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Want to learn beekeeping? Here’s what I would and wouldn’t do if I were to start over.

Updated: Jan 5

Buying your first nucleus of bees

It’s the start of a shiny new year, and many people will be thinking that this spring will be the one where they finally get a beehive and some honeybees. For those of you who are at that point, you’re about to embark on a fascinating adventure – and I’m excited for you! I still vividly remember the evening I drove out to collect my first-ever nucleus of bees. I drove slowly back down the A11, in disbelief that I had several thousand honeybees in the boot of my Fiat Punto. The photo is of that first nucleus colony.

When it comes to freely available online content designed to help beginners learn, there are numerous blogs, websites, and YouTube channels dedicated to it – all packed with valuable hints, tips, and demonstrations. I haven’t created such content yet, so this particular blog marks the beginning of my offerings, which I'll expand over time.

When reflecting on how I prepared for getting my bees, and what I did when I got them, these are the things that crop up:

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Theoretical and Practical Learning Experiences Before Buying Bees While there is plenty of theoretical knowledge available, nothing quite prepares you for the sensory overload that accompanies opening a bustling hive for the first time—especially if you're alone. "What do you do when bees cover the lugs and frames? Where do you place the hive tool when there's no clear space free of bees? How do you inspect combs when they're covered with bees?" The answers to seemingly obvious questions that come easily when you're on a sofa drinking tea, might not come as quickly when you're in the moment, staring down at hundreds or thousands of bees for the first time.

Learning how to carry out a beehive inspection

Before bringing my nucleus of bees home, I had several practical encounters with other people's hives. These experiences, though not formal courses, involved invitations from beekeepers running apiaries at different scales who welcomed my assistance for the day. Repetitive tasks like lifting boxes, stacking, re-stacking, and using the hive tool to separate and lift frames brought a sense of normality to opening hives. Having another beekeeper on hand to point things out and provide guidance was reassuring. I highly recommend participating with beehive inspections before purchasing your bees to build confidence and learn the importance of inspections. If you don't know anyone nearby, consider reaching out to your local beekeeping association.

One additional point worth noting is that I purchased my first two beehives from new as flat-pack budget cedar hives. Building them myself helped me understand how all the parts worked and how they functioned together. I assembled them in my old kitchen and then practiced opening the hive for inspection, using the hive tool to move and lift frames, and re-stacking the hive. I mention this because if you buy a nucleus of bees in the spring, they will quickly outgrow the nuc box, requiring you to move them into a larger hive where they can continue to grow. This involves dealing with bigger, heavier hive boxes and more bees. Practice these manipulations several times to help find your rhythm.

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Get a Mentor – especially if you’re going at it alone Just having someone at the end of a phone or an email can provide you with much-needed peace of mind when faced with uncertainty about your bees. Please bear in mind, though, that if your mentor is generously offering their time for free, you need to respect it in return and appreciate that they won’t be available 24/7. The bee emergency you encounter in your garden one day may often be addressed with a calm sit-down over a cup of tea and some exploration of a beekeepers forum online, rather than a frantic phone call to your mentor, who may be out with their family at the time.

Having several mentors or knowing a few other more experienced beekeepers is ideal too – sometimes there are multiple solutions to a problem, so having various suggestions can be helpful. You'll find that beekeepers won't always agree on things – and that’s fine. Even if you try something and it doesn’t work out, try to see the value in the learning experience. In a couple of years' time, you might find yourself describing your experience to another new beekeeper who may be troubleshooting the same thing. You can then share what you might have done differently.

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Buying Beehives – Think Ahead Before bringing my 6-frame nucleus of bees home, I had already built two brand new budget cedar National hives and had purchased a spare poly nuc. By the time the bees were actually on my premises, I had two full-size hives ready for them and a spare nuc. Why did I bother?

Many beginner beekeepers might express their intention to keep only one hive in the garden. However, in the event of suspecting a queen-less colony in your first year, common advice would be to introduce a frame of eggs to see if the bees raise a new queen from them. But what if you have no eggs at all? Is there a beekeeper down the road who could provide you with a frame of eggs or a spare queen? If not, would you be willing to spend £40-£60 to buy a new queen if stocks are available? If, for any reason, you have no access to queens or frames of eggs, it’s not an ideal situation. For myself and many others who have faced a potentially queen-less colony, the best course of action is to be able to take a frame of eggs or a queen from another colony in your apiary. In other words, run a couple of hives, not just one. It's satisfying when you can use one of your colonies to help out another without causing detriment to either.

As of writing this blog entry, I'm seeing nucleus colonies of bees being advertised for £290-£350. Losing a precious honeybee colony unintentionally to something like swarming is unfortunate, and it can also be very expensive. Help yourself by being as prepared as you can be early on.

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Start Out with New Kit

I began my beekeeping journey with 2 x brand-new budget cedar National hive kits. Why? Because I wanted to eliminate any risk of introducing disease near my apiary before even starting my beekeeping journey. Despite my background in recycling and repurposing, this decision may seem contradictory to my general approach. However, the reality is that beginner beekeepers may not be as adept at spotting diseases compared to those with more experience. While some people thoroughly sterilize their kit, others may not be as meticulous. You also can’t spot some of the nastier diseases with your eyes. If you are willing to undertake thorough sterilization, research the best methods and give it a go. Do it well! Of course, if you're inclined, you can also learn how to build your own hive boxes. I now do that and have a supply of handmade ekes, supers, nucs, and crown boards for emergency situations.

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A Well Prepared Apiary Have you cleared a level space that you can easily access? If there are other animals in the garden such as chickens or goats, are your bees far enough away from them? If the garden is communal, have you obtained all the necessary permissions to keep your bees there, and are there signs up to give people fair warning?

