“Start beekeeping” courses

It’s mid-January. If you are an experienced beekeeper in the UK you’re being battered by the remnants of Storm Brendan and wondering whether the roofs are still on your hives.

If my experience is anything to go by, they’re not 🙁

But if you’re a trainee beekeeper you may well be attending a course on Starting Beekeeping, run by your local beekeeping association. Typically these run through the first 1- 3 months of the year, culminating in an apiary visit in April.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Sometimes a not-really-warm-enough-to-be doing-this apiary visit in April 🙁

Beekeeping, just like driving a car

Many years ago I attended the Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers Introduction to Beekeeping course. It was a lot of fun and I met some very helpful beekeepers.

But I learnt my beekeeping in their training apiary over the following years; initially as a new beekeeper, and subsequently helping instruct the cohort of trainees attending the course and apiary sessions the following year(s).

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

The distinction between the theoretical and practical aspects of the subject are important. You can learn the theory in a classroom, refreshed with tea and digestive biscuits, with the wind howling around outside.

Plain chocolate are preferable

However, it is practical experience that makes you a beekeeper, and you can only acquire these skills by opening hives up – lots of them – and understanding what’s going on.

Some choose never to go this far 1, others try but never achieve it. Only a proportion are successful – this is evident from the large number who take winter courses compared to the relatively modest growth in beekeeper numbers (or association memberships).

Beekeeping is like driving a car. You can learn the theory from a book, but that doesn’t mean you are able to drive. Indeed, the practical skills you lack may mean you are a liability to yourself and others.

Fortunately, the consequences of insufficient experience in beekeeping are trivial in comparison to inexperienced drivers and road safety.

Theoretical beekeeping

What should an ‘introduction to beekeeping’ course contain?

Which bits are necessary? What is superfluous?

Should it attempt to be all encompassing (queen rearing methods, Taranov swarm control, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) or pared back to the bare minimum?

Who should deliver it?

I don’t necessarily know, but for a variety of reasons I’ve been giving it some thought(s) … and here they are.

The audience and the intended outcome

You have to assume that those attending the course know little or nothing about bees or beekeeping. If you don’t there’s a good chance some of the audience will be alienated before you start 2.

When I started I had never seen inside a beehive. I don’t think I even knew what a removable frame was. Others on the course had read half a dozen books already. Some had already purchased a hive.

Some even had bees (or ‘hoped they were still alive’ as it was their first winter) 😯

I felt ignorant when others on the course were asking Wouldn’t brood and a half be better? or I’ve read that wire framed queen excluders are preferable.

Framed wire QE ...

Preferable to what?

What’s a queen excluder?

By working from first principles you know what has been covered, you ensure what is covered is important and you keep everyone together.

Some on the course like the idea of keeping bees, but will soon get put off by the practicalities of the discipline. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be catered for on the course. It can still be interesting without being exclusive 3.

But, of course, the primary audience are the people who want to learn how to keep bees successfully.

For that reason I think the intended outcome is to teach sufficient theory so that a new beekeeper, with suitable mentoring, can:

  • acquire and house a colony
  • inspect it properly
  • prevent it swarming, or know what to do if it does
  • manage disease in the colony
  • prepare the colony for winter and overwinter it successfully

The only thing I’d add to that list is an indication of how to collect honey … but don’t get their hopes up by discussing which 18 frame extractor to purchase or how to use the Apimelter 😉

Course contents

I’m not going to give an in-depth breakdown of my views of what an introduction to beekeeping course should contain, but I will expand on a few areas that I think are important.

The beekeeping year and the principles of beekeeping

I’d start with an overview of a typical beekeeping year. This shouldn’t be hugely detailed, it simply sets out what happens and when.

It provides the temporal context to which the rest of the course can refer. It emphasises the seasonality of beekeeping. The long periods of inactivity and the manic days in May and early June. It can be quite ‘light touch’ and might even end with a honey tasting session.

Or mead … 😉

‘Typical’ means you don’t need to qualify everything – if the spring is particularly warm or unless there’s no oil seed rape near you – just focus on an idealised year with normal weather, the expected forage and the usual beekeeping challenges.

The normal beekeeping challenges

But this part of the course should also aim to clearly emphasise the principles and practice of beekeeping.

Success, whether measured by jars of honey or overwintered colonies, requires effort. It doesn’t just happen.

