Synopsis : Join a beekeeping association, get a mentor, get local bees, manage your hopes and expectations, get your bees through the winter. Simples.
Three years ago I wrote a post on ”Start(ing) beekeeping” courses. That was mainly written from the perspective of the tutor. As with many posts on this site, it was read a lot at the time and then rapidly sank down the rankings, being overtaken by posts on swarm control, Varroa management and queen cells … all topics that should have been covered in a course on how to start beekeeping.
Hmmm? … I wonder why that is?
Today’s post is about the same topic, but from the perspective of the beginner.
What should you be doing and what should you not be doing?
What should you expect from your first beekeeping season?
This is different from what you might hope for.
It’s important that you manage your expectations (or someone manages them) as the alternative might well be disillusionment.
Hope for well-tempered bees, balmy summer days filled with the contented buzz of busy foragers 1, and a whopping honey crop to jar for friends and family (and the local shops).
Expect disappointing weather, temperamental bees and possibly even lost swarms, several head-scratching ”WTF? I don’t understand … 🙁 “ moments, worry and – perhaps – some honey.
Nothing like enough to recoup your expenditure, insufficient for your family, let alone your friends, but enough to call yourself a beekeeper.
Except … not so fast.
To call yourself a beekeeper I’d argue that you need to get your bees through their first winter.
This last part is so important it should be the primary goal of your first season.
Everything else is a bonus.
Beekeeping involves practical skills
And, unfortunately, you cannot learn these in a draughty church hall on alternate Wednesday evenings, or by reading and re-reading Ted Hooper’s Guide to bees and honey over the Christmas holidays.
At best you can learn the theory from books or from a beginners course.
The theory is useful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no substitute for doing a few hundred hive inspections and keeping good notes over several seasons.
The books or a Powerpoint presentation cannot convey the weight differences between frames of stores, sealed or open brood, the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle 😉 – difference in behaviour of a queenright and queenless hive, or the physicality of colony inspections in high summer.
They can describe them, but that’s not the same as experiencing them.
One thing they are particularly poor at conveying is the feelings experienced when you open your first really full hive.
For some ‘beekeepers’ this is the last beekeeping they do.
The ’sheer weight of numbers’ can be a bit overwhelming for some people.
They like the idea of being a beekeeper, but not the weekly interactions with tens of thousands of insects.
Beekeeping ‘taster’ days
Many local beekeeping associations run a ‘beekeeping taster day’ sometime in late spring or early summer. For £30 (or whatever … I’m probably hopelessly out of date) you receive a short introductory talk, before getting dolled up in a profoundly unflattering beesuit and shown the rudiments of using a smoker.
You then both observe and take part in a hive inspection.
An experienced beekeeper will open the hive and talk you through the first few frames, but then you’ll be handed the hive tool and helped to ‘have a go’.
If you’re lucky the ‘taster’ day will end, appropriately, with a honey (and mead) tasting session.
I think these are an ideal way to see if you suit beekeeping.
If you recoil at the sight of thousands of flying, crawling, stinging 2 insects then you have the answer. Try watercolour painting, or metal detecting or mixed martial arts instead … and thank me for saving you the additional £970 it would have cost to get you started as a beekeeper.
However, if – as I hope – you find the sight and smell and sound of a hive captivating, if the hive inspection is finished well before you’ve asked all the questions you want to, and if you wonder why you’ve wasted the first forty years of your life as a watercolorist, a detectorist or a cage fighter, then Welcome! 3.
These taster days have to be held when the weather is good and the bees are calm 4, perhaps seven months before the winter ‘start beekeeping’ courses. It’s a pity they cannot be juxtaposed.
Join your local beekeeping association
Beekeeping is an essentially local activity. The bees forage within a radius of 2-3 km of the apiary. The available forage influences how the colony develops as the season progresses, the local weather determines which trees and flowers grow and produce nectar, and when that nectar is produced.
Local beekeepers know about these things and are best placed to provide help and advice. Any training they provide will be ‘biased’ (for want of a better word) to local conditions. They’ve dealt with the variably late springs, or the nectar dearth in June, or the ‘boom and bust’ nature of beekeeping in intensively farmed land.
