You have read all the books and are as keen as mustard to get bees. It can be an expensive hobby, but is very rewarding. If you are doing it just for the honey, it's cheaper to just buy honey from the shops. There is generally a love affair / fascination with the insect. Although you think you know what to do, and when to do it, the bees will fool you and do the opposite (they haven't read the books). If possible, work alongside another beekeeper for a season to get the hang of it.
Can you handle stings? They all hurt but what sort of a reaction do you get? Some beekeepers develop allergic reactions after a while (most beekeepers need to be stung once a month to keep their immunity up). If you have significant reactions you should reconsider your desire to keep bees.
Is it possible to keep bees in an urban area? MAF requires that all hives be registered under the Biosecurity Act. Council by-laws? Will your neighbours object (some people just don't like bees). Is your property suitable, with morning sun, dry, sheltered, away from main activities (high hedges are most suitable). Get a fellow beekeeper to check out your garden and advise you on the best location. The positions of nearby swimming pools and clotheslines are very important. Flight paths have to be determined.
Number of hives? Max 2 in urban areas (remember you get up to 40,000 bees flying from a strong hive). This provides one to learn on and one to produce honey. The second also gives a backup if anything goes wrong with the other.
Gear required? Is there a someone who can sew in the family? This can cut down the costs considerably as some items can be made. Also a lot of items can be purchased second hand if a beekeeper is selling all his/her hives. You need:
- smoker - essential; stainless steel if possible; galvanised ones rust quickly.
- Hive tool - purchase or make from old file, car spring, etc (use screwdriver if lost).
- Hat (not felt), Veil, Boiler Suit, Gumboots. Alternatively, purchase a full suit.
- Gloves - purchase or make (lots of alternatives - rubber gloves, leather driving gloves and sew-on parka nylon armlets).
Hive woodware? Do you make or purchase it? You can make everything but I recommend you purchase frames as these are the heart of modern beekeeping and must be accurate. Use untreated timber and protect it with a non-toxic wood preserver (Metalex or other). Larger beekeepers dip hive parts in paraffin wax.
How do you acquire bees? Trade & Exchange or other local newspapers and the National Beekeepers' magazine advertise bees for sale. Clubs advise of bees for sale, and queen breeders sell queens and nucs. Some beekeepers sell hives or nucs or give away bees to start a new person off. Do you purchase a hive or a nuc? Depends on a lot of things: money, knowledge of working bees, how old the boxes and frames are (showing rot, dark frames, etc), how high the hive are (3 or 4 supers). Or you can catch a swarm or put out a bait hive. In all cases you need to fill in the MAF form and register your apiary.
Evaluating a hive. Take along an experienced beekeeper. Look at condition of the woodware - has the hive been opened recently? It should have clean, tidy, and easy to remove frames. Is the comb light colour, with minimum drone comb. What are the honey supplies and brood laying pattern like? Bees must be flying well and bringing in pollen.
Purchase agreement. Get a bill of sale - it’s the law and the only way of settling any disputes. States in writing who is the seller, that they own the bees, who the purchaser is, description of hives and any brands, and when moneys are due. It should also cover what will happen if disease is found within 2 or 3 months of purchase (or by November if you brought the hives during the winter). Options include replacement or a refund of your money. The chances are very low (0.5% of apiaries have disease) but it is worth covering yourself. Money. It is best to pay half up front and rest after a good disease inspection. Depends on the time of year. It should be signed by both parties and dated. The seller must have a permit from MAF in writing before - not after.
Sale price. Expect to pay about $100 for a hive 4 supers high. This can be higher or lower depending upon condition of the hive and on and supply and demand. You should pay about $15 for boxes of drawn frames.
Problems with purchasing hives. If a beekeeper is giving up, the hives will not normally be in very good condition and will require a bit of work, including replacement frames and woodware. Quarantine bees and equipment for at least one season to make sure it doesn't have BL. A trick to find out if there is any BL in stored equipment is to spray frames with sugar syrup and put them on hives to be cleaned out. Disease will normally show up within a month if present.
Best time to start. October - it’s the beginning of the season, hives are just starting to expend, early swarms could be issuing. You grow in confidence as the bees grow in strength. Bees have come through the winter and are easier to inspect.
Collecting swarms. Some bee clubs have a list of beekeepers wanting swarms, the nearest beekeeper is sent. If not, contact your local council, police, regional council, SPCA, pest destruction firms and leave your telephone number. Remember, once you agree to collect swarms you should continue to collect them that season even though you don't need them. Best to use old gear, as there is a very slight chance of a swarm having BL. Bees don't usually sting when swarming, but some do so don’t take chances. Don’t take risks - don’t work above your head - bees in a swarm are heavy!!!. Tie ladders where possible if you are on your own. Hire lifting equipment for tall swarms or ask the fire brigade if they want a training exercise. Catching a stray swarm. They will come to you!! Put an old box on a shed roof, with one or two old frames inside (the rest foundation), and an entrance no wider than 2.5 cm. Care of swarms. Requeen and feed for at least a week or until the flow starts.
Equipment needed to collect swarms. Large bag (woolsack) or box (2 ft x 1 ft); rope to tie bag or throw over high branch (or a long pole with a hook); tape to secure bees into box; secateurs or loping shears; all of your protective gear; smoker and fuel; box with frames just in case you can't get the swarm; 6 ft extendable step ladder; etc.
Frank Lindsay (Camp Rangi 1998)