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Frequently Asked Questions for Beginners (FAQs)

For those thinking of starting, or have just started beekeeping

Introduction.

This facility has changed as it was far too large and clumsy. The intention is to give short answers here if possible, or guide you to where the information should be if a longer answer is required. This website contains thousands of pages of information that can be accessed using the "A to Z" button in the top right hand corner of every page. There is also a subject index that will help you to narrow down a search.

In compiling this FAQ, I have used many of the questions that were originally set out by Dave Cushman, but I have rewritten or removed some and introduced others. I have been involved with teaching beekeeping to all abilities since the 1970s and understand the needs of those who are just starting, or are about to.

When looking for information be careful of some things that are said or written. Beekeeping is shot through by myths and poorly established information. Some has been handed down, generation after generation, without adequate testing and questioning, some has appeared in recent years as a result of very inexperienced beekeepers trying to teach before they have enough knowledge or experience to do so. This includes books, where the same mistakes are copied by successive writers. One major source of poor information is "false logic". All this gives the beginner with a thirst for knowledge a problem - what do they believe?

To help get over the problem, this website gives sound information for all beekeepers including beginners, but you still need to make contact with beekeepers locally. Some will disagree with methods they are not familiar with, usually through their own lack of experience, but that is part of beekeeping - unfortunately it results in confusion. The "basics" of beekeeping will be similar wherever you are located, but there are going to be variations depending on conditions in your locality e.g. beekeepers in Cornwall, Kerry, Northumberland and Orkney will possibly need different colony management methods. This website is accessed by beekeepers worldwide and the same applies if you live in Finland, Tasmania or Canada.

We are only just beginning to understand many aspects of bee behaviour. We are learning new things all the time, so please consult other reliable sources as well.

Before Starting Beekeeping

Beekeeping is not a hobby that you can start, then drop, such as stamp collecting or painting. It is irresponsible to acquire bees, then abandon them, as they could swarm and cause a nuisance to neighbours, get disease or starve. In my opinion the would - be beekeeper needs to do some research and assess their own suitability to keep bees before buying any equipment. To help those who are investigating taking up beekeeping I have a page especially for you here. I assume you have made contact with a local BKA, handled a full colony of bees on several occasions and spoken to your family and neighbours. If you have done this preparation, the following FAQs should help you.

In some places you may think I'm hard hitting, but I have seen many a beginner who has suffered from duff information that has started them off down a road they have later changed at great cost and inconvenience. What isn't often realised is that all beekeepers develop a system and everything they do should suit it. There are many ways of keeping bees and providing the thinking is sound and it fits what you are doing it will be fine. I have tried to give guidance that should suit all.

Starting Beekeeping

Q: What equipment do I need to start beekeeping?

A: A lot less than you will be told! Be careful of some of the lists available as they are often "standard" lists copied from elsewhere, with a lot of things you may never use. These will just clutter up your shed with more junk. I think the best thing to do is to buy the absolute minimum, then add to it when you have decided that you actually need something. It is easy to buy things because you are told you need them, but often you don't. Be patient.

I think the minimum should be: Smoker, hive tool and protective clothing. See elsewhere for other equipment details, but a hive and feeder could be sourced after seeking sound advice.

Q: Shall I buy a Beginners kit?

A: These are usually advertised as "All you need to get started" and to a degree they are, but there are often things you may not want or are of poor quality. They usually have fixed contents that can't be changed so you have them, whether you want them or not. This means you could have a book, frames, feeder, queen excluder, etc, that you have been advised against. It is easy to see what is included, then look at the catalogue and see how much money you may "save", but in reality some of what's included could be cheap, shoddy imported kit, that won't last and not the same as you have priced.

Q: Where do I get my beekeeping equipment from?

A: Many BKAs sell equipment, or the essentials like frames and foundation. Support them if you can, as it is part of the service offered and the quicker the turnover, the better it is for everyone. Often you will find a supplier locally. There are major suppliers who usually offer good quality equipment and I don't have a problem with them. They have built up a reputation over many years and need to retain it. Over the years I have seen many small companies spring up and these are very variable. They don't often make anything, but source from elsewhere, often from low wage countries and from what I have seen some of the quality is very poor. Who wants a smoker or hive tool they can cut themselves on? I would certainly avoid buying online unless you know the company, but in any case the prices are often more than you can pay locally, without the benefit of viewing the items.

