Getting Started with Bees
So, you are thinking of becoming a beekeeper. How exactly do you start and where do you begin?
This page is designed to help you understand the practicalities of becoming a beekeeper. You will see that getting into bees is surprisingly easy.
Please note that there are some important regulations to consider before you become a beekeeper. Check out our LEGAL REQUIREMENTS page for more information about those. In the meantime, here are EIGHT practical steps that you should follow if you want to keep bees.
1. Visit a beekeeping club
Going to a bee club meeting is an obvious first step for any aspiring beekeeper. As well as helping you to learn more about beekeeping, a visit to a club will help you find out whether you are comfortable working with bees. Not everyone is, so there is no need to feel embarrassed if you try it and decide you don’t like it. Check our FIELD DAYS page and join us for a no-obligation, no-cost try out.
2. Join a beekeeping club
We believe that after the bees, our members are the greatest asset of our club. If the club visit ignites your passion and you really do want to keep bees, the next logical step is to join a beekeeping club. This will help you to make new contacts and meet lots of other beekeepers. Some of these will be novices and newcomers; others will have many years’ experience. You will also discover which club members sell bees, queens, hives and equipment. Others are happy to make a swap or pass on captured swarms. Others will be able to help you when it is time to harvest your honey or if you run into unexpected problems. The cost of club membership is a small price to pay for such a comprehensive range of benefits and support. See our HOW TO JOIN page for more information.
3. Read, Read, Read
Before you spend any money on equipment, take some time to read about bees and beekeepers. You won’t learn everything you need to know, but it will give you a head start. Our Club has a comprehensive LIBRARY of beekeeping journals and books which may be borrowed by members without charge. Your local library will also have some beekeeping books and the internet is a fabulous source of beekeeping information. Check out some of the websites, blogs and How To guides listed on our LINKS page.
4. Buy an established hive. Better still, buy two
The easiest way to get started is to buy a hive. Hives are usually sold as either a small starter hive known as a ‘nucleus’ or nuc; or a complete full-sized hive. If you buy a nucleus, some sellers will sell the complete nuc (bees, queen, base, box, hive mat and lid); while others will only provide the frames and bees and expect you to have a new hive ready when the bees arrive. Either way, nucs usually contain just five frames that will need to be transferred into a full-size hive as soon as practicable.
While many beekeepers prefer to keep just one hive, there are advantages in keeping two. For example, if one hive loses its queen, you have a back-up at hand. One option for urban beekeepers or those with a smaller section is to keep a full-hive and a nuc. This won’t involve too much extra work and you shouldn’t need too much extra equipment.
Before you agree to buy a hive, check that the base, boxes and lid are in good condition and free from obvious rot or decay. Do not expect the hive to be in perfect condition, but do not be afraid to ask the seller to change or repair any damaged parts. Ask the seller to let you inspect the hive to make sure that it has a queen and contains eggs, larvae and capped brood as well as adequate stores of pollen and honey. Get the hive checked for any signs of disease by an experienced beekeeper. Better still, get it checked by an approved beekeeper with a DECA. This person will have passed a qualifying test and will know what to look for. Joining the club will help you to make contact with lots of approved beekeepers.
Make sure that the seller removes their registration number from the hive when you complete the sale as they are the only person authorised to do so. Register yourself as a beekeeper straight away and let the Registrar know the location of your apiary. Remember that beehives may not be kept at a site for more than 30 days without their location being registered as an apiary (see HERE).
5. Build your own
Building your own hive is not a difficult as you might think. Hives typically consist of a base or floor, at least one brood box (this is where the queen lays eggs and the workers raise new bees), at least one honey box (commonly known as a ‘Super’), a Queen Excluder or mesh grill to keep the queen in the brood box and out of the super, a top cover (known as a hive mat) and a lid to keep out the rain. In New Zealand, the law requires bees to be housed on moveable frames. These are wooden or plastic ‘hangers’ that provide a space for the bees to build wax comb. There are usually eight, nine or ten frames in each box.
Hive boxes and all the component parts can be bought pre-assembled or as self-assembly kits. Construction is pretty easy and can be done with a hammer and nails or a screwdriver and screws. Some beekeepers like to glue their boxes using exterior PVA or ‘Liquid Nails’. Others are happy just to screw or nail them together. Bees produce a lot of moisture which, together with the weather will really take its toll on untreated timber. To protect them, brood boxes and supers can be painted (protects against UV rays), varnished (shows the natural grain of the timber) or dipped in paraffin wax (sterilises equipment and gives long lasting protection). However, please note that paraffin dipping requires special equipment and is probably beyond most hobbyist keepers. Frames are a bit trickier as they must be wired and a sheet of wax foundation embedded or melted onto the wires. However, this is relatively simple once you know how.
If you do build your own, you will need to obtain some bees and a queen. If you are lucky, you might be able to get hold of a captured swarm. Otherwise, you will have to buy your bees from a seller. Again, the Club is the ideal place to meet the right people to help you make this happen.
6. Get Kitted Out
While many experienced beekeepers will tell you that their bees are good natured and rarely sting, the simple fact is that honey bees have - and use - a venomous sting. To most people, a sting feels like a sharp stab with a burning needle. Some people are sensitive to bee venom and may suffer an allergic reaction if stung. Symptoms range from mild irritation and localised swelling to anaphylactic shock. However, with the right protective equipment, it is perfectly possible to avoid being stung by your bees. You should consider a protective veil together with full length overalls or a bee-suit. Gloves are advisable, although these are a matter of personal choice as they can make it difficult to perform manual tasks. Of course, you will soon learn to tell when your bees are in an aggressive mood, but wearing the right protection will reduce the chances of you actually being stung.
A smoker and a hive tool are probably the most important tools you will need. These can be obtained from beekeeping retailers either locally or online. The range of models is very wide, so talk to other beekeepers to get some advice on which would suit you best.
At the end of the honey flow, you will need to extract the honey from your hive. This can be done in several ways. Some people mash the honey comb and strain the honey, some use a mechanical honey spinner or extractor. Others prefer to take their capped honey to commercial operators who extract and bottle the honey for them. The Club demonstrates different methods for extracting and processing honey at its Field Days towards the end of the honey season. The Club has a number of honey extractors which are avilable for HIRE by members only at very reasonable rates. Whichever method you use, please bear in mind that honey offered for sale in New Zealandy must be extracted and bottled in accordance with Food Safety regulations, even if it is produced by hobbyist beekeepers.
7. Get your DECA
Whichever way you chose, your true journey as a beekeeper will only begin once you have your bees. Give your knowledge and expertise a boost by signing up for a course. The American Foul Brood Recognition training is essential and will be a big step to obtaining your DECA. This will confirm your ability to recognise and identify disease and will allow you complete your Certificate of Inspection (COI) and Annual Disease Return (ADR). See our AFB page for details of the local training provider and next available course.
The club also runs a number of training days throughout the year. These are offered in addition to our Field Days. A small fee is payable by those wishing to attend. See our EVENTS page for details of future courses.
Tertiary courses in beekeeping are offered by a few education providers in New Zealand. Some of these will help you to obtain NZQA credits and may lead to qualifications such as the National Certificate or Diploma in Beekeeping.
8. Take an Apiary Course
If you prefer to take a course, you have 2 options. Firstly you can take a (low cost) course on specific topics our club offers during the year. Or you can take a multi-week course from Agribusiness. or at Telford. These courses start in July usually.