Costs and equipment
If you buy new equipment the initial capital outlay in setting up as a bee-keeper is fairly high.
But here again your local bee-keeping association will give you advice, and may be able to suggest a source of good second-hand equipment.
You will not have to replace your basic equipment for years, and your running costs — a few kilos of sugar and some new wax foundations for the combs — will be negligible.
The returns on your investment vary considerably. In the first year you may get enough honey for your table, but little more, since the bees are building up their stores and there will not be much surplus. After that, the results depend very much on the season and on the position of the hive.
In a good year, with plenty of flowers available, to obtain 100 lb (45kg) of honey from a single hive is by no means unheard of, while in a poor season you may get very little or none at all.
However, taking an average over several years the amateur might reasonably expect to get 30 lb(13.5kg) of honey from each of his hives.
Bees are still essentially wild creatures that are just as happy to build their nest in a hollow tree or in any other dry, weatherproof space of the right size, as in the most thoughtfully constructed hive. A man-made hive is entirely for the convenience of the beekeeper, to enable him to remove the honeycombs with the minimum amount of disturbance to the bees.
There are several standard designs of hive available, of which the best, from the point of view of cost and efficiency, are the simple, single-walled types. All, however, are similar in that they consist of a series of rectangular wooden boxes, open top and bottom, standing one on top of the other. The lowest rests on a floor board containing the entrance hole, while the uppermost is roofed.
In each box there hangs a number of frames in which the combs are built. Those in the upper boxes — known as ‘supers’ — are used as honey stores, while the combs in the lower part of the hive form the brood nest in which the queen lays her eggs and the larvae are fed by the worker nurses.
It is usual to place a queen excluder between the lower and upper boxes; this is a perforated screen with holes large enough to allow the smaller workers to pass to and fro, but denying access to the bigger queen. This will prevent her laying eggs in the honey storage area.
A hive consisting of a deep box for the brood chamber, two or three supers (additional supers can be added as the bees fill the lower ones), a queen excluder, an inner cover and a roof is sufficient for the first year.
By the following summer, however, when your bees may swarm, it would be a good idea to obtain a second hive so that you are ready to house the new colony.
With the exception of a honey-extractor, all the items described here are essential for successful bee-keeping and are needed so frequently that they cannot be hired or borrowed. However, you may be able to buy second-hand equipment at considerably less cost.
The most important protection is a bee-veil, which is generally made of net or plastic. This is attached to a broad-brimmed hat to carry the veil clear of the face and the back of the neck, while the lower edge is fitted with tapes that tie around the chest.
Wear a zip-up jacket with close-fitting cuffs, and tuck your trouser bottoms into heavy socks. Your outfit should be reasonably clean, since bees are somewhat sensitive to dirt and smells.
Gauntlets are a matter of choice. Though they will protect your hands from possible stings, they make it difficult to perform delicate tasks. Since bees become incensed by rough handling, it is probably best, if you have the courage, to work with bare hands.
If you handle your bees with gentleness and confidence, you are unlikely to get stung. At least, not very often.
This implement, consisting of a bellows with an attached funnel, is used to subdue bees when removing combs, or when opening the hive for any other reason. You may have to use it only occasionally; all the same, you should always have one standing by, ready-charged with materials, such as dry, rotten wood, rags or hessian which smoulder when lit.
The cool smoke will subdue the bees without doing them any permanent harm. There are two types of smoker available —straight-nosed and the more efficient bent-nosed.
This is a steel, multipurpose instrument with a scraper at one end and a flat blade at the other. The tool is used as a lever to prise box sections apart and to scrape wax from the frames.
When you take honey from a hive you are removing part of the bees’ winter food supply. If the colony is to survive the cold, flowerless months, this loss must be replaced by an allowance of sugar. This is supplied to the bees in a syrup contained in a feeder, of which there are several types.
Working on the same principle as adrier, this machine extracts the honey from the comb by centrifugal force.
Sooner or later you will probably want to own one, but since it is an expensive item — it might be better for the first year or so to see if you can borrow or hire one through your bee-keepers’ association.
An alternative is to supply the bees with a number of small wooden boxes, called ‘sections’, rather than filling the supers with the larger frames from which the honey must be extracted. Once the bees have filled and sealed the sections, they are simply removed from the hive and served or sold, wax and all, as delicious, chewy `honeycomb’.
But despite the apparent ease of this method, there are one or two snags. Bees are highly social creatures that do not like working in separate little boxes, and will do so only when there is an exceptionally heavy flow of nectar. Also, your total yield will certainly be less than if you had used the larger frames and extracted the honey in liquid form.