I used to keep bees, then when the lice like parasite varroa arrived I quit although now I'm considering taking it up again. Beekeeping certainly has a lot of benefits both directly and indirectly to the kitchen gardener. BUT it really most suits those at home with not enough yet to fully occupy them. In practice many gardeners may struggle -the bees require the best sunny days for their attentions; just when busy gardeners want to do so many other urgent tasks.
And that's a big problem; to do a proper job the bees need meticulous attention every nine days or so, in the early afternoon of a sunny day. This is hard enough to find and then difficult to schedule in with normal working commitments. Thus beekeeping essentially suits those who work from home or are retired. The attentions are not difficult but need be done precisely, carefully and SLOWLY. Indeed anyone hasty or with jerky movements need not apply; bees usually react to sudden movements by attacking.
But don't worry, smoking the bees makes them docile and a beesuit and gloves gives complete security. So most beekeepers are rarely stung while working their hives. But with a hive around it pays to be careful the rest of the time. Do not molest them or work close to the hive especially if you are noisy and or smelly and or wearing coarse clothing especially fur. A bee's main enemy is a bear so a red headed bearded man with perfume and / or BO, wearing rough wool clothing should not hang around a hive. And especially not on their flight path in and out.
So why keep bees? Well their honey is only the start, and their wax is also useful, their glue, propolis, is a natural antiseptic with many medicinal applications. Of course most importantly bees pollinate our flowers and having a hive in our garden significantly improves the set of fruits and many vegetables, especially in cold or difficult years. Obviously if bees can't travel far then they are most useful when living very near to your fruit trees! They also contribute to fertility as in a season tens of thousands of then wear out from overwork and drop to the ground. Bees really improve your produce all round.
Bees also provide entertainment. You can sit for hours watching them come and go, at their harvest, or, wonder of wonders; stare at their goings on in their hive.(For those of you heckling 'get a life' I would inform you that when Sherlock Holmes was retired he was given bees to study as a suitably complex task for his superb intellect. On a humbler scale I have read many of the endless books with enthusiasm and still have much to learn.) And oddly there is something comforting in the drone of busy bees akin to the clucking of hens or the purring of a contented cat.
Even their hive itself gives off warmth, carbon dioxide and a delicious aroma of warm beeswax and honey. So it is often perceived by the nose before the eyes. A beautiful if archaic object it is well situated in a sheltered border and best in a hedged bee garden where flowers nearby will be appreciated. Bee balm, lemon balm as it is also called, is a favourite for them and it's said they'll never leave a place that grows it.
It is worth having masses of certain flowers if you have the space. The closer flowers are to the hive the less nectar is consumed in transportation. Thus nearby flowers can strongly affect the flavour of the honey. Borage is a traditional bee plant and easy to mingle in with most vegetables to little detriment and is said to do good for strawberries. Sunflowers are easy to grow given space and Limnanthes douglasii the poached egg plant grown as a companion anyway is an excellent plant for bees. But few plants give as much or as tasty a honey as thyme, save possibly hyssop and heather. Leek flowers have an amazing attraction for bees so be careful not to have many or you might have funny honey! And don't forget late flowerers to top up the hive such as ivy. Very worthwhile is Lonicera fragrantissima which feeds bees on sunny days from xmas till Easter.
Hives come in many forms, commonest and less expensive is the national which is a single walled hive. Aesthetically most prefer the more costly old fashioned double walled ones as so often depicted. The latter are probably preferable. I've used both and the singles are cheaper and less cumbersome but definitely more at risk of damp entering and so really best for the drier sites. Bees should never be housed under the drip of trees or in cold damp hollows as it is wet not cold that most threatens them. Thus one of the finest places of all to site a hive is up on a flat roof. Up there it is drier than on the ground, safer from rodents and yobs and the bees can fly in and out unobstructed. Or even better for colder or wetter winters is to have their hive housed in a room, attic or shed with the bees flying in and out their own entrance.
