How to Start Beekeeping

Beehive
Beehive

Have you been  bit (stung really) by the beekeeping bug and are now looking to get started with bees you have come to the right place. I remember watching my grandfather keep bees and now have hives of my own. They are fascinating little creatures, and not to mention the sweet reward of honey that they make. So how do you get started beekeeping? To start beekeeping you will need 3 things:

  • Honeybee Education

  • Beekeeping Equipment

  • Honey Bees

Honey Bee Education

 There are many great resources out there about bees and beekeeping. Be careful though you can get overwhelmed with the depth of information and people talking about split techniques and integrated pest management. These will of course become very important to you as you get a grasp on the basics and start expanding your apiary. The resource I used when getting started with bees was the book “ the idiots guide to beekeeping” This book covers the basics that you will need to know to start a beehive. I have referenced this book from time to time. It is extremely easy to read. However, it will only serve to get you started, it leaves many questions unanswered which is fine because we don’t want you to get overwhelmed. There are a plethora of online resources available for learning about beekeeping. Beesource.com is a great source I am particularly fond of. Youtube,com has videos galore on pretty much every topic, I personally have listened to Micheal Palmer’s lectures on youtube. Michael Bush of Bush bees has tons of resources on his website. You can use whatever resources you want to learn about bees and keep learning. I will caveat this learning with there are many techniques out there, choose what works for you. Don’t get into analysis paralysis about whether to go foundationless, treatment free, top supering etc. just get educated and start digging into those subjects as they become applicable.

I also recommend finding some offline references. For offline references I recommend finding a local beekeeper and asking for mentoring. If you don’t know any local beekeepers then you can find your local beekeeping association. They will have meetings you can attend to learn more about beekeeping and oftentimes they can help you network and find a local beekeeping mentor.

Beekeeping Equipment

So once you get some knowledge of course you have to get all the beekeeping equipment. We will start with a list of some basic equipment that you will need to get a hive started. In order to get a honey bee colony going you are going to require a hive. If you want a more in depth look into recommended equipment read my beginner beekeeping kits article.

Beehive

A beehive is a hollow box that typically has a base board, some sort of cover, and with the exception of your top bar hives will also have modular boxes. Inside these boxes you will have removable frames (this is required by law in all states). Also, you will have some sort of cover and a baseboard/entrance for the hives. The three common types of beehives are langstroth hives, warre hives and top bar hives.

The langstroth hive is the most common type of hive. The langstroth hive was designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping. He patented the design in 1852. He integrated the idea of a moveable frame hive and bee space from European beekeepers of the time into his hive design. Though there have been adaptations to his hive over the past 150 years his hive is the most popular hive for beekeeping. I would advise all new beekeepers to use langstroth hives because it makes it easier to start beekeeping. Having a standard set of equipment will allow you to easily find a nuc (nucleus hive) and get it installed, which is my preferred way to start a hive. You can also start a langstroth hive with a package or a swarm that you catch. Standardized equipment that you get with a langstroth hive you can easily move resources around your apiary. If you have a weak hive then you could move a brood frame from a stronger hive and give a boost to the population of the weak hive making it stronger as well. If one hive doesn’t have enough resources to overwinter then you can supplement the hive with honey from a hive that has ample resources. If you happen to have two weak hives then you can combine them into one bigger hive so that they can overwinter successfully. These are just some of the reasons why I would point a beginning beekeeper towards using langstroth hives.

The next on the list for beginner hives would be the Warre Hive. It was coined the “People’s HIve” when it was designed by Emile Warre. The warre hive bears similarities to the langstroth hive in that it has modular boxes that can be stacked. Instead of full frames like the langstroth hive has it has top bars that hang from the top of the boxes. The boxes of a warre hive are smaller than the langstroth. The easiest way for you to get you hive started with a warre hive is to get a package of bees. You can use a langstroth nuc, but you are going to have to get innovative. Capturing a swarm would be another way to get you warre hive started.

The last on the list for the type of hive I would use to start a hive would be the top bar hive. That’s not to say that you can’t start a hive with a top bar hive it will just limit you options for starting your hive or sustaining it. However, top bar hives are simple in terms of management. A top bar hive is typically horizontal in shape as opposed to a vertical hive like the Langstroth and Warre hives. Top bar hives are definitely more well suited for packages and swarms like the warre hive is.

Beekeeping Accessories

So you found the hive you wanted and you got it all assembled, but before you throw some bees in there and get beekeeping let’s make sure you have some other essential equipment so that you are prepared when you go open up those hives to look at those beautiful bees that have taken up residence in your hive.