Beekeeping signpost to warn people
Newly acquired beehives in a well prepared site

Depending on where you intend your apiary to be, there can be quite an assortment of considerations to think about. In my case, I had permission to place my bees at the back of a walled garden, which only one other person had access to. We put up a sign, and before I went to get my bees, I used bricks to create platforms large enough to accommodate nuc boxes and full-size hives. This meant that as I drove off to get my first colony, I could carefully move them straight into the apiary without having to think about anything else at the time.

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Buy Bees From a Reputable Source I purchased my first nucleus colony of bees from a beekeeper who had assisted me with both theoretical and practical aspects of beekeeping. As a beginner, I wanted support post-purchase so making the decision to buy my bees from this particular beekeeper was easy, as the bulk of their business involves supporting beginner beekeepers. Additionally, the beekeeper was located less than an hour away, so I was pleased to be acquiring local East Anglian bees.

Conduct thorough research and acquaint yourself with the beekeeping community in your vicinity. If you're uncertain about where to find support, reach out to your local beekeeping association.

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Practice Shaking Bees Off The Frames! I was very nervous about doing this when I started out, but I should have learnt it and then practiced it. You can’t see what’s going on inside the cells when a frame is covered in bees! Because I didn’t enjoy doing it and lacked confidence in my technique, I missed queen cells and this resulted in swarming happening before I realized what was going on. You don’t want to lose some of the bees you’ve just bought! I took the following photo during one of my first inspections. I was a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of shaking all of these bees off the frame they arrived on. I really should have done though as it would have revealed a queen cell.

A beginner beekeeper lifts a frame swamped with bees

If you are having a few practical bee inspection tasters before you buy your bees, ask the beekeeper who’s helping you to teach you how to safely shake bees off a frame. Then, practice it until you feel confident.

A beekeeper has shaken bees off the frame so the cells can be inspected

In this second photo, I've safely shaken the bees off and so could clearly see what was going on inside the cells.

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Disease familiarisation, and more of it I thought I knew enough at the time to get by, and indeed, I did get by. However, considering I wasn’t shaking bees off the frame straight away due to beginner confidence issues, I wasn’t looking in as many cells as I should have been and questioning if things were as okay as they could be. There are plenty of photos and videos online showing healthy brood and unhealthy brood. But what about the adult bees? Was I observing them, their behaviour, and their wings as closely as I could have been? Definitely not. I could have been better at this. Although I've never had foulbrood, I have witnessed the effects a heavy varroa loading can have on a colony which isn't nice. It's all part of the learning curve, and I believe there is value in beginners witnessing challenges and learning how to prevent or control similar situations in the future. However, if I had spent a few more days having guided disease focussed inspections before getting my first colony of bees, I could have developed better habits earlier on.

Beekeeping associations can help you learn about diseases. Many of them host club apiary sessions for beginners, and I recommend checking if the one closest to you offers them. If it does, attend and learn from those with more experience. They can point out things that you might not notice or deem really important.

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Make Meaningful Inspection Notes From Day 1! Meaningful inspection notes can piece together a valuable picture of the state of a colony. If a colony is struggling, it’s helpful to be able to go back through your notes, as they might offer clues about what’s causing the challenges you are now confronted with.

Beekeeper's Inspection Record Book by Jem's Bees

Initially, when I started out, I wrote a few minor notes on scrappy bits of paper, but it wasn’t an effective system. Given my background in publishing and design, I set about creating my own Beekeeping Inspection Record Book. I designed it so that it could be used by individuals and also by groups of people who share the responsibility of hive inspections at a club or association. I published it, and now I sell it in my online shop and when I run my stall at events. It’s been lovely, as I’ve met lots of other beekeepers as a result of doing it, and it has helped people. If you'd like a copy, it's in my shop: The Beekeeper’s Inspection Record Book 

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Get to Know a Handful of Other Beekeepers

When I started, I knew only one other beekeeper, and that was fine as they were able to help me a lot. However, knowing a few others would have been no bad thing. Some people prefer to keep their beekeeping operations very private, and that’s their choice – so respect it. But in moments of uncertainty with a colony, it’s nice to feel that you could ask others for their views and advice. So, I’d encourage those who aim for privacy in their beekeeping to remain open-minded about asking for help - especially at the beginning. If you have a disease-related question, you could always ask your local bee inspector for guidance.

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PPE Choices – Find The Right Glove! My first flat-pack hive was a birthday gift from my boyfriend. The kit, bought from a well-known beekeeping manufacturer, included a jacket, a smoker, a hive tool, and some gloves. As it all came together, I assumed the gloves would be fine as they were a size small.

In short, the gloves were far too large. Large gloves often give people a false sense of security – thinking they won’t get stung because of the size. I felt this initially, but not for long as the bees weren’t thrilled with me. I was a clumsy beginner wearing baggy gloves, making it challenging to handle frame lugs or sides of crown boards without squishing bees. The more bees you squish, the higher the likelihood of angering the colony and putting the bees in defence mode. This doesn’t make for calm inspections.

Good fitting beekeeping gloves and a lit smoker

In retrospect, I wish I had tried on several gloves, chosen the best-fitting ones, and gone from there. Nowadays I wear a very snug pair of washable neoprene gardening gloves with nitrile gloves on top – the nitrile glove is for good hygiene and offers some protection against stings. I’ve had bees sting me through both gloves, but it doesn’t happen too often. At the time of writing this blog entry, I’ve had 16 stings in total since starting beekeeping, and 3 of those stings did not occur in my apiary.

If you've got this far, thank you for reading it all! If you're a beginner, I hope you've found some of this insight helpful. If you have any questions about any of it, feel free to ask.

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