The London Beekeepers' Association

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Beginner's guide

by Simon Wilks

This guide covers just about everything a beginning beekeeper needs, apart from patience, courage and bees. There's a lot of stuff here, but you should already know what it all is, and what it's for. We've recommended things that seem to work best for us, but in many cases there isn't a 'best' answer. If you want to do things differently, that's fine. Different doesn't mean wrong.

The cost of beekeeping can be considerable and be sure to factor in the cost of regularly replacing/adding equipment, joining an Association, books, insurance, training and, of course, your bees which is dealt with under the Buying Bees section. The prices quoted are based broadly on the Thorne's catalogue, with VAT included, at standard rates in 2012. We have listed other suppliers on our links page so do shop around as prices vary hugely.

Protective Clothing

Veil. You need at least a veil, they come in various styles, but are cheap. Most beekeepers like to have a smock (a jacket with built-in veil) or a bee-suit (a full-length overall with a built-in veil). If you like lots of pockets, or are nervous, a bee-suit is recommended, but a smock is fine with trousers. If you get a smock, try to find one with a draw-string waist. Elastic waists are fine if you are the right shape, but sadly many of us aren't. Costs range from about £15 for a veil and up to £90 for a suit.

Gloves. For normal operations, bare hands are adequate, provided you wash your hands between hives, but latex or nitrile disposable gloves (surgical, or decorators' gloves) are preferred by many. If you use these, make sure you get the 'unpowdered' ones. Although only are a few people are allergic to the powder, you don't want it in your honey. Leather gauntlets look pretty but they get spoilt with propolis very quickly making handling your frames much harder. They are almost impossible to wash thereby making them unhygienic and impractical as the beekeeper must have clean gloves every time they visit a colony or different apiary. Disposable gloves cost about £6 per box of 100. Rubber gloves with cotton gauntlets cost about £15 and leather gloves about £25 a pair.

Boots. Many beekeepers wear Wellingtons or galoshes (short rubber boots that caterers and food processors wear) to stop bees crawling into shoes or up trouser legs. They come in all prices, from about £10 upwards.


Smoker. Buy a good one. Stainless steel is good, and the bigger is usually better - however, small ones can be just as effective, and if they have a plastic knob on the lid, you'll be able to refuel them between hives without burning your fingers. Make sure to buy a smoker with bellows that can be replaced and a cage around the body to reduce the risk of accidents. £40-£50 will get you a very good smoker.

Fuel. You can use just about anything that burns. Dry rotten wood, cardboard, sacking, dry leaves or egg boxes. You can buy some of these fuels, or you can find them. Whatever you use, make sure it doesn't have fire-retardants in (most sacking and cardboard do contain fire-retardants), or insecticides. You can get smoke pellets then are slow and long burning. You want a cool smoke that doesn't smell too bad.

Hive tool. Buy a stainless steel one. The most common are the 'J' shape tools, but others are available. Buy a big one if you can, as you'll need to use it to lever boxes apart, and the bigger the tool, the easier it is to use. Perhaps buy two. These cost about £10 - £15.

Plastic Tub. An old ice-cream tub will do at a pinch, but old food buckets that caterers get their cooking oil or mayonnaise in are good, too. It must be big enough to hold your hive tool, and have a lid that fits well.

Kitchen Scourer. For cleaning your hive tool. One of those little round metal scourers is fine - just the scourer, not a brillo pad or anything with soap in it, as that will annoy the bees.

Washing Soda. This comes in little bags of crystals that you add to water in your tub or bucket. Then you'll have a good place to keep your (stainless steel) hive tool and your scourer, so you can clean the hive tool between hives. About £1 per bag.

Feeder. There are lots of types of feeder. Some take a couple of gallons of syrup, others take a couple of litres. A small, 'rapid' feeder, usually round and made of white plastic, is best to begin with. About £10.

Queen Marking Cage. You will need to mark the queen at some stage. Even if you start with a nucleus or swarm with a marked queen, get a marking cage so you can practice marking drones. The most common type is a 'Baldock' cage and is about £5.

Queen Marking Pen. Get a Queen Marking Pen in the right colour for the year (see your textbook for which colour). They're quite expensive, but useful if you run more than one hive, or like to do things properly. Marking pens are about £4.50 each.

