A guide to small scale beekeeping

If you are new to keeping bees, this information will help answer some of the most important questions before you start. This article is intended to be used as a start-up guide, with questions answered that will not be found in standard beekeeping books. These include how to get your first bees, where to locate a hive, what are the equipment requirements, where to source it and how much does it cost.

You and the Law
Beekeeping is governed in NSW by the Apiaries Act 1985. The Beekeeping Code of Practice (2003) for NSW codifies the provisions for urban beekeepers.

There are several advantages to registration. Extension and regulatory officers are employed by the NSW Industry and Investment and may contact you if a serious disease is reported near your hives, these officers are also available to inspect your hives. Being registered enables you to send samples to the Industry and Investment laboratories for disease diagnosis. If hives need to be destroyed, you may be compensated for the loss.

In traditional beekeeping, when a beekeeper extracted honey from the combs, it was common to leave the sticky combs out in the open to let flying bees clean them up. This method is effective at cleaning the combs and spreading disease. The Apiaries Act states that beekeepers must not expose used honey combs or wax to foraging bees. This is to reduce the risk and spread of disease. The same applies to any material that has honey or honeycomb on it, including wax, containers, cutlery, bread, hive tools, bee boxes etc. The principle is that unhealthy bees must not be allowed to contaminate hive materials that will be used by healthy bees, and that healthy bees must not be allowed to be infected by contaminated honey from another hive. The penalties for this offence are severe.

The Amateur Bee Keeper's Association (ABA) supports the registration law and strongly urges all members to comply. Registration forms are available from Industry and Investment offices, or your local branch of the ABA.

If disease is suspected, you must contact NSW Industry and Investment. Bees must be kept in hives with frames, enabling them to be removed for inspection so that disease can be identified.

Bee Stings
If you wish to keep bees, you must accept the fact that at some point in time you will be stung. You should learn how to remove the sting quickly. This will reduce the effect of the sting. Local members of your ABA branch will be able to show you how to do this.

For most people, the reaction will be small. Typically, there will be some pain for a few minutes and some swelling for a day or so. The amount of swelling will vary depending on what part of the body has been stung. Reactions to subsequent stings get smaller. However, a few people, about 1 person in every 200 will react strongly and may need medical help (sometimes urgently). If you do not know how you will react to a sting, take special care the first time you are stung to see if you are sensitive to bee stings. It is ideal to have your first sting on the fore-arm or back of the hand as this area of the body usually has the least reaction and is easiest to treat. The same will apply to any friends and relations that may assist you with your beekeeping. Wear a veil, to avoid stings on the face particularly near the eyes.

Most beekeepers are not sensitive to bee stings. Consequently, some of them will not go to the trouble of wearing protective clothing. They accept the occasional sting as a minor nuisance. However, if you or any of your family are sensitive to bee stings, you will need to take special precautions. These will vary depending on the situation. Talk to experienced members about what you should do. Desensitising is one option that is available. Some beekeepers are sensitive to bee stings but they will not give up their bees. The main principle is to wear the best protective clothing you can afford until you gain your confidence.

How Much Time do Bees Require?
One of the advantages of bees over other animals is that they do not require as much looking after. With most animals, you have to buy all their food and feed them every day. You also have to let them out each morning and put them to bed each night, (unless you live on a farm). However, bees can do that for themselves. They will fly to wherever their food is and feed themselves. They will also let themselves out and put themselves to bed. Thus you can leave them for quite long periods. When you do look at them you may even have a honey surplus to take.

Each spring hives should be examined regularly (once a week) to control the bees' swarming instinct. For the rest of the year they can be left alone for several weeks at a time. In the winter it is best to leave only leave them alone for a month or more at a time. Unlike other animals it is possible to leave bee's unattended for periods of time without any attention or care.

