No matter what your age, space or knowledge and experience, keeping bees is both a fascinating and rewarding hobby. It may require you to regularly set aside time if you are to be successful, but observing the lives of these amazing creatures and, of course, sampling that fresh, free honey will be worth every minute you put in.
If you are considering starting your own hive, here are a few tips on how to get started.
Do you have the space?
It is often said that you need plenty of space to keep bees, but the truth is, even a rooftop urban garden can play host to a very successful hive. With permission from your allotment society, you can even keep a hive there, and provided you know what you're doing, your allotment neighbours will be only too happy to have your bees pollinating their own crops.
However, unless you have plenty of space, it is always advisable to talk to your neighbours first, explain the advantages of having bees in the vicinity and assure them that you will be taking the proper precautions and taking the advice of an experienced beekeeper.
Beekeeping newbies are strongly advised to join their local Beekeeping Association before rushing out to buy a hive. The British Beekeepers Association, www.bbka.org.uk, provides a list of these, and most will offer an Introduction to Beekeeping course, giving you a better idea of what is involved, and will often include a visit to an apiary where you can handle bees before investing in the necessary equipment.
If you've taken the course and been bitten by the bug, it's time to think about the equipment you'll need. There are a variety of hives available, but the basic model is the National. This will include the basic components needed for a starter hive, but you may need to purchase extras such as brood and super frames, foundation wax sheets and mouse guards.
With your hive bought, a good quality bee suit should be top of your shopping list. A full body suit is recommended - you will be amazed at how easily bees can find their way into clothing, so one where the veil is built-in to the suit is best for safety purposes. Hygienic gloves are also an essential, as is a hive tool, for moving frames, and a smoker to calm the bees whenever you need to work.
There are a number of specialist online stores where you can buy all the necessary equipment, such as bees-online.co.uk or beekeeping.co.uk.
Acquiring your bees
If you are a complete beekeeping novice, it is advisable to start with what is called a 'nucleus colony', a small group of around 10,000 bees. Key to a safe and successful hive is temperament. As odd as it sounds, bees can be bred to be calmer and less aggressive, and that is essential for the novice as well as the neighbours!
Buying bees that have been bred locally is advisable, and the best way to start is by speaking to those at your local Association. An expert will be able to point you in the right direction, or even provide you with a nucleus colony to start with, already knowing the temperament of the bees in question. Late summer is usually a good time to start.
Looking after your colony
The bare minimum amount of time you'll need to spend caring for your newly-established colony is around half an hour a week, but given that beekeeping can prove highly addictive, many beekeepers end up spending far more.
During the spring, summer and autumn, a weekly inspection is necessary to ensure the queen is laying, that the colony has enough space, is healthy and has sufficient stores of pollen and honey. Generally speaking, between 11am and 4pm on a warm and sunny day is a good time to inspect, as this is when the flying bees are out collecting pollen. Around half an hour for each inspection is fine, as you don't want to cause your colony more stress than is necessary.
Properly caring for your bees can be complex, and it is important that you know how to recognise signs of disease, keep tabs on your queen, and to know when your bees are becoming aggressive or stressed. With any luck, an expert from your local Beekeeping Association will act as a mentor for the first year, helping you through the process, and you should take on board all their advice if you are to manage a successful hive.
Finally, remember that your bees need some of that honey they've worked so hard to create, so do make sure that you leaving your colony with enough to keep them going through the winter. Always keep the phrase 'some for me and some for the bee' in mind, and you can enjoy this natural bounty to the full.
Have you recently started keeping bees? What are your top tips for newcomers? Leave your comments below...