Honey bees and beekeeping are becoming another popular hobby, next to keeping chickens. Bees are fun, rather easy to care for, and you get honey. There ARE some things you need to know before you get going as a beekeeper, however. Understanding what you are getting into before you see visions of golden goodness of honey dreams will keep you from getting frustrated.
If you are wanting to know how to raise bees, here’s some beekeeping for beginners to help you get started.
Why Should I Raise Bees?
There are a ton of reasons as to why you should keep bees in your backyard homestead. Not only is honey a great natural sweetener, but it serves as an excellent healing agent and can be used for bartering with other homesteaders!
Honey makes a great gift and should be in every homesteader’s cupboard. An antibacterial agent, honey is often used to help prevent bacteria from infecting wounds – it also speeds up healing time if you’re injured. Once used to preserve meat and now a popular treatment for things like the common cold, it’s no wonder why honey is so expensive when you try to buy it at the store!
You can even use the beeswax from your bee hives. Wax can be used in a variety of homestead products, like candles, cosmetics, and more. You can even use it to seal your cheese.
In addition, if you have bees, you may find that nearby farmers and gardeners ask to “rent” your bees to help pollinate their crops. This can help you bring in some extra revenue to the homestead.
Keeping bees is usually possible in most areas – in fact, while most municipalities have strict regulations regarding things like chickens and compost bins, you’ll find that very few have laws about bees. In many cases, you can have two or three beehives on less than a ¼ acre of land – just a postage stamp, really.
Plus, there are very few people in the United States that are raising bees, and bees are in high demand. Not only do the few beekeepers in the country struggle to keep up with the demand for honey, but farmers are seeing issues as over 40 percent of our country’s bee population has died since 2005.
This is mostly due to Colony Collapse Disorder, the direct cause of which is unclear but probably relate to the use of chemical pesticides and genetically modified seeds. Either way, bees with Colony Collapse Disorder cannot find their way back to their hives and eventually die – this has had a major impact on our honey production and crop pollination success here.
So do your part to help – raise some bees! It’s not that hard once you get started, and I will walk you through every step of the process.
What Equipment Do I Need for Beekeeping?
You can beekeep on a budget, but keep in mind that it is not the cheapest homestead hobby you can have. There is some basic equipment that you will need to purchase – and that you really can’t cut corners on- before you get started.
Some of the fancier accessories and gadgets can be left for another time, but Prepare your hive and all essentials BEFORE getting your bees.
At a minimum, for safety and getting your beekeeping off the ground you will want to have:
Hive and Frames
The hive and frames is where your bees will live! Also known as the hive body, the beehive usually consists of two parts – a Warre hive or Langstroth hive both consist of multiple units placed directly on top of each other. The top is where the colony lives and the lower is where the baby bees and honey are stored.
There are a few different types of hives available to backyard beekeepers. For the sake of clarity, I’ll talk about a top bar hive later in this article, as well as how to set one up. However, that’s not the only kind of hive you can have.
A top bar hive is one of the most popular because it is lightweight – it makes beekeeping much easier if you only want one or two hives and need it to weigh less than forty pounds.
A Warre hive is another popular option. These are heavier, but allow you to see your bees in action. They are also ideal for people who only want a couple of hives. A Langstroth hive is pretty heavy, and while it doesn’t allow you to see your bees in action, it does allow you to maintain multiple hives.
You can purchase or build your hive – I will talk about this more below. Keep in mind that if you don’t have access to woodworking tools, it will probably be cheaper and easier for you to buy your hives when you are first starting out.
You will also need frames. Frames can be removed so that you can check on your hive and colony. You will need to purchase frames that go with your specific type of hive – within that category, hives are usually sold in various sizes. These can be purchased online as well.
I’ll talk more about this below, but it is imperative that you invest in a good beekeeping suit. While some people just wear thick clothing to save some money – a good beekeeping suit isn’t exactly cheap – you really should invest in a good one to protect yourself.