One of the most vital pieces of equipment is protection remember safety 3rd. Just kidding safety first. For safety equipment at a minimum you will need a veil. You can choose from a range of protection from a veil all the way to a full beekeeping suit. Even though bees are typically docile even with the most calm hive you will have bees that will try to sting you. If you happen to catch a hive on a bad weather day, or queenless, or heck just in a fowl mood you will At a minimum you want to protect the soft tissue of the face from stings. Stings to the face and eyes will at minimum be extremely inconvenient. A veil will also be your cheapest option and the most comfortable during the hot summer. However, you will have to decide whether you ok to being stung in the arms and legs. Some people work their bees without gloves. Personally, I started working bees with just a veil and beekeeping gloves. Moving up the protection spectrum is going to be a beekeeping jacket. Typically, a beekeeping jacket will have a built in veil. If you want the most protection then get a full beekeeping suit. Just so you know the farther you go on the protection spectrum the hotter it is going to be in the summer when you are trying to pull honey supers off you beehives in the summer.

Another essential piece of beekeeping equipment and quintessential piece of beekeeping equipment is the smoker. When you smoke the bees it triggers a response making them engorge themselves on honey in case they have to evacuate the hive due to a forest fire. This typically makes them more docile. It makes them less hangry in a sense of the word. Also, it is believed that the smoke will interfere with the alarm pheromone released from bee stings. The alarm pheromone keys other bees into a potential threat and they go to sting the threat too.

The last piece of essential beekeeping equipment is the hive tool. Until you are trying to separate bee boxes and pull frames out of a hive you will won’t appreciate the utility of a hive tool. Honeybees collect tree resin and use it to make a substance called propolis. They use this to close gaps in the hive, and glue stuff together. Anyways you will want to invest in a hive tool to use while you are doing hive inspections or other beework.

Honey Bees

So you have got your education, hives and all the required equipment, but you have one problem. You don’t have any bees. Sadly, if you were to put your hive outside the chances of a swarm moving in and setting up shop in your hive is slim. So how are we going to get bees in that brand new beautiful hive. You have three options to get bees in your hive. Those options are a nucleus hive, a package, or a swarm. The cost of putting bees in your hive is going to range from free up to around $200. If you are going to go the package or nucleus route you may need to order in the fall to reserve bees for the springtime.

Nucleus Colony

A nucleus colony or nuc is a miniature ready made hive. Your typical nuc will be made up of 5 frames, and it will have everything that a full size hives. You will typically have 2 frames of honey/pollen, and 3 frames of brood (baby bees). In addition to this you will have a laying queen along with a full complement of worker bees including nurse bees and foragers. When you install your nuc in your hive they can immediately get to work creating more bees and storing resources for the winter. Nucs are occasionally a little more expensive than a package but for what you are getting for those extra dollars spent the value is much higher on a nuc. I typically see springtime nucs going for $125 – $150 from local suppliers. Nucs are one of the best options for starting a new hive. You get a miniature colony with a proven laying queen. Typically, this queen is in her first year or, she is often very young. On top of this she has been accepted by the colony. You won’t necessarily get the advantage of a young proven queen in a package or swarm.

Package

The next best option for getting bees in your new hive is a package. Typically, packages are 3 lbs of bees and it’s basically an artificial swarm. It will be worker bees and a queen that come in a box that has a mesh or screen on two sides. One of the great things about packages is they can be shipped via the postal service. So if you have a particular supplier that you would like to work with, or you cannot find a supplier within a reasonable driving distance. The downside is that once your package is installed they will be spending time getting come built and then brood raised. So there will be a lag between when you install the package and when they are able to grow the hive from the size it was when the package was installed. A package can be gotten for around $100. One of the downsides to packages is that the queen has not been accepted by this hive. Also, all the bees have been shaken from random hives in the apiary. Here is a video of packages being made up, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKWVq-bZ9Ok. Often times, this leads to the queen being superseded by the hive.

Swarm

A swarm is how honey bees reproduce. Honeybees are eusocial creatures which means they need the whole super organism of a beehive to survive. No single bee could survive on its own. Swarms typically happen in the springtime. The bees will raise a new queen for the existing hive and the old queen and about half the bees will leave to look for a new place to establish a hive. I hate to disappoint you but a swarm is not the bloodthirsty dangerous thing popular media has portrayed. Typically, swarms are pretty docile since they have nothing to defend. The only thing you really have to do besides finding a swarm is getting the queen in your hive and afterwards all the worker bees will dutifully follow their queen into the hive. If you are planning on trying to put a swarm in your new hive you are really going to be relying on lady luck to catch a swarm. If you want to increase your odds of catching a swarm it would behoove you to do some networking. I would personally start with networking at the local beekeepers association. I would also put some feelers out on facebook and potentially some ads in the local craigslist. If you are fortunate enough to catch a swarm it is going to most likely be free. The largest benefit is that the bees are free. The next benefit is they were well fed when they swarmed so they will set right to drawing comb in the new hive. The downside to swarms is that we do not know how old the queen is. Many times she is a year or too old so she may not be able to lay as prolifically as a young freshly mated queen.

It may seem overwhelming to get into the beekeeping hobby but the first step is really the hardest. The bees will take care of everything else relying on their instincts that have evolved over millions of years. Before you know it you will be captivated by the small but mighty honeybee. If you have any questions or concerns I would be more than willing to answer them.

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