The humble honeybee has had it tough recently.
In 2015, the British Beekeepers Association reported that colonies in England had declined by 14.5 per cent - a scary statistic when you consider that bees contribute £65m a year to the UK economy through their pollination services.
If you pop a hive in your back garden, as well as saving the bees and the planet, you may get a buzz from the extra revenue it could bring.
Bumble or honey?
Beekeepers work with honeybees, a totally different species to the bumblebee, which looks pretty, but is prone to laziness.
Bumblebees, which live in holes in the ground or under piles of leaves, produce small amounts of honey which they scoff themselves. Honeybees, which look like wasps, produce much larger quantities.
Think of honeybees as lean, mean honey-producing machines.
“Honeybees live in societies of up to 50,000 per colony whereas bumblebees have much smaller colonies of 80 or so,” says Camilla Goddard at Capital Bee, a company offering beekeeping services across London.
Honeybees are the boffins of the bee world. They’re highly intelligent, with a great worth ethic.
“Bumblebees don't fly very well, are disorganised and disband their colonies at the end of their life cycle,” says Camilla. “Honeybees are highly organised and stay at the same site.”
That deluxe beehive might well be the beekeeping equivalent of a sports car, but any budding beekeeper worth their salt (or honey, in this case) should start with some research.
“Before making any purchases, find a good book about bees and read up,” suggests Dr Reese Halter, author of The Incomparable Honeybee.
“Then consider joining a beekeepers’ club to meet like-minded people. Attend a few
meetings and decide if beekeeping is for you.”
If it is, it’s time to go shopping.
What you need to get started
A smoker is essential. This clever gadget puffs smoke around the hive, tricking bees into thinking they’re at risk from fire. They’ll respond by gorging on honey, meaning they’ll be far too busy to worry about stinging you.
You’ll also need a beekeeping suit - be prepared to spend around £150 on a full outfit, including wellies, gloves and an all-in-one suit with veil (not a look for a night on the town, but on the plus side, nobody will be able to see your face).
You’ll also need a hive tool and most importantly a hive.
Once you’ve got this, place an order for a colony of bees, ideally for delivery in late May. A colony contains a single queen bee, a few hundred male bees and up to 50,000 female worker honeybees.
And, lastly, you've got to have a cool head to keep bees. "Beekeeping is similar to meditation," says Capital Bee's Camilla.
"Bees hate vibration so you have to do everything slowly. You have to get into their rhythm, and switch off from everyday life."
How to make honey (and money from honey)
Bees are self-sufficient creatures - they’ll happily go about their business without much human intervention.
But there are still some important dates for your diary. In spring or early summer (whenever the weather starts warming up), you’ll need to give the hive a spring clean, using your hive tool to scrape away debris such as cobwebs. Your colony will grow rapidly until around July. August is when you’ll collect the honey - you should aim to harvest around 40lb.
You’ll then need to replace this honey by feeding your bees a sugar solution. Once you’ve got your liquid gold, the possibilities are endless.
In 2015, scientists discovered that Welsh honey was as potent as Manuka, a honey pollinated in New Zealand from the Manuka bush. Used to treat sore throats and upset tummies, among other things, a 500g pot can retail for almost £100 - imagine what you could earn if you got the blend right.
Consider selling it at local markets or online, but don’t be afraid to branch out.
Honey and beeswax-based beauty products are increasingly popular and easy to make, too.
Location, location, location
The ideal location for a beehive is the middle of a lavender field.
Sadly, we don’t all have one of those close to hand, but don’t panic – honeybees have a built-in radar to help them sniff out the sweet stuff (nectar). They generally stay within five miles of their hive, so unless you’re living in Antarctica, the lack of a flower-filled garden isn’t a cause for concern, although heavily-farmed areas might pose a problem if there’s over-use of pesticides, which honeybees hate.
Their other pet hate is petrol fumes, so heavily-polluted areas should also be avoided.
Bring on the flower power
Different plants produce honey with different tastes.
“Honeybees prefer different flowers at certain times of the year depending on the nectar’s sugar content and on weather conditions,” says Camilla at Capital Bee.
“Most types of honey are cocktails of different nectars - for example, chestnut honey has a toffee flavour.”
Honeybees are especially attracted to yellow and blue flowers, and they’ve also got a soft spot for certain types of fruit, including plums and apples.
Weird fact of the day? Honeybees have short tongues, so they’re a sucker (literally) for open flowers.
Beekeeping on a budget
Finally, resist the temptation to spend thousands on an all-singing, all-dancing beehive - do your bumble bees really care if the hive’s been handcrafted by a 10th-generation beekeeper?
Most beekeepers begin with a type of hive known as a National - basically a square brown box which is easy to use.
Another great option is a WBC (this one’s named after famous British beekeeper William Broughton Carr) hive, which is double-walled, for extra insulation.
You can also save money by buying second-hand equipment, including suits and tools.
Insurance for beekeepers
If you're going to start making honey in your back garden, you need to get some insurance under your beekeeping suit.
If your hive escapes its apiary and injures someone, or damages their property, public liability insurance will protect you if they take legal action.
You can also buy insurance that'll protect your assets if your bees catch a disease, and that'll replace your equipment if it's damaged or stolen.
Need more support?
Natural Beekeeping Trust is a great source of information, and joining your local beekeepers’ association will give you access to bee auctions (usually held in May) and discounted equipment.
Visit the website of the British Beekeepers’ Association to find your local branch.