Hive inspections are not optional. They cannot be postponed because of family holidays 4, weekend breaks in Bruges, or going to the beach because the weather is great.

Great weather … good for swarming and swimming

Quite the opposite. From late April until sometime in July you have to inspect colonies at weekly intervals.

Whatever the weather (within reason).

Not every 9-12 days.

Not just before and when you return from a fortnight in Madeira 🙁

Andalucian apiary

While you’re looking at these Andalusian hives your colony might be swarming.

And hive inspections involve heavy lifting (if you’re lucky), and inadvertently squidging a few bees when putting the hive back together, and possibly getting stung 5.

The discussion of the typical year must mention Varroa management. This is a reality for 99% of beekeepers and it is our responsibility to take appropriate action in a timely manner (though the details of how and when can be saved for a later discussion of disease).

Finally, this part of the course should emphasise the importance of preparing colonies properly for the winter. This again necessitates mentioning disease control.

By covering the principles and practice of a typical year in beekeeping the trainee beekeepers should be prepared from the outset for the workload involved, and have an appreciation for the importance of timing.

We have to keep up with the bees … and the pace they go (or grow) at may not be the same every year, or may not quite fit our diaries.

Bees and beekeeping

There is a long an interesting history of beekeeping and an almost limitless number of fascinating things about bees. Some things I’d argue are essential, others are really not needed and can be safely ignored.

Bee boles in Kellie Castle, Fife, Scotland … skep beekeeping probably isn’t an essential course component.

Of the essential historical details I’d consider the development of the removable frame hive is probably the most important. Inevitably this also involves a discussion of bee space – a gap that the bees do not fill with propolis or wax. Of course, bee space was known about long before Langstroth found a way to exploit it with the removable frame hive.

The other historical area often covered is the waggle dance, but I’d argue that this is of peripheral relevance to beekeeping per se. However, it could be used to introduce the concept of communication in bees.

And once the topic turns to bees there’s almost no limit what could be included. Clearly an appreciation of the composition of the colony and how it changes during the season is important. This leads to division of labour and the caste system.

It also develops the idea of the colony as a superorganism, which has a bearing on swarm preparation, management and control.

Queen development

Queen development …

Probably most important is the development cycle of the queen, workers and drones. A proper understanding of this allows an appreciation of colony build-up, the timing of swarming and queen replacement, and is very important for the correct management of Varroa.

As with the beekeeping year, sticking to what is ‘typical’ avoids confusion. No need to mention laying workers, two-queen hives, or thelytokous parthenogenesis.

Keep on message!


What a minefield?!

As long as the importance of compatibility is repeatedly stressed you should be OK.

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive …

A little forethought is needed here. Are you (or the association) going to provide your beginners with bees?

I’d argue, and have before, that you really should.

Will the bees be on National frames? 14 x 12’s? One of several different Langstroth frames? Smiths?

Or packages?

I said it was a minefield.

Beginners want to be ready for the season ahead. They want to buy some of that lovely cedar and start building boxes. They need advice on what to buy.

What they buy must be influenced by how they’re going to start with bees. One of the easiest ways around this is to allocate them a mentor and let them lead on the specifics (assuming they’ll be getting bees from their mentor).

One thing that should be stressed is the importance of having sufficient compatible equipment to deal with swarming (which we’ll be coming to shortly).

Dummy board needed ...

5 frame poly nucleus hive needing a dummy board …

My recommendation would be to buy a full hive with three supers and a compatible polystyrene nucleus hive. In due course beginners will probably need a second hive, but (if you teach the simplest form of swarm control – see below) not in the first year. A nuc box will be sufficient.

Swarming and swarm control

Swarming is often considered to be confusing 6.

It doesn’t need to be.

The life cycle of the bee and the colony have been covered already. Swarming and queen cells is just honey bee reproduction … or it’s not swarming at all but an attempt to rescue the otherwise catastrophic loss of a queen 🙁

Deciding which is important and should influence the action(s) taken.

The determinants that drive swarming are reasonably well understood – space, age of the queen etc. The timing of the events, and the importance of the timing of the events leading to swarming is very well understood.

Preventative measures are therefore easy to discuss. Ample space. Super early. Super often.

It’s swarm control that often causes the problem.

And I think one of the major issues here is the attempts to explain the classic Pagden artificial swarm. Inevitably this involves some sort of re-enactment, or an animated Powerpoint slide, or a Tommy Cooper-esque “Glass, bottle … bottle, glass” demonstration 7.