Many beekeepers are very sociable, enjoying a long chat over a cup of tea and biscuits.
You might not be, and you don’t have to be, but access to the wealth of local advice will be invaluable during your formative months and years as a beekeeper.
I fully expect a comment to the affect
”Nonsense … I was given a swarm in a box in 1980 and am entirely self-taught. Never joined the local BKA and never wanted to. I learn from my mistakes and a library book 5”.
All no doubt true, but that does not mean that the learning process wouldn’t have been smoother, or perhaps faster, with a little local assistance.
And it might have been a bit more enjoyable as well.
Remember also that the introduction of Varroa in ’92 made overwintering colonies significantly more difficult, and – three decades on – it remains the biggest problem for beekeepers.
You will also get ample opportunity to learn from your mistakes, even with help from the local association.
Attend a ‘start beekeeping’ course
Although I started by saying that, as a practical activity, you cannot learn beekeeping in a lecture theatre, the general principles of beekeeping are important and can be taught in classes, or learned from books. These principles include things like the:
- development cycle of queens, workers and drones
- fundamentals of swarm control (not the to and fro shuffling of boxes in a Pagden’s artificial swarm, but the principles that underpin most swarm control methods; separation of old workers and the queen from young workers and brood/queen cells … or preferably queen cell singular)
- apiary hygiene
- rational Varroa control and what happens if it is ignored
You can acquire all this knowledge from a good beekeeping book in the company of a wood-burning stove and a large glass of Barolo.
In fact, I’d strongly recommend you do this anyway.
But I’d also recommend you attend a ‘start beekeeping’ course run by your local beekeeping association. You’ll meet local beekeepers, you’ll make friends, you’ll get advice on equipment and apiaries and you’ll eat a lot of chocolate biscuits.
But I don’t think it’s necessary to attend one of these winter course before starting keeping bees. If your association runs evening/weekend apiary sessions and allows you to tag along then do so. Attend the course the following winter, but don’t delay the opportunity to do some practical beekeeping if offered the chance.
Get a mentor
If your local association does not offer some type of mentoring system then move house to an area with an association that does.
Use Rightmove or Zoopla to find somewhere suitable.
Clearly 6 I’m not being serious … but it does reflect how important I think mentoring is.
An association that doesn’t offer some form of active mentoring to all trainees underestimates the difficulties beginners experience and their need, over at least 1-2 seasons, to have some practical help and advice readily available.
Alternatively (or – even worse – as well), the association is offering too many places on the ‘start beekeeping’ course to provide the necessary follow-up support.
These courses can be lucrative; 50 places at £100 per person is a welcome boost to association coffers, but effective training involves more than 8 evenings in the church hall with tea and biscuits 7.
Are there 25-50 association members available and willing to provide mentoring for those beginners? Remember, the association probably ran the course last year for the same number … who will still need mentoring as they are probably about to get their first experience of swarming.
And, while I’m on the subject, can the association provide nucleus colonies to all the beginners they train? I think mentoring and the provision of nucs are important, and sometimes overlooked, responsibilities. I’ll return to nucs shortly.
Walk before you can run
Beekeeping is a broad church. All sorts of people get involved and there are all sorts of ways to keep bees. These include the type of hive used e.g. removable frame hives – Nationals, Langstroths, Smiths – top bar hives, skeps, tree hives etc and the methods used to manage the bees in those hives.
The majority of beekeepers in the UK use what I would consider ’standard’ management methods – a removable frame hive on which interventions for swarm control are employed and in which Varroa levels are minimised with appropriately used miticides.
But some beekeepers practice and promote others ways of keeping bees; encouraging swarming and avoiding the use of any chemical treatments.
I don’t think these management methods are suitable for beginners. Both are likely to result in the loss of colonies. Most swarms do not survive and it takes exceptional skill to keep bees without chemical miticide control.
I know some associations already promote ‘treatment free’ beekeeping on their winter courses for beginners. I worry about the survival rate of the colonies … and the proportion of beginners that eventually become beekeepers.
My suggestions would always be to learn to keep bees using the ‘mainstream’ methods before trying alternatives.
You might like the idea of keeping bees in skeps, eschewing chemical treatment and allowing them to swarm freely. After all, that’s more natural 8. However, you’ll only become a beekeeper if you don’t lose your colonies through swarming or disease.
