Starting Beekeeping

Beekeeping generally refers to keeping honeybees. Managing other pollinators such as butterflies and bumblebees are more specialist activities and aren’t covered here.

You will generally have to invest a few hundred pounds in protective clothing, tools and hives though some people save a lot by building their own hives for ~£30.


Beekeepers round an occupied hive. It’s rarely disturbed, it’s a cold day so few bees are flying, we haven’t opened the brood area which they are programmed to guard or annoyed them with smoke – no suits are required yet.

Although some people do start on their own, it is more usual to start with a training course or find an experienced beekeeper to act as a mentor. Accompanying them to an active hive will quickly tell you if bees make you nervous and illustrate many things you’d never think to ask. They will be able to advise on where to position a hive, where to get bees, show you bee behaviour, explain why we do things the way we do, what the sounds and smells of a hive mean, how to handle the girls without alarming them, the difference between a capped brood and honey cell. There are many things which are much easier to grasp by being shown them than reading them in a book.

You need to consider what type of hive you want to use. This affects your choice of mentor:

  • OxNatBees members generally use Warre or Top Bar hives (some are considering skeps, the traditional woven baskets). These are optimised for the health of the bees. Top Bar Hives don’t involve heavy lifting.
  • The other approach is conventional beekeeping, which uses standardised frames of comb made on foundation. This uses National or Langstroth hives in the UK (other countries use different standard sizes). Everything is optimised for the human users and maximising honey yields.
  • There is a spectrum of attitudes amongst conventional beekeepers. Some prioritise honey yields over all else, some are adamant that the only way to protect against varroa mites is regular courses of miticides, whilst others tend towards a more relaxed approach which could be likened to a low intervention style in conventional hives. If you’re interested in this mainstream style of beekeeping, you will find lots of information, courses and mentors through the British Beekeepers’ Association and their Oxfordshire branch.

Note large numbers of bees in the air at this frequently-disturbed training apiary. Suits are absolutely required.

The approaches differ largely in whether the beekeeper prioritises the convenience of the human or the bees – for example someone who moves hives around wants a light, portable hive but bees have evolved to live in hollow trees with thick, well insulating walls. Conventional beeks are currently trained to open and check their hives every week during summer, and treat with chemicals if they see signs of disease. This makes the bees feel threatened and they become more defensive. This isn’t great if you have a small garden. Other conventional practices include clipping the wings of queens, killing queens and replacing with bought-in ones every 1-2 years, importing foreign bees (risk of importing parasites, for a short term boost to bee stocks using bees which aren’t used to our long winters and weaken local genetics), using foundation to reduce the number of drones the bees raise.

Low interference / natural beeks prefer to use natural selection sort out pests, and watch bee behaviour at the hive entrance to figure out whether everything’s OK rather than open the hive every week. This has earned natural beekeeping an undeserved reputation amongst some hard line conventional beekeepers of not caring for their bees. These tend to be the same conventional beekeepers who deny that wild colonies can survive without human help. (These feral colonies obviously thrive, and the reason is that they have evolved coping strategies such as grooming to deal with things like varroa mites. The ones that didn’t died.)

Many OxNatBees members are also members of OBKA. The approaches vary in some details but 80% of the knowledge is common: how to recognise disease, catch a swarm, deal with predators like wasps…

Key Websites:

www.simplebees.wordpress.comcoherent site about natural beekeeping, offers courses –Oxfordshire based – offers courses, seminars and talks in the UK and abroad and organize bi-annual conferences;  promoters of sustainable apiculture

www.biobees.comalternative beekeeping styles. UK oriented. Forums, articles, training courses

Key Books:

Top-Bar Beekeeping by Les Crowder and Heather Harrell, ISBN 978-1-60358-461-6 (paperback), 978-1-60358-462-3 (ebook). The most comprehensive and up to date book on Top Bar Hives right now. Les Crowder has run several hundred top bar hives in New Mexico for decades, and is probably America’s leading practitioner of this style of beekeeping.

 The Buzz about Bees biology of a Superorganism by Jurgen Tautz – published by Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-78727-3, e-ISBN 978-3-540-78729-7 . Applicable to all types of beekeeping. Tautz is a leading bee researcher and in this easy to read book, he introduces how bees perceive the world and why they behave the way they do, and introduces us to leading edge research on sex, diet, comb, the superorganism etc.

At the Hive Entrance by H. Storch – published by European Apicultural Editions – “how to know what happens inside the hive by observation on the outside”. Translated from German, be careful to get a copy in English. Online versions available. Unlike the other two books above, this isn’t written as an introduction for the general reader, it is a slim volume aimed at the practising beekeeper (of any tradition). But if you do keep bees, especially in Britain or northern Europe, it’s invaluable.

It’s important to learn from books which discuss the same type of bee (in Britain and America this is the European honeybee) in a similar climate to the one you live in. For example in Israel the main problem is heat rather than a seasonal winter.

Further reading can be found on our links page.

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