Often this is confounded by the presenters’ left and right being the audiences right and left.

Confused? You will be.

Far better to simply teach a nucleus hive-based swarm control method. Remove the old queen, a frame of emerging brood, a frame of stores and a few shakes of bees. Take it to a distant apiary (or block the entrance with grass etc. but this adds confusion) and leave a single open charged queen cell in the original hive.

This method uses less equipment, involves fewer apiary visits, but still emphasises the need for a thorough understanding of the queen development cycle.

And, to avoid confusion, I wouldn’t teach any other forms of swarm control.

Yes, there are loads that work, but beginners need to understand one that will always work for them. Hopefully they’ve got dozens of summers of beekeeping ahead of them to try alternatives.

I think swarm control is one area where the KISS principle should be rigorously applied.

Disease prevention and management

Colony disease is a reality but you need to achieve a balance between inducing paranoia and encouraging complacency.

This means knowing how to deal with the inevitable, how to identify the possible and largely ignoring the rest.

The inevitable is Varroa and the viruses it transmits. And, of at least half a dozen viruses it does transmit, only deformed wing virus needs to be discussed. The symptoms are readily identifiable and if you have symptomatic bees – and there can be no other diagnosis – you have a Varroa problem and need to take action promptly.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

In an introductory course for new beekeepers I think it is inexcusable to promote alternate methods of Varroa control other than VMD-approved treatments.

And, even then, I’d stick to just two.

Apivar in late summer and a trickle of Api-Bioxal solution in midwinter.

Used properly, at the right time and according to the manufacturer’s instructions, these provide excellent mite management.

Don’t promote icing sugar shaking, drone brood removal, small cell foundation, Old Ron’s snake oil or anything else that isn’t documented properly 8.

Almost always there will be questions about treatment-free beekeeping.

My view is that this has no place in a beginners course for beekeepers.

The goal is to get a colony successfully through the full season. An inexperienced beekeeper attempting to keep bees without treatment in their first year is a guaranteed way to lose both the colony and, probably, a disillusioned trainee beekeeper from the hobby.

To lose one may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. 9

Once they know how to keep bees alive they can explore ways to keep them alive without treatment … and they will have the experience necessary to make up for the colony losses.

In terms of other diseases worth discussing then Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is rapidly increasing in prevalence. Again the symptoms are pretty characteristic. Unlike DWV and Varroa it’s not yet clear what to do about it. Expect to see more of it in the next few years.

Nosema should probably be mentioned as should the foulbroods. The latter are sufficiently uncommon to be a minor concern, but sufficiently devastating to justify caution.

By focusing on the things that might kill the colony – or result in it being destroyed 🙁 – you’re obviously only scratching the surface of honey bee pests and pathogens. But it’s a start and it covers the most important things.

Most beginners have colonies that never get strong enough for CBPV to be a problem. Conversely, their weakness means that wasps might threaten them towards the end of the season, so should probably be discussed.

And, of course, the Asian hornet if you’re in an area ‘at risk’.

My beekeeping year

By this time the beginners have an overview of an idealised beekeeping year, an appreciation of the major events in the year – swarming, disease management, the honey harvest and preparation for winter.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

But an ideal wrap-up session to a starting beekeeping course would be the account of a real first year from a new beekeeper.

What were the problems? How did they attempt to solve them? What happened in the end?

This asks a lot of a relatively inexperienced beekeeper. Not least of which is good record keeping (but of course, they learnt this on the course the previous year 😉 ).

However, the comparison between the ‘textbook’ account delivered during the course with the ‘sweating in a beesuit’ reality of someone standing by an open hive feeling totally clueless is very enlightening.

Sweating in a beesuit

With sufficient preparation you could even turn it into a quiz to test what the trainees have understood.

I’ve seen several ‘starting beekeeping’ courses. All have had some of the things described above. None have had all of them. Most have included superfluous information, or in some cases, dangerous misinformation.

Which brings neatly me to the question of who should teach the course?

If you can do, if you can’t teach

Ensuring that everything is covered at the right time, avoiding duplication and maintaining the correct emphasis takes skill for one person. For a group of individuals it requires a lot of preparation and strict instructions not to drift off topic.

You might have noticed that many experienced beekeepers like to talk.

A lot.