And if you do repeatedly lose your bees, you’re much more likely to become disillusioned with beekeeping and abandon it for something easier, like quantum physics or ultramarathons.
Become competent in the widely-used mainstream methods of honey bee management and then, by all means, try something different.
Learn one method and learn it well
I’ve discussed this topic recently. Learn the principles that underpin a management method e.g. swarm control, and learn one way of employing those principles to achieve a successful outcome.
Use it, and use it again.
Use it until it becomes second nature, until you can totally depend upon it working, until you understand all the subtleties and nuances, the wrinkles and caveats.
I see little benefit in an association teaching Pagden’s artificial swarm and the Demaree method and a nucleus method of swarm control. It might make sense to an experienced beekeeper 9 but beginners will inevitably get confused.
The winter course might feel more comprehensive, but if attendees are just getting bamboozled by all the options then it’s not really helping them.
Personally, although it’s slightly unusual in that it doesn’t exploit the separation of [old bees + queen] from [young bees + brood], I’d teach the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s easy to understand, uses a minimum of additional equipment and – done properly – is 100% effective.
You also get a ‘free’ nuc from it … which conveniently brings me to … 10
Source local bees
Scientific evidence showed that, in a Europe-wide study, local bees did better than bees that were imported. The data indicated that they were better able to tolerate Varroa and that the colonies were larger when they went into winter. Other scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that strong colonies overwinter better than weak ones.
For these reasons alone it makes sense to source local bees when you start beekeeping. Buy a nuc from someone in your association, or offer to help your mentor for the season and get ‘paid’ with a nuc (you helped split) the following spring. An overwintered local nuc is probably the best option …
Alternatively, put your name down for a swarm and be prepared to go on a few trips to capture one.
Perhaps also put out a bait hive and one might well come to you.
Over the last decade or so I’ve rarely encountered a really poor quality swarm. They certainly can occur, but the majority would – after a careful check of Varroa levels and other pathogens – be fine for a beginner.
Your mentor will help you with those checks … er, you have got a mentor, haven’t you?
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get your first bees.
Assuming ‘normal’ spring weather the difference in getting your bees in early April or late May is irrelevant. Neither will get you any honey from the spring nectar. In addition, the weather is often rather changeable in April making your first few, slow, careful hive inspections stressful for the bees as the brood gets chilled. You’ll hold the colony back and not gain much useful experience.
Wait until the weather is better and nucs headed by a current year queen are available.
In Scotland that might be at least late June.
Of course, many beginners will choose to ignore this advice … they’ll order a nuc from one of the large commercial suppliers and collect it as early as possible. The bees may well not have been in the box very long, and the queen is likely to be imported.
By any definition these are not local bees … and they certainly won’t be in 3-4 weeks as all the bees will be then from the introduced queen. Will the seller provide help if things go awry?
The price of early-season nucs 11 reflects the demand, not necessarily the quality or suitability for a new beekeeper.
Your first season
I briefly touched on hopes and expectations earlier. Let’s finish by looking at a messy combination of these masquerading as what I consider priorities for the season:
- Successfully overwinter your colony. This has to be the priority as without it you have to start all over again. Successful overwintering requires three basic things:
- a healthy colony with low Varroa and virus levels
- a strong colony
- sufficient stores to maintain the colony through the winter
- Pathogen management, which 90% of the time means monitoring and treating (if needed) Varroa. Learn how to spot signs of virus damage and how to count mite levels in the colony. Understand the advantages and limitations of the various treatments that are available. Learn when to apply them for maximum effect, so that you use them as little as possible.
- Acquire the skills needed to judge the colony. Is it queenright? Are there the expected ratios of eggs, open brood and sealed brood? Is the colony expanding? Learn how to identify queen cells – even the carefully hidden ones – and to distinguish between play cups and charged cells. Try and understand the link between environmental conditions and colony temperament … which additional means you need to …
- Learn how to confidently and competently inspect the colony without overly disturbing or distressing the bees. Only then will you be able to distinguish between a clumsy inspection and a poorly tempered colony, or a usually well-behaved colony that is tetchy because it’s queenless (there are other, more definitive, signs) or because the nectar flow has dried up.
