Points to Consider
Before making your final decision as to whether you would like to keep bees, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you have space in your garden or in an area like a roof terrace where you can place a beehive?
- Is the site suitably sheltered from inclement weather?
- Do you have somewhere to store your equipment?
- Could a beehive pose a problem to your immediate neighbors?
- Do you have enough spare time to devote to your new hobby?
- Do you have young children or pets in your family?
- Are you willing to plan holidays around your hobby?
- Can you afford the costs involved in setting up?
Although you might assume you need a lot of space to keep beehives, this is not necessarily the case. The hobby is now becoming more and more popular with people who live in cities because a hive can be placed in a small courtyard garden, on a roof, or even on a balcony. Because the numbers of honeybees in more traditional locations have fallen dramatically in recent years, city dwellers can play a vital part in helping to reverse the downturn.
As long as city dwellers arrange their space to encourage bees, there is no reason why they should not be kept in urban areas. In fact, a new, easy-to-maintain beehive, the Beehaus, has been introduced on the market to encourage city apiarists. The Beehaus is a safe, modern hive that makes beekeeping straightforward and comes complete with everything you will need, right down to gloves, smoker, and the bees themselves. Because this plastic hive does not have all the nooks and crannies of the wooden ones, it is not as prone to disease. Even if you only have a balcony or some roof space, why not contact your local beekeeping association and find out more about keeping bees in the city? Many of these associations run courses that will give you more of an idea of what keeping bees in your particular situation involves.
The main concern with urban beekeeping is making sure that your bees do not become a problem to neighbors. If you have little space, you might want to keep only one or two hives to lessen the risk of annoying your neighbors. Keeping bees in the city is a wonderful way of bringing nature to urban gardens.
One of the main points to consider is whether you have somewhere suitable to store your equipment (see blogs 37-41). This space can be an outside shed, a spare room, or perhaps a basement. If possible, the space should be dry and somewhere that pests cannot penetrate.
POSITIONING THE HIVE
Finding the right position for your hive is important, as you want your bees in a convenient place and yet not too close to your house or that of your neighbors.
Bees love the sun first thing in the morning, so try to find a spot that catches the early rays. If the hive is warmed up by the sun early in the day, the bees will start foraging earlier, which will mean a better harvest for you. Consider the following points when choosing where to site your hive:
- A main factor in siting your bees is how well they will be sheltered from prevailing winds, so find an area in your garden where brick walls, fences, or thick hedges would offer your hive good protection. The hive also needs to have adequate shelter from the heat of the midday sun. Another bonus with thick hedges surrounding a hive is that they naturally encourage bees to fly upward and over people’s heads.
- Do not place your hive directly under a large tree because of the risk of falling branches in bad weather conditions. If your hive is struck, it could badly damage it and cause either the death, or mass exodus, of your colony. Your neighbors won’t thank you if they suddenly see thousands of homeless, angry bees on the loose!
- If your garden slopes, keep your beehive on the upper part. When the weather turns frosty, the lower areas of your garden can be colder than a higher area. In this position, rainwater will drain away downhill and your beehive will be less vulnerable to flooding or snow.
- Ideally, the site you choose for your beehive will have plenty of flowers nearby for nectar-foraging. However, do not place the hive too close to flowering plants as the bees often use the area directly outside their hive for their cleansing flights.
- Position the hive close to where you store any additional equipment. You will not want a long journey carrying honey or supers (the frames which hold the honeycomb).
You may find that your neighbors will not be happy if they see you are putting a beehive in your garden because they will worry about the risk of being stung. Besides passing the occasional jar of honey over the fence, here are some other ways to avoid complaints from next door:
- Start with one beehive and see how you do. If your neighbors are not bothered by the bees, you
can always get another hive or two.
- If your neighbors are disturbed by the beehive, position it out of plain view.
- Reduce the risk of robber bees attacking by reading the section on pages 89-91. If your hive is targeted and your bees survive, they may have become more aggressive in nature because of the attack, which is far from ideal if you live close to your neighbors.
- Ensure that you have a water supply nearby for the bees— this way they will not have to visit a neighbor’s pond too often.
- Explain to your neighbors the vital part that bees play in our food supply.
CHILDREN AND PETS
When your children are small, teach them that bees are not dangerous—reading them stories about the famous Pooh bear and his love of honey will help with their general acceptance of this little insect. There will always be the risk that your child or pet may get stung, but if you take a few simple precautions, you should not experience any major problems. If your children are young, a fence around the outside of the beehive will keep them at a distance until they are old enough to understand about the colony and its activities.
Children are generally inquisitive by nature, and teaching them how the bee colony works can be a fascinating subject. It is possible to buy bee suits in small sizes, so let your children become involved when you come to inspect your hives. Their eyesight is generally sharper than an adult’s, and you can use this to your advantage by asking them to spot the queen for you and to see if there are eggs in the brood box.
You can also get your children involved in extracting the honey and in making items such as candles or polishes from beeswax, which most children enjoy.
As far as pets are concerned, cats are usually sensible and do not attempt to catch bees. Dogs, on the other hand, are far more interested and love to chase insects. Make sure dogs are shut indoors whenever you are carrying out an inspection of the hive.
As bees are passive creatures unless provoked, you should find that your family—including children and pets—can live quite happily alongside your bees.
TIME AND VACATIONS
You will need to set some time aside for your new hobby. The winter months require very little work, but you need to be prepared to put in a few hours once the honey is in full flow in the summer months. A weekly check is necessary at this time of year. A notebook with details of each trip to your hive will be helpful and will give you an idea the following year just how much time you will need.