They can take the form of a jacket an suit combination unit or a coverall suit. You will also need a hood with a mesh veil to protect your face and some thick gloves.
A smoker blows smoke inside the hive to calm and sedate the bees before you open it. This will make it easier for you to conduct maintenance, repair, honey harvesting, or other basic tasks.
Smokers aren’t expensive and are usually metal containers that you burn some kind of material (usually paper) in, with an accordion-style pump on the side that pushes out smoke through the nozzle.
The beehive tool is a manual tool that you will use to pry open your boxes and remove frames. Remember, that honey makes things sticky! This looks not unlike a spatula.
Your uncapping knife is another tool that will help you when it comes to harvesting wax and honey. An uncapping knife can be electric or manual and is used to pry beeswax cells from the inner portions of the hive.
Bottom Board and Mesh Screen
The bottom board ensures that your honeybees aren’t vulnerable to the elements. While honey bees can hold their own during the winter months, if they get too cold, a condition called “cold brood” can kill your entire colony.
You will need to put in a bottom board in the late fall and not remove it until later in the spring. When you take it out, you will replace it with a mesh screen. You don’t want to leave it totally open – this can allow varroa mites to get into the beehive.
Also known as a frame opening, an entrance reducer helps widen and narrow the entrance to the hive body. You will want to keep the entrance small until the hive is well established, and then enlarge it to give more room for the bees to come and go as they please.
You’ll also use the entrance reducer to narrow the opening for bees when it’s cold outside – when it’s warm, you can widen it to about four inches.
Honey Super and Honey Extractor
A honey super will be attached to the beehive to collect the honey that the bees aren’t eating. You can get a shallow or medium one, either of which can hold between 40 and 55 lbs of honey.
You will also need a centrifuge, also known as a honey extractor. This is an optional piece of equipment but most beekeepers consider it to be a necessity. It allows you to remove thicker, denser honey from the super to make removing it a lot less tedious.
Again, not a mandatory piece of equipment – but highly recommended. Pollen patties help your bees get started when they are first introduced. They can also be used to get your bees through the winter.
That’s the main equipment you need, but make sure you have it all on hand before you pick up your bees. You don’t want to pick up your bees and discover that you don’t have pollen patties to get them started, or enough frames. Or, your entry blocker is missing (all mistakes we have made.)
So, check your list and double check it. Then, check it again the day before you get the bees. Check before you open your package.
How to Start an Apiary: Do Your Work Ahead of Time
You’ve gathered your equipment and you’re ready to get started! Follow these steps to set up your apiary (or bee community, if you’re unfamiliar with the word!) on your homestead. You can’t introduce your bees until you have laid the foundation for a successful community.
1. Plant lots of flowers. Success in beekeeping may depend on it.
The average honey bee can fly up to six miles away from their hive for pollen, and that can get exhausting. If you have lots of flowers and flowering plants, your bees will be able to make quicker work of collecting the pollen and turning it into honey.
We love to plant bee balm, buckwheat, and lavender for the bees. Leave some dandelions for them. That is often a first food for the winter weary bees.
2. Decide whether you are going to get a package of bees, vs. collecting a wild swarm.
Sure, you can get a wild swarm of bees pretty cheap, but having a package of bees (usually sold in 3 pound packages with a queen) will ensure the novice that they have a good colony to start.
Sometimes, a wild swarm may not have a queen, and bees need that queen in order to establish a colony. Without her, they may leave your hive.
There are certain times of the year that are better for purchasing bees. Usually, you will want to order your bees in the winter so that you can get a spring delivery. Packaged bees normally arrive in April or May, depending on where you live and your local climate.
This is because the weather needs to be warm enough for the bees to be placed in a hive, and there also needs to be enough available pollen and nectar in your local area for the bees to be able to start gathering food for their young.
If you plan on collecting a bee swarm, this will be done in the spring – but again, I don’t really recommend this. Colonies start to swarm in April unless you live in a warm climate, in which case the bees can start swarming as early as March.
