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Becoming a beekeeper

We receive many enquiries from people interested in beekeeping. Although it isn’t especially difficult, there is rather more to it than many imagine with various unusual aspects.

It’s easy to put some bees in a box but keeping them there and looking after them safely – both for yourself but mainly for those nearby without a bee suit – successfully and with confidence does require a good level of understanding, knowledge and skill. 

So we’re keen that newcomers are fully aware of what they’d be getting into before they commit themselves to having up to 60,000 potentially grumpy insects with stings sat in their garden that, on reflection, they’re not quite sure how to handle! This page aims to answer common questions. See also our page describing some basic Things to Think About page.

1. HOW CAN I GET STARTED

We strongly advise newcomers to take an Introductory course before getting bees. 

If you’d like to find out a bit more first, we run occasional taster sessions (See 2 below) at our apiary and are happy to answer questions.

2. CAN I DIP A TOE IN TO FIND OUT MORE?

Yes! From time to time through the season we invite small groups to our apiary to meet experienced beekeepers, hear a bit more about it and ask questions. 

You can also borrow a beesuit and go out to the hives to see what goes on and see how you feel about it. Most people are fascinated but sometimes the visit is quite enough, so It’s best to find out what you think before going any further.

Please contact us if you’re interested in coming along for such a ‘taster session’. They are usually held on Saturday afternoons for an hour or so. 

3. DO YOU RUN COURSES?

Yes! Like most local associations, with the cycle of beekeeping activities and the fact we’re volunteers, courses generally occur in winter when it’s quiet, with hands-on practical sessions in the apiary in the active season.

We run an Introduction to Beekeeping course for beginners once a year from mid-January. It comprises 8 ‘theory’ sessions in class over winter; then the ‘applied’ part at our teaching apiary from late spring through the summer. A full description is given on the Introduction to Beekeeping course page.

4. I’M TOO LATE FOR THE WINTER THEORY COURSE, WHAT CAN I DO?

There are various possibilities:

  • Wait and start next year. Contact us and we’ll put you on the list and get in touch when we fix dates. If it all suits, you can sign up for the course. That may be a long away off, so…
  • Probably best first step is to find out a bit more by visiting our apiary.
  • In some cases, it may be possible to do our course the other way around, ie join ‘novice’ practical sessions at the apiary first, gain some practical skills and experience, and then get the full context and detail at the theory course next winter. 

5. CAN’T I JUST COME TO THE PRACTICAL SESSIONS?

On the Introduction to Beekeeping course page, you’ll see that we hold practical sessions at our teaching apiary from late spring through the summer. These are aimed at people who already have a good basic understanding, for instance from having attended our winter theory course or similar course elsewhere.

Without this basic understanding, it is significantly harder, more confusing and slower trying to learn at the hive. Whether this is a sensible approach depends on your level of knowledge and experience and how far into the season we are – once we’re into July it’s too late to start. You will need to attend the next winter theory course to gain a solid grasp of the underlying principles and put it all into context. You can contact us for advice.

6. DO I HAVE TO TAKE A COURSE AT ALL?

No, but like most beekeeping associations, we strongly encourage people to acquire some training in order to get some experience and a solid understanding before getting bees themselves.

Bees are unlike most other livestock in that they don’t stay where you keep them and can, and if not well managed will, affect those around you. They can easily cause a nuisance to neighbours through swarming and stinging and a health hazard to the colonies of other beekeepers. 

We do not recommend putting bees in a box and leaving them to their own devices as this will lead to unmanaged swarming, disease and likely loss of the colony.

7. JOINING AN ASSOCIATION, IS IT NECESSARY?

It is not essential, but joining an association gives you the opportunity to talk to other beekeepers, ask questions and get help when the bees catch you out!

Attending an association apiary regularly also gives you access to more colonies at different stages of development, which enables you to increase your experience more quickly than if you only ever see your own colonies. Our colonies are kept in a variety of hives so you can see and try different types.

There is no need to join our association to do the course. By taking the course you will be an Associate member for the year and so can come to the apiary for practical sessions and receive our newsletters, come to events etc.

Full membership of Farnham Beekeepers (FBKA) includes membership of Surrey Beekeepers (SBKA) and the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) and is primarily for active beekeepers as it includes third party beekeeping and products liability and disease insurance as well as two excellent magazines: Bee Craft and BBKA News.

Full details and membership forms are on the Joining page.