Q: How do I decide on what hive type to use?

A: Oh dear! This is very complex! Just look here and here and you will see several hives, but these are just a small selection. Wherever you are in the world the box must suit the bee, and that is usually determined by the prolificacy of the queen. This is important because non-prolific queens that are used in many parts of the U.K, Ireland and Europe will have too much room in a large brood box, yet a small box is unsuitable for a prolific queen. There are ways of overcoming this problem, such as adding another box, but this doubles the number of frames and increases the amount of work.

Some frames have long lugs, others have short. In general long lugs are only used in the U.K. and Ireland, short lugs everywhere else. Most hives have top beespace(TBS), but the National and WBC have bottom beespace(BBS) as standard. Langstroth hives are the most common throughout the world, but the depth of boxes differ in different countries. In the U.K. and Ireland the most commonly used hive is the National. In Scotland and the North of England the Smith is also common. The WBC is losing popularity due to higher cost, the extra number of parts and the higher maintenance required. The Commercial and Langstroth are larger hives and are used in areas where prolific queens are popular.

There are a number of polystyrene or plastic hives but these are too involved to discuss here. There are a small number of hives that are non-standard, but may use standard frames. There have been many introduced over the years and I wouldn't recommend their use. In general you need compatibility with local beekeepers and I suggest you use what the majority of them do. It will be easy to buy frames and foundation and exchange frames on odd occasions. It will also be easy to sell if the need arose.

For those who intend going down the "natural" beekeeping route there are a few hives made commercially, but they can all be made at home, which is what many do.

Many a new beekeeper has used a calculator to work out what hive to buy based on the cost of the box in relation to the brood area. This is false logic as it doesn't work like that. You need the right hive for your situation, remembering that a beehive is a tool of the beekeeper. The bees won't mind what you provide them with. You need to take into account the weight and ease of lifting.

In the U.K. my own preference is for single brood box National hives using non-prolific queens. I have spent 50 years beekeeping and have used virtually all the others, or been involved with them and have come to this conclusion. There are a few things in beekeeping that cause arguments and hive type is one, often because many form opinions without much knowledge or experience.

I said it was complex!

Q: How much spare equipment should I have?

A: It always makes sense to have some spare equipment, either for additions, replacements or emergencies. If you have a ready source locally, then don't bother too much about it. In the early stages it makes sense to have a spare floor, brood box and at least enough frames to fill it. Foundation is worth stocking, but make sure you keep it so it doesn't easily deteriorate.

Q: What type of bees shall I get?

A: Another complex question! All honey bees are not the same and this is a major problem in beekeeping, as many beekeepers and sadly tutors don't understand that. There are a number of sub-species, but it is generally accepted there are none left in the world that are absolutely pure. There are bees that suit certain conditions and it makes sense for beekeepers to keep bees that are suitable for their district.

Basically there are two sorts - prolific and non-prolific and this relates to the number of eggs the queen lays.

In general the prolific are more suitable to the warmer climates where the weather is fairly reliable. Colonies are large with a large foraging force that are capable of storing a lot of honey. In these areas winters are usually quite short and the queens don't go off lay, they just reduce to suit the conditions. Bees of this type include Italians (Apis mellifera ligustica - Aml) that in various forms are probably the most used worldwide, because much of the commercial beekeeping is done in the hotter climates that suit these bees.

Non-prolific bees are more suitable to the cooler climates, with longer winters and variable summers. The whole of Northern Europe has these conditions and the native bee here is the Dark European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera - Amm). The queens usually lay eggs in response to the conditions and in cold winters will stop laying altogether. They are usually more frugal and look after their food much better. It has been said that workers in non-prolific colonies live longer than those in prolific, especially Italians. This means the cost to the colony in development of the brood to emergence is spread over a longer period, giving the colony a significant saving.

