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Beekeeping for Non-Beekeepers

Information for non-beekeepers to help them understand a little about bees and beekeeping


In the U.K. there are around 250 species of bees, that are in three groups: -

Solitary Bees.  These are the majority of species, with some being habitat or plant specific, which is why in any one area, you will only see a small number of species. If there is no food or habitat that suits them, they won't survive. Individually, some look like honey bees, but are smaller. This group of bees are amongst the most efficient pollinators as individual insects, but many of them only live for a few weeks. There are no queens, only males and females. It is common for "bee hotels" to be unsuccessful. The usual reason is they are made abroad and the holes are too large for our species. It is better and easy to make your own from short lengths of bamboo cane or untreated wood, with holes preferably 8mm diameter or less. Some species nest in the ground, so they won't live in a bee hotel anyway. There are occasional introductions, probably caused by natural expansion, one of the most well known is the Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae)

Bumblebees.  These are the furry bees that most people think of when discussing bees. There are around 25 species in the U.K, some being very rare. The queen is the only one that lives through the winter. She finds a suitable site in the spring and starts the nest herself, until the workers emerge and take over the duties she had previously done on her own. There are a few species of "cuckoo" bumblebees that lay their eggs in other bumblebee nests, but don't rear their own offspring. There are also occasional introductions, most notably the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). Bumble bees are imported for pollination purposes by growers, but there are concerns about biosecurity.

Honey Bees.  They are the bees that beekeepers keep. They are social, with one species and several sub species throughout the world, although only one native to us. There are a few strongholds of our native bee (see below), but unfortunately, importation has caused many of our bees to be a mish-mash of mongrels.

Bees are insects that perform the important task of pollination. This is often thought of in the human terms of monetary value, but many wild plants need some degree of insect pollination in order to set seed.

Other insects that are often mistaken for bees.

Wasps.  There are several wasp species that are often confused with bees.

Flies.  There are also other insects that have no sting themselves and have evolved to look like another insect that has, presumably for defence. They are referred to as "mimics" and include hover flies and bee - flies. There are several species of both. These can sometimes be mistaken by beekeepers because I have seen photo's of several mimics on beekeeping websites and even in magazines and leaflets!


Honey Bees.

Although the oldest evidence of honey bees in the U.K. dates to the Iron Age, it is fairly certain they followed the retreating ice from what is now the Continent after the last Ice Age. Once established, they were cut off by the closing of the channel land bridge, where they lived in isolation for about 8,600 years. Although some would argue otherwise, probably for their own interests, there is enough evidence they can be classified as being a native species. The native honey bees of U.K. and Ireland are the sub species Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm), which are the only honey bees native to Northern Europe, north of the Alps from the Atlantic seaboard of Norway, U.K. Ireland and France, eastwards to the Urals and as far north as bees will survive. Although there are pockets of them in various parts throughout their natural range, they have been heavily mongrelised by continual imports of other races.

The importation of honey bees has long been an emotive subject, with some unconcerned about the dangers, but many feel it has been harmful to our managed and wild populations. Some of the objections to importation can be found here.

Honey bees are the only bees that store honey in any quantity. This helps the colony to live through spells of poor weather during the summer and to survive the long winters when there is no food coming in. It is some of this store that beekeepers harvest.

Honey bees are the only bees that swarm, so if you see a swarm, it won't be any other bees or wasps.

Varroa is an introduced parasite, probably arriving on imported bees. It was first discovered in Devon in 1992 and in Ireland in 1998, although it may have been present before then. It seems logical that it has spread around the world on bees - yet another instance of man causing problems by the movement of living organisms. Currently, several islands such as the Isle of Man and Orkney are free from varroa. This status will change if bees are imported there. It parasitises both brood and adult bees, biting into it and feeding on the fat body tissue. In doing so, they vector viruses that were probably in all colonies at a very low level before varroa, but have increased to a much higher level, putting the whole colony at risk, hence much higher colony losses than before its arrival.

What bees are there in a honey bee colony?

The queen is normally the only bee who lays eggs.

Drones are male bees. The old fashioned, but still popular belief, is their only purpose is to mate with queens and not do any work. We now know they provide other benefits to the colony.

Workers are incomplete females who do most of the work in a colony. There are occasions when they are able to lay infertile eggs.