8. ARE BEES IN TROUBLE

Bees, meaning honey bees, bumblebees and solitary bees, as well as other insect pollinators are under pressure from various directions:

  • loss of habitat and forage – bees need large amounts of pollen and nectar from flowers,
  • pesticide use;
  • invasive pests, such the Varroa mite and the Asian hornet;
  • diseases.

For honey bees, many problems are caused by an invasive, now endemic, mite called Varroa destructor. Not only does it feed on the bees’ bodies, which makes colonies less able to survive winter, it also injects them with viruses. Some of these result in deformed wings so the bees are unable to fly and forage. 

So beekeeping today now requires monitoring and suppressing varroa both to help colonies survive and to avoid them being a source of mites to other colonies. 

With fewer wild colonies in the UK than there used be, beekeepers play an important role, but you can help too…

9. WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP BEES?

Looking after a hive of honey bees takes time, commitment and a lot of other things, such as getting stung from time to time!

So if the motivation is to ‘help the bees’ then the best thing to do is to plant trees, shrubs and flowers. The Royal Horticultural Society gives excellent advice about what to plant. Or see our Forage page.

The most critical time for bees is to find forage from October to March. Honey bees do not hibernate, but will come out to fly short distances on warm winter days to collect nectar and, critically, pollen early in the year.

Shrubs and trees play an important part in this, from ivy and mahonia, viburnum x Bodnantense and lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle) in late autumn, to willow and hazel (pollen) in late winter, plus bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops, followed by sloe (blackthorn) and later hawthorn. Many of these winter flowering plants are highly scented.

The above plants will also benefit bumblebees, as the queen hibernates over winter, but needs late autumn forage to build up her fat body for winter. As she emerges to start a new colony as early as February, she again needs suitable forage, similar to honey bees.

You can help other types of bee by putting up homes for solitary bees and bumblebees. These look after themselves and are great to watch.

10. I DON’T HAVE SPACE OR TIME FOR BEEKEEPING, BUT HOW CAN I HELP DIRECTLY?

The best way to help bees, and other pollinators, is to create forage for them. (See 9 above).

You can help local beekeepers by buying local honey. Local honey is in great demand and of very high quality. Have a look at the label on typical supermarket honey and see if you can tell where it comes from! 

Many of our members only have 1 or 2 hives so their honey is used at home or given to friends and relatives. However those with a surplus sell at various local outlets, at the door, from our stand at events through the summer, and at the Surrey County Show, where Surrey Beekeepers have a wide range of local honey in the Bees & Honey tent.

You can also donate to the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to help with research or their apiary appeal or direct to local associations such as ours to assist with promotion and education on bees and beekeeping.

11. I’VE GOT A HIVE WITH BEES AND WOULD LIKE TO LEARN

If you’re inexperienced and haven’t had the bees long, then we’d recommend coming to our Introduction to Beekeeping course. We run the ‘theory’ part of it over winter so if it’s already spring/summer you may be able to join to our practical sessions at the apiary. Please contact us for advice.

If you already know the basics and want to expand your knowledge, join the association and come along to our apiary meetings where you can meet other beekeepers, go out to the hives, pick up tips and new techniques and take part in our programme of activities.

For more experienced beekeepers we run a course to brush up knowledge and technique as preparation for the BBKA Basic Assessment, as well as other higher assessments.

12. I HAVE BEES ALREADY AND NEED HELP!

Our volunteers don’t have enough time to come out to help individual beekeepers. However, if you have an immediate problem we’re happy to give advice.

The best way to get regular help is to join the association and come along to our apiary meetings where there are many experienced beekeepers to talk to.

13. I’D LIKE BEES IN MY GARDEN / HAVE SPACE IN MY FIELD – WOULD ONE OF YOUR BEEKEEPERS LIKE TO PUT A HIVE THERE?

The Association is looking for a suitable rural site to use as an ‘out apiary’ in the area just south of Farnham to hold swarms that we collect. We would be delighted to hear from you if you have a suitable site.

In the case of gardens, the beekeeper would require fairly open access in order to look after the bees: at least once a week from end of March to September, dependent on weather – it can’t just be every Tuesday at 3pm! Access is often needed in the evening in summer. Important aspects are: ease of access, dry level ground and separate from other livestock. Please also be aware they would need space for more than one hive. 

We have a list of landowners offering sites across a range of areas. If you’d like to contact us with details we can let our members know. We receive many offers – more than there are experienced beekeepers willing to take up.

There are probably already several beekeepers with hives in your area, and as bees can forage up to 3 miles, you can help by planting forage for bees on your land. 

14. I HAVE OTHER QUESTIONS, CAN YOU HELP?

Yes, please email us using the addresses on the contact page.