Where to Locate Hives?
Where to locate your hives needs careful consideration as it can at times be difficult to move them. Bees can be easily moved if they are being moved a distance greater than 5km. However, if they are to be moved less than 5km, from one side of the back yard to the other, they will fly back to the old site. If the new site is only 2 metres away, they will be able to find it after some trouble. The hive must be left on the new site for about 2 days before you move it another 2 metres. It can take weeks to move a hive just a short distance.

Consequently, moving bees within the back yard is an awkward process and you should take care to choose the best site from the outset. Another important point to consider is your neighbours, some may feel threatened by bees in your backyard. You can reduce this issue by keeping only a few hives and locating them carefully so that they are out of view of the neighbours. A jar of honey now and then also helps.

Position the hives so that you have enough working space around them. When you open a hive for inspection, you should have enough space to position yourself beside the hive with room for equipment behind the hive. If you and your spare equipment are in front of the hive you will interfere with the bee's flight path. This will encourage the bees to sting and start robbing other hives. Try to have enough space to carry a spare super all the way around each hive on flat ground. Other members of your local APA branch can also advise on the best location for hives in the backyard.

Where to get your First Bees?
You can get your first bees either by catching a swarm or by getting an established hive from someone else. It is better not to start with a swarm for your first hive as it requires more knowledge and experience than needed for an established one. If you obtain your bees from someone else, there is a risk that you may be getting some bees with disease. As a beginner you won't be able to distinguish their state of health, therefore ask an experienced member of your branch to look at the bees before you accept them. Bees are often advertised in the Trading Post, members of the APA often have surplus bees to sell or alternatively bees can be purchased from a commercial breeders (they are less likely to have any disease). Regardless of the vendor, they are obliged, by law, to give a certificate concerning the health of the bees. Although some ignore this requirement, as a responsible beekeeper you should insist on it.

If you plan to get more hives by collecting swarms, make sure you have boxes (branded with your number) with bottom boards, lids and frames ready before the swarm season starts in August. Bottom boards, boxes and lids should be thoroughly painted. Each APA branch has its own way of dealing with swarms. Some have a member responsible for coordinating swarm collection. Others encourage their members to use the web based swarm collection service of the ABA web site. If you want to collect as many swarms as possible, you will need to be well prepared. Sometimes, if the conditions are right, you can combine several small swarms into one hive. Get advice from an experienced beekeeper before you start.

Where to Learn about Beekeeping?
The best way to learn about beekeeping is by talking and working with other beekeepers. To that end, the APA of NSW holds regular meetings and field days. Apiary officers and commercial beekeepers are often invited to these sessions to pass on their knowledge and experience. The opportunity to watch these experienced beekeepers and ask questions is invaluable.

The University of Western Sydney, Faculty of Horticulture has an Apiary School that conducts research and education. They run a wide variety of courses. These courses cover the full spectrum from beginners to advanced courses for experienced beekeepers. Some of these courses are annual events that last for a week with or without accommodation included. These courses are advertised in the standard apiary magazines. If you ask to be put on their mailing list, you will get invitations as each course comes up.

The Industry and Investment of NSW through the Tocal Agricultural College has a home study course in beekeeping. This course has 10 units. The course can be completed at your own pace with material including Agfacts about beekeeping, audio cassettes and a practical session (this session is voluntary). The total cost is about the same as a beehive.

Often the External Studies College of TAFE also has a correspondence course in beekeeping which includes two intensive practical sessions per year. There is an annual charge for the course.

The three institutions listed above are not the only ones that conduct formal courses. However they are the ones commonly used by members of our Association. Other members may suggest different institutions that you may like to investigate.

NSW Primary Industries and the Hunter Valley Branch conduct an annual field Day at Tocal College, usually in spring. Details are advertised in the ‘Amateur Beekeeper’.

To some extent you can teach yourself straight out of a beekeeping book. There are many books available on beekeeping, some are advanced, however most are suitable for the beginner. Beekeeping books can be located in council libraries, bookshops that have a "farming" section and beekeeping supply stores. The NSW Industry and Investment also has several Agfacts on beekeeping that are available for a nominal charge or for free download.

