Beekeeping in Ireland is not much different from beekeeping in other countries, though not exactly the same either. You may have figured that out already but after reading all the books and watching a ton of YouTube videos you still seem to be missing a link or two. You just can’t quite get started. What to do?
Well, ask any beekeeper and they will tell you to join your local beekeeping association. Yes, it is that simple. Your association has will help you get started by teaching you what you need to know about bees before you acquire your own colony. They can provide insurance and advice. There is nothing like advice from an experienced beekeeper. They will have been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. Make sure that you talk to as many experienced beekeepers as you can, because though there is a middle line that you can walk there are some refinements and deviations that beekeepers like to take, so you can plough your own furrow and do what works best for you.
So, now that is the short answer over with… on to the other.
If you want to get rich with beekeeping you might as well stop reading right now. You might as well invest in bitcoin. But if you want a rewarding hobby that will teach you a little about the environment and help support the pollinators that are feeding the world, read on.
Beekeeping is a hobby for most people which is growing in popularity spurred on by the worldwide reports of the decline in bee populations, but that is a topic for another day. There are bee farmers but that is really a different form of beekeeping and on a much bigger scale.
The rewards are immense, not financial but you will enjoy raising your bees more than you thought you could, and of course, there is the honey.
Step 1: Join a Beekeepers Association
Make it a local one if possible so that it is convenient for you to attend meetings and activities and possibly associate with members outside of the association. It will help if they provide you with a mentor.
When you join first it will probably be to attend the association’s beekeeping classes. This will be in the form of a lecture and there will likely be no bees in sight except on the screen. Don’t be frightened by the volume of information thrown at you in the first few classes. You will have plenty of time to learn everything you need to know to manage your own bees. You don’t need to know everything to manage your own colony. Much of what you will learn will be information that you will not need until the following year if you are buying a nuc in the middle or end of the summer.
Attend the association meetings and don’t be shy. The members are beekeepers and all beekeepers just love to talk about their bees. And you the beginner will most likely enjoy listening almost as much as they enjoy talking to you. So ask lots of questions. It is a great way to learn.
But you should also get involved in the running of the association if the opportunity arises. You do not necessarily need to be an expert beekeeper to help the committee run the club. There are lots of little jobs you can do and big jobs you can help others to complete. So get stuck in. You will make friends and learn a lot.
Remember beekeeping is easier than you think and though you can train to a very high level if you want to take it that far, you do not need to get a degree in entomology or beekeeping and you can learn at your own speed enjoying your bees as you go along.
Another major reason to join a beekeeping association is for insurance. Irish beekeeping associations provide group insurance to cover their members’ beekeeping activities. This is a valuable service that will save you a lot of grief if for any reason your beekeeping leads to someone suing you.
Step 2: Buying Beekeeping Equipment
It is fairly obvious, but you will need the right equipment to keep bees. There are several beekeeping equipment suppliers in Ireland and they all sell beginner’s kits.
These consist of:
- A Bee Suit (Invest in a good one – It’s worth it)
- A Hive Tool (Buy more than one – You will lose them from time to time and a backup is useful)
- A Hive (& contents i.e. frames and foundation – invest in cedar, it will need less maintenance than pine and last much longer)
- A Smoker (get advice on what to burn in it and how to light it)
You may notice that I did not list a colony of bees above. Most suppliers do not sell bees. Sound strange? Not really. Raising large numbers of bees is a time-consuming activity and they do not have time for this and running their business. Number two the beekeepers who do raise bees for sale would by far prefer to sell to other beekeepers at full price than to sell to a retailer at wholesale prices. So you need to get your bees from another beekeeper. Your association can put you in touch with someone who can provide a nuc or you can find sellers on the web. But I would strongly advise you to do the course first and get some hands-on experience while supervised by someone who knows what they are doing before you get your own and scare yourself away from beekeeping.
Step3: Where to Put Your Bees
Placing your bees is one of the problems you will need to overcome from the very beginning. Obviously, they have to go somewhere, but your back garden is not necessarily the best place for them. If you are in a built-up area, you will have to consider your neighbours. They may be afraid of them. This can often be overcome with the promise of a couple of jars of honey from time to time. But if there is someone in the area who is strongly allergic to bee stings, you will not be able to keep bees there.
However, you will want to put them somewhere not too far away so that you can get to them fairly quickly, maybe in a few minutes in the car. You will need to place them away from the road and prying eyes as far as possible and be able to drive into the field so that you will not have to carry hives and honey in and out over long distances. It is not unheard of for apiaries to be vandalised, honey stolen or even complete hives stolen or destroyed.
