By Linda Matthews
If you are thinking about beekeeping, but don’t know where to start, there are a few things you should know. I had always wanted to keep bees but knew absolutely nothing about honey farming.
I watched the Bee Movie, read magazine articles, and even watched some YouTube videos online. But I had no idea where to start or what to do. Now, after a few years of hive inspections and honey harvests, there are a few things I wish I had known before getting into beekeeping.
Beekeeping? Are You Kidding Me?
Most people looked at me like I was crazy when I told them about my desire to start bee farming. Maybe because there are so many myths about beekeeping. A couple of my favorites are:
Beekeeping Myth #1
“But the Bee Movie had boy bees and girl bees.” The Bee Movie was wrong. Bees are not boys. With the exception of a few drones, the entire hive of hard-working, honey-producing insects are girls.
Each hive is made up of one queen, and 40 to 50,000 female worker bees. There are a few drones, whose only job is to mate with the queen. The queen keeps the hive alive by laying between 1500 and 2000 eggs per day, amounting to about a million and a half eggs over her lifetime.
The worker bees have specific jobs: nurse bees, foragers, guards, and janitors. There is even an undertaker bee that removes any bees that die from the hive.
Beekeeping Myth #2
“Bees are mean and just want to sting me.” In fact, most bee stings happen from what I call operator error. Such as getting the bee caught in something like your clothing, sitting on or stepping on a bee, or disrupting the hive. When a bee stings you, they die. They, (for the most part), do not want to hurt you or die themselves. It is their response to danger.
Many people claim to be allergic to bee stings. Some are, but only about 5% of the population is allergic. But many people may have experienced a sting from another insect and mistakenly thought it was a honey bee.
Things to Know Before You Get Started Keeping Bees
They say you never know what you don’t know and this has never been truer than in bee farming. These things are not to discourage prospective beekeepers, but rather to encourage them to go into it with their eyes wide open.
#1 Education is Important
When I started beekeeping, I read all the books, blogs, and magazines. I watched YouTube, website videos, and online courses. But the single best source of education I found was by joining a bee club.
Most communities have bee clubs whose sole purpose is educating members and the public. Ours offers classes once per year for beginners or those who want to learn more. Club members and occasionally other experts speak and teach and answer questions. It is a great place for both learning and mentoring.
State-wide bee organizations also hold conferences annually or sometimes bi-annually. Many commercial beekeepers offer classes, with hands-on learning in their bee yards. You can learn how to spot a queen, how to do hive inspections, how to identify brood, etc.
#2 Honey Farming Can Get Expensive
Getting started in any new hobby or business can be costly, and beekeeping is no exception. There are several things you must have to get started, and although you may see some sales of used equipment online, be cautious. Unless you have an experienced beekeeper who can advise you, pass on any equipment that you are unsure of its history.
The “Must-Haves” for new beekeepers include:
Woodenware or what you will soon call hive boxes or deeps. There are a few types of bee boxes that you can purchase.
The most common is the Langstroth hive. This style has been around since the mid-1800s and is what you are accustomed to seeing, with modular, stacked boxes. As the boxes become full of honey, a new box is added above it for the bees to make more.
Another style is the Warre, similar to the Langstroth, but smaller with new boxes being added to the bottom of the stack instead of the top.
The Top Bar hive looks different than Langstroth and Warre. It houses the bees in a single, long box at a convenient height for beekeepers making it easier to inspect. The drawbacks however are that the expansion capabilities are limited.
There continue to be different styles of hives introduced, such as the Flow hive which allows honey to be harvested directly from the hive without removing frames or disturbing bees.
In addition to the honey boxes or supers, you will need to purchase frames for inside of the boxes. Sometimes when you purchase sets, these are included. Other times they are not. The frames are wooden frames designed to fit inside the boxes where the bees can make the honey, or the queen can lay her eggs. They sit on the edge or rail, much like files in a filing cabinet.
Within the frame, you have foundation. This is either wax or hard plastic that mimics the texture of honeycomb and gives the bees a place to create comb. If purchasing online or from a manufacturer, check to make sure frames are included and that they have a waxed coating.
Protective clothing is necessary for beekeepers. Though some bees are very mild, you should always still protect yourself. You have probably seen videos of beekeepers who never wear veils, gloves, or other protective clothing. I do not recommend it. Gloves can be bulky, but if you get stung in the hand, it can take a while for the swelling to subside.
Bee suits can be hot. If you live in an area that is prone to very high temperatures, opt for a suit that is ventilated. And even the most seasoned bee farmers wear veils. A sting in the face can be very painful and can result in a lot of swelling.
Hive tools are a must! There are several styles to choose from, and they are relatively inexpensive, so try one style, or purchase a couple. Bees tend to use propolis (which we lovingly call bee glue) to cement frames, lids, or anything else together making it difficult if not impossible to separate them from each other. The hive tool works as a mini pry bar to open, move, or scrape various components of the hive.
Smokers are used by most beekeepers, however, some honey farmers don’t bother with them. In my opinion, beginners should always use a smoker. They look like small metal canisters with a handle and a spout that looks like a funnel has been placed on top, only it is lopsided. It took me a while to get the hang of using a smoker, but it is invaluable for hive inspections and honey extraction.
