warm up and nectar and pollen becomes available for the bees to forage.
During the early part of the year the colony increases in size enormously. Then after about the beginning of July numbers decline as bees die off naturally faster than replacements hatch out. So the best time to start your first colony is in the early spring.
You can buy bees as a complete colony, which will include a full compliment of worker bees and drones, and of course the queen. The colony will also have a large number of eggs and larvae in the brood frames, and sufficient stores in the form of honey and pollen to get them off to a flying start.
Or you can buy a nucleus, which is the same as a colony but a third to half the size. You will have to build the nucleus up as quickly as possible, but if you buy early enough you may still be able to harvest some honey in the first year.
The third option is a swarm. Swarms become available between April and June when the bees in a hive run out of space to enlarge the colony. The queen and most of the flying bees leave the old colony to find somewhere else to build a new nest. They usually cluster nearby, and someone phones the local association to have them removed. So another of the benefits of joining the local association is that you may be able to obtain a swarm cluster free of charge.
A swarm will only contain a proportion of the flying bees from the old colony and the original queen. So once the swarm is settled in its new home (your hive) the workers have to build comb and collect pollen and nectar so the queen can start laying eggs. If they are unable to collect sufficient stores the new colony will not be able to survive the winter.
May and early June swarms will probably have enough time to develop sufficiently to survive the following winter. For July swarms the timing is probably too late, although the bees can still be used to strengthen another colony.
Thee’s an old proverb from the 17th century: “a swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June a siver spoon, but a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly”!
So a swarm can come free of charge (although you might have to collect it yourself), full colonies typically cost £250, and a nucleus half that amount.
Most experts recommend that you try to obtain your bees from a source as close as possible to where you propose to keep them. The reason for this is that they will be acclimatised to your local environment. Also bear in mind that the shorter their journey the less stressed they will be when they set up home in your apiary.
So that’s all you need to know to get you started. Most associations can even help you with a mentor, who can provide you with practical guidance in the early days. Bees are wild animals and for most of the time are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. So once we have provided them with a safe place to live, all we need to do is make sure they stay healthy and have sufficient supplies to get them through lean times. The bees will take care of the rest.
And don’t forget to get the other family members involved. Young children will share your enthusiasm and will be keen to help out.