If you grow top fruit, beans, almonds, coppiced hazel or willow, flowering crops of any kind, or just have plenty of wild flowers in your garden, you will already have bees as visitors, so keeping a hive or two of honeybees would seem like a great idea. However, while my own main interest is in honeybees, my first piece of advice to gardeners thinking of taking up beekeeping is first to spend some time addressing the needs of other wild pollinators, especially bumblebees and solitary bees.
It may seem romantic to have thousands of honeybees buzzing round your flower beds, but the reality is that they are not entirely without problems. If your garden is small and urban, you may need to think carefully before placing a box of fifty thousand insects equipped with stings close to a neighbor's territory. There may be pets, children and elderly people to consider. You may want to think about how you use the space in your garden and how your activities – such as sunbathing, eating al fresco or simply hanging out the washing – may interfere with their flight-path, which at times may make Heathrow look like a quiet backwater.
I say these things not to put you off, but to encourage you to think carefully about what your real reasons for wanting to 'keep' bees may be.
The chances are that flowering plants you grow are already being pollinated quite effectively by wild bees and other insects and unless you grow such crops on a large scale, adding honeybees to the mix will have only a marginal effect on yields. Exceptions to this might include areas where neighbours routinely spray with insecticides – with the result that wild insect numbers have been drastically reduced – or places where wild bee populations have suffered for other reasons, such as heavy pollution or habitat loss. Unfortunately, in these cases, you are probably in the wrong place to keep honeybees.
Compared to most livestock, honeybees need little attention, and so can be added to a garden, homestead or smallholding without fear of creating a serious drain on your time. However, as with any other creature that comes within our care, someone must give them the right kind of attention at the right times, if only to ensure that they are comfortable, replete with stores and disease-free. Honeybees are – and will always remain – wild creatures, unimpressed by our attempts to domesticate them, so 'keeping' them is really a matter of providing suitable accommodation and allowing them freedom to roam. Beyond that – especially if you have honey in mind – you have to consider the degree and style of 'management' you will endeavor to apply.
Addressing the needs of other native bees first will help ensure that you do not cause an imbalance by flooding the area with honeybees while the local bumble population is less than optimal. Exactly how this can be assessed is yet to be fully established, but if bumblebees …