You can purchase as many hives as you feel comfortable managing. Most people start with two hives as it makes it easier to learn how to work with your bees – and also reduces your losses. Unfortunately, bees have a high mortality rate, so having two or more hives will provide you with some extra security.
A common option for people who want to purchase bees is to purchase a “nuc,” or “nucleus colony.” A nuc is essentially just a queen bee and a group of her workers that can e placed in a hive once spring starts.
These are available in most areas, but if you can’t find one where you live, you should buy a queen bee and 10,000 individual workers (or three pounds of bees). Nucs are definitely easier to work with, as they are easier to introduce to a hive.
3. Purchase protective clothing.
Even though this category technically belongs in the “prepare all your essentials” category, I like to include it as a separate point because protective clothing is of utmost importance when it comes to working with bees.
When you ask any beekeeper what protective clothing means, you will likely get a different answer from each and every one. Some beekeepers wear no protective clothing while others suit up fully. Either way, you will want to wear thick clothing with leg and arm sleeves fully enclosed – you can even use duct tape to do this.
The better option is to wear a full beekeeping suit. This is a good idea when you are first getting started, as it will help ease some of your anxiety about getting stung when you first start working with the hive.
You need a netted hat with shoulder length fabric to tuck into your shirt. A smoker will also help to calm the bees. Both can protect you from stings. Once you get stung, it’s natural to begin to swat at them, dance around, or get all excited.
That can lead to more stings as the hive goes into protective mode. So, get some gear and protect yourself.
4. Assemble or build your hive before your bees arrive.
A common mistake that many new beekeepers make when they first purchase their bees is that they think their package bees will come with the hives. That’s not the case. You will need to purchase a fully assembled hive or build your own. If you don’t have your own wood shop, you will probably want to purchase an assembled hive.
Even if you build your own hive, it’s recommended that you purchase top bars – these can be quite difficult to make and you want them to meet certain dimensions. This will encourage your bees to build straighter combs.
If you’re able to, you might also want to consider building a glass viewing window. This will allow you to check on your bees and observe their progress without having to disturb the colony.
Before your bees arrive, you should use melted-down natural beeswax to coat the top bars in the hives. This will encourage the bees to build comb there. You can purchase beeswax online if you don’t already have any.
5. Know where you will put your hives.
Our hives are right in the chicken area, as chickens and bees get along well. It’s got some shade from the trees there, and is out of direct winter wind. It’s also very close to our garden, giving them access to all the flowering plants.
You want them far enough away from your family and neighbors for all to be safe, yet easily accessible to check on the bees regularly. It’s generally recommended that you have at least an eight of an acre of land. Make sure that the space you select has an easy way for your bees to get through so you don’t affect their foraging potential or ability.
You may also want to check your local laws before you begin. Some cities or localities have restrictions on the number of hives you are allowed to have, as well as the spacing required between your property line and your bee hives. Researching this information ahead of time will reduce the likelihood that you will have to pay cumbersome fines – or worse, get rid of your bees – later on.
There are other legal considerations you may need to make. Often, people who live in rural areas can do whatever they want in regards to beekeeping. However, if you live in an urban area or even a small town, you need to remember that the following conditions are often regulated by the government:
- Hive location – Hives often cannot be closer than 15 feet to a walkway or property boundary.
- Number of hives
- Permits – These often have associated fees, so make sure you factor those in.
- Inspections – In addition to a permit, you may also be required to submit to regular inspections.
The bees should be out of the direct path of any foot traffic. Usually, the less foot traffic you have at the entrance of the hive will be better for the bees – as well as for you. Consider other factors, too, like the winter weather in your area and the direction of the wind.
The best location for your bee hives will be a direction that faces somewhere between south and east. If the hives can get some afternoon shade in the summer but plenty of sun in the winter, that’s all the better.
How do you accomplish this? Simple. Put your hives under a deciduous tree, where they will have shade in the summer but the leaves will be bare to provide warmth in the winter.