A course handbook becomes an essential – both to help the students and as a guide to keep “on message” for the tutors.

Often it is some of the most experienced beekeepers who teach these courses.

Some are outstanding. Others less so.

Their years of experience often means they take for granted the subtleties that are critical. The difference between play cups and a 1-2 day old queen cell. A reduced laying rate by the queen. How to tell when there is a nectar flow on, and when it stops.

All of this, to them, is obvious.

They forget just how much they have learned from the hundreds of hives they have opened and the thousands of frames they have examined. They’ve reached the stage when it looks like they have a sixth sense when it comes to finding the queen.

Queen rearing course

Listen up Grasshopper!

As Grasshopper says to the old, blind master 10 “He said you could teach me a great knowledge”.


But sometimes they’ve retained some archaic approaches that should have been long-forgotten. They were wrong then, they still are. Paint your cedar hives with creosote. Use matchsticks to ventilate the hive in winter. Apistan is all you need for Varroa control.


Matchless matches

If any readers of this post have had these suggested on a course they are currently attending then question the other things that have been taught.

Get a good book that focuses on the essentials. I still think Get started in beekeeping by Adrian and Claire Waring is the best book for beginners that I’ve read 11.

Get a good mentor … you’re going to need one.

And good luck!



  1. A minor but significant proportion of attendees on these courses decide never to get bees (sometimes even before they finish the course or stand beside an open hive).
  2. This has a bearing on the Who should deliver it? question.
  3. In fact, I’d argue that a good introduction to beekeeping should still be informative and entertaining to those who decide not to pursue it as a hobby.
  4. Unless you go to New Zealand in November.
  5. Far better that the course encourages some not to get bees than – through a lack of awareness of what is really involved – to get bees and let them perish.
  6. There were definitely no charged queen cells last week … where on earth did all these capped cells come from?
  7. I wish there was a higher resolution version of this video.
  8. With the exception of Ron’s snake oil (which doesn’t exist as far as I’m aware) all of these probably do not work, or if they work at all they don’t work well enough. Why teach something that doesn’t work well enough?
  9. With apologies to Oscar Wilde who was referring to parents.
  10. From the TV series (1972-75) Kung Fu. You had to be there.
  11. But I’ve not read them all and there are ever-increasing numbers of them.

24 thoughts on ““Start beekeeping” courses

  1. Bob Smith

    Thanks David, a great and timely post!
    Medway BKA has also had a long hard think on this and our current methodolgy is to run a sandwich course – 3 weekly sessions at the start of the season leading into a club apiary session, pairing up with another member or members during the summer to gain the all-important practical experience and finally 3 more classroom sessions in the autumn to bring in honey processing, getting started etc. We urge beginners to get bees from us in the year following their course.
    We did this last year but the biggest problem is finding sufficient current beekeepers willing to take on newcomers. As you suggest, we are not solely after experienced mentors, just current beekeepers willing to share the triumphs and disappointments. This is our limiting factor.

    1. David Post author

      Hello Bob

      I expect your experience in struggling to get mentors is not unusual. I know several BKAs running courses with 30 – 50 trainees. I know these courses generate useful funds for the association, but I always wonder where they’re going to find sufficient mentors and enough nucs for the entire cohort. Is that really a fair way to start trainees on such a practically-orientated pastime? Is the result not bound to be a huge – and unmet (locally at least) – demand for early season nucs, followed by problems with colonies being managed by some who barely know one end of a hive tool from the other.

      Of course, some (trainees) survive and subsequently flourish despite this baptism of fire, but I can’t help but wonder whether there’s not a better way to do things. What if the course was ten times the price, but included the nuc and a mentor? Or 7 times, or whatever – I’ve not done the maths. The beginner is going to have the financial outlay on the course and a nuc anyway … why not make it a “package deal”? Sure, fewer people would start, but those that did might stand a better chance of succeeding and the club coffers would still benefit.

      I like the sound of your two-part training scheme spanning summer sessions in the apiary. I like the confidence offering a honey processing session! One of the things WLBK did was to run weekly evening apiary sessions all season for the beginners. A few of us would turn up each week to lend a hand and ensure everyone got a go at lifting frames, spotting the queen etc. They set up an excellent training apiary. I spent many happy hours there.

      Good luck with the new trainees this season 🙂

      1. Archie McLellan

        As clear and inclusive as ever, David.