You build a small fire inside the smoker and using the bellows (the handle), pump air into the chamber, resulting in smoke coming out the spout. Fuel for smokers ranges from twine to pine needles, burlap to wood chips. A few pumps of the bellows calms the bees, making a hive easier to deal with.
Bee brushes look a lot like a wallpaper brush that my mother used to use. They have one simple but important use: to brush bees off frames or lids so when you replace or move a piece of equipment they aren’t smashed.
Extractors are a fairly expensive but essential pieces of equipment. Full frames of honey are placed in the extractor which spins, using centrifugal force to sling the honey from the frames. The extractor, made of stainless steel, collects the honey, which is then emptied via a valve for bottling.
Extractors can be as simple as a two-frame, hand-cranked model to industrial machines that remove cappings and can process thousands of pounds of honey. Beekeepers who have been in the business a while may let you borrow their equipment or you may be able to share in the purchase of an extractor. Our bee club has an extractor that you can check out like a library book and return when finished.
Refractometers are used to measure the humidity or moisture content of the honey. High moisture readings can lead to fermentation of the honey. Refractometers are available in manual or electronic models. If ordering, be sure you purchase one that is specific to measuring moisture in honey.
Feeders and Waterers
Bee feeders and waterers are important, especially with new hives or nucs where honey reserves are low. For a waterer, I use an old dog waterer and place rocks in the bowl so the bees will not drown.
There are several styles of bee feeders. In-hive feeders, such as frame feeders or top feeders are good in inclement weather and are not exposed to outside predators. Bottle or jar feeders are simple mason jars or water bottles that are filled with syrup and inverted for consumption.
#3 Deciding on Your Bees
I always thought bees are bees. I never really thought about there being different bee breeds. I ordered my bees from a guy in our club and I really didn’t know there were other varieties. There are many hybrid varieties that are bred to be disease and mite resistant, but the three main categories of bees are Italian, Carniolan, and Russian.
Italian honeybees are probably the most common and the most popular among beekeepers. They tend to be a docile breed that is less likely than other breeds to swarm. They are prolific honey producers but are not as resistant to disease as others. Strong hives can overwinter well. Italians are great beginner bees.
Carniolan honeybees, like Italian bees, are great honey producers. Beginner beekeepers love them because they are so gentle. Carniolans don’t love the heat of the summer and you must keep an eye on crowding because they tend to swarm more easily than some breeds.
Russian honeybees were developed in the 1990s to combat disease and parasites. They are not an aggressive bee, though maybe not as docile as the other two breeds. They are usually a bit more expensive than the other breeds and swarm more easily.
Now that you know the different kinds of bees, you should look at the options for ordering. Bees can be purchased in packages, nucs, or in established hives. Most bees, depending on your location, are usually ordered in the late winter for spring pickup or shipment.
Packages or packs are purchased as a three-pound pack which contains 3-4000 bees. The package will include drones, workers, and a mated queen bee. The queen is usually in a “queen cage” within the package. The cage contains the queen and her nursemaid bees and has a sugary seal on one end. The rest of the bees In the package will eat the sugar, sometimes called candy, and release the queen into the hive. One reason beekeepers choose packages is that they are less expensive to purchase. Though they are a great bargain in starting a hive, since there is no comb or brood, it will take longer for the hive to get established and produce enough honey for harvest.
Nucs are usually about five frames with approximately 10,000 bees, including drones, workers, and a queen. Generally, this hive has already accepted the queen and since the frames contain both brood and honey, you have more of a head start over packages. They are more expensive than packages though, and can only be used in Langstroth hives. Nucs will produce more quickly than packages because they start with five frames of brood and some honey.
Established hives are exactly what you would think. Most often they are purchased with one full hive body, including honey, bees, and 8-10 frames of honey and brood. You will get drones, workers, and the queen of that colony. This is the easiest way to get started in beekeeping, though it is the most expensive. When just starting out, if you chose to purchase established hives, have an experienced beekeeper accompany you to do an inspection to make sure the hive is healthy.
#4 A Rewarding Challenge
Some people go into beekeeping thinking they can set their bees up and forget them until it’s time to harvest the honey. Beekeeping requires work. You will need to do regular hive inspections, treat for mites, monitor honey production and moisture, and maintain and repair equipment, and all of that is before you harvest your first drop of honey. Bee suits can be hot, hives can swarm, and you will get stung. So back to those original questions:
Beekeeping? Are You Kidding Me?
I have found that beekeeping is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Of course, we love the sweet health benefits of honey, as well as its versatility and flavor. I love the plentiful harvest from my garden and orchard as a result of the bees pollinating the blooms.
But I love the bees. In fact, you can find me standing beside the hives on many mornings, just watching the pollen and nectar coming in, watching the bees clean their hive, or just listening to the soothing calm of a healthy beehive.
Learn more about honey farming
To learn more about beekeeping, listen to our podcast episode, First Time Beekeeping with Kim Flottum, or read the transcript. You can also learn more from these articles:
- Summer Management of Honey Bees
- Did you know … bees feed us
- Natural & Nontoxic Beekeeping
- Is it really honey?
- Interview with beekeeper Zan
- The London Dispatches: Beekeeping in the Park