So, you’re interested in becoming a beekeeper? Beekeeping is one of the most rewarding activities that you can do. Not only are bees a fascinating species, but South African bees are under threat and beekeeping is an excellent way to help combat this issue. Also, think of all the fresh honey you’ll be able to enjoy!
Whether you’re thinking of taking up beekeeping as a hobby or want to throw yourself into it full time, this is the guide for you. In this article, we look at how you can go about becoming a beekeeper, the equipment you will need and some tips for getting started. Read on to find out how to start on this exciting journey!
There are two bee species that live in South Africa called the African honey bee (Apis mellifera Scutellata) and the Cape bee (Apis mellifera Capensis). Both bees can be found across South Africa although Cape bees are more common in the southwest whilst the African honey bee is more commonly found in the north and central South Africa.
There are some slight differences between the two bees which might help you decide which species you want to farm as a beekeeper. The African honey bee is a more aggressive bee (more likely to sting) capable of producing larger quantities of honey. The Cape bee is more docile although can sting if it is provoked. However, this type of bee has the ability to parasite other bee colonies, especially African honey bee colonies.
Each bee colony is made up of a queen, her drones, nurses and worker bees and each has a specific role to play in producing honey and new bees. At the heart of the colony is the queen bee who is larger than the other bees and the only one with the ability to lay eggs. A drone bee is a male honey bee, whose only role in the colony is to mate with the unfertilized queen. Worker bees are female bees and they carry out different tasks in the hive including housekeeping, feeding the queen, drones and larvae, collecting the pollen and nectar, and making the wax. The job of nursing the unhatched eggs is left to the younger worker bees and once they mature, they are responsible for larger tasks such as building honeycomb from beeswax.
The hive is where your bees will live so it is arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment you will buy! If you are planning to take up beekeeping as a hobby, then you might need a slightly different hive to someone who wants to start a beekeeping business. The three main types of beehives are Langstroth hives, Top Bar hives and Warré hives. They have some fundamental differences that differentiate them, so be sure to do some wider research before choosing the type of hive you want.
As a quick overview, however, Langstroth hives are the most commonly used hive and probably the best one for a beginner to start with. These are modular and expandable beehives that are easily accessible by the beekeeper. You can also expand the hive as you need to if your colony grows in size.
A Warré beehive is quite similar to the Langstroth hive as it is another modular hive made from stacking boxes. The key difference is that new boxes of the Warré hive are added underneath the preexisting boxes instead of on top like they are in a Langstroth setup. This means existing boxes need to be moved up every time a new one is added, which could potentially be off-putting to some beekeepers.
Top Bar hives are quite a different design to Langstroth and Warré hives. They are individual frames of comb in one single, long box meaning there are no heavy boxes to lift or adjust. They are also at a convenient and comfortable height for the beekeeper to access. Their non-modular design does mean that they can’t be expanded in the way that Langstroth and Warré hives can be. However, they have a more simple design that makes them an attractive option for many hobbyist beekeepers.
Frames hang inside of your hive for bees to build their honeycomb in. It is here that they will live, lay offspring and make honey. These frames are removable units to make it easy to harvest the honey.
The smoker allows you to fumigate your hive with smoke to make sure that your bees stay away from you whilst you remove the trays of honeycomb.
Hive tools are a critical piece of equipment that you’ll need to detach the honeycomb from the sides of your hive. A hive tool is required for this because bees glue everything in their hives together with propolis. They’re usually very affordable so you shouldn’t have an issue finding one that fits within your budget.
In the summer, bees gather pollen to produce honey however in the winter when plants and flowers aren’t in bloom, they’ll need your assistance and this is where a feeder comes in. Mix equal parts sugar and water to create a solution. Add this to your feeder and clip onto your hive to feed your bees during the winter months.
Your bee suit is worth investing in - a higher quality suit is going to offer more protection and better ventilation. Remember, beekeeping can be difficult work so a comfortable suit is a must! Make sure to get yourself a jacket with a veil to keep your face protected.
Beekeeping gloves are normally made of soft leather or another tough material to protect against stings. They are an important safeguard to keep your hands protected whilst handling your beehive. More experienced beekeepers might feel confident enough to approach a beehive without gloves but we wouldn’t recommend this to beginners!
A queen catcher is a tool used for moving the queen without losing her. You might want to keep her inside of the catcher whilst going through the hive. You can also use this tool for catching a swarm since the rest of a hive will usually only stay as long as the queen does.
You need to make sure your feet are properly covered when approaching a beehive, which is why having good quality and protective footwear is important. A good pair of boots or wellies are your best choice to protect your feet without interfering with your beekeeping suit.
The most common ways to order honey bees are in the form of package bees or a nucleus hive. Package bees can be ordered through your local beekeeper or local beekeeping organisation. Your package bees will include a queen, some workers and a feeder. Your bee supplier will be able to advise you on how best to introduce the queen to the workers in the colony.
A nucleus hive (nuc) is a half-size colony that will usually include five frames of honeycomb, bees, a queen and brood. A nuc allows you to jump ahead with the growth of your colony however you do risk the honeycomb spreading pests and disease from the donor beehive to your hive.
When beekeeping, there might be information specific to your local area and the bees most commonly found there. The best way to keep on top of this information is to connect with your local beekeeping organisations. These organisations will become your first point of referral if you ever have any questions about beekeeping or assistance managing your hive. It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people passionate about nature and the environment!
When you’re new to beekeeping, the amount of information you need to take on board can be overwhelming. You might find you have lots of questions or feel nervous about handling bees for the first time. A beekeeping course is a great way to ensure that you have a good overall understanding of the practice. It’s also likely you will get advice and information unique to your local bee species too.
There is so much to learn when it comes to beekeeping - one of the reasons it’s such an exciting hobby! There is a ton of information out there both in books and online so be prepared to dive in. Bees are a fascinating topic and learning about their biology, evolution, and behaviour will give you a new-found appreciation for nature.
There is no legal requirement for beekeepers to inform their neighbours that they have bees, however, if you’re planning to keep bees in your back garden, then it is the considerate thing to do. Otherwise, you could end up with a very unhappy neighbour on your hands if they accidentally get stung. As long as you have enough space in your back garden, your bees shouldn’t be an issue however you should still tell your neighbours to be cautious, especially if they have young children.
Just like humans, bees need to drink water to survive. Make sure that there is a clean supply of water near to the hive. It’s a mistake to assume that your bees will find their own water. Colonies on average require a litre of water during warm days. If they have to seek water sources for themselves, they may become accustomed to another location and once this happens, it will be difficult to divert them to another location closer to the hive. You can avoid this entirely however by providing your own water source.