Beekeeping for beginners

Backyard beekeeping is a fascinating and occasionally profitable hobby. Hives can be kept in most parts of Victoria — including cities and towns.

Honey bees that are kept in the one locality will usually provide enough honey for your needs  and will help pollinate fruit and berry flowers.

Legal requirements for keeping bees in Victoria

Honeybees need to be cared for and managed — just like other livestock. Once the decision has been made to keep bees, the beekeeper has a legal and moral obligation to maintain the bees in:

  • a healthy state
  • such a way that they do not become a nuisance to other people.

The bees must be kept in accordance with the:

Registration as a beekeeper

The Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 requires anyone who owns 1 or more hives of bees to register as a beekeeper with the department using the BeeMAX beekeeper registration and surveillance database.

Read about your legal responsibilities Beekeeping and the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994.

Apiary Code of Practice 2011

The main aim of the Apiary Code of Practice is to ensure that your beekeeping does not become a nuisance to other people. The Code describes a number of standards for the placement and management of hives throughout Victoria.

Beekeeping activities within Victoria may be conducted without a planning permit — provided the activity complies with the requirements of the Code.

If the requirements of the Code cannot be met — a planning permit must be obtained from the local government council before you start beekeeping on the property.

The Code requires beekeepers to:

  • manage colonies to prevent or minimise swarming
  • capture swarms that have left a colony they own
  • provide water on the property where the bees are located if they don't have access to water
  • maintain colonies located in urban areas with young docile queens
  • store unused hive components in such a way that bees cannot gain entry to them
  • prevent or minimise activities of robber bees
  • observe hive density limits for properties in urban areas
  • ensure bee flight paths don't interfere with neighbouring land
  • place hives greater than 3 metres from a property boundary fence (This does not apply if a bee proof barrier, higher than 2 metres, is situated on the boundary fence line adjacent to the hives. A bee proof barrier is not required where the adjoining property to that fence is unimproved land.)

General points for urban beekeeping

  • Keeping bees in urban areas requires good management skills — otherwise the bees can have a negative impact on those who live close by.
  • Hives are best placed in a sunny but sheltered spot.
  • Always position the hives so that the bees do not become troublesome to neighbours. Always comply with the Apiary Code of Practice.
  • Do not place hives in the front yard where bees only have to cross a low fence before mingling with a passer-by that may happen to cross the flight-path of the bees.
  • Some people are extremely sensitive to bee venom. If a passer by receives an accidental sting or even a bee in their hair — any beehives nearby will be blamed.

Water supply

It is now a requirement to provide a good water supply for the bees — in a partially shaded position where possible and in close proximity to the hives.

Never assume that the colony will satisfy its water requirements without your help. A strong colony of bees will use over a litre of water on a warm day.

Have the water supply in place before the hives are introduced to the area — otherwise the bees will become accustomed to watering where they are not wanted and it will be difficult to change their habits.

Containers of water should have floating material (corks, polystyrene foam, sticks) in the water to provide a landing platform and reduce the risk of the bees drowning. An alternative is to provide trays of damp sand and fine gravel to provide a 'beach' for the bees.

The water level can be topped up by having water slowly drip from a container situated somewhat above the tray.

A boardman feeder fitted to the hive entrance can also be used to provide water. However, the feeder does require daily attention to replace water used by the bees. Bees sometimes prefer water that is slightly salty.

Maintain a quiet strain of bee

Aggressive colonies should be requeened with a gentle strain. However, a number of factors should be considered before deciding if a colony is aggressive by nature.

Seasonal conditions and the skill level of the apiarist can affect bee behaviour and aggression. Factors include:

  • the way a hive is approached and opened
  • the way combs are handled
  • the use and quantity of smoke
  • the type of flora and the amount of nectar flow in progress
  • the type of clothing worn
  • the time of day.

All of these factors should be considered before deciding that a colony is too aggressive and requeening is necessary.

Neighbourly responsibilities

Most people find being in the vicinity of a swirling swarm of bees a frightening experience.

Practice proven swarm control methods. If your bees do swarm collect them quickly to prevent their establishment in your neighbour's house or tree.

Some beekeepers choose to collect swarms in neighbouring properties even they though know the swarm did not come from one of the hives they manage. It is good biosecurity practice to quarantine and monitor new bee colonies before introduction to your apiary to prevent the introduction of bee diseases like American foulbrood.

Keep good relations with your neighbours by sharing your honey with them. Stress the value of bee pollination in fruit and other crops.

Purchase of hives with bees and used beekeeping equipment

Occasionally beehives and beekeeping equipment are advertised for sale. Buying these are one way of obtaining bees and beekeeping material.

However, there is a risk that the colonies and previously used beekeeping material may have come from a diseased apiary. To avoid buying diseased bees and material ask the seller for a vendor's declaration.

This written declaration will provide the buyer with important information about the health of the bees and material being offered for sale.

Loss of interest

Many critical beekeeping management tasks are overlooked when a beekeeper has lost interest or no longer has the time to put into the management of the bees.

Neglected hives may become diseased and be a source of infection to other colonies nearby. They may also swarm causing serious public relations implications for the beekeeper and the honey bee industry. It is far better to sell or give the hives away to someone who can look after them properly.

The department has a number of programs to help hobby and commercial beekeepers to diagnose and identify of honey bee diseases and pests. Call the Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or email honeybee.biosecurity@agriculture.vic.gov.au to speak to our apiary officers.Beekeeper wearing full white protective suit including folding wire bee veil, bee suit and additional protection for the ankles

Getting started with beekeeping

People inexperienced in handling bees and collecting samples should read safe beekeeping practices. It is essential that adequate protective clothing, including a bee veil, is worn and techniques for safe handling of bees are understood before opening hives and collecting samples.

For those wishing to start in beekeeping there can be no better advice than to join a beekeeping association or club, or working with a local apiarist.

Most associations or clubs meet regularly and discuss the benefits, pitfalls and experiences of beekeeping (see below for list of contacts). Some of these organisations have beekeeping books, magazines and videos for loan.

TAFE colleges may offer short courses in beekeeping. When available, these courses offer new beekeepers accurate and valuable information to help them start beekeeping in the right manner.

Protective clothing

It is important to always wear protective clothing that is smooth and light-coloured as bees react unfavourably to dark or woolly material.

Beekeeper's hat — The hat should be firm and strong to support the veil. Ventilated helmets are ideal for the hot months of the year. Avoid dark felt hats.

Beekeeper's veil — Folding wire veils fitted to a hat keep their shape and provide a reasonable distance between the beekeeper's face and the bees. Black cotton veils are cheaper than folding wire veils, but can be easily blown against the skin.

A pair of coveralls with elastic cuffs and wrist bands — The cuffs and bands may need to be inserted after buying the coveralls. Bee suits are also worth consideration because they incorporate a number of protective features. Most beekeepers wear khaki or white coveralls.

Beekeeping gloves These need to be strong, but pliable, to allow movement of the fingers when lifting boxes and frames. Elbow length cloth sleeves attached to the gloves will prevent bees gaining access to the inside. A band of elastic should be sewn into the cloth sleeve at the elbow end to make it bee-proof. Vinyl or plastic coated gloves are frequently used.

A pair of boots that will cover the ankles — Elastic sided boots are commonly worn.A smoker (100 mm barrel) and hive tool

Apiary tools

Hive tool

This tool is used to separate the boxes when opening the hive and to separate and lift the frames which hold the combs (a screw driver will do in an emergency).

Smoker

It is best to buy a smoker that has a barrel of approximately 100mm. This size smoker will provide an ideal amount of cool smoke which is used to subdue bees before opening the hive and during the time the hive is open.

Bee hive components

To set up your first beehive you will need to purchase boxes and frames. These are usually bought 'in the flat' and need to be assembled.

There are two hive sizes in use:  'eight frame' and 'ten frame'. The eight frame hive being lighter than the 10-frame is a little more user friendly when it comes to lifting boxes of honey or relocating the hive.