In my experience in the U.K. the prolific bees will produce more honey in a good season, but in a poor season the non-prolific colonies usually perform much better, because the queens reduce laying in spells of non-flying weather, thereby conserving stores. We have many more poor summers than good and over a period of several years I have found the non - prolific bees out - perform the prolific. In spells of bad weather there are many more bees to feed in prolific colonies and as the queens carry on laying at the same rate, in a short time, the stores can get seriously depleted, with starvation a distinct possibility - even in the summer.

Prolific colonies need far more food that non-prolific and I have heard of an estimate of two and a half times the amount for Aml than Amm - something my own experience agrees with. If you take into account the difference in the amount of feeding needed, my experience is the non - prolific usually do much better over an extended period.

Apart from a few areas such as Ireland and parts of England, Wales and Scotland where there are fairly large numbers of Amm, the majority of bees in the U.K. are mongrels. This has come about by continued importation of foreign races. Many beekeepers are successfully selecting their mongrel queens for Amm characteristics and many of these can be excellent.

There are some "hybrids" available and I would steer well clear of them. If from a good source they can be excellent due to hybrid vigour, but the next generation can be very bad tempered with a great reduction in performance.

What the beginner musn't be fooled by is some of the usual "advice" such as:

Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica-Amc) are very "swarmy", despite what some say. I have seen swarms that have swarmed again in the same season.

So, what do you do? Quite frankly I wouldn't acquire anything other than local. If your local BKA is good, they should be able to steer you in the right direction. Speak to several members and find out who are the ones who have good bees. Make sure they have been keeping bees a long time and have raised their own queens, not imported.

Q: How do I obtain bees ?

A: This is quite easy. Please don't buy on the internet. You don't know what you are getting and it will be difficult to send them back if there is a problem. They may be coming from some distance away by carrier. You probably won't be able to inspect them first. In my view you should buy local wherever you are. Before going any further consult the BBKA leaflet L014. This will give you good guidance.

If you have a good BKA they should have a way of providing beginners with bees. This could be as part of a structured programme where you will get tuition as well, a simple sale or a swarm that is collected locally. They are all good ways of obtaining bees.

If you are offered bees from outside the BKA, ask for someone to inspect them for you, preferably before removal.

Please remember there are still some areas that are varroa free. If you bring in bees from outside that have varroa, you will be responsible for changing beekeeping forever in that area.

I have seen many unfortunate incidents involving beginners buying bees and this is why I advise caution. It is so easy to see bees as a simple commodity like a wheelbarrow, but they aren't. If you buy bees that are infected with foul brood, there will be a standstill notice placed on you and they are likely to be destroyed by fire - not a good experience for a beginner. Not all bees are diseased, but it would be safer to have them checked before purchase and removal. Although some commercially sourced bees are good, others may not be. Some are made up from a number of colonies and given an imported queen. You should be aware that all national U.K. and Irish BKAs have a policy of non importation of bees and queens. That is for a reason. Don't forget that a seller may have a reason for holding a different view.

In my view there is nothing wrong with starting with a swarm, although it is frowned upon by some. You will learn a lot and providing you hive it in a sensible way there should be few problems.

Q: Can I keep my bees on my allotment?

A: You will have to find out. There is advice in BBKA Leaflet L015

Q: I do not want more than one colony of bees, is that ok?

A: If you only have one hive and you have a problem with it, or it dies, you will need help or more bees from elsewhere. I always recommend a second hive fairly soon after the first, so you don't have to rely on others. One important issue that is missed by most is that with two colonies you can compare so you can spot their strengths and weaknesses, which will help you improve your bees. You will learn more and that is never a bad thing. It doesn't take twice as long to look after two hives as it does one.

Q: Can I keep bees in my garden?

A: Yes, in the UK there is no legislation to stop you, though this may not be the case in other countries. You should make sure there is room to keep at least 3 colonies, as during the summer months there may be times when you will temporarily increase your colony numbers for management purposes. There is some very good advice in BBKA Leaflet L011.

Q: How many hives can I keep in one place?