You may need to think a little more carefully about when to take your vacations, but even if you decide to go away during the busiest season, you can still plan ahead. As long as you have provided the bees with enough supers (see blog 35), leaving them for 2-3 weeks will be safe since they will continue their duties without human intervention.
Once you have purchased your initial equipment and colony, the cost of keeping bees is minimal. Borrowing equipment when it’s time to harvest the honey can cut down on expenses—hives do not
need to cost a fortune. See blogs 31-46 for the different types of hives and equipment. You will also need to consider the cost of insurance.
If you are considering keeping bees, then you will need to take out some type of insurance. The best way is to register with a national or regional beekeeper’s association because their members are covered by a public liability insurance. This type of insurance will cover against accidental bodily injury and damage to the property of third parties.
A Home for Your Bees
In the wild, bees will live in a dark crevice away from moisture and with an entrance that is small enough to keep predators out. Using wax that they have produced themselves, wild bees will build a set of interconnecting cells in which to lay their brood and to store their honey. The distance between each sheet of comb is very important to ensure that the bees can pass one another without getting crushed but is not so large a gap that they lose bodily contact.
We humans can also provide a comfortable home, or hive, for bees, and the next few pages explain each part of a hive and how the bees utilize it. Several different types of beehives are available; the most popular and widely used hives around the world are the Langstroth and the National.
Most bee suppliers will be able to provide you with a beginner’s package that will offer you everything you will need to start. Buying secondhand equipment is also an excellent way to start beekeeping. However, make sure that it comes from a reputable source, that it is in good condition, and that you treat it thoroughly for any possible disease— particularly American Foulbrood.
HOW A HIVE FUNCTIONS
Although it might seem rather complicated to the novice bee-keeper, a hive is really just a simple set of individual boxes stacked together to make the complete unit. The following pages explain all the components and the purposes they serve in housing a successful colony. The true art of successful beekeeping is knowing how many frames and boxes to put on the hive and the appropriate time to add more or remove them. You will need to learn exactly how to read what is happening on each frame, which will be discussed in detail further on in the book. Starting at the bottom of the hive, here is a description of each part of the hive and the role it plays:
Designed to keep the hive off the ground, the stand has to be a sturdy structure. It needs to be high enough to prevent damp and unwanted insects from entering the hive from below and also to make sure that the bees’ entrance to the hive is not blocked by grass or weeds. An ideal height is twenty- nine inches. The stand can be constructed from wooden blocks, bricks, or even a small wooden table, provided it is secure enough that the hive can’t be knocked off. The stand also needs to be strong enough to take the weight of the hive when the supers are full of honey.
FLOOR OR BOTTOM BOARD
This is a shallow wooden tray that protects the bottom of the hive from dampness. This board also includes the entrance block, which is a piece of wood that can be used to adjust the size of the hole according to the time of year. There is also a sloping landing board (see below) in front of the entrance to give the bees somewhere to land.
Between the bottom board and the brood box is a piece of mesh, designed in such a way to allow any varroa mites to drop through. These mites will die on the bottom board and can be counted regularly to examine the extent of infestation.
The Components of a Hive
FRAMES AND SPACERS
These are the wooden frames that hang vertically inside the brood box and supers (see next paragraph) and contain the wax foundation that stimulates the bees into making comb. They come in either deep or shallow format, depending on whether they are intended for the brood box or the supers. The ones in the supers are those that will eventually be removed when they are full of honey. The ones in the brood box will contain the bee brood—worker, drone, and queen. These frames need to be perfectly spaced, so buy ones that have built-in spacers to avoid any problems within the hive.
A sheet of foundation is a man-made piece of wax that has been molded in hexagonal cell shapes on both sides. This is used to encourage the bees to start making their own wax cells. Foundation can be purchased either wired or unwired; the former is much stronger and can be reused once the honey has been removed. Alternatively, if your aim is to store your honey as honeycomb (see page 118), you will need to use the unwired type.
An individual frame showing some cells filled with honey.
This is the box where the queen and her colony will spend the majority of their life, and it contains frames filled with wax foundation. It is the place where the queen lays her eggs and where the workers are constantly busy tending to her and her brood. This section of the hive also contains a certain amount of honey to feed the larvae. The bees will maintain this section of the hive at a constant temperature of 95°F by vibrating their wings. Remove the frames in the brood box only when the weather is calm or you risk chilling the brood.
To prevent the queen from spoiling the honeycomb in the super by laying eggs there, a queen excluder is added above the brood box to keep her from entering the supers above. It is a simple mesh screen that allows worker bees to pass through to deposit the honey, but the holes are too small to allow the queen entrance.
The supers are boxes that contain the frames with foundation where your honey will be stored. Each super can hold ten to fourteen frames, and they come in either shallow or medium depth. They are not as deep as the brood box because the frames can be heavy when they are full of honey.
Once the bees start storing honey in warm weather, when their foraging flights are at a maximum, you may need to add more supers to allow the bees extra storage space. Bees instinctively store as much honey as they can to make sure they have enough food to see them through the winter.
The crown board, which is usually made of wood, is placed on top of the super boxes to retain heat within the hive. The board has a hole in the center, which allows you to feed the colony when honey stores are low without disturbing the rest of the hive.
The roof keeps rain out of the hive but is ventilated to avoid any condensation buildup inside. Roofs come in both flat and gabled styles; the flat ones are probably preferable for the beginner because they allow hive parts to be stacked on top of it during inspection. Pitched roofs, however, will help the rainwater drain away.
The skep was a basket woven from coils of grass or straw that preceded the modern hive. The basic skep had a single entrance in the bottom and no internal structure, so the bees had to make their own honeycombs from scratch. The main problem with skeps was that the entire basket had to be destroyed when collecting honey.