Beekeeper holding frame with comb of honey ready for extractingYou will also need:

  • 1 bottom board and 1 lid
  • 2 supers (hive boxes)
  • 16 frames and 16 sheets of bees wax comb foundation for an eight frame hive or 20 frames and 20 sheets of foundation for a ten frame hive.
  • Water proof glue and enamel or acrylic paint
  • 65mm × 2.8mm galvanised nails for supers
  • 25mm × 1.25mm galvanised (or cement coated) nails for each end of the bottom bar of the frame
  • 30 mm × 1.4mm galvanised (or cement coated) nails for each end of the top bar of the frames
  • 1 reel of frame wire

You may need to purchase or borrow a frame wiring board plus an electric embedder to fix the comb foundation onto the wires of the frame.

Take care when assembling the material that every joint is nailed and glued as the timber can warp easily. All supers, bottom boards and lids need to be thoroughly painted as they have to cope with all extremes of weather. Once painted the boxes need to air for some time to lose the paint smell that may irritate bees.

As the colony develops and expands, a third box with frames and foundation will be required to provide adequate space for the bees and honey storage.

Beekeeping equipment is expensive and regular maintenance and upkeep is very important.

How to obtain bees

There are three ways to obtain bees.

Nucleus colony

Probably the best method is to purchase a 'nucleus' colony (a small colony) from a reputable queen rearer or bee equipment supplier during September or October.

It is best to place an order well in advance to ensure supply of the nucleus. Nucleus colonies come with a queen, 3 to 4 combs with worker bees, brood and honey.

The nucleus is transferred into your hive with added new frames, with foundation fitted, to fill the box. The nucleus will then slowly build up to a stronger colony. When it almost fully occupies the box, a second box may be added to the hive.

Honey bee swarms

Another method of obtaining bees is to collect swarms which occur in spring and early summer. Hiving a swarm of bees is simple when the swarm has settled in a convenient place not too high.

Place an empty box under the swarm and a quick shake of the branch will dislodge most of the bees into the box. Use your smoker to move any remaining or returning bees from the branch.

Some bees may take flight during this process. The box with the lid on may be left on the ground below the branch for a short period of time to allow any flying bees to enter the box and rejoin the swarm.

Sometimes a swarm may land on a solid object like a roadside post. In this instance, the swarm can be brushed off the post into an empty box.

A box of frames with drawn combs or comb foundation is placed over the box which contains the collected bees. This allows the bees to continue to hang in a cluster for a while before they move into the box of combs or foundation. The bottom box is removed later or has frames placed inside it.

Requeening a swarm can ensure quiet bees and a strong, productive colony for the season. The term 'requeening' describes the process of replacing the old queen with a new one.

Further information

The department has a number of programs to help hobby and commercial beekeepers with the diagnosis and identification of honey bee diseases and pests.

If you require further information or assistance, please contact the Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or email honeybee.biosecurity@agriculture.vic.gov.au

Publications

Books

  • Beekeeping for dummies (2002), by Howland Blackiston. Published by Hungry Minds Inc, New York, USA. ISBN 0 7645 54190.
  • The new complete guide to beekeeping, by Roger A Morse. Published by Countryman Press, Vermont, USA. ISBN 0 88150 3150.
  • Trees of Victoria and adjoining areas (1998 5th Edition) by Leon Costermans. ISBN 0 9599 10522.

The following books are out of print but may be obtained from time to time in secondhand bookshops.

  • Beekeeping (1991). Edited by Russell Goodman. Published by Creative Solutions, North Melbourne.
  • Honey Flora of Victoria (1973) by Russell Goodman. Published by Government Printer, Melbourne.

Journals

  • Australian Bee Journal, newsletter of the Victorian Apiarists' Association Incorporated. PO Box 40. California Gully, Vic., 3556.
  • The Australasian Beekeeper. Published by Pender Beekeeping Supplies Pty Ltd, 28 Munibung Road, Cardiff, NSW, 2285.

Websites

Page last updated: 09 Sep 2020