        I like your idea of the cost of the course including the nuc, bees and (unpaid) mentor. Without any suggestion of criticism of our BKA (for whom I have nothing but admiration), I remember my failure to retain the whole Pagden thing, until I realised that I hadn’t grasped the significance of the name ‘artificial swarm’. More recent learners can sometimes be more aware of all the unknowns for beginners. As you say, explaining something to someone else forces you to clarify your own thoughts – and retain then too.

        So, those who can, teach. Those who can’t teach should do something else.

        1. David Post author

          Hello Archie

          Teaching a group of people in a draughty church hall is also very different from one-to-one on a balmy May afternoon. There are some very experienced beekeepers who are hopeless at the former, but inspired (and inspiring) at the latter … as Fred (above) says, his mentor wore his wisdom lightly and knew when to step in (or out). Knowing when not to intervene is as important in tuition as being there when it all goes horribly wrong.

          I think it would be interesting to consider more ‘creative’ ways to provide training and maintain the BKA finances. I fear that some associations pile them in during January but don’t (or can’t) provide the ongoing support needed during the remainder of the season. Quantity and quality are sometimes mutually exclusive.

          There are alternative approaches as well, for example Andrew Abrahams runs highly regarded short courses for beginner and intermediate beekeepers on Colonsay. That would be a great way to experience beekeeping … though the weather on the west coast might be an issue!

          Perhaps a very large shed would be useful 😉


  2. John Bolger

    This is a stunningly good article.
    I haven’t taught beekeeping and won’t for a some time yet.
    But having previously taught “doing” subjects I agree completely with what you say about including only the basics. Too much confuses.
    I love your writing style and wit.

    1. David Post author

      Thanks John

      If the fundamentals are understood then all the complex twiddly bits will make sense in due course. I ended up eventually learning what a queen excluder was on my “start beekeeping” course all those years ago, though I’ve been known to use them wrongly 🙁


  3. shirley sharpe

    I’ve always wondered why the larvae turns itself around between days 9 and 10 – going from (technical jargon here) pointy end up to pointy end down . Any thoughts please.

    1. David Post author

      Presumably this marks the transition between eating the last of the dregs of brood food from the bottom of the cell and preparing to emerge head first after pupation …

      Once they start pupation they’re effectively immobile.


  4. Fred

    Another in the now long line of consistently insightful (and funny) articles… you’re in danger of becoming the Liverpool FC of beekeeping (reference not everyone will get?).
    I do wonder about how many people still have bees year 2-3 onwards (tho there can be many reasons for giving up) and whether the courses are too academic in nature with not enough emphasis on practical (tho so hard to manage practical with large numbers gathered round small numbers of hives at often , over in Ireland, a less than ideal time of the season).
    I well remember literally forgetting EVERYTHING during the very action of opening a hive for the first few times ( and still do…how come that queen excluder is leaning against the hive and not in it as I begin checking adjacent hive?)
    Completely agree on importance of mentoring ( you’ve written an excellent article about that somewhere before ) , would also add find a buddy from the course who preferably lives nearby cos your bees will probably progress in similar fashion that first year and you end up helping each other in the future, queens, frame of eggs ,share extractor etc
    I had Bees at the Bottom of the Garden book first year, author takes a hive through its first year month by month with small diversions on what oddities can happen and somewhat spookily everything described in the book happened to my bees in exact timeline.
    I loved my first few years with bees, still love them now but in a different way. My mentor was an old school gem who chuckled gently at my blunders, wore his wisdom lightly and knew when to step in/out (that whole thing about letting your kid go when riding a bike).

    1. David Post author

      Hello Fred

      I’m not sure I even get the Liverpool FC reference … do you mean no domestic trophies like 2018/19? I’d better be careful as football, like politics, can result in some strong opinions.

      I’ve also wondered the proportion of beekeepers that persevere for more than 2-3 seasons. I know that hundreds have been trained by the BKA’s I’ve been a member of, but the membership numbers only increase incrementally. Of course, many might have outgrown their BKA and be keeping bees successfully on their own … but I doubt it. I think there’s a very high level of ‘churn’ during those early years and I regularly meet people (non-beekeepers) who say I once kept bees, or My neighbour kept bees for a couple of years.

      People do give up for a variety of reasons. If they simply don’t enjoy beekeeping then that’s fine. There are some weirdos out there who don’t find it a fascinating and rewarding hobby. Weird!

      However, if it’s because they couldn’t successfully keep bees alive and, after repeated attempts, gave up disillusioned, then that is a real shame. It’s not that difficult and most problems are surmountable.

      Your point about ‘buddy systems’ is very good. I should have mentioned it here or in my previous discussion of mentoring. Thank you.

      Bees at the Bottom of the Garden is another book that is often recommended. My copy is old (2001) and the section on Varroa is hopeless (there’s as much coverage on Braula which most beekeepers never see these days). I assume more up-to-date copies exist and that mite management is now covered better. Certainly the month-by-month guide and reference pages are a useful way to present things.


  5. Mike S,

    “Apivar in late summer and a trickle of Api-Bioxal solution in midwinter.” If you stick with just these two over the years, are you concerned about development of genetic resistance in the mites?

    1. David Post author

      Hello Mike

      This is a post about starting beekeeping … providing clear and unambiguous advice that is most likely to enable new beekeepers to succeed. I think it’s imperative that tuition provided gives the best chance of defeating Varroa which many new beekeepers will otherwise struggle with.

      These two treatments are widely used and very effective if used properly. There is no evidence of resistance to oxalic acid. Apivar (active ingredient amitraz) has multiple targets and, whilst there are some accounts of resistance, they remain poorly documented (though see a post on this in the next couple of weeks).

      Alternating treatments (as suggested) – apivar, OA, apivar, OA – is a classic strategy to avoid the development of resistance. I’d argue that this is preferable than using a treatment that was less effective or an approach, including those listed, that does not significantly reduce mite levels. The risk of a beginner losing their colonies to mites is far, far greater than the chance of resistance developing. They can learn about effective integrated pest management (IPM) methods in due course.


  6. Jackie Elliott

    A good read as usual. I completely agree with you re swarm prevention / control, take a nucleus. You mention checking the hive every week from April through to July. I agree with that but with a caveat. I feel it is detrimental to be taught (as I was) to go through the hive frame by frame every week. It disturbs the bees too much and if the beginner is nervous ( who wouldn’t be at the beginning ) the bees may become grumpy with poor handling. I would teach observI got the colony from the hive entrance, recognising a hive boiling over with bees and in your first year forget honey.

    To have the best start newbies shouldn’t be sold bees too late, as early as possible but before July is ideal, that’s down to us. 😊

    1. David Post author

      Hi Jackie

      I don’t disagree that inspections disturb the bees. However, done properly – no excessive smoke, gently, don’t drop any frames on the ground (!) – I think the benefits for the beginner far outweigh the potential risk of making the bees grumpy.

      • They quickly gain experience and confidence in handling bees as the colony expands – rather than opening the box and finding it bursting with bees on the point of swarming.
      • With careful observation they should be able to see the relationship between eggs/larvae, sealed brood and adults – an important skill that helps determine whether the colony is still expanding or if the queen is starting to lay fewer eggs and perhaps being encouraged to swarm.
      • They hopefully find queen cells before it’s too late. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes I’ve opened with beginners that have a nice collection of sealed queen cells and no eggs (or queen) and am told “Well, they looked OK a fortnight ago!” I’d prefer them to find play cups and then charged cells so they could perhaps prevent the inevitable 🙁
      • The inspection is less weather/forage dependent. I probably spend hours watching hive entrances (and agree that you can determine quite a bit of what’s happening inside the box) but the level of activity is always influenced significantly by the prevailing weather and what forage is available. Of course, learning how this affects foraging is also a skill worth learning 🙂

      Getting bees early requires more beekeepers overwinter nucs. Or buying something of unknown provenance … sometimes these are fine, other times they are a box of bees thrown together with an imported queen, a frame of drawn comb and some foundation. In this instance the woodenware is probably more valuable than the bees. The beginner may not be best placed to determine the quality of what’s being offered.

      One advantage of getting bees in July is that there should be no problem getting them strong enough to overwinter successfully without any real danger of them swarming. However, because of the timing of many training courses, many beginners aren’t prepared to wait that long.

