Frequently asked questions about beekeeping

The intention is to give short answers here if possible, or guide you to where the information should be if a longer answer is required. There is also a category index that will help you to narrow down a search located on the home page by clicking on the 3 lines after about us on the right side of the top page.

In compiling this FAQ, I have used many of the questions that were originally set out by Dave Cushman, but I have rewritten or removed some and introduced others.

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

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

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

Before Starting Beekeeping

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

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

Starting Beekeeping

Q: What equipment do I need to start beekeeping?

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

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

Q: Shall I buy a Beginners kit?

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

Q: Where do I get my beekeeping equipment from?

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

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

A: Oh dear! This is very complex! Just look here and here and you will see several hives, but these are just a small selection. Wherever you are in the world the box must suit the bee, and that is usually determined by the prolificacy of the queen. Some frames have long lugs, others have short. In general long lugs are only used in the U.K. and Ireland, short lugs everywhere else. Most hives have top beespace(TBS), but the National and WBC have bottom beespace(BBS) as standard. Langstroth hives are the most common throughout the world, but the depth of boxes differ in different countries. In the U.K. and Ireland the most commonly used hive is the National. In Scotland and the North of England the Smith is also common. The WBC is losing popularity due to higher cost, the extra number of parts and the higher maintenance required. The Commercial and Langstroth are larger hives and are used in areas where prolific queens are popular like the US and Canada.

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

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

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

My own preference is for single brood box Langstroth hives using prolific queens. There are a few things in beekeeping that cause arguments and hive type is one, often because many form opinions without much knowledge or experience.

I said it was complex!

Q: How much spare equipment should I have?

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

Q: What type of bees shall I get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the beginner musn’t be fooled by is some of the usual “advice” such as:

“Black” bees are bad tempered. They can be, but so can some of the lighter yellow bees. In fact some of the most vicious bees I have handled have been yellow.
Buy docile bees. This is usually meant to mean what are known as Italians or another race, carniolans. In the pure state all races are usually good tempered, but early crosses can be very bad tempered, which can happen if your colony swarms or supersedes their queen. This is known as “F2 aggression”. These bees are very prolific and a 5 comb nucleus can be very full in a week or two and swarm if not dealt with properly. You can usually buy docile mongrel bees locally from another beekeeper, or native Amm if you are lucky enough to live in an area where they are used.
Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica-Amc) are very “swarmy”, despite what some say. I have seen swarms that have swarmed again in the same season.

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

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