What can be done with Surplus Honey and Wax?
If you build up a surplus of honey and/or bees' wax, the inevitable question is "How can I disperse this surplus?".
Honey can be sold direct to the public or to packers. The packers process it for sale in the export and local markets. This is the easiest way to dispose of surplus honey but the price you get for it will be lower than selling direct to the public and during times of plenty they may not want it.

Alternatively, you can pack the honey yourself for sale direct to the public. This requires extra work and higher costs; however you will receive a higher sale price. No license or any other form of "official permission” is required, although new food regulations require the extraction plant to be approved. Some branches are setting up approved facilities, for use by members. You must also comply with food labeling laws, including nutrition panels and batch identification. Some APA branches have regular stalls that help members sell honey to the public.

The apiary industry is the biggest consumer of bees' wax because it is used to make foundation wax sheets for new frames. Most beekeeping suppliers are willing to take it from you. They will either buy it directly from you or offer an appropriate discount on other equipment that you buy from them. Bees wax is also used in a wide variety of processes in the chemical/manufacturing industries. The regular beekeeping magazines often have advertisements from processors offering to buy wax. Some beekeepers use the wax themselves for making candles selling these products at shows and fetes.

Equipment Requirements
There is a large amount of equipment required before you can start keeping bees. Below is a list that covers all of the essential equipment requirements needed for start up.

Before you start, you will need to decide if you want to have 8 or 10 frame boxes. It is not a good idea to keep both types because they are not interchangeable. You may also consider different depths in honey super boxes. Talk to some of the experienced members of your branch about why they prefer one type over the other. One major factor is the weight of the box when it contains honey.

To start with you will need at a minimum:

  • 1 smoker $70 to $90
  • 1 hive tool $14 to $21
  • 1 veil per person $16 to $52
  • 1 bottom board per hive $12 to $14
  • 1 box per hive (with frames and foundation wax) about $45
  • 1 lid per hive about $17
  • 1 roll foundation wire $9 to $19
  • 2 more boxes per hive (with frames & foundation) about $45 (each)
  • 1 queen excluder per hive $8 to $15

Optional extras include:

  • 1 pair of overalls or bee suit per person $80 to $140
  • 1 pair of gloves per person $30 to $40
  • 1 Subscription to Australasian Beekeeper Magazine $50.

(Prices are estimates only and are current as at the 30th January 2009)

An empty hive that can be used as a spare or for temporary storage can be very helpful. Preferably this would be a complete set of bottom board, lid, one box with wired & waxed frames and one empty box.

If your hives are made of timber, the boxes, lids & bottom boards should be thoroughly painted and aired before you put bees in to the hives. The recommended technique is to use 3% to 5% copper napthanate as per directions as a wood preservative, then primer, under coat and two top coats. The copper napthanate needs several weeks to dry before you paint over it, so allow plenty of time to prepare the boxes. The winter is a good time to do this. Some brands of copper naphthenate contain arsenic which is toxic to bees, check that the brand you use is recommended for use with bees.

New equipment can be purchased from any beekeeping suppliers listed in the yellow pages. Your local APA branch may also sell equipment to branch members at a discount price. Second hand equipment can be purchased via the Trading Post, EBay or from other members of the local APA branch. When purchasing second hand equipment there is always a chance of spreading disease, always insist on the vendor declaration which is required by law.

There is a large selection of extraction equipment available, which is often costly and bulky. Health regulations now outline standards that need to be adhered to if you plan to sell or give honey away. Your local APA branch or other members may help with extraction and later, when you have a better idea of what type suits your situation, you can buy your own extractor.

Where to from here?
Further information and a basic guide to some of the skills and practices of bee production are contained in Bee Agskills

This information is courtesy of the Amateur Beekeers Association of NSW.

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