I’ve been a beekeeper for approaching 10 years, and it has been an extremely rewarding practice. As a gardener, it is vital to know the importance of bees for the environment and keeping the garden healthy.

Becoming a beekeeper has been such a thrill since I felt the excitement of my first nucleus of bees flying into their new home in my beehive. Even now, with my 3 beehives, I get so much enjoyment out of nourishing and caring for them.

My beehives are placed next to where my wildflower meadow grows each spring. It’s a wonderful sight, watching them and hearing the low buzzing of them flying around and enjoying the nectar. It also means that the honey they produce has a lovely floral taste to it.

Why are bees so important?

Bee numbers have been declining for decades, made worse by several factors including habitat loss, climate change, and pollution. There are also some non-native invasive species which have started to appear in the UK. These may pose a significant threat.

Bees make up a large part of what keeps our ecosystem running smoothly, being some of the most prolific pollinators in the UK.

Bee heading for a sunflower beekeeper blog

Not only do bees pollinate our flowers, but they have a large role in our food crop production too. Approximately 70 individual crops, including broccoli, carrots, apples, and tomatoes, rely on pollination from bees.

If bees weren’t around to do it, manually pollinating crops would cost UK farmers roughly £1.8 million every year.

And these crops don’t just feed humans. They are also vital for feeding livestock, such as cows and chickens.

How can you support wild bees?

There are over 270 individual bee species in the UK, and it is not only honeybees that need our help. Wild, solitary, bumble and more species also could do with a helping hand with bee numbers dwindling.

Allow areas to grow wild in the garden and sow some wildflowers and native species. Native insects tend to prefer native plants as they have evolved in the same environment, which makes them a slightly better choice.

Make sure your planting is diverse, so you have consistent flowering throughout the year, even in winter, and position bee boxes in south-facing spots with the entrance facing downwards to avoid them filling with rain.

Wildflower meadow great for pollinators including bees

How do you get started as a Beekeeper?

There are a few different ways that you can go about it, but I decided to join my local British Beekeeper Association club in Stratford-Upon-Avon. If you head to the British Beekeepers Association website, they have a tool to help you find where your local club is based.

These clubs can offer ‘Taster Days’ to help you with the basics and then mentor you going onward. This will help you to get the most out of your hives, with a great support system.

What beekeeping equipment do you need?

There are lots of different pieces of equipment that you need as a minimum and others that are less essential. There is quite a range regarding quality also – just aim for the best you can afford within your budget.

Examples of a beekeeper's equipment and hive

Here is the equipment you should aim to have for the basics:

  • A suitable hive
  • Protective clothing (such as a beekeeper suit, and protective gloves)
  • A smoker (and fuel)
  • A hive tool (used for maintaining and inspecting beehives)
  • Feeder
  • Bees

When you purchase your bees, the best way to get started, and how I did, was by buying a nucleus of bees. This is a mini hive, which consists of bees in all stages of development, plus a queen.

How do you extract honey from bee hives?

The first thing you need to do is to encourage your bees to travel down to the brood chamber. Using some inserts in the hive, they will easily be able to travel down but will find it more difficult to make their way back up. You then smoke the hive, which encourages the bees to gorge on honey, making them drowsier and less likely to react defensively.

You then take the top of your beehive off, smoking the bees as you go. Remove the boxes containing the frames, and leave your bees some supplemental food in place, which is described later.

beekeeper smoking a hive

Take your frames to your honey extractor (or ask your local Beekeeping club if they have one you can use). A great piece of equipment that Brian at Stratford-Upon-Avon Beekeepers used a heat gun to delicately melt the wax keeping the honey in place. Place your frames inside the machine, which will then spin at a high speed, spraying the honey to the inside wall of the drum. The honey will then drip down, and collect at the bottom, where you can drain it through a sieve to remove any debris from the hive.

One of the oldest ways to extract honey by hand is the crush and strain method. You simply break down the comb into a bowl and then strain the contents to separate the honey from the wax and debris. This is more time-consuming than an extractor, but much cheaper.

You can then replace all of your frames carefully back into the hive for the bees to start producing honey again.

Last year, I produced a video with my mentor Brian from the Stratford-Upon-Avon Beekeepers Club showing this process in full. To watch us extracting honey from my beehives, see the video below:

How do I feed bees in the winter?

Winter is fast approaching, and there has been a drop in temperature over the past couple of weeks as autumn ends. With winter, there are much fewer flowers available for the bees to enjoy and harvest nectar from. There are several plants that you can grow that flower later in the year to offer valuable sustenance to wild bees.

Beekeepers, however, have another way to keep bees fed throughout the winter. Bees naturally produce honey from the nectar they harvest to keep themselves sustained through the colder months. But if we are harvesting that honey, as beekeepers, we need to replace that honey with something else rich in sugars, glucose, syrup, and water. An unexpected food item which is ideal for this purpose is baker’s fondant. This is the decorative icing that you will often see on wedding cakes.

I cut a section of the fondant still in the plastic and place it carefully on top of a section of the hive called the ‘Queen excluder’. This is a plastic grid which keeps the Queen in the brood chamber at the bottom of the hive but allows room for the rest of the bees to get back and forth.

The fondant stays in the plastic to help it remain soft. If it goes hard, it is a little more difficult for the bees to eat. I then replace all the different sections of the beehive, being careful not to harm any of the bees whilst I do.

Just over a year ago, I posted a video showing how to feed bees with fondant. Watch the video below to see the process:

What are Asian Hornets, and why are they a threat to UK bees?

Recently, Asian hornets (Vespa velutina) have become more prolific in areas of the UK and are known to threaten our native bee population.

Asian hornets can be quite aggressive when it comes to our native honeybee population. One singular Asian hornet can hunt down and eat 300 honeybees in a single day. They also hover outside known honeybee hives to stop bees from leaving to collect nectar and pollen. This leaves them without any food resources for the entire hive.

So far, there is no evidence of an established population of Asian hornets in the UK, but there have been recorded sightings. Between 2016 and 2022, there were 14 nests found. In 2023 alone, 71 nests have been found in the UK, proving their growing numbers. This has only been supported by records in Europe and Jersey of record hornet numbers this year.

Asian hornets are slightly smaller than native European species. They have a dark brown thorax with a fourth segment which is almost entirely yellow/orange. Their nests are often found in patches of brambles, so be particularly careful if foraging.

Asian hornet
Asian hornet and hive

If you think you have spotted a nest or Asian hornet whilst out and about, report it immediately to the Asian Hornet Watch app, or at this website: https://risc.brc.ac.uk/alert.php?species=asian_hornet

Bees are wonderful beneficial insects that are worth supporting in any way that you can.

Find out how to use waste plastic in your garden:

Or check out my Pinterest board for more ideas: