Are you excited to get started with beekeeping but aren’t sure how it works? Look no further – our beekeeping guide will have you harvesting honey before you know it!
In this beekeeping guide, we’ll take you through the basics of beekeeping, providing you with the knowledge you need to establish your first colony. You’ll learn all about bees and bee colonies, honey production, safety measures, and the practical aspects of beekeeping. Let’s get buzzing!
Bees – And The Two Types That Live In South Africa
What’s the most important part of beekeeping? You guessed it – bees! Here’s what you need to know about nature’s sweetest insects.
Did you know that there are thousands of bee species in the world – but less than 20 of them produce honey?
The Cape bee tends to occur in the southwestern part of SA while the African honeybee prefers the regions in the central and northern parts of the country – but both bees can be found throughout South Africa.
You can tell the difference between the two species by looking at them closely. While the african honey bee has the typical black and yellow stripes that we associate with bees, the Cape bee has a deeper golden colour and sometimes looks brown from a distance.
The Cape bee tends to be less aggressive than the African bee – and less likely to sting).
However, it’s also an aggressive coloniser and may even take over weaker African honey bee colonies.
How a Bee Colony Works
Inside every bee hive, you’ll find a collection of different bees – a queen, her drones, nurses, and worker bees. Each of these types has a specific role to play in the production of new bees and honey – and they do their jobs perfectly. You can’t beat bees when it comes to efficiency!
Larger than the other bees, the queen is the heart of the colony. As the only bee with the ability to lay fertile eggs*, she gives life to the colony.
The queen is fed royal jelly while she is developing in her egg, and once she hatches she will quickly kill all other queen eggs and weaker queens. Now that she’s in charge, she will settle in as the head of the colony.
After a few days, the queen will leave the colony on a mating flight. She will mate with several drones from other colonies – never her own drones, and return to the colony with enough fertilised eggs to last a lifetime. For most queens, that’s three to four years.
*In Cape bee colonies, the worker bees can also lay fertilised eggs – this is what gives them the ability to take over colonies from African bees.
Drone bees are the males of the colony and aside from mating with younger queens, they don’t do very much. Talk about having just one job to do!
In the cold winter months when food is scarce, drones may be forced out of the colony. Their numbers usually increase again in the warmer months.
Worker bees are the females of the colony and they live up to their names, carrying out many different tasks in the hive during their lifetime.
Younger worker bees serve as nurses to the unhatched bee eggs. As soon as they mature, they are responsible for building honeycomb from beeswax.
Finally, when they reach full adulthood, they become pollen collectors – visiting up to 100 flowers a day to bring back the sweetness that makes honey taste so good.
Each bee in the colony has a job to do – and the end result is delicious honey. Here’s what you’ll need to do to get your honey production up and running.
Setting Up Your Hive
Bees need a stable, sealed space to nest and create their honeycombs – and a hive is the perfect place to keep them.
If you browse our beekeeping online shop, you’ll see a range of equipment that can be used to create a hive. The basics you’ll need are:
- Bottom board – this is a foundation that supports the entire hive.
- Brood chamber – this large box is where the colony lives, breeds, and starts to produce honey.
- Supers – these boxes are the upper floors of the hive, where most of the surplus honey is produced for you to harvest.
- Queen excluder – this grid stops the queen from laying eggs in the supers and ensures top-quality honey.
- Frames – these removable wooden units will contain your honeycomb for easy
- Inner and outer cover – this stops bees from escaping and lets you inspect the hive and collect honey.
In the summer months, your bees will gather pollen to produce honey, but in winter you’ll need to give them a hand. You can mix a 1:1 sugar water solution and use a feeder that clips onto your hive or one that goes inside like a frame to feed your bees.
You can also feed them protein and other nutrients if needed. A mix of maizena and soy protein always goes down well!
Once your bee colony is growing, you’ll be keen to harvest some honey – but don’t rush it!
Honey – It’s All About Timing
Bees are most active during the warm spring and summer months – and that’s when they produce the best quantity and quality of honey.
Since bees won’t leave the hive at temperatures of 12 degrees and lower, their honey
production falls in winter. A beehive isn’t an automated factory with constant production – it’s more like a workshop where the artisans work when they feel like it.
- Honey should be harvested in late summer when the bees have had several months to create honeycomb, cure the honey, and cap it with white wax.
- If you try to harvest honey too early in the season, you’ll end up with watery pollen water that will spoil quickly.
- Leave it too late, and the bees will start eating the honey as a winter food source and it may harden and crystallise.
When you first start keeping bees, you’ll want to wait until the first year has passed before you try to harvest honey. That’s because bees take a while to grow their colony to a large enough size so that there’s surplus honey.
A colony that’s too small will consume its own honey just to survive, just like a small business that doesn’t show a profit in the first year. Patience is key!
Getting Your Hands On That Honey – Without Getting Them Stung.
If you’re lucky, your first year of beekeeping will yield some excess honey.
In late summer, after your bees have been busy flying in and out of the hive to collect pollen and make honey, you can give it a try.
Now, bees don’t work hard all year to make honey and just let anyone take it – they’ll definitely become defensive and start to sting.
- Before you approach your hive, you’ll need protective gear. Light-coloured clothing is essential because bees dislike dark colours and wool.
- You’ll also need gloves and a beekeeping hat with a veil. This will protect your face and hands from bee stings.
- Boots with elastic sides will prevent bees from getting into the sides of your shoes and stinging your ankles and legs.
- You can also opt to wear a full beekeeping suit. Just bear in mind that a full suit can be a bit hot in the heat of summer.
All the beekeeping attire and equipment you need is available in our online shop.
If you do get stung, try to remove the sting as soon as possible. The longer it stays in, the more venom it will release. You can pull the stinger out or scratch it out like a splinter.
If you’re having trouble removing it or if you have a bee sting allergy, it’s best to see a doctor.
Smoking – The Only Way a Bee Can Relax
To keep your bees docile when you inspect the hive or harvest honey, you’ll need a bee smoker. This is a heat-resistant smoke sprayer that burns kindling (pine leaves work well) and lets you fumigate the hive with smoke.
- Once the bees breathe in the smoke, they’ll automatically calm down and start feeding on the honey in the lower chamber (brood box) of the hive.
- Now’s your chance to inspect the supers. If you see plenty of honeycomb with white caps on each cell, it means your honey is cured and ready for harvesting.
- Time to grab that honeycomb while the bees are still docile!
If you don’t see much honeycomb, or the white caps are missing, give it some time. As your colony grows, you should see a big jump in honey production.
Whenever you work with bees, remember that they can be dangerous – especially if they swarm all at once.
Keeping Your Hive Healthy
Most of the time, your bees will maintain their hive in top condition – it’s their home after all. However, it’s always good to check for diseases and infestations.
- American Foulbrood (AFB) is a fungal infestation that can destroy your hive and leave a foul smell. The spores can last over 60 years, making it unlikely that your hive will recover.
- Viral infections caused by mites – the Varroa mite is usually kept in check by bees, but if your colony is young or has lost a large number of bees, the mites could take over. It’s difficult to detect a viral infection until your bees start dying unexpectedly.
- Small hive beetles and wax moths – these parasites will try to invade your bee colony from time to time. That’s why it’s essential to place beetle traps at your hive entrance to keep them out.
You may have noticed that most of the diseases affecting bees only cause major damage to weak, small colonies. That’s why it’s so important to maintain a large, healthy colony of bees that have the numbers to survive and maintain their hive.
Beekeeping Tips For a Successful Colony
Before you get started, here are some handy beekeeping tips that we’ve picked up over the years.
- Bee hives do well in semi-shade, especially during the summer
- A busy hive is a healthy hive. If no bees are buzzing in and out of the hive, there may betrouble in the colony.
- When harvesting honey, stand with the sun at your back so that the honeycomb is well litand easy to inspect without the risk of getting stung.
- A full hive can weigh over 25kg – take care when lifting and transporting your hives, especially if you have back problems.
- Most importantly, have a great time keeping your bees – and learning all about them.
- The honey is your sweet reward for taking good care of these special creatures.