A beginner's guide to beekeeping

While beekeeping might sound a little scary to a novice, reaping the rewards from stewarding your own honeybees is something anyone can enjoy. Not sure where to get started? We've compiled a beginner's guide to beekeeping.

When Kristen Bradley and Nick Ritar, authors of Milkwood - a modern guide to a more home-grown life - left their home in the city ten years ago to start a small permaculture farm, they dreamt of living a simpler life, within their means.

After successfully setting up Milkwood Farm, the duo now teach others the skills they've mastered, inspiring everyday people to grow, keep, cook and make.

Here, Kristen and Nick share their modern take on the age-old practice of beekeeping.

Image credit: Kate Berry

How do bees nurture biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem?

It’s estimated bees pollinate one in three bites of everything we eat, so they’re pretty important to us. As pollinators, they’re essential to our ecosystem, as they create life on a grand scale. Honeybees are a part of this and there are over 400 species of native bees in Australia.

Who can keep bees?

Stewarding honeybees is something everyone can do. Although sometimes this may not mean keeping a hive yourself if your home isn't suitable, you can plant pollinator gardens and plants, protect bees in your area by not using pesticides and support your local beekeepers by buying honey from them at farmers markets.

If you live in Sydney or to the north in a suitable climate, there’s also the option of keeping a hive of Tetragonula - stingless native bees.

What type of property is suitable for beekeeping?

It's very possible to keep bees in a small backyard, as long as you have enough space around the hive to work, a little shade for your hives and a clear and safe flight path in front of the hive for the bees to fly out, without impacting on your neighbours or the bees' health.

You also need to consider your property's surroundings and whether there'll be enough food for the bees.

Image credit: Kate Berry

Do you need council approval to keep bees?

Check with your council. Generally, the answer is no, but you do need to register your honeybee hives with the relevant state authorities and there’s no registration required for stingless native beehives.

How is natural beekeeping different to conventional beekeeping?

Natural beekeeping is a bit different in that it focusses on bee health first, above honey harvests. You can use a principles-based approach to natural beekeeping, as outlined in Milkwood, with pretty much any kind of hive.

It’s about understanding what the bees need to thrive, especially in this day and age when bee populations are struggling, and keeping them in a way that allows for optimal bee health. This usually results in good honey harvests too, because healthy bees are happy bees!

What equipment would a beginner beekeeper require to get started?

It depends on what sort of hive you choose - we prefer warré hives, which is a simple box hive system with top bars for the bees to draw comb from, but there are many other hive designs too.

At a basic level, you’ll need a hive, a hive tool, a smoker and we’d recommend a veil and gloves until you get super comfortable handling your bees.

When harvesting, we harvest the whole honeycomb, so simple kitchen gear can be used.

What's the best time of year to start building your hive?

Winter is a great time to build a hive, as the best time to start off your colony is in spring. There are lots of places you can buy a hive now, so start by asking your local beekeeping club where to go.

Image credit: Kate Berry

Where do you source bees from to start your hive?

There are many ways to source your bee colony and spring is the best season to do so. Getting your hive going in spring ensures your colony has enough time to build up stores for winter. One common way to do this is to buy a colony - essentially a bundle of bees - from a reputable supplier (often called ‘packaged bees’).

You could also try and catch a swarm (read up on how to do this safely first!), or get in touch with your local beekeeping club. Each spring they'll have some keen beekeepers who are running around catching the local swarms and it’s often possible to get them to deliver a swarm to you if your hive is set up and ready.

Sourcing a swarm generally means you’re getting very healthy bees who've just had a great season, so we prefer to catch a swarm whenever we’re setting up a new hive.

What type of hive design is best for beginners?

We really like warré hives for beginners, as they’re easy to handle and allow for natural beekeeping principles to be followed easily, so we’d recommend starting with one of them. 

How long will it take to harvest honey?

If you establish your natural hive in spring, there may well be a honey harvest for you by autumn. We recommend about three to four checks of your hive throughout the spring/autumn season, this way you’ll have a good idea of how things are going, without disturbing the bees too much.

Harvests can be very variable, depending on what flowers each year and sometimes you'll harvest boxes of honey, while sometimes it seems there's barely enough for the bees. Do remember the bees need to live through winter on the same honey (that’s what the honey's for, after all), so always ensure they have plenty to get by.

If you’re not sure and you live somewhere with cold winters, you can leave the honey on the hive until spring, at which point you can feel confident that the bees are healthy and fed and harvest the surplus then.

Image credit: Kate Berry

What can beekeepers do with their harvest?

So many things! First, you’ll find propolis, the brown stuff with which the bees stick their hives and frames together, as well as lining their brood cells. This is made from a mix of tree saps and microbes and it’s incredible medicine for humans, whether dissolved in alcohol into a tincture or eaten straight up.

Then there’s beeswax for candles, balms and homemade beeswax wraps, plus the honey - of course - and the pollen the bees sometimes leave behind in cells: Move over, packaged superfoods! Pollen is incredible stuff.

When you wash the beeswax clean, the honey water can be strained and turned into home-made drinks or even mead. There are so many gifts from one hive - the abundance of bees is amazing.

How do you avoid getting stung?

If you’re very worried about stings or allergic reactions, consider a native stingless beehive - you may not ever get more than a taste of honey, but the plants in your garden will thank you and you can watch these fascinating creatures go about their daily lives.

Our best advice for not getting stung by honeybees when interacting with their hive would be to go slow and be respectful. If you read up on what works best for the bees - best times of day, temperature and what not to do or wear when checking a hive, it’s quite easy to open up a hive and check all is well without getting stung even once.

As always, researching, finding mentors and becoming confident in what you’re doing before you open a hive will ensure you have happy bees and a great experience as a beginner beekeeper.

Can backyard beekeeping increase the dwindling bee population?

By keeping honeybees in a natural beekeeping format, we can steward a hive of bees and provide local resilience, for both our community's gardens and the locally-adapted genetics of our local bee populations.

The more we can localise bees with backyard beekeeping, the better, as it means local honey and bees are better adapted to where we live.

Milkwood offers real skills for down-to-earth living. To learn more about beekeeping, seaweed, wild food, tomatoes and mushroom cultivation, pick up a copy of Milkwood, $45 from Murdoch Books.

Image credit: Kate Berry

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