You might also want to raise your hive up off the ground a few feet. This will make it easier for you to work with and will also get it out of the reach of certain pests, like skunks (although they can sometimes still infiltrate).
You can elevate your bee hives by putting them up on cinder blocks – make sure the hives are level from front to back, top to bottom, and side to side. You may have to add shims for stability.
You also need to make sure you have enough space to walk between your hives (if you have more than one) and that you can easily work around each hive.
In addition, if the hives are too close together, you may find that the bees become acclimated to each other and let their guard down – this can lead to them robbing each other’s hives. Try to keep your hives several hundred feet away from each other.
6. Understand basic beekeeping terminology.
Know what a frame is, what a queen is, what the worker bees do, and be able to check for queen cells. Understand what mites are, how to prevent mold in the hives, and how to keep the bees alive during the winter. Here are some great books to read first. Get them here, here, and here.
Also, check with your local 4H extension office and join a beekeeping club. There will be lots of advice and answers about keeping bees in your area.
Some of the most basic terminology you should know? The difference between the types of bees in the colony. The queen is perhaps the most famous and definitely the most important – every hive will only have one queen bee and she is the individual in the hive with the ability to reproduce.
She will mate with dozens of drones before coming back to the hive, storing the sperm to use for the remainder of her days (which is usually about five years).
The queen is responsible for laying the entire batch of eggs for the whole colony, making the decision on her own when they are going to lay workers or drones. The male bees of the colony, drone bees have a sole purpose of spreading the genetics by mating with other colonies’ virgin queens.
They die immediately after mating. Bees who are not able to mate then come back to the hive to eat, and because they don’t have any other role besides to mate, if they remain in the hive after swarm season is over, they are kicked out by the worker bees.
Worker bees are sterile females. These bees are responsible for the foraging, providing food to the young, defending the hive against predators, producing wax and honey– they really are true workers!
A worker bee will conduct a variety of jobs in her lifetime, which is usually about five weeks long. As a worker bee ages, her duties become more dangerous and require her to move further away from the hive.
7. Know if anyone is allergic to bee stings.
That won’t necessarily mean that you can’t keep bees, but if someone in your family is allergic to bee stings, you will want to keep them in the house when you are working with the bees. Same goes with close neighbors.
If they are allergic, let them know ahead of time you are going to be working with the bees. For example, we don’t mess with the hives when my neighbor’s granddaughter is over for a visit with her. It’s just a safety measure we take to lessen the chance of her getting stung.
Of course, there are still going to be bees, whether or not we keep them and she has a chance of getting stung anytime she steps outside, but we err on the side of caution.
8. Decide what kind of bees you are going to get.
There are several types of honey bee breeds – a fact that most people don’t realize since they are so small! However, you will want to keep in mind your beekeeping goals, environment, and needs when you are determining the best type of honey bee for your homestead. Here are some of the more popular bee breeds.
These small bees are darker brown in color and are very calm. They don’t usually swarm – a good thing if you are trying to maintain productive hives – and are both disease- and winter-hardy. The compromise is that they don’t produce quite as much honey as other types of honey bees.
These light-yellow bees are the most common types of honey bees kept by novice beekeepers. They don’t tend to be aggressive but they don’t do as well in the cold.
Caucasians are light silver and cold-weather resistant. They will reduce your supplemental feed needs because they forage year-round in most cases.
Like Carniolans, they don’t produce as much honey but it is still tasty. These bees produce more propolis, meaning you will need to clean the hive more often, and they are not resistant to disease and mites.
A cross between Italian and European honey bees, these bees are great pollinators and are also disease- and mite-resistant. Unfortunately, they cannot be kept in cold climates and need a lot of supplemental food when the temperatures dip.
These bees are some of the most aggressive bees you will find – they swarm often and don’t like to fly far in search of food. However, they are very disease- and weather-resistant.