- 100 kg of honey per hive … if you’re gonna dream, dream BIG! In a normal season you should expect some honey from a spring-bought nuc, but consider it a bonus.
Your second season
Assuming you started the previous year with a late spring or early summer nuc (or a swarm) then this is likely to be the first season your colony will attempt to swarm.
Since it is preferable to have two colonies 12 – the comparative performance makes judging problems or environmental changes much easier – the logical thing to do is to use a swarm control method that creates a second colony.
The previously mentioned nucleus method, classic Pagden, or a vertical split will all readily achieve this.
What’s more, any of these three – conducted at the appropriate time for your local climate and forage – should barely interrupt the spring nectar collection. This means that you should get a spring and summer crop in many areas.
Apart from that it’s more of the same and steady as she goes.
Priorities 1-4 (above) remain equally important in your second season.
And sometime late in that second season, as you pile up the now emptied supers in the shed for year 3 (and consider buying an additional shed as you need the storage space), take a moment to congratulate yourself upon becoming a successful beekeeper 🙂 .
Don’t fool yourself that you know it all, or even that you know enough.
But I don’t either and I did all of the above about 15 years ago and am still learning.
Blah, blah, blah … I don’t think anyone reads this far down and at least two people signed up to Facebook notifications last week. I’m pulling the plug on new post announcements on Facebook very soon 13 so please register instead on one of the social media links in the right margin – Twitter, Instagram or Mastodon.
- And perhaps hope for less of that sort of anthropomorphic nonsense.
- At least potentially.
- And be warned it’s going to take you ~15 years before your income from honey sales exceeds your imminent expenditure!
- Or presumably they’d be called bad taster days.
- The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture … the 1877 edition by A.I. King, not the 42nd edition by Keith Delaplane and colleagues.
- I hope.
- Even chocolate ones.
- So it must be better?
- But, questioned carefully, often not complete sense!
- Heck! It’s almost as though this was planned …
- Perhaps £250 – £350 for current or overwintered respectively.
- At least two, but I don’t want to spook you.
- As I’m not prepared to spend £108/annum to post them automagically / Don’t know how to use Facebook / Am protesting about Trump being unbanned (delete those that do not apply – hint, it’s the last one).
David Evans. Its my considered opinion you have the best bee blog on the planet.
Please keep up this amazing work and the emails flowing.
If I could package up your sense of humour and market it, you would be able to retire to 4.5 days a week.
Sincerely, you are admired on the west, wet and left coast of Canada.
Many thanks Don …
I’m aware that I have a lot of readers on the west coast of Canada. Our climate isn’t dissimilar and the wildlife and scenery is wonderful … though, unfortunately, we have no wolves or bears 🙁
all great advice and I’d love to. unfortunately the local beekeepers are the most introverted lot I’ve ever met, not able to muster mentoring. i don’t have space to have my own bees, and after taking a course and successfully volunteering for a winter season, started looking for a mentor i could volunteer for.
insert the sound of tumbleweeds for the most part. i find one beekeeper who said i could help, then never called me for beekeeping (tho happily called me to help present to the public on open days). another said yes, called me a few times to help then stopped.
it’s now been so long since i did anything hands on that I’m either going to give up or go back to take an intro course again.
everyone suggests getting a mentor, as if it’s a real possibility. not.
That’s a great shame and an indictment of the local association. Whilst I accept that moving house may not be possible, how about a neighbouring association? Usually their areas are at least partly overlapping. I always found that ‘in person’ visits were more productive than a telephone call (this was when I lived in a more populated part of the country). Alternatively, evening sessions in the association apiary were good.
But, it takes two to tango, and if there’s no-one willing to help then it can be a futile and frustrating exercise.
It is a real possibility in many associations, but certainly not all of them.
Sorry your experience was so poor …
I do hear this a lot on FBook groups – happy to say if you are in Chelmsford or Braintree area of Essex you have two good associations; very different in character, and I get different things from each of them in the way of support – but never short of skill, knowledge, training..and the opportunity for monthly cake and coffee; and I just need to be a member of one, to get access to the other one, or indeed any other certainly within Essex
That’s good to know Phil … I belong to a couple of neighbouring associations on the East coast. Membership is inexpensive and both offer a different range of beekeeping experience (and biscuits 😉 ).
