Friday, 7 March 2014

Getting started keeping bees

Based on the discussions I had at the Sustainable Living Festival, keeping bees is something that seems to appeal to a lot of people. So we thought it might be useful to describe what's involved in getting started in beekeeping.  There's a lot more to it than just plonking a hive down in your backyard.  The information that follows is based on an article we wrote on that topic for Permaculture Victoria's magazine, PIE.  Hopefully it helps fill in some blanks for any prospective beekeepers out there.

People get into beekeeping for a variety of reasons. Some want to harvest their own honey, others want bees for the pollination services they provide in their gardens. Others, like us were concerned about the global decline in bee populations and the resulting impact on food security, and wanted to do something positive about it. The loss of honey bees has direct implications for our food supply and this of course affects everyone.  It’s not just honey we’re talking about here, it’s the large number of fruit and vegetable varieties that rely on bees for pollination. It seems that this worldwide decline in bee numbers is due to many factors.  One thing it has done is raise concerns about the use of chemicals in relation to beekeeping - those that are used on the plants that the honey bees visit, as well as those used in the hive itself to control pests and disease.  The decline of honey bee numbers and its flow on effects, got us thinking how we could do our little bit to help.  Learning that we could legally keep bees in our suburban backyard was the clincher.
bee on miniature peach blossom
Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and one where the learning process never stops. As people who’ve kept bees for many decades will tell you, there’s always something new to learn about bees and beekeeping.
If you are interested in keeping bees, there are a number of practical steps involved.  First off, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re getting yourself into.  Fortunately there is a wealth of information available for the novice. A book like “The Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping” is an excellent place to start.  Written for the novice, it will give you a very clear picture of what is involved in keeping bees.  Just note that that it is a northern hemisphere book so you'll need to the adjust the seasons accordingly. "Backyard Beekeeping" by Courtenay Smithers is a good Australian book for beginners.
If you've done some reading and you’re still keen, then the next step would be to join a Beekeeping group such as Permaculture Melbourne’s Natural Beekeeping group or the Victorian Apiarist's Association (VAA). Here you will find people with experience in beekeeping who will be only too happy to help you.  Go along to meetings, ask questions, learn from others and take advantage of the knowledge that such a group can provide.  The Natural Beekeeping Group also runs training courses, which are a great way to find out what’s involved in keeping bees.
Getting some hands on experience working with bees is the next step. It’s one thing to read about beekeeping, but it’s quite another thing to be suited up and working the hive when the bees are flying all around you.  It’s good to feel confident about what you're doing before you get your bees.  For free hands on experience, you can attend the Collingwood Children’s Farm Apiary on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month.  This is an apiary whose purpose is to educate the public about keeping bees.  They have protective gear available so you can suit up and, under experienced supervision, look inside a hive.  Going along to sessions like this is a great way to build up your confidence and learn about what’s involved in looking after a hive. If getting to Collingwood isn't an option for you, then ask around in the beekeeping clubs you've joined. It's more than likely you'll find someone who would be happy to have you come along and watch when they next open their hive.  You'd need to buy or borrow some protective gear if you wanted to get close up to the action though.

The next step is to get your equipment and your bees.  Keeping bees can be done in a low cost, sustainable way, however there is still some equipment required.  Beekeeping supply shops stock all you’ll need to get started.  For a standard Langstroth style hive the shopping list would look something like this:

- top lid,
- hive bottom,
- one full depth 8 frame super (hive box, either assembled or flat packed),
- 8 full size frames, assembled or, most likely, in bits,
- if you intend to go with foundation - 8 sheets of foundation, wire, eyelets etc., ask the supplier,
- if you intend to go "natural comb" - one sheet of foundation,
- one emlock, complete
- one top mat

- Nails, screws for assembly

Later on you’ll need additional boxes (called ‘supers’) but the list above is pretty much it for starters. Assembly instructions for your hive can be obtained from the supplier. We bought our gear from Bob’s Beekeeping and his website has hive assembly instructions. Once assembled, the exterior of the hive will need several coats of paint or other weatherproofing material and this will need to be done well in advance of getting your bees.  You’ll also need some beekeeping tools – at a minimum this would be a good sized smoker, a J-hive tool and a metal bucket in which to place your lighted smoker when you’re not using it (to reduce the risk of fire).
With your hive built, painted and in place now it’s time to get your bees.  The best way to get your bees is to put your name down on a ‘swarm list’. Swarming is how bees reproduce and during Spring beekeepers are often busy taking phone calls from the public and removing swarms from backyards.  These bees then need a new home, hence the swarm list.  You’ll find that being a member of a club will give you the opportunity to get your name on such a list.  In this way, not only do you get your bees for free, you are doing a public service in housing an unwanted bee colony.  In preparation for getting your swarm you’ll need to have your hive set up and ready to go.  Having the correct site for your hive is very important.  In Victoria you must keep your bees in accordance with the guidelines in the Apiary Code of Practice.   The document is free and can be downloaded from here. Amongst other things, it contains information as to how hives are to be positioned so that they do not cause a nuisance to your neighbours or to the general public. In urban areas, this is extremely important to get right!
Our hive - the second box was added 20 days after the swarm was installed

Once you have your swarm settled in their new home, they will need around 4 weeks to settle in.  During this time the bees will build comb so the queen can start laying. Use this time to observe your hive and become familiar with your bees.  It’s also the time to look into getting some protective clothing such as a suit and gloves and getting a second box so the hive has room to expand.  Do some research and buy the bee suit that meets your needs.  Don’t skimp by getting something cheap that doesn’t do the job – you need to be calm and relaxed when you work with bees.  Knowing you are wearing good protective clothing goes a long way to help you achieve this calmness.  We have these suits and reckon they are totally worth paying a bit extra for.
And in beekeeping there is no substitute for experience – learn from others, avoid their mistakes and adapt what you learn to your specific situation.  Small scale suburban beekeeping  is very different from keeping bees in a commercial apiary so what works in one case is not always suitable for use in the other.  We endeavour to keep our bees in a natural and sustainable way as described at  The more we read about beekeeping, the more this approach resonated with us.  The US beekeeper, Michael Bush, provides a convincing argument as to why natural beekeeping is the way to go in his excellent book The Practical Beekeeper.  The following statement really hit home:
"The other side of helping bees with treatments of pesticides and antibiotics is that you keep propagating bees that can't survive. This is the opposite of what we need. We beekeepers need to be propagating the ones that can survive. Also we keep propagating the pests that are strong enough to survive our treatments. So we keep breeding wimpy bees and super pests."

Makes sense, doesn't it?
We’ve certainly enjoyed our beekeeping journey so far and look forward to learning more about these fascinating creatures.  There are lots of fantastic books out there on the subject.  Some books we found useful were:

Permaculture and keeping bees are a natural fit in many ways. If you are prepared to put in the time and effort required to learn how to responsibly keep bees then you’ll surely find it a rewarding experience.

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