      More overwintered nucs is the answer 🙂

  7. Alex

    Hi David – great article as usual! I wonder what you think about teaching about different subspecies of bees and the merits of AMM and local/native bees to beginners? The recent lecture by John Chambers at the National Honey Show really outlines the benefits https://youtu.be/w-pAQt6pFhM . However, beginners often get buckfast or others because they falsely believe they will be more productive, or because they falsely think AMM are aggressive. Personally, I’d love to see something (simple) included in the SBA basic beekeeping certificate to counter the rubbish I hear propogated elsewhere.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Alex

      While remembering to keep things as simple as possible I think extolling the benefits of local bees is worthwhile. I’ve recently posted two relevant articles. One emphasised the importance of strong colonies for overwintering although the study started out as an analysis of locally adapted queens. The second was a large European study that pretty-convincingly showed the benefits of locally adapted bees.

      I’d be a bit nervous about preaching the merits of one strain over another strain across most of the UK, largely because there’s such a mix of bees everywhere. However, the exception are those areas – largely in the west; Cornwall, parts of Wales and the west coast of Scotland – where Apis mellifera mellifera predominates. These bees do well in these areas, foraging in conditions many ‘warm-blooded’ strains would avoid.

      More important than strain though is Varroa status (infested or not). It’s inexcusable to take mite-infested bees to a Varroa-free area. I suspect it’s irreversible and, due to drifting and robbing, one persons selfishness (or ignorance), potentially causes problems for all the beekeepers in the area.

      The Lochaber BKA, of which I’m a member, is currently conducting a survey to determine which areas in its ‘patch’ remain mite-free. I have a vested interest in this as I’d like the option to keep bees without worrying about Varroa in the future.


  8. keith

    Great article David, sound advice especially for the beginner and the rest of us who only think we are more experienced!

    1. David Post author

      Thanks Keith

      It’s really meant as advice – or a brain dump – on some of the priority areas I think are sometimes missed (or messed up) by the people running the introductory courses. (Clearly) It’s not comprehensive. As someone pointed out on Twitter #safety #first nobody ever mentions it, or something like that … so perhaps not clearly enough?! There were a lot of other things not mentioned, all of which are essential components of a course for new beekeepers. After all, it’s not rocket science … so we should make sure it doesn’t sound like rocket science!

      We’re all learning. I know I am as it’s said that you learn by your mistakes … and I make loads of them 🙁


  9. Roger Gill


    Good to see you reccomending beginners’ courses in your BBKA column this month. However, on the same page (p.67) I see that you recommend two techinques for varroa mite monitoring: ‘sugar wash’ or ‘alcohol roll’. I was aware of the latter, having seen it performed outside The King’s Arms of a Saturday night, but the former is a new one to me


    1. David Post author

      Hello Roger

      I think I should have written the ‘sugar dust’ … which is an equivalent to a beekeepers ‘alcohol roll’ using icing sugar. Icing sugar seems to be about as efficient and reproducible as alcohol (or windscreen wash, or whatever you use).

      If I’d written ‘sugar roll’ instead there would have been comments about Greggs.

      As an aside, you can also use carbon dioxide (e.g. from a suitable fire extinguisher) to temporarily gas the bees for mite counting. I dabbled with this a year ago and hope to have another go a bit more systematically this year. The advantage of this over alcohol is that the bees should survive.


  10. Debbie Emery

    First year newbie. Love this article. Course completed in May, nuc received in late June. I’m a proverbial ‘sponge’, soaking up information from all sources but on the job and practical training has taught me so much. My challenge now is over-wintering and if successful (and I’m doing everything in my power for that to be so) I am excited to expand in 2022. Havent enjoyed anything more than beekeeping, ever!!! Fascinating to hear of different experiences and methods. Now booking exams and hoping to mentor into the future. Keep the insights coming. Very entertaining 👏

    1. David Post author

      Hi Debbie

      I still (just about) remember the enjoyment I had when I started. It’s a fascinating pastime (obsession) and my enjoyment is undiminished after several years and (checks notes) well over 300 hive inspections this season alone. Mentoring is good for two reasons – firstly, giving something back and encouraging others, and secondly because there’s no better way to learn than having to teach.

      The one piece of advice I’d give is to learn one method – for swarm control, colony expansion, queen rearing, uniting, queen marking, whatever – and learn it well, then try others. Don’t jump from method to method without mastering any of them. You need a fallback position you can absolutely rely upon at times.

      Have fun,

    1. David Post author

      Hello Raphael

      You will need a mentor in addition to a good book … someone who already keeps bees and can provide practical advice. I don’t have any PDF manuals and the majority of the pages here are not specific practical advice. This is one of the best books for new beekeepers in my opinion.


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