Great idea to be a member of more than one association.
Not everyone has a car to be able to drive around chasing associations and potential mentors. Not every association has regular open evening sessions with the association’s hives.
And ironically I did move house, away from my brilliant initial teacher & mentor. I thought it would be relatively simple to find a mentor in the area i moved to. My bad.
Hello again J
You’re right, but many do … and many associations really go out of their way to help and support their trainees, both on the introductory course and over the critical first year or two. As with anything, there are also exceptions, and there are certain areas where distance or transport issues make things impossible (I’m 55 miles from my ‘local’ association apiary).
I feel reprimanded-
I don’t chase my mentored once they know I’m willing to mentor and after two or three calls out to join me I don’t like to push it and hope that the potential beekeeper will know I’m working bees on a weekly basis and will have the forethought to call and say they’ll come.
I must try harder.
Good luck with finding a beekeeper you can get along with. Some of us are private folk some are just grumpy and some are busy.
It’s like any offer of help … both sides must engage. I’ve had the same experience with mentees. At the other end of the spectrum, some appear to need help with everything and struggle to make an independent decision (or lack the confidence to do so). Encouraging them to become independent can be tricky, but is necessary.
I’m private and grumpy and busy 😉
as a mentee not wanting to over burden busy/shy/grumpy beekeeping mentors, i enthuse how grateful i am when they invite me and say each time to phone and let me know when next they welcome my (meddling/questing) hands in their bees. i offer to do any job, no matter how messy, no matter if it involves the bees themselves.
when the mentors don’t have fixed beekeeping days, i can hardly just show up when I like so rely on them contacting me. i make my schedule clear every time as well as I’m still working unlike most of them.
yes it’s a two-way street. however, I’m stuck in the layby
Tricky J … not sure really what to suggest other than perhaps trying again, or – as I said earlier – trying an adjacent association.
I hope you find a suitable mentor this season.
Mentoring is definitely a two way relationship that needs to be agreed upon – what are you both going to do, and how you going to manage it; I agree there is introverts, but also not every Beek is retired so fits the activity, and any other around work and family etc
Worth also mentioning (as I’m now retired) that the absence of a 9-5 ‘working day’ means I’m free to do other things as well … presumably this applies to others who also don’t work. I now do less mentoring than I did when I was working 50+ hour weeks, though my remoteness is a major contributing factor as well.
As a beekeeper in my 4th year of beekeeping who also has a degree in Physics and Astrophysics I can confirm that…..quantum physics is much easier than beekeeping successfully 🙂
Many thanks for the confirmation Gary
Thanks for stirring up many happy memories of early days beekeeping!
The only thing I’d maybe add is not worry too much and forget to enjoy and cherish those starting steps, the bees usually are forgiving in the many slip ups we all make and things generally turn out ok, in many ways they’re the high days of beekeeping (a bit like how parents reminisce about “when the kids were small”)
Don’t get me wrong it’s still good later on but honestly there’s nothing that compares to (Sinead O’Connor song) your first queen , first frame of honey held up into the sunlight,first extraction, first times cracking that crown board open, it’s much more easy than it appears
You’re absolutely right … I still remember the pleasure I got from my first few jars of honey and the first queen I reared. I still get a lot of pleasure from honey and queens (but extracting … not so much!). However, you’re reminiscences are from the aspect of a successful beekeeper, as are mine. Some are less successful. I also remember a visit to the apiary in my third (?) year when I knew that only one of the 5 hives contained a queen – largely through my own incompetence. I rescued the situation (or the bees did) but there was a month or more of worries.
I’ll write a follow-up sometime about ‘the good times’ … there are a lot of them 🙂
Thank you David
A timely writing as I’m supposed to begin some of those So You Want To Keep Bees sessions in the local hall or worse on zoom. The management of hope and expectation against practical reality.
And they want instant gratification too
The gear has been gifted (Christmas)
The wrong hive has been purchased despite advice ( well it’s not compatible with what we use here , but it was a bargain) And they want bees now!!