9. Decide where you are going to purchase your bees.
It is always best to purchase your bees locally so that they are already hardened off to your local environment. If you are buying package bees from a local source, make sure you confirm that the bees were raised locally – it is not uncommon for sellers to ship in bees that were used to pollinate crops in other locations (in some cases, as far as the other end of the country!).
Queen bees are often sold individually but you can purchase workers and drones in small quantities or even 100 at a time. A nuc is one of the most expensive ways to buy bees, but it’s also one of the easiest as your colony will already be established.
You need to plan a head when buying your bees, particularly if you are ordering them online. Make sure the bees you order come with a warranty, particularly if they are being shipped as they will be exposed to severe stress and more likely to die.
Know the life cycle of a bee
I already told you about the differences between drone, worker, and queen bees. But it’s also important to understand the life cycle of a bee so that you are able to nurture your bees to maturity.
Once an egg is laid, it will be incubated for about three days. For the next week, the eggs will exist as larvae and will feed on the honeycomb in the hive. The worker bees will continue delivering pollen to these developing bees, doing this for sixteen days after incubation.
After that, the young bees will begin to leave the hive and investigate their own food sources, and will progress to become worker bees or drones.
Install Your Bees
Now that you have your hives set up and ready to go, it’s time to introduce your colonies. You should do this by following these steps.
1. Introduce Package Bees
Once you have your bees, it’s time to install them. Before you put them inside, make sure all your top bars are on the hive. You will need to remove several top bars and put false ones back in, the exact number of which will vary depending on the size of your colony.
Usually, you will want to insert your false back 10 bars from the front of the hive. This will help to establish your brood nest at the front of the hive.
You should then remove at least five more bars between the false back and the entrance, between when you will install the bees. If you have a package of bees, your queen will be in a separate cage. You should put this on top of the hive until the bees are installed. Shake the box with the bees as you empty them into the hive – this will ensure that they make it out of the box.
It’s a good idea to introduce your new bees during the afternoon – this is the warmest time of day and will give you the most light. This can reduce stress. You might also want to offer supplemental food while you are installing your bees – add more every thirty minutes to make sure your bees know that this is where they will be fed and safe.
After introducing your bees, try to keep the area around the hives calm. Keep people and animals away for at least a few days, as this kind of stress can cause the hive to swarm.
Here’s a quick video showing you how to install package bees:
2. Introduce the Queen
Once the rest of the bees are in the hive, you can put the queen bee into the hive. You have a couple of options as to how you do this – but I’m going to tell you the best way. It takes a little bit longer but it’s definitely worth it.
To introduce your queen, you should suspend your cage between the third and fourth bars closest to the entrance. At this point, you should have a ton of bees flying around, but most of them should end up on the hive. Put all but one of the bars back on the hive.
Make sure your bees figure out where your hive is – you can do this by watching closely for fanning behavior. When the bees begin to fan out, it is essentially their way of letting you know that the queen has made it inside and that they have located her – this can take up to an hour.
You should not remove the queen from her cage for the first few days. You need to give time for the other bees to find their queen. Once most of your bees have made it inside, you can release the queen over the hive.
Make sure you do not drop her on the ground – work only directly over the hive where the top bars are removed. You can move the false back to the back of the hive about a week after you introduce your bees. Then you can put in your spacers and move the bees and combs about three bars from the entrance of the hive.
This is known as the indirect method of introducing your queen. It requires a lot of monitoring and a lot of patience – you need to make sure your drones accept your queen.
Now, the other alternative – and this is the option you should not pursue, even if you are in a hurry – is to simply dump your queen bee into the hive.
This can sometimes work, if your drone bees accept and welcome your queen – or it can backfire, because they might attack and kill her immediately.
If you purchased your queen as a separate unit from the rest of your bees, this is a costly mistake – queen bees can cost $100 or more, so I advise using the indirect, time-consuming method of introducing your queen instead.
Work With Your Bees
You will need to work with your bees from time to time, and not just when you are harvesting honey. It’s a good idea to maintain a calendar of when you need to work your bees so that you don’t fall behind on any of these necessary tasks.