Once you have chosen your spot it is easy to start in many ways. You can buy the equipment and the hives second hand as there are loads on the market. For hygiene it is probably safest to only buy new and dealers can be found in most areas. The bees themselves are the most important and again dealers can give you clean stock though many beekeepers will also help you out, And there are always swarms to be caught. You don't have to chase them, often if you just set a hive up with some waxed frames in it and the bees will come. Surprising but true.
What work is there to do? In late winter we start to build up the colony by giving them sugar solution. In spring and early summer we do regular inspections and add capacity to the hive to store the honey. In mid summer or thereabouts we rob them of their honey, and we may carry on with the regular inspections. In late summer and early autumn we feed them sugar syrup if we have robbed them too severely, or may not if we have been less rapacious.
Each of these visits is started with a smoking to calm them down and then the bottom or brood box (nest) of the hive is slowly dismantled, inspected and reassembled so that queen cells (big ones like acorns) can be removed. This stops the colony multiplying and swarming with loss of bees and honey. Of course every few years a new queen has to replace the old one, and there are many other operations that can be done if keen. However, there is also a lazy way to keep bees. This is to only to take a little honey and wax and otherwise to leave them well alone.
Of course such a course gives less return but also saves almost all the regular inspections with all the tediousness they involve. The honey still has to be stolen but less is taken and so it does not require the same degree of effort as where maximum yields are required. To explain; to get the honey the bees are provided with wood frames holding wax sheets embossed to encourage them to form regular cells. They make wax from honey and it uses 12lb of honey to make a pound of wax. By first providing and then reusing these sheets and their drawn cells we save the bees making up much wax which liberates a lot of honey.
There are about a dozen frames in what is called a super, a hollow box that fits on top of the brood box just to hold honey. Bees always put the honey at the top of their hive and the brood underneath. To encourage this and get clean honey the queen is kept down in the brood box by a grating that stops her fatter body but lets honey bearing bees through. Keen beekeepers add more than one super and work their bees hard by many simple measures. (Such as combining two colonies to give one big one, or giving one all the eggs and brood to look after allowing the other to just collect honey and so on). Then all the supers and their frames are removed, all the honey extracted and the parts all cleaned and saved for re-use. So then the bees must be given sugar syrup so they have enough stores for winter.
If however you just want a bit of honey you can simply take out a frame or two from one super leaving it on year round. This means the bees always have a big store as only a little is taken and they tend to survive well. However it also crowds them and they are sure to swarm. But that is not really a bad thing if you still get enough honey and what you really required was pollination from them for the garden. If you are cunning you may use extra thin food grade wax in the frames you will steal and this then allows you to have it as cut comb, delicious.
Although generally the beekeeping fraternity do not like 'let alone' keepers as they call them they were surprisingly common, probably actually commoner than the more methodical 'proper' sort. Do not get me wrong it is better in many ways to do the 'proper' job and the purists rightly condemn sloppy keepers just as keen allotmenteers loathe weedy plot owners. It's just a lot of work to do the proper job and it then produces far more honey than is usually wanted. Alternatively you can simply leave the bees to look after themselves just stealing a few frames (these still add up to many pounds) every summer.
Let alone beekeeping can work well for years but only in the absence of diseases and pests so starting with clean stock is essential. Your local bee inspector may wish to inspect them and require certain treatments so you should inform the nearest one of your venture anyway. But do not be alarmed, very few problems occur to most hives most of the time. That is other than varroa, this pest has killed off many colonies but now there is a choice of simple control measures both chemical and mechanical to prevent them wiping out the colony.
When I gave up it was because the only option for treating varroa back then was chemical and I did not want to compromise my organic principles. However the introduction of organically acceptable solutions means this is no longer so. And that is one reason why I'm gong to take up beekeeping again. I lost all my colonies to varroa when it arrived. As did all the other beekeepers in my village, and most amateur beekeepers in the south east of the UK.
Before the pest we numbered too many and I'm sure none of us got very good returns, indeed I was a 'let aloner' simply because it was too unprofitable to work a colony hard with a dozen others nearby. But now all the others have gone. With most of the competition eliminated the few remaining beekeepers are getting record yields. I'm going to start again and the honey from all the nectar from all the flowers for over a mile or more all around me will be mine, all mine.