Nectar is the sugary substance collected from flowers. This is brought back to the hive and modified by the bees into honey. This is the carbohydrate part of the bees requirements. Honey is a useful food and can have many uses including in cooking.


This is the protein part of the bees needs that is collected from flowers and brought back to the hive as the coloured pellets that are seen on the back legs of some bees.

The cycle of a colony.

In theory without varroa, a wild colony can live for a long time. A queen of the native Amm type is capable of living perhaps 4-5 years. During the late spring, summer and early autumn in the U.K. and Ireland the foraging bees bring in nectar that is converted into honey. This is stored in the combs for use when there is little or no food coming in. When the cold weather arrives, the bees cluster together close to their food in order to keep warm. In the spring, when the weather warms up, the colony becomes more active and expands. They are able to bring in more food than the amount needed for maintenance and the cycle starts again. During the year the egg laying rate of the queen is governed by several things, including the condition of the colony, the amount of food available and day length.

The colony will swarm occasionally to make up for losses and maintain a stable population. Queens will be replaced by supersedure.


The only way a colony can increase naturally is to swarm. The colony has made preparations for several days beforehand. The issuing of the swarm is predictable if the weather is fine, otherwise it can be delayed or abandoned by the colony if the weather is poor.

The old queen and some of worker bees will leave the colony and cluster fairly close to the hive in the shape of a swarm we all recognise. I have seen many swarms come out of a hive and in some cases the queen is amongst the first to come out, in others she is amongst the last. When they have the queen with them, they will fly off to a new home - this could be almost immediately, or several hours later. Occasionally, they will stay and make a nest in the open, but these don't usually survive long. The colony has made provision for a young queen to succeed the one that has just left. As soon as the swarm leaves the colony they are two separate and independent units.

Swarms usually decide where their new home is going to be before they leave. They send out scouts for several days, who bring information back that allows the colony to make the decision. This could include a hollow t ree, empty beehive or a building.

This is a simple explanation of a very complex subject.


When a queen becomes old or is failing, the bees can detect it and will make provision for a young queen to replace her before she fails. Very often both queens can be seen in the colony together.

This is known as supersedure and is their way of ensuring the survival of the colony.

Why does a beekeeper open a hive?

Before varroa arrived in the U.K., a colony of bees could live with minimal intervention, providing their home had enough space to allow the colony to store enough food to avoid starving. There are a few diseases, but few of them result in a colony dying out. This is how bees survived in the wild, with natural selection culling the weaker ones. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

In the past, many beekeepers were "let alone" beekeepers, who just removed some honey and fed the bees if they needed it. Most modern beekeepers are very responsible and will inspect their bees regularly for a number of reasons. This includes checking for disease and to prevent their bees from swarming if possible. Although swarming bees may be exciting for some to witness, not everyone is quite so keen. As well as possibly being a nuisance, it could take up residence in someone else's house who doesn't want it. There are some diseases that are notifiable and colonies should be checked for these on a regular basis.

Further information about honey bees

For those who wish to research beekeeping further, there is plenty of information on this website. All the books recommended for beginners are suitable for non beekeepers and there is sound information in them.

Poor information.

I speak to the general public quite a lot, which could be when giving talks, or when on a stand at an event such as a show. Very often, they have similar information that is unreliable and unfortunately, they often have to be told so. The problem is that many believe what is in print or on the radio or TV, as they see it being authoritative. They don't see experienced beekeepers as experts and you can see them disbelieving us. I'm afraid the media are too often guilty of manipulating the truth, but in fairness, there may be some editing involved. They have their own reasons and it is not helped by reporters who know little about the subject they are reporting on. I suspect they do a quick websearch for information, not realising how unreliable that can be. Before writing this, I had a quick look online and found much information that simply isn't true, or not relevant to all locations. There are a lot of private websites with poor information and several that have a forceful single issue message. Having said that, there are some excellent websites with sound information, giving the non - beekeeper a problem of knowing what to believe.

On many occasions, I have been contacted by a reporter and asked questions. Sometimes they seem to be looking for certain answers, but I am an honest chap and tell the truth as I see it. If it's not the answer they are expecting, they may contact an inexperienced beekeeper who may give them the answer they want. It appears in print, or on the screen and, as far as the general public is concerned, it becomes "fact", especially when it gets quoted several times, as often happens. A common mistake is to illustrate an article about honey bees with a photograph of a bumblebee.