Place them on a stand of some sort. About eighteen inches off the ground. This is for you as much as the bees. Honey bees do not usually choose locations on the ground in nature and mostly tend to nest in hollow trees and now also in our walls and roofs if there is a convenient gap. But it will also save you some of the bending while working on the hive though it can’t be avoided completely.
Face the entrance away from the prevailing wind so that it does not blow icy draughts and rain into the hive in winter. Though dampness is a far bigger issue for bees than cold.
Plan ahead. Put your bees where you intend them to live for the next few years. Moving them is a hassle. Put them in a sheltered spot where they will not get the worst of passing storms, which we seem to be getting a of lot of in recent years.
Step 4: Getting Your Bees
When you collect your bees it will most likely be daytime, so your seller will have them well wrapped up to ensure that they don’t make an unwelcome appearance on your way home. You should check this yourself before taking them away. But, DO NOT OPEN THE HIVE. If you do and if the hive has been knocked about a bit earlier to get it to the collection point the foragers will immediately head out and possibly attack or if not they will surely go foraging, leaving you with far fewer bees or you will have to come back the next day to a cranky seller.
If a few bees do get out of the hive on the journey, don’t panic stop the vehicle at the first opportunity and let them out. In general, bees that get out on the journey tend not to bother you. All they want to do is get out and they focus their attention on flying through the window at the back. But beginners can be nervous about bees loose in the car so it is best to pull in and block the exit to stop more from escaping with some sticky tape or whatever is handy and let the escapees go.
If you are dealing with a reputable seller he will stand by the quality of his bees and if you find something wrong when you get them home, he will put it right. So, there is no need to open the box in his yard. But remember that bees are not tame or trained and fly for miles around the hive. If they get poisoned or pick up a disease or some other disaster shortly after you get them home, you cannot blame the seller.
It is best to buy from a local seller. The bees will not have as far to travel with you and local bees tend to be accustomed to local conditions, improving their chances of surviving and thriving. The seller may also be willing to deliver. Just ask. But don’t be offended if the answer is no or if they want to charge for this. It is not usual to offer deliveries and though some sellers may deliver they are surely entitled to be paid for their time and petrol.
How Many Bees Should I Get?
You should start small. But buy two nucs or two hives, whichever you like, but buy two. The reason is that while you are learning (you will always be learning) and even thereafter you will have another hive to compare to. You can suspect a problem in a hive if it is slow to increase and produce while the other one standing beside it is thriving.
Also if one does fail completely, you will still have one and can split that one to give you a second again. You will learn how to do this at the association.
Swarms – Free Bees
Capturing Honeybee Swarms is not for the beginner. But, if you are planning to capture a swarm, it will mean free bees, but make sure that you don’t do this alone the first time or two out. Bring an experienced beekeeper. Also, avoid going to dangerous locations to get them. They are not worth taking risks for. There will be other bees. The swarming season in Ireland goes from the middle of May to the middle of July depending on weather conditions. After that, there is only the odd one and the later they are the smaller they are in general and the lower their chance of them surviving the winter, though these bees can be joined to a colony you already have that is short of bees after segregating them for some time to ensure that they are not carrying pests or disease.
Nucs are small hives with about half the normal number of frames that a full-size hive would have. Basically a starter colony of bees. It is an easy-to-manage size for transport and is cheaper than buying a complete hive with bees, which are also scarce.
Beginners usually buy nucs. When the nucs arrive in the apiary they transfer them to a hive to give them space to grow. If the deal with the seller did not include the nuc (the box) it will need to be returned. If the nuc is included or yours, it may come in handy for many reasons later in the year or the following year.
When you transfer the frames from the nuc to the hive, be sure to fill the empty space with more frames with foundations on them. Nucs typically have five or six frames in them so you will need another four or five to fill your box. If you do not fill the space your bees will build wild comb in the empty space and make your hive difficult to manage.
While you are transferring the frames check them for disease, queen cells, fresh eggs, brood and food. There should also be an abundance of bees. If there is a queen cell present or if any of the others are absent, contact your seller.
Step 5: Read lots of books.
There are many good books on beekeeping, but there is also a wide variety of opinions and unsupported non-scientific information out there. Some of the information in the books and on the internet is out of date and should be ignored or modified. Get the best advice you can and make up your own mind about the best course of action and keep doing what works for you.
Last thing. YOU WILL GET STUNG BY YOUR BEES AT SOME POINT. Maybe not every time you visit your bees, but there is a good chance that you will get stung once or twice every two or three visits unless you are very very careful. If you are careless then it will be more. But you get used to it. However, remember that there is a possibility that you are allergic to bee venom. So it is a good idea to have the allergy test done by a qualified medical professional before you set up your apiary or get involved in beekeeping.