A: This depends on many things, but all areas will usually support a small number of colonies. See here for more details.

Q: Do I need to belong to a local BKA?

A: In the U.K. and Ireland you don't need to belong to a BKA, but I would always advise it. If you haven't already joined one, then visit all those in your area, see what they are like and join the one that suits you best. The benefits include help, advice and possibly insurance. Read more here

Q: Should I be insured?

A: It makes sense in these days of litigation and no win - no fee solicitors. With some BKAs, there is a blanket policy for members that may include such things as public and product liability. In England and Wales beekeepers have the opportunity to insure losses caused by destruction as a result of notifiable diseases. This is where the BKA is a member of Bee Diseases Insurance (BDI).

Q: I want to be a natural beekeeper. Are there any problems?

A: There are problems with all kinds of beekeeping, but you should remember that no form of keeping bees is natural. This is a myth. To help beginners I have a page on "natural beekeeping". You will be given a lot of advice from all sorts of people, which will be confusing to a beginner. There are many ways of keeping bees, some work well, some don't. I think it advisable to keep bees in a conventional way before investigating other methods.

Q: Where do I get help from if I need it in a hurry?

A: It depends what help you need. If you think you may have a notifiable disease, then contact your local Bee Inspector. Identification of diseases should be taught by your BKA. If you need other help in your early stages, then contact your local BKA. You may find answers to some of your questions on this website - you may find some here.

Routine manipulation and inspection.

Q: Do I need to keep written records?

A: There is a legal requirement for keeping records of treatments for food producing animals in the U.K. You will have to check what the situation is elsewhere. A recording form is available here. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate website can also be consulted.

Colony records are useful, so you know what has happened in the colony and to help you prepare for your next inspection. In my opinion the vast majority of record sheets are very complicated and in many cases the information recorded is unnecessary. I designed a simple sheet for Wisborough Green BKA that is easy to fill in and understand. Guidance notes on how to use the sheet will be useful.

Q: What should I record?

A: It depends what you want. There are several areas to consider and these could include:

It is common for enthusiastic beginners to try to record far more than they need. This often results in confusion and the abandoning of recording. In my view it is better to start with simple things and make additions when you want them. It is so easy to design your own record sheet on a computer, where you can add or delete things to suit you.

Q; How do I make a frame up?

A: See here. There are different methods and providing it doesn't fall to bits in use it doesn't matter how it's made.

Q: How do I unite two or more colonies?

A: See here. There are some precautions you will need to take, so learn about them. In most cases the "newspaper" method is the most suitable.

Q: Do I need to clip and mark a queen and how do I do it?

A: No, you don't need to do it but there are benefits. Marking will help you find the queen, although there is a view that if you don't, you will be looking for a queen, not a coloured spot. I think this is reasonable and would leave it up to the individual, as in an amateur situation it is important to learn to look for a queen. Personally I have never bothered with international colour marking. This is done supposedly to tell the age of a queen, but in reality very few do. I find yellow much easier to see than other colours, so always use that. Experienced beekeepers who know how to find queens usually mark them. Instead of marking, there is an alternative of using numbered discs.

There is a view that clipping the queen's wing is "mutilation", but I suspect it has more to do with beekeepers being frightened of damaging her. In my opinion clipping has become more important as it delays the loss of a swarm for several days. The swarm comes out, but the queen can't fly. She goes back into the hive, under the floor or crawls along the ground. The bees either go back into the hive or cluster with the queen. This gives the beekeeper more time to deal with the situation that should prevent non - beekeepers being inconvenienced by a swarm they don't want. Since the queen problems have arrived it is quite common for colonies to swarm on a supersedure cell. As there are usually a small number, often one, these can be missed, meaning a swarm will leave when the beekeeper didn't think there was going to be a problem. See clipping and marking page.

Q: How do I find the queen?

A: Finding queens is easy! In my experience, most beekeepers who can't find queens have introduced a mental block of "I can't find queens!" so of course they won't. You need to be positive with an attitude of "I will find the queen!" You are nearly there then, but you need to know what you are looking for.