Notebook. Or at least some means of keeping records. You can buy templates and some use computer programmes or Apps. You are required by law to keep a note of treatments you administer to your bees especially if you sell honey. From day one, keep a notebook. Write in it what you've done and what you've seen every time you look at the bees or do anything in the apiary. Some BBKA Modules need evidence of two years record keeping.

The list of other equipment you need could be endless but it would be wise to have a Porter Bee Escape to clear bees from supers and they often break so have several; a queen cage for the introduction of a new Queen; a clip Queen; a small upholsterers hammer for making frames; a blowtorch for scorching out woodwork; gimp pins for making and repairing frames; drawing pins for marking frames (always keep some pinned in the roof of your hive) and a mouseguard.

Other equipment (e.g. extractors), and consumables (e.g medicines, jars, lids and labels), are things you probably won't need to worry about in your first year. The LBKA can lend you an extractor, and you can usually borrow some of the other things from fellow beekeepers if you ask nicely. Because you won't know what, or how much of anything, you'll need until much later, there's no point in thinking about these things yet.

Finally, the most important piece of equipment in the first year is the telephone, and we're assuming you've got one already. Don't be afraid to contact other beekeepers if you have problems. You will, without hardly noticing it, accumulate a lot of gear so be aware that you need good storage.

The Hive

Although a hive looks like a box made of wood, it's a bit more complicated than that. It is possible to make a hive yourself. Plans are available very cheaply, and if you have woodworking equipment and skills, it's a fun project. If you haven't, it's not, and you'd be better off buying a hive.

Hives are available in flat-pack form, or ready-made. Flat-pack hives need putting together, which isn't always easy the first time, but are much cheaper. If you're not sure, get a flat-pack, have a look at it, but don't use any glue until you're sure which way round it all goes. If it still baffles, take it along to an association meeting, and somebody will help you put it together.

The best wood for hives is Western Red Cedar (WRC), though it is expensive. If you are starting from scratch, then you need, at the bare minimum:

  • A hive stand
  • 1 Floor with a mesh, not solid, floor
  • 1 Brood Box
  • 12 Brood frames (Hoffman self spacing is preferable) with foundation
  • 1 Queen Excluder
  • 2 Supers
  • 24 super Frames with foundation
  • 1 Crownboard
  • 1 Roof

There are lots of types of hive. If you are keeping bees in London, we recommend you use a 14 x 12 hive. All parts for this hive are interchangeable with a National Hive which is considered to be too small a space to keep a colony in London. You can spend anything from £250 - £550 for a basic hive which can be bought either flat packed or fully assembled.

You will need a spare brood box, too. In London, one of our main problems is swarming, and artificial swarming is a good tool for controlling swarming, as well as for disease control. To do an artificial swarm you need, at the minimum, two brood boxes.

Foundation. Buy wired foundation for both brood and super frames, unless you are going to make cut comb, Unwired extra-thin foundation is used for preparing cut comb honey, but it can't be used in an extractor. Wired foundation is strong enough to cope with being spun. Although you are not going to be putting brood frames in an extractor, the brood frames can get very heavy in the hive, and the extra strength is useful insurance.

Polystyrene Hives. The jury is out on this relatively new type of hive. They are certainly cheaper and lighter and some claim they keep the bees cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They can prove to be a false economy because the polystyrene, however robust at first, suffers as the keeper uses a hive tool to manage his bees and bits can become dislodged or gouged. It is good practice to scorch wooden parts at the beginning of a season but this is not possible with polystyrene and beginners who start out with these hives often revert to the more traditional wooden hive. But see what suits you.

As a beginner, we strongly recommend you buy new equipment if you can afford it and, if you can't, wait until you can, or make it yourself. Good second-hand equipment is difficult to find, and often needs mending and will certainly need very thorough cleaning. Second hand equipment can carry disease. All the inside woodwork (the insides of boxes and both sides of crownboards and queen excluders) should be thoroughly scorched (play the flame over the surface till it's slightly darkened) to sterilise them. Small equipment, such as queen marking cages and bee escapes should always be bought new. If you do make any equipment yourself, use wood that hasn't been treated with insecticides. You can sometimes tell by looking ('tanalized' wood, which is pressure treated with chemicals, including arsenic, sometimes has a greenish stain to it), but it's not always easy to spot.

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