I will heed your advice, urge them all to wait and come and SEE bees – probably not possible until well after Easter. We will have to find something to occupy them for the next three months…perhaps they can put frames together one can never have enough made up spares.….
The instant gratification is a symptom of our wider society (and the very fact I recognise means I’m starting to sound like an old curmudgeon) but it can be a major problem for beekeepers where we have this disconnect between the classroom (December – February) and the playground (April in a good year, but dependably May).
Are there any associations that run courses in the summer, with other peripheral topics – like wax, or honey or whatever – in the winter?
I find the information is insightful.
“To call yourself a beekeeper I’d argue that you need to get your bees through their first winter.” Thank you for that!! I’m just attempting to get them through my 2nd winter, but it was only when I did my first, that I felt proud enough to put Beekeeper on my LinkedIn page! I got no honey the 1st year, and not a lot last summer, but at least I’d “kept my bees”.
Well done! It does get easier and there will be more honey in future years … you’ll get the timing better with your interventions, keeping the colony stronger and more able to collect nectar. Strong colonies solve many/most beekeeping problems but – for beginners – can be both daunting and swarm factories.
Good luck for your third season 😉
I came upon your blog as I was frantically reasearching what to do when one my two hives swarmed last July – during my first season! You were kind enough to reply to my inquiry, and I started reading your blog then; your blog is a god sent, and the humour is sooooooooooo good!
Since then I have been reading avidly and trying to provide coffee twice a season (first one coming soon). That sentence of yours: “For some ‘beekeepers’ this is the last beekeeping they do.” is what happened to my wife when we opened one of the hive in full summer; she was just overwhelmed by the number of bees and I was thrilled…go figure.
I have only one hive left, my other hive left at the end of November, I don’t even know why! I am trying to get the swarmed hive through the winter…I really hope they survive!
Thank you for all of your writing, it is extremely apreciated.
You’re absolutely right about the different responses to opening a full hive … some shrink back saying “Woah!” and can’t get away fast enough, others move forward muttering “Excellent …” and wonder whether it’s time to add another super.
Assuming the bees aren’t aggressive (if they are then the first response might be the most appropriate 😉 ) then, as a biologist, I’ve never understood the quick retreat. However, each to their own and it’s probably fortunate that not everyone wants to be a beekeeper.
A midsummer test might not be the fairest time to expose the uninitiated … on the other hand, if they are fascinated and engrossed then you can be pretty certain they have at least one of the ‘skills’ needed for beekeeping.
Perhaps the only thing to be concerned about regarding your wife’s reaction is that she’s unlikely to offer you any help when the supers need removing 😉
Thanks for the coffee and have a good season.
Apologies – totally unrelated to this week’s blog. However, in one of your many other brilliant blogs you mentioned that you use egg boxes as smoker fuel. Not wishing to appear completely dumb but….
Do you use the egg boxes with other fuel? Presumably you rip them up…how full do you fill your smoker with the ripped up boxes? Roughly how many do you get through for a single smoke? These and many more questions spring to mind…
Wow … that is off topic. I tend not to use them alone (though they do work, but perhaps burn a bit fast) but mix them with whatever is available. I’ve got a lot of shredded cardboard from beekeeping supply deliveries, bags full of dried and very coarse chainsaw chips from ripping larch logs lengthways, pet bedding (not great as I have to pay for it!), dried grass (a favourite), old, dry, rotten wood, burlap, fondant boxes etc. I’ve got a plastic dustbin full of this stuff and top up the box I take to to the apiary as needed.
No idea how much I use. I just keep topping up the smoker – usually the largest Dadant – as needed.
I try not to use too much smoke, but I like to have a smouldering smoker ‘to hand’ if needed.
PS That’s an unoccupied bait hive left over from last season … no bees were harmed during that photograph.
Yes sorry. Bit of a curveball 😁. It’s just since I read that blog I’ve asked friends and family to collect egg boxes for me 😂. Now inundated with them I thought I should get a better idea of how to use them. I’d thought they’d be a magic ingredient mixed in with other fuel. Great answer. Thanks. Onto the new season now. Smoker at the ready….
(A couple of cups of coffee on their way)
I’ve written about smoker fuel years ago. It probably needs updating.
Good luck with the season ahead and thank you in advance for the coffees 🙂