Beekeeping for beginners

Yesterday I did something really exciting – I met a real-life beekeeper and his bees. DJ has been toying with getting a hive or two for years. But his other hobbies, combined with the fact we back onto seven other gardens, has kept the concept on the back burner. Then my neighbour told me about a friend who keeps bees and I was intrigued.

Ted Hampson, who lives in Billericay, got into beekeeping three years ago. “I’d always had a vague interest in it,” he recalls. “Then my wife got me a leaflet from a 90-year-old female beekeeper and I fell in love with the idea. I thought it would be a nice gentle thing to do. I was wrong! My wife said, do a course, for God’s sake!”

Beekeeping courses generally take place out of the bee season between October and Christmas. The season runs roughly from April to September. Last year Ted got his first ‘nucleus’ to set up his own hive. “The old lady’s leaflet made it sound really easy,” he says. “In the old days, beekeeping activities were related to the religious feast days. But modern beekeeping isn’t like that, although in some respects it’s very straightforward. I do what the books say, but the problem is the bees don’t read the same books,” he jokes.

If you are serious about beekeeping, taking a course is essential. “You’ve got to know the basics,” says Ted. “I’m in touch with people from the course and we have a mentor.” He is also studying for his ‘Bee Basic’ exam this summer, which includes a practical and oral module. A typical hive contains between 50,000 to 75,000 bees. It’s sensible to start with two colonies in case one fails. The nucleus came from a man in Great Dunmow, while the queen and her attendants were delivered in a box in the post!

This year Ted’s bees produced 80 lbs of honey. “I just have the one working hive this year,” he says. “The other hive swarmed.” He spent about £200 on the initial setup, buying most of his equipment second hand or discounted from the Chelmsford bee club. “A lot of stuff gets given away,” he explains. “Many people give up after the first season when they find the kitchen has sticky honey everywhere. Some of my equipment was salvaged from a garden and I also got some at a third of the price at the spring shows.”

Ted keeps his bees on a farmer’s field in Ramsden Heath, a nearby village, and visits them at least once a week. Nine days is the longest beekeepers can go without visiting their hives during the season. To get there, we drove down a mile-long dirt track which only fuelled the atmosphere of adventure. The hives were nestling beneath some trees in a quiet corner of the field overlooked by a solitary horse.

As we got kitted out, I began to feel nervous. I’m not a big insect fan. Would the bees sting me? Ted gave me some protective gear, told me to tuck my trouser legs into my socks and gave me a tutorial on what to do with a bee’s barb if I was unlucky. I hoped I wouldn’t freak out but I was pleasantly surprised. Ted’s bees were docile, even before he blew smoke into the hive to make sure, and a lovely light brown colour. I was shocked to find I wasn’t afraid of them, either. He explained how the colony is a collective organism and how all the bees have a purpose, with guard bees, foraging bees and nursing bees – almost like a career structure. He has to protect them from woodpeckers, wasps and mice which often crawl in during the winter to keep warm.

But despite all the honey he’s produced, Ted won’t be setting up a market stall just yet. “I’ll be flogging honey just to friends for now,” he says. “The average price is about £3.50 to £3.90 a jar, although some associations say you should charge £5. Honey selling regulations are very stringent and I’m not confident enough yet to sell it professionally.” For Ted, it’s simply an enjoyable hobby with benefits. “It’s very relaxing,” he says. “You get here and you just think about the bees and nothing else.”

Ted’s advice for new beekeepers:

– Go to a local bee association (Essex Beekeepers in Essex or the British Beekeepers Association) and do a course. The mentoring you’ll get is invaluable.

– Read as many books as you can – he recommends A Guide to Bees and Honey by Ted Hooper, Practical Beekeeping by Clive de Bruyn and Paul Peacock’s Keeping Bees.

– Surround yourself with other bee-keeping buddies and mentors as a support network.

– Get a car you don’t mind smelling of smoke (from the bee smoker)!


Have you ever considered keeping bees? Do you sell your own honey? Leave a message and let me know.

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10 Responses to Beekeeping for beginners

  1. Unknown says:

    A retired Presbyterian Minister that I know here in N Ireland is a very keen beekeeper and as our town of Coleraine has a strong link upwith Zomba in Malawi this chap and some other bee keeping friends have travelled to Malawi to help people there set up their own hives. They can now sell their honey to make themselves self sufficent.As I am sure you found out bee keepers are somewhat keen on the subject.

  2. Piper says:

    Wow – that sounds amazing. What a cool thing to do.

  3. Kerri says:

    Well I can\’t say I have any strong bee keeping desires myself, but have really enjoyed having a garden this year and watching the plants attract the bees. Our lavender seems to attract the big bumble bees but we have a bush out the front (no idea what it is) that was literally HUMMING with honey bees earlier this summer.

  4. Kerri says:

    part #2… knowing the british bee population is struggling somewhat I felt I was doing a little bit for the buzzy bees. Can\’t stand wasps but have really found a fondness for the bees this summer. Our PYO sells some local honey – and might have to pop to the monthly Farmers Market on Sunday to get some, you\’ve inspired me 🙂 Incidentally, I saw a post on Freegle this week from someone looking for bee keeping equipment – must be the \’in\’ topic

  5. Piper says:

    Yes, I think growing plants that attract bees is a good way of helping them without having to go the whole hog and keep bees yourself. Good on you, Kerri! And I think you\’re right – Ted was saying that there are many more younger people getting into beekeeping now as it\’s become a bit trendy!

  6. Christine says:

    Like anything else that involves keeping livestock, you have to consider the ties involved and whether you could provide trained holiday cover if you go away before you take up the hobby. Bees are not something which can be left with the mother-in-law or the teenage children to babysit like cats, dogs, budgies and goldfish.

  7. Christine says:

    And like any other livestock involved hobby, well there\’s the time, cost and commitment to consider. I hope that no one takes on bee keeping like they take on allotments, only to find that it\’s a bit more labour intensive than they can be bothered to keep up after the first flush of enthusiasm wanes.

  8. Piper says:

    Good point. I asked Ted about this and he said that you have to inspect the bees once a week/every 9 days during the season (so April to Sept). It\’s best to have bee buddies nearby and belong to a local group because that way, if you\’re on hols for longer than 9 days they can check them over for you. You don\’t need to check them in the off-season though as they die off.

  9. Piper says:

    The bees that is, not the bee buddies!

  10. Bill says:

    Love honey in me fust brew every morning, & would never go back ter sugar. If I am ever able ter return ter backing/cooking deserts I will avoid all sugar, by means of honey & various natural herbs. Sadly I am not allowed window boxes or pets on my balcony, I am not even allowed ter sing, but I doubt if the council/neighbours would object ter a bee-hive.Save the bees!!!No, not the council, or the niehgbours!

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