Perhaps you have found yourself contemplating beginning beekeeping. This article will provide a basic beekeeping introduction. You will learn about bees, beekeeping, beehives, beekeeping suits, and other beekeeping equipment you will need to be a beekeeper.
I’ll talk about selling honey and other sources of income from beekeeping. I will also recommend some of the best beekeeping books out there to help you succeed.
Learning about beekeeping before you jump in will help you decide if it’s right for you and help you to be successful if you decide to start beekeeping!
Considering Beginning Beekeeping?
Bees are extraordinarily fascinating creatures that benefit people in a number of ways. If you are thinking about beginning beekeeping, read on.
A beehive containing thousands of bees behaves as a single organism. They have complex societies and advanced methods of communications and navigation. Bees perform an invaluable service by pollinating plants, many of which feed us. Bees will do wonders for your garden or orchard and make delicious honey that people have prized for thousands of years.
Beekeepers range from small scale, one or two hive backyard hobbyists to large commercial operations with multi-thousand hives.
Some people want to have a few colonies that they enjoy managing and reap the rewards of having their own honey.
If you are going to be beginning beekeeping, it needs to be something you love doing, if it isn’t, you will fail. You can contact your local beekeeping club or beekeeper and tell them you are thinking about beginning beekeeping. See if you can get a tour of an apiary or maybe volunteer to tag along on some hive checks. Try to get some exposure to what beekeeping is all about, and maybe some hands-on experience.
Once you get a taste of beekeeping, I think you will know if it is something you could be passionate about doing.
Selling Honey and Other Bee Related Income
Once you learn the basics of bee husbandry and get some healthy hives going, you should be able to start selling honey to friends or at the farmer’s market. Check your state’s cottage food laws. Your state might have labeling requirements and/or you may need to take a food safety class before selling honey to the public.
In my state, honey is considered “non-potentially hazardous,” meaning that it’s not really likely to make people sick.
Selling bees, queens,beeswax, pollen, and propolis, are other popular streams of bee-related income.
Medium and large scale beekeepers can also earn money by offering pollination services to large orchards or farms. These beekeepers will move thousands of hives around the country, “Following the blooms,” at large fruit, vegetable, and nut farms.
Prior to beginning beekeeping, you will, of course, need a certain amount of equipment. Beekeeping equipment consists of the things you need to house bees, work bees, and keep them healthy.
Beehives, a protective beekeeping suit, a bee smoker, hive tool, and bee brush are basic items you will need to acquire before getting bees.
Equipment for extracting, storing and bottling honey comes a little later.
A beekeeping suit consists of specialized clothing to protect you from stings. A jacket with an attached hood with a built-in veil protects the upper body and your head and face. A protective jacket and gloves protect the upper body and hands. Protective pants to protect the lower body are essential as well. I once got three stings through a heavy pair of Carhartt work pants.
This clothing will have elastic or velcro on the cuffs to help keep bees from getting inside. Don’t think that because you saw that guy on Youtube working his hives in shorts, flip flops, and a tank top, that you will also be ok in this attire. You will most assuredly regret it.
A beehive is essentially a hollow cavity (or a box, for a beekeeper), sized suitably for the bees, usually about 40 liters in volume. Bees also prefer that the hive has an entrance of roughly two to three square inches. Hives should be on some sort of a hive stand to keep them off the ground. Simple cinderblocks work fine.
The Langstroth is the most widely used hive and is what most people picture when thinking of a traditional beehive, and will be the type of hive discussed here.
The basic components of a standard Langstroth hive are one or more wooden boxes, or “hive bodies,” that sit atop a bottom board. The hive is topped by an inner and an outer top cover. The hive has a bottom entrance and may have a top entrance as well. Inside the hive body, there is a rabbet or ledge at the top, from which eight or ten frames hang from ears on each end.
Frames are made of wood or plastic. Inside the frames, there is foundation material commonly made of wax, plastic, or plastic coated with wax. The foundation gives the bees a supporting structure on which to build their comb. Hexagonal shapes are printed on the foundation to help guide the bees in building out their wax combs.
The frames can be removed from the hive to allow for inspection or harvesting of honey. Moveable frames also come in handy if you need to transfer resources, such as frames of honey or brood, to bolster a weaker hive.
Brood Boxes and Honey Supers
The bottom box or sometimes the bottom two boxes (called brood boxes) is where the queen lays eggs and the bees raise their young. Honey supers are just additional hive boxes with frames, that get stacked on top of the brood boxes.
The bees use honey supers to store honey in. Honey supers are available in medium or shallow versions, the main benefit of these being reduced weight. A “deep” box, commonly used for brood boxes, can also be used as a honey super. A deep box full of honey weighs about 80 pounds.
If you are handy and have a few tools, you can also DIY build your own hive boxes, bottom boards, and covers, to save money. There are many plans and examples online.
If you can find used beehives and hive accessories (bottom boards, tops, honey supers, etc, usually referred to as woodenware), you will be able to save some money.
Beware though that some used woodenware can harbor diseases or harmful insects or parasites. There are ways, however, of mitigating the risks. Using a torch to scorch the wood, freezing, and soaking in a 1:9 bleach/water solution for 30 minutes are all options.
Other Beekeeping Equipment
A bee smoker is used to calm the bees so they will be easier to work with. Natural dried plant material such as pine needles, twigs, pinecones, etc. make good fuel for smokers. Commercial smoker fuel can also be purchased. An attached bellows keeps the material in the smoker smoldering.
