Beginner's guide to beekeeping

Tiffany Daneff

Tiffany Daneff talks to Bill Turnbull about what happens when, how it works and how much it costs

The beekeeper's calender

End of winter

Check the bees are still alive and whether there is a queen.

Early spring

When the bees start bringing pollen back to the hive you know the queen is laying.

Mid April to beginning July

The swarming season. Hives need inspecting every eight days (the time it takes for an egg to be sealed in the queen cell). Once an egg has been laid and sealed inside the queen cell (the size of the top two joints on a little finger) the bees will swarm. The scout bees go off first. They will keep looking until they find somewhere suitable then return to alert the others. No one knows how.

Bees feed from the honey they make so they can only fly as far as they have the energy. The beekeeper can trick the bees into thinking they have swarmed by splitting the hive.

Year round

The beekeeper will check the hives to ensure they contain enough food (keepers often provide sugar syrup) and that they are free from disease. All hives in the UK now have the varroa mite which isn't such a problem itself but does bring viruses into the hive. One causes such bad itching that bees will chew their wings. "If you are disciplined about cleanliness," says Turnbull, "problems can be controlled". He has never lost a hive to varroa though that is largely because his are not in an apiary.

How does the hive work?

The bottom layer is the brood box which is filled with sheets of wax. The queen will lay eggs (as many as 2,500 a day in peak season) in the centre of this. Mesh excluders prevent the queen from laying anywhere else.

Extra layers known as 'supers' are placed above the brood box. One super at a time, as the bees fill the sheets of wax comb with honey. When all the sheets in a super are sealed with wax the keeper can remove the super. This is then spun to release the honey.

Honey, honey

Many keepers get two honey 'flows'. Early season (up until June) and from the end of June/July. In between is the 'June gap'. A phrase familiar to gardeners this is the period when spring flowers are over and summer ones yet to open. Rapeseed honey comes early and is the least sought after - it tastes bland, is very light and goes hard easily. Late season honey is darker and more strongly flavoured.

So you want to keep bees?

You're never too old to keep bees In fact, says Bill Turnbull, retired people often make better keepers as they have enough time to do the job properly.

You cannot just go out and buy some hives "Beekeeping", says Bill, "entails a significant amount of effort, quite a lot of learning and a fair amount of responsibility." You must do a proper course. Find out details from the British Beekeepers Association (; 02476 696679).

Is your garden big enough? Many are not and you will need to site your hives sufficiently far away from your neighbours. If yours is too small consider joining your nearest beekeepers' association which usually has an apiary where you can keep your bees.

How much will it cost? You may be able to borrow a hive and bees from your local association, during which time you will be mentored by an experienced keeper to check that all goes well. You’ll need to buy a beekeeping suit plus gloves, smoker and a hive tool. At the end of the first year, if you’re still interested, you can pay for the bees and hive too. Total outlay could be up to £500.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.