My wife and I started beekeeping in 2012. We were interested in permaculture and organic gardening and had been keeping hens for a few years. Keeping bees seemed the obvious next step in creating a productive suburban garden.
At present we have two beehives in our garden. In the past we have also kept bees at our friends’ property. Beekeeping can be labour-intensive or laissez-faire, depending on the beekeeping practices that you adopt.
Here are some of my recommendations for would-be beekeepers, based on our experiences.
Read all you can about the life of bees (not just beekeeping). I highly recommend the books of Prof. Thomas Seeley. He is a bee scientist, but his books are written in a lively, approachable style. Prof. Jürgen Tautz is another excellent author. His book The Buzz about Bees contains a lot of valuable information.
Do a course. Most beekeeping clubs run regular courses, but generally you will only learn commercial-style beekeeping practices there. Permaculture groups and others may run natural beekeeping courses, which will give you a different perspective.
Think hard about your motivation to start in beekeeping. Is it your fascination with bees? Your love of honey? Your interest in self-sufficiency? Something else?
Armed with this knowledge, decide what style of beekeeping is right for you, taking your environmental values, interest in bees vs. honey, time availability and budget into account.
The main options are:
Langstroth hives. These are used by commercial beekeepers. They are readily and cheaply available. If you go down this route, you may find the practices time consuming and the additional paraphernalia (e.g. wired frames with foundation, and the big one, a centrifugal extractor, if you can’t borrow or hire one) a little expensive. Also the approach commonly used with Langstroth (supering boxes, using queen excluders, frequent hive openings, requeening, etc.) is not a particulary bee-friendly approach.
Warré hives. This is a more bee-friendly design and intended for low intervention beekeeping. They are relatively expensive to buy but generally very well made. You can also make them yourself as I have done.
Horizontal top-bar hives (e.g. Kenyan). These are also bee-friendly and easier to manage (I understand) than Warré hives.
Log hives. These can be used in an extremely bee-centred approach, more about bee-stewardship than beekeeping.
There may be other hives in popular use in your area (e.g. National hives in the UK), which will have their own strengths and weaknesses. I recommend keeping an open mind until you’re sure what style of beekeeping you want to pursue.
I would be wary of ‘innovations’ like the Flow Hive. In my view, this expensive piece of plastic is carefully designed for bee-phobic, honey-loving folk who have more money than sense.
If you know someone who keeps bees, by all means ask them if you can tag along. Just bear in mind that they might be really lousy beekeepers with hives full of cranky bees!
This last point is only slightly in jest: I know someone who did just that, and came away telling us that beekeeping involved getting stung a lot, moving hives around and was generally a lot of bother. It put him off the idea completely, and actually put me off exploring beekeeping for a couple of years. It was complete and utter BS.
Another point to bear in mind: a lot of beekeepers are opinionated older blokes (like me!) who are convinced that their approach is best and will try to push you in that direction.
You should be aware that beekeeping is not necessarily ‘helping the environment’ or ‘helping to Save the Bees’. Much depends on context. If conservation is your main motivation, and the European honeybee is an introduced species where you live, then it may be better to direct your efforts towards creating habitat for native pollinators.
If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to bee stings, then I’d suggest that beekeeping isn’t for you. Also remember that your bees may impact on your neighbours, so be considerate. Site your hive at least 2–3 metres from property boundaries, with the entrance facing towards your house, not your neighbours. Be a responsible beekeeper and follow any local legal restrictions on keeping bees.
However, it’s perfectly possible to live safely in close proximity to bees. Here’s one of our hives, just next to the garden path. An awesomely powerful colony in robust health, yet we can safely sit next to these girls all day long with no protection. Even though the local ‘experts’ may tell you that feral bees like these are generally ill-tempered …