It is my experience, especially in the company of non-beekeepers, as soon as my identity as a beekeeper becomes known questions of all sorts about the craft are directed at me. I have tried to base this section of the website on these experiences and also to include other matters that come to mind. To make the answers to your questions easier to find I have grouped together questions of similar content under the following headings i.e. Beekeeping in general; Honey; Honeybees; Protective clothing, hives & equipment; Suitable places for hives; The beekeeper’s work.
Beekeeping in general
Q. How can I learn about honeybees and become a beekeeper?
A. Join the local beekeepers’ association serving your area. You will meet beekeepers living near you who will know who has bees for sale etc. Most associations hold classes for beginners.
Q. What will it cost me to become a beekeeper?
A. Prices vary but a hive of bees together with an excluder and one super will cost you €100 approximately. Protective clothing will cost about €120. Other essential tools such as a smoker and hive tool will cost about €30.
Q. Do you get stung?
A. Yes. Beekeepers accept the fact that they will get stung sometimes. However, if you have quiet bees and you open the hives at suitable times you will not get many stings and mostly none at all.
Suitable Places for Hives
Q. Can I keep hives in my garden?
A. It depends on the size and location of your garden. A hive needs only a few feet of space but as most non-beekeepers are afraid of bees you must take your neighbours into consideration and at all costs protect them from stings. It should be possible to keep one or two hives in most gardens. Seek more advice from a beekeeper in your area.
Q. How can I find a suitable place if I cannot keep my bees in my home garden?
A. Check out some likely places in a country area convenient to your home. When you find a suitable place ask the owner of the land for permission to put some hives on this spot. DO NOT go to the landowner first and ask if he has any place where you could put some hives. He will probably say ‘no’ because he thinks you need a prime piece of land whereas a piece of waste ground with easy access is all you require.
Q. What kind of place is suitable for an apiary?
A. A piece of waste ground with easy access for a car but hidden from public view. The ground should be level and sheltered especially from the north and east wind. Easy access is very important, as bee boxes are heavy even when empty. Always place the hive on a stand such as concrete blocks or a wooden trestle. If placed directly on the ground they will always be damp and the bees will not survive in such conditions.
Q. How many hives can I have in one place?
A. It will depend on what sources of nectar are within reach of the bees, but about 10 hives would be plenty. You should try to ensure that there are not any other beekeepers within close range.
Q. Can I move my hive to a different part of my garden?
A. You cannot move it more than two feet at a time, otherwise the bees will not recognise the new location and will return to the original spot. If you want to move it further than two feet the best plan is to take it away to another location, at least two miles distant, and leave it there for about three weeks. You can bring it back then and set it down wherever you wish in your garden. The reason is that bees travel an average distance of two miles radius from the hive when foraging. Their landmarks would be unchanged within that radius therefore they would always return to the original site of the hive. When moved more than two miles the memory of the old landmarks breaks after about three weeks so they will set new markers when returned to the new hive site.
Protective Clothing, Hives, Equipment
Q. What should I wear when tending my bees?
A. Protection against stings is essential. A veil should be worn over the head and face. Wellington boots are also essential to prevent bees from crawling up under the trousers or slacks. Gloves should be worn until you become accustomed to handling bees, then in most cases they can be discarded. Equipment dealers provide a selection of protective clothing to choose from.
Q. What other equipment will I need?
A. The most essential tools are the Smoker and Hive Tool. The smoker is a canister with a bellows attached and is used to create smoke to keep the bees under control. The hive tool is used for separating the frames and cleaning off excess wax and propolis. A notebook and pencil to take notes of the condition of your colonies, a few empty matchboxes, a roll of adhesive tape are all useful items. It is a good idea to keep all these items in a little toolbox and take it with you when visiting your hives.
Q. How much honey will I get from my hive?
A. It depends on a number of factors and will vary from year to year. The amount of good honey-producing plants within range of your hive is very important. A strong colony in a very good season could collect upwards of 80 lbs but if the weather is not favourable 20 lbs or less might be your lot. Some years none at all is collected but this is the exception.
Q. What plants or trees produce nectar?
A. Many plants and trees produce nectar and there are books available that list these. However in Ireland the main sources of nectar are Sycamore, Horse Chestnut and Whitethorn in May; Blackberry and White Clover in June and July. Lime trees yield nectar in July and Fuchsia and Bell Heather are also good sources. The latter three are confined to certain areas of the country.
Q. Why are there different shades in the colour of honey?
A. The colour of honey depends on the source of the nectar. For instance honey from the trees is a rich dark amber colour but honey from white clover is very pale. In between these two shades is blackberry honey, a golden colour. Ling heather is very dark and has millions of tiny air bubbles right through it giving it the appearance of being sprinkled with tiny bits of silver.
Q. What is a swarm?
A. Under certain conditions the honeybee colony splits in two and one part flies away to a new location. This is called a swarm. It is the honeybees’ way of propagating the species. Swarm prevention is a major part of the beekeeper’s work because the loss of a swarm results in the absence of any sizeable honey crop from that hive. Generally the swarming season runs from early May to end of June but swarms can be found outside this period.
Q. How many bees in a hive?
A. This depends on the time of year. From October to March approximately twenty thousand but from June to September about sixty to eighty thousand bees make up the colony.
Q. Should I plant suitable flowers and shrubs in my garden if I want to keep bees?
A. Not necessarily. Honeybees will fly a distance of 1½ to 2 miles radius from the hive to collect nectar and pollen. This gives them a big choice of foraging sources. Certain flowers in your garden would provide a good source of pollen in spring but several acres of flowers are required in order to produce a crop of honey.
Q. Do you let out your bees at certain times?
A. No. Bees are never locked into the hive; therefore they can fly out whenever they wish. They cannot fly in the rain and if the weather is very cold they will not come out. They don’t fly in the dark either.
The Beekeepers’ Work
Q. How much time must I give to my beekeeping?
A. A visit once a week is sufficient from mid-April to end of June. From June to end of July supers must be added if required. This really depends on good weather and whether the bees need more storage space. Between mid August and mid-September sugar syrup must be fed until enough has been stored for winter. It is difficult to be more specific but in practice one or two hives will not take up much time over all.
Q. When do you take off the honey?
A. Generally beekeepers take all the honey off together sometime between mid-August and early September. The nectar-gathering season finishes at the end of July with the exception of ling heather so no more honey will be made until next year. If the beekeeper is working for section honey the crates should be taken off as soon as all the sections are sealed to prevent soiling of the honeycomb.
Q. How do you get the honey out of the comb and into the jar?
A. Each frame of honeycomb is lifted from the super and the wax cappings are cut from both sides with a knife. The frames are placed on end in a centrifuge called an extractor and when this is spun the honey is ejected. A tap at the bottom of the extractor enables the honey to be drawn off into a bucket. It is strained and left to settle for about twenty-four hours in another vessel called a ripener or settling tank. This also has a tap low down on the side and the jars are filled from this tap