Smoke masks alarm pheromones (the signal to attack you) produced by the bees and hinders them in organizing an attack. Smoking the tops of the frames when removing the cover also drives the bees down into the hive. It is believed that they do this to fill themselves with honey in preparation to evacuate the colony from a fire if it becomes necessary. I think maybe it just makes their eyes water.
A hive tool is a small metal prying bar that is shaped to help facilitate breaking propolis seals (propolis is a glue-like substance made of tree sap that the bees use to seal the hive shut). Hive tools are also used to pry up frames in the hive when making inspections, harvesting honey, or moving frames around.
An entrance feeder is also handy to have for feeding bees sugar syrup when necessary.
Bees require summertime temperatures over 65 degrees F, access to flowering plants and a nearby water source. A constant source of water should be no more than a quarter-mile away. An artificial water source provided by you is also fine but should be designed to minimize bee drownings.
Beyond that, you need adequate space to place hives. There really is no square footage requirements for beehives. You could place a couple of hives on a 10’x10′ patio and they could manage just fine, although you might end up with bees in your house if they are too near an entrance.
Hives should be located where they won’t disturb other people or be disturbed by other people.
Many urban beekeepers do amazingly well, some keeping colonies in backyards, or even on rooftops of buildings in large cities. Make sure to check with your HOA or municipality about any restrictions or regulations they may have regarding keeping bees.
How Many Hives Should You Start With?
While you certainly can begin with one hive, there are many advantages to starting with two hives. You can transfer frames of brood or honey from a strong hive to prop up a weak hive. Two hives also allow you to keep two different varieties of honeybees, maybe Italians in one hive and Saskatraz in another.
With two hives, you can compare the production, population, and health of the two hives. If you were to lose a colony, you’d still have another to continue with, and possibly make a split and repopulate the hive you lost.
How to get Bees
You can purchase bees in a couple of different ways. You can also try to get free bees (aka freebees) by catching them when they swarm. Trapping swarms in a bait hive increases your odds of catching a swarm.
Package of Bees
The most common way of obtaining bees is by ordering a “package” of bees. A package of bees is approximately three pounds of bees in a screened-in wooden framed cage or a plastic “Bee Bus.” Bee packages are typically a little larger than a shoe-box and contain somewhere around 10,000 bees. A package of bees will include a bred queen in a separate small cage and a food source, usually a can of sugar syrup with tiny holes in the end.
Packages in my area cost around $120 to $135 and can be ordered through the local bee club. Packages can also be ordered over the internet and delivered by USPS priority mail.
Nuc of Bees
You could also buy a nucleus (or “Nuc”) colony, which is a small established colony containing the bees, a laying queen, and three to five drawn frames (frames with the comb already built on them). A Nuc of bees costs about $175 – $200. Some people swear by nucs and others have not had good luck with them and prefer to buy packages.
While the concept of Nucs sounds great, problems arise with low-quality nucs. Sometimes there is not much drawn comb on the frames, or the colony doesn’t seem to be thriving. In theory, a nuc of bees, while costing more, should give you an advantage and give the bees a head start.
If you want to start with nucs, do your homework and obtain them from a reputable source.
Catching a Swarm of Bees
Another way to obtain bees, and have some fun and adventure, is catching a swarm of bees. A swarm is simply a portion of the colony that has left the hive with a queen to find a new home. Bees usually swarm due to reproduction that leads to overcrowding in the hive. Swarms frequently find a temporary place to rest while scout bees go out in search of a suitable home.
Look for swarms on trees, houses, mailboxes, bushes and sometimes even on the fenders of vehicles. Bees are not usually aggressive when swarming (perhaps with the exception of Africanized bees) and the swarm can be captured with as little as a bed-sheet and/or a cardboard box. The swarm can then be installed in your hive.
The swarm can be shaken into a box from a tree branch or brushed into a capture box from a solid object. A sheet can be placed under the box to catch bees that miss falling into the box.
Swarm Traps (Bait Hives)
Another way to catch swarms is through the use of a swarm trap (also called a bait hive). A swarm trap is essentially just a suitability sized box, usually holding five frames, with a suitable entrance that the scout bees find an attractive prospect for a home.
Lemongrass essential oil (which mimics a pheromone produced by bees) or a commercially produced swarm lure will up your odds of catching a swarm. A frame with an old comb or a piece of old comb in the trap can also help.
You will need to perform checks on the hive about every two weeks. The number one purpose for the hive check is to make sure you have a laying queen. This is done by seeing the queen herself or finding evidence of a laying queen.
The evidence you are looking for could be eggs, young larvae or capped brood. If you don’t have evidence of a queen, you may need to replace her. However, many times the bees will raise a new queen themselves. A hive without a queen is a doomed colony if the situation is not remedied soon.
There are producers online that you can buy queen bees from, usually beginning in mid to late spring.
Where to Get Help
Belonging to a local Beekeeping club or having a good friend who is a competent beekeeper to help you is invaluable. Many areas have beekeeping clubs where a mentor may be found to help, advise, and educate new beekeepers.
Clubs often have equipment that may be available for loan. Honey extractors or equipment used to treat hives for varroa mites are commonly available from clubs. Varroa mites are the biggest threat to honeybee health.
There are also many videos, articles and Facebook groups online that can provide lots of information to help you.
Here are a few beekeeping books that won’t steer you wrong!
Hopefully, this information has provided you a basic introduction to beekeeping. Keeping bees can be very rewarding, but also very frustrating and sometimes downright painful. If you make the decision to begin keeping bees, do yourself and the bees a favor, and make sure you obtain the proper knowledge and equipment to be successful and enjoy your bees!
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