I think it's difficult to tell people how to do it and it's much better to develop your own technique. Fertile queens will move away from the light if they can, so when you take a frame out of the brood box, it immediately exposes one side of the next frame to the light. This I term the "light" side and the "dark" side is the unexposed side. If the queen was on the light side, she will probably have moved to the dark side by the time you take it out, so that halves your work.

I look at the dark side first, round the outside first starting with the bottom, then scan the surface of the comb. I find queens are easy to spot, but some beekeepers don't see them, even if you hold a frame in front of them with the queen on. Eventually they might say "is that her there!" suggesting they don't know what to look for in the first place.

If a colony of bees are "runners", the queens always are. Calmness on the comb is a trait that can be bred for, so that makes finding queens easier.

Q: How do I light my smoker?

A: This is one simple task we all have to do, but so many have a problem with. See here.

Q: How and when do I feed my bees?

A: Bees are generally fed for two reasons, firstly so they have enough food to survive the winter and secondly to avoid starvation. There is some useful information here. Another good source of information is BBKA Leaflet L022.

Q: How do I make up syrup to feed my bees ?

A: See above.

Q: Do I need to feed the bees candy ?

A: I have rarely used candy. If you feed sufficient syrup in the autumn there should be no need to use candy at all. I have only ever used candy as emergency feed if a colony runs short of food in the spring before the bees will take syrup. There are some beekeepers who feed only candy and it is successful for them.

Q: How do I make candy ?

A: See here. I have never made candy as I have had other things to do with my time. If I needed it I have bought bakers fondant and I find that suitable.

Q: Can I feed honey back to my bees ?

A: Careful! Honey can be infected with disease including one of two notifiable diseases collectively called Foul Brood. If the honey has come from a known source it will probably be O.K. otherwise I would leave it well alone. In England and Wales we have one of the world's best bee inspection services, who help keep the levels of Foul Brood very low. In some countries Foul Brood is a widespread problem and the feeding of foreign honey may infect your bees.

Q: Why should I replace combs and how should I do it?

A: The thinking behind changing comb is to remove some of the causative organisms of bee diseases. This is for brood comb only and the normal age is reckoned to be around 3 years. I have heard it said that if you can't see light through a comb it is too old. The normal method of changing combs is called a "Bailey Comb Change". Details can be found here and here.

Honey Crop.

Q: How much honey can I expect to get?

A: It will depend on a lot of things including the part of the country you live in, the forage available, if you have a single crop e.g. OSR, borage, heather, etc, the strength of the colony, if the colony has swarmed, your management, etc, etc. In fact most amateur beekeepers with several colonies often have vastly differing amounts of honey on each hive. In most years you should expect some crop and although 0-100lb or more is possible, you should expect an average of perhaps 30-50lb p/a. If you work your bees for comb honey they will have to build the comb which will reduce your crop. Don't forget when thinking how much honey you will get to subtract the amount of feeding you will have to do, as some types of bees need a lot more food than others.

Q: When should I take the honey from the bees?

A: If you live in an area with OSR, you will need to take honey as soon as the crop is predominantly green, otherwise it will granulate solid in the comb and be difficult to extract. The main crop will be taken when there is no more coming in. This varies with the district, but anywhere between late July and late August. If you live in a heather district it will be September.

Q: How do I get my honey from the bees?

A: You will need to remove the bees from the combs and there are several ways of doing this. Clearer boards are probably the easiest, but smoking and shaking is an alternative for a small number of colonies or frames.

Q: Do I 'need' an extractor?

A: If you work for extracted honey you will need an extractor of some sort. Many BKAs lend or rent extractors and this is probably the best for a beginner. See what is available locally.

Q: How do I uncap frames and use an extractor ?

A: This is quite difficult to describe here and in any case is probably better learnt at your local BKA where you should see it being demonstrated, ask questions and do it under supervision.

If you are a beekeeping teacher please feel free to take any of this material to help beginners. That's why it's here. If you are a webmaster or think a link to your own BKA website would be beneficial, please feel free to do so.

Roger Patterson.