This sadly, is often a problem with beekeeping books too, where quite inexperienced beekeepers think they know enough to write a book. It seems they read others and copy the same mistakes.

What we don't know.

As with other subjects there are some who think they know everything! This is some distance from the truth, as there is a lot still to be discovered. Even very experienced and observant beekeepers regularly see things they have never seen before.

Bees are in "trouble".

Well, yes and no. Some are struggling, yet others are doing well. Because of the wide diversity of species, they need a wide diversity of conditions. I have already mentioned that some species of solitary and bumblebees are habitat and plant specific, so if the habitat or the plants they feed on are destroyed, then they can't make a nest and have nothing to feed on. A typical example is the loss of traditional hay meadows, that in the past, were a mass of wild flowers. Everyone wants cheap food, so farmers respond, often with official advice, by ploughing meadows, sowing ryegrass, then spraying out "weeds". Instead of clover providing the nitrogen, they use chemical fertilisers. Again, due to the desire for cheap food, farmers use pesticides to improve yields. There are many reasons for wild bee decline, but there are some species, such as the previously mentioned Ive Bee and Tree Bumble Bee that are doing very well and have spread at an incredible rate in a short time. Honey bees, both free-living and managed, aren't doing very well. The introduction of varroa and the continued importation of bees that aren't well adapted to our conditions are contributory factors. Having said that, there are encouraging signs that bees and beekeepers are beginning to manage the situation better. I hope we can.

"Helping" bees.

Since the increased awareness of bees and their problems, there have been a lot of people think they can help bees. There have been various articles in the press about encouraging people to take up beekeeping, or even leaving honey out for bees! Neither of these are particularly good solutions. Extra beekeepers who are unable to care for bees properly will actually do far more harm than good. Those who want to take up beekeeping for the right reasons will be welcomed, but just having a hive of bees at the bottom of the garden, not understanding it, or looking after it properly and effectively abandoning it is grossly irresponsible. Leaving honey out for bees is simply bad advice. If it is foreign honey, it could be infected with diseases that are notifiable in this country. If the honey is taken back to other hives and they become infected it could result in those colonies being destroyed by fire.

"Natural" beekeeping.

There is a "natural" beekeeping movement and although their basic principles are commendable, there are some who have very inflexible and biased views, often I suspect a source of embarrassment to others. The constant cry is that their way is the only way to keep bees "naturally" and conventional beekeeping is wrong. This of course is nonsense, as the only way to keep bees naturally is to leave them alone in the cavities of trees they selected themselves. There is a claim by a minority of "natural" beekeepers that all beekeepers who don't subscribe to their methods are cruel to bees, but this is simply not the case. Their arguments can be persuasive to those with little or no knowledge, but should not be relied upon. All the beekeepers I know are kind towards their bees and are concerned about their welfare as should all stock-people.

What can a non-beekeeper do to help bees?

In order to help something you need to have a degree of understanding. This website should help, as all the information has been assembled by experienced beekeepers and is sound. Find out about the life cycles of all bees - they are very different. Their habitats differ widely as well, some will survive almost anywhere there is enough food, yet others are species or habitat specific. Learn about pollination - both the mechanism and result.

In a small way, the selection of plants for your garden will help pollinating insects. It is not always the flowers that are the most showy that are any good, they are bred for a mass of colour - not for attracting insects. There are some reliable lists of plants that attract pollinating insects, but a simple way of knowing what to grow is to see what plants insects are on in other people's gardens.

Teach children (and other adults!) the basics of pollination and the relevance of the food chain. Living things, especially insects, are valuable and shouldn't be seen as something to be frightened of and to "zap".

If you have a nest of bees on your property please try to be tolerant. Many people are frightened of being stung, but this is only likely to be a problem in a very small number of cases. It is only honey bees that live throughout the winter as a colony, so a bumblebee nest is unlikely to be re-used the following year.

There are simple things that can be done to create nest sites for silitary bees and bumblebees. Any old block of wood can have holes drilled in it to make a bee post, or lengths of old bamboo cane can be put in a piece of plastic pipe. Make sure preservatives and/or insecticides haven't been used. In my experience many commercial items aren't well designed and can be expensive failures.

Can I help you more?

If you think I can put more information here to help non-beekeepers understand bees more please email me.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 22/12/2014

Page updated 01/01/2023