It will be useful to understand a few terms before beginning beekeeping:
- Catch hive – a smaller box (usually wooden) with a few frames or bars in it, to attract a swarm of bees initially before moving them to a larger hive.
- Top bar hive – simplest and cheapest type of hive. Basically a wooden triangular box with a lid / roof. Single bars of timber with a groove in them hold a line of wax to encourage bees to build their comb on these. Bars are arranged in perpendicular lines across the box.
- Langstroth hive – a more complicated hive, with different layers, a bit like a chest of drawers. The bottom layer is where the queen lives and lays eggs. The top layers (which can be added onto as the colony grows) are with frames of combs for honey.
- Layens Hive – a classical horizontal hive whose inside dimensions mimic a natural tree hollow. Is better insulated than a Langstroth hive.
- Queen excluder – a metal mesh to separate the brood comb (containing eggs) from the honeycomb (containing honey). It has a mesh size that does not allow the queen to pass through to the honey side(because otherwise there will be mixed combs with eggs in some and honey in others), but all other bees can move freely across it. Generally more common in Langstroth hives.
- Foundation – a sheet of wax that has been molded to encourage bees to build comb onto it
- Nectar flow – a period when bees can harvest plenty of nectar to make honey.
Basic Steps Before Starting
- Prepare your garden to be bee friendly – investigate types of plants / trees / flowers they like;
- Any allergies? Good to check if you could be allergic to bees. If so, you probably should not keep bees at all;
- Is your home environment safe from bees? Children, pets, visitors etc.;
- Make sure that your hive can be under some shade / shelter (weatherproof);
- Make sure you have a stand for the hive to keep it off the ground – away from robbing insects like ants, and from extreme temperatures of the ground below.
- bee suit and cotton clothing
- smoker or suitable container to hold a small fire and produce and direct smoke
- large knife (to cut combs)
- paint brushes (to brush off bees from comb when you are checking or harvesting)
- a small catch hive or similar container to start off the colony.
- larger hive (can be a small catch hive or larger one)
Good To Have:
- propolis – to smear in the catch hive to attract a swarm of bees into it
- 20-gallon bucket (for processing harvested wax and honey)
- Cloth / mesh for sieving honey
- paint scraper (useful for lifting up comb bars and frames)
- tin cans for melting wax (to put on new bars or new comb or for making candles)
A Word on Experimentation
- We tried to encourage bees to build on a 3D printed comb (carefully measured to be the same dimensions as our species of bee)
- This involved two ‘slices’ of foundation (made from plastic), with a central removable section or ‘gate’ to slide out. The idea is that the sliding gate breaks the caps of the combs and allows honey to flow out at the bottom and be collected, but it will not injure a bee if it is working in the comb.
- The channel at the bottom of the hive can be connected to tubing that leads out of the hive to collect the honey.
Things Learnt Along The Way
- Clothes to wear – cotton (several layers, not just one!), not woolen, not acrylic, not tight – must be loose fitting; Clothing also needs to be light-colored (dark clothing suggests predators to bees!)
- Correctly fitting gloves make it much easier to work without getting stung – consider wearing several layers of gloves if necessary eg. latex and other gardening or hardware gloves on top (tightly fitting but thick);
- Orientation of the hive – try to align the hive running in a line from north to south (bees rely on magnetic fields for orientation – finding and navigating their way in their territory and finding their way home);
- Create an overhang cover over the entrance to the hive to shelter bees from rain or snow;
- Keep the vegetation under the hive area trimmed – so that there are no bridges for ants to get access to the hive – even a single blade of grass will act as a bridge!
- Place the legs of the hive stand in moats of water or water with oil on top. Make sure these are not too deep for other creatures to drown – put in mesh or sticks to help them climb out;
- Check moats and nearby vegetation regularly;
- Make sure there is a source of water nearby – bees need it for cooling hive in hot weather;
- Make sure the bees’ water source has suitable sticks or objects that they can clamber onto if they fall in;
- Smoker – can burn cardboard eg. egg cartons or combine with dry manure eg. cow manure (lasts longer than cardboard) or burlap;
- Work with a red light (headlamp) – it is gentle and does not disturb or attract bees;
- Work in early evening and on a cool or damp day when bees have less energy
- Do not wear perfume / deodorant when you want to work with bees – this can agitate them;
- Bees are also disturbed by metal – watches, earrings, necklaces;
- Do not work with bees after having a shower (smell of soap may aggravate them);
- Do not open up the hive too frequently – it stresses out the bees and they eat up their honey reserves – if they do not have enough reserves then they may just abandon ship (or hive)!
- As a general rule of thumb, do not harvest honey from bees in difficult environmental conditions. For example – in a dry season or after a bushfire.
Some simple mathematics: If you have a rectangular catch hive, do not leave it too long before moving your swarm into a larger hive, if it is a Top Bar hive. This is because the bees will have made their comb to fit the shape of the catch hive. This creates the problem that when you move the swarm, you will have a rectangular or square comb, but the top bar hive is triangular, so you will have to cut off the comb that the bees have painstakingly built!
- It may seem like a romantic idea to keep bees, but the beginning and initial maintenance of the hive can be daunting and much harder than you initially thought;
- It can take a long time to attract a swarm of bees into your hive. You will need lots of patience and be willing to change your setup. Nature does not rush. The scout bees come and go, and you should count yourself lucky if they decide to stay!
- You will need a good dose of enthusiasm and also a sense of curiosity for the natural world;
- Be prepared for some disappointments – bees deserting you, disease, honey robbing;
- Be prepared to learn and experiment – we have so much to learn from bees – how they function as a community, how they communicate;
- Watch videos and read up as much as you can – there is always something amazing to discover, no matter how small.
click to view the video below for some more introductory concepts.