How to Set Up and Keep Bees
Categories: On The Farm
BY PENNY SWIFT
People have been keeping bees for centuries, both for beeswax and for honey, but there is still an incredible mystique about bee keeping. This is probably because bees generally move is swarms and if they attack they can kill any sized human. Coupled with this, many people are allergic to bee stings, and even one bee can cause a reaction that can be life threatening.
But over time we have learnt a great deal about bees and bee keeping, and with the equipment available today, just about anybody can set up beehives and keep bees for their honey and/or wax – safely and successfully. Better still, keeping a colony of honeybees can be incredibly rewarding.
Of course if you live in a rural area, it will be a lot easier for you to plan for beehives, however, an increasing number of people are keeping bees in suburban gardens and even in rooftop gardens in towns and cities. If you are in an urban area you won’t be able to keep as many hives as you can in country areas, and you will also need to be sure that you aren’t breaking local authority codes or bylaws. Once you establish that it’s legal and above-board, you can start planning, and begin to anticipate the fruits of your labour – delicious organic honey.
So what do you need to set up and keep bees? And how much do you need to know to be able to extract your own honey and bottle it? This article aims to introduce you to the fundamental principles of keeping honeybees, including the provision of hives and acquisition of bees. It will give you some insight into caring for your bees and dealing with potential problems, including disease, as well as the principles of extracting honey, how to bottle it, and what you need to do to harvest the wax that is part and parcel of all beehives.
WHERE TO KEEP BEEHIVES
You really can keep honeybees just about anywhere since bees will travel long distances to forage for whatever they need. But you do need to ensure the ground on which the hives are kept is well drained, and that there is a water source nearby that they can access. Generally minimal wind and dappled sunlight (rather than full sun) are best, and the hive should have good ventilation.
EQUIPMENT TO KEEP HONEYBEES
Equipment required to keep honeybees includes beehives, protective clothing, a smoker to help the beekeeper distract the bees and get access to the hive more easily, as well as a few other tools.
Contemporary beekeepers owe a lot to the American inventor Lorenzo Langstroth, who designed an easy beehive system about 160 years ago. Essentially all it was – and still is – is a movable structure that comprises a set of crates (or boxes) into which frames are placed, and a lid. Completely practical and ground-breaking at the time, the Langstroth hive made it possible to keep track of what was happening inside the hive, and in this way ensure that the bees all stayed healthy. It also made it possible to exclude the queen bee from the area where the honey was produced, and enabled the bees to build honeycomb into the frames. Additionally, it made it possible to remove honey from the hive without disturbing the bees.
Even though the original Langstroth beehive design was a lot simpler than the so-called Langstroth hives available today, the concept remains the same, and it is undoubtedly the most popular choice of hive for those who are serious about producing honey, either for their own consumption or commercially. These are relatively easy to source online and at regular beekeeping supply shops.
In simple terms, these hives comprise a series of boxes called supers that are either deep or a medium size – and where the queen bee will lay her eggs, and the other busy bees will look after the larvae. Then there are honey supers that are used by the bees for their honey stores, to keep the young bees fed. There are usually ten frames in the honey super box, all of which are reserved for the bees. Medium or shallow boxes are normally used above these, also with frames – and this is where you will harvest your honey.
The queen lives in the lowest box, and once the hive is established, you will only need to access this box now and then to check that the queen is still healthy. Generally the queen bee will live for about four years, after which she will need to be replaced by a new queen. A “queen excluder” should be positioned between the honey supers and the brood box to stop the queen from laying her eggs in the honey.
Langstroth hives are generally made of wood, and their frames are relatively easy to assemble. All you do is tack the four lengths of wood for each frame together, and then insert a wax sheet, available from beekeeping suppliers. Frames are generally reinforced with wire to help support the huge volumes of honey they hold.
In addition to these proven, traditional hives, many DIY beekeepers make their own top-bar hives, often referred to as backyard hives. These are a single size, and they are often built above the ground, with viewing windows so that you can check on the bees and the honey. While considered sustainable and less invasive than most other hives, the disadvantage of top-bar beehives is that you need to replace the frames every year – and you might also need to replace the bee colony. Also, you cannot extract the honey using the traditional centrifugal method.
There are numerous plastic and polystyrene beehives on the market now, though you do need to be careful about design and quality. While these may be cheaper, bees are more likely to accept a wooden hive than a plastic one.
There are beekeeping associations in many areas, and they might know of second hand hives on the market. In any case, if you have never kept bees before, it’s a really good idea to contact your local association (if there is one) to get advice, and to know who you can contact nearby if you have problems with your bees or hives in the future.
The number of hives you keep will depend on the space you have, and the quantity of honey you want to produce.