Periodic maintenance will consist of checking on your hive to make sure your queen is laying eggs, that your workers are building up stores of honey, and that your colony has enough space.
You don’t need to check on your hives that often during the winter, because in the cold months, the colony will cluster together and eat their honey stores. They won’t come back out until the temperatures are above freezing.
Feed Your Bees
For example, you may need to provide your bees with food. This should be done with an equal mixture of sugar and water. You can give your bees food by punching holes in the top of the hive and hanging food jars filled with sugar water inside.
This will provide your bees with nutrition and calories until they have had time to forage – you may need to do this during the early spring months, too.
Placing your hives in the garden is always a good idea, too. This will give your bees direct access to food. They particularly like nutrient-dense pollens from plants like:
- Lemon balm
You can also feed your bees supplemental foods like their own honey or even fondant icing or marshmallows! They love these sweet treats. You should also be supplying your bees with clean water if you are in a time of intense heat or drought. Put a container of water out that is about an inch deep.
Put it On the Calendar
You should also be monitoring your hive regularly – mark the calendar so you know when you need to check. You can check your hive every day if you want, but remember that repeated opening of the hive may result in bees who become cranky and more likely to sting.
Check your bees at least once between when they are introduced in the spring and when honey is harvested in the fall to make sure they are flourishing and building a vibrant hive.
Here’s a video that will show you how to harvest raw honey:
Watch for Pests and Predators
You will also need to keep an eye out for pests. If you see bees with deformed wings, a lack of larvae, a weakened colony, or hive beetles or wax moths, you will need to apply treatments.
Some of the most common honey bee pests include tracheal mites, varroa mites, wax moths, and small hive beetles. Varroa mites are the most common honey bee pest and these creatures feed off the blood of adult bees and the bee larvae.
They can weaken your colony to the point of collapse – you can use pesticides ahead of time or even fumigants once you notice an infestation, but these are often ineffective.
From time to time, you may want to double-check on y our bees and make sure that they aren’t being harassed by any predators. There are lots of animals who like honey as much as we do, including bears, skunks, and opossums. You can put up electric barriers or chicken wire to help keep animals away. This will ensure the vitality of your colony.
There are even some diseases that can impact your colony. Foulbrood is one of the most lethal, and it’s also highly contagious. This disease spreads quickly between hives and is caused by bacterial spores. It causes larvae to die and prevents worker bees from deliver nectar.
This disease weakens the colony and makes it more likely to be robbed by other bees. You can use antibiotics but often, hives that have been infected need to be destroyed.
Chalkbrood is another common disease. This comes about during the early spring and there is no defined cure. You can sometimes sterilize wooden pieces of the hive and throw away infected honeycomb to prevent the spread.
Know that you probably won’t get honey that first year.
Sadly, most of us who are first timers at raising bees have dreams of flowing honey, but that’s not often the case. Most of the time, the bees will need all that they collect to get them through the winter. But, the second year can yield quite a bit of golden deliciousness!
When you’re ready to harvest, you will need to remove the hive frames once the autumn months arrive. Remove the wax and honeycomb, scraping it into a bucket with a heated knife.
Allow the honey to slowly sink down to the lower levels of the bucket and then you can pull out the wax cappings. You’ll be left with honey to eat and you can turn the wax into candles. You may need to use an extractor to keep the wax separate from the honey.
Your success in beekeeping will vary – there are some people who are wildly successful with minimal experience and others who constantly struggle.
This is largely because beekeeping is a very local experience and is heavily influenced by the environment – if you raise bees in the north, it’s probably going to be more challenging than raising them in the south.
That being said, you can get some good money for your bees’ products, in addition to what you are keeping for yourself. Organic honey sells for up to $12 per pint, while a single one-pound wax brick can go for $10!
Just keep in mind that you will need to devote some time to caring for your hives. Often, that means one to three hours per week when your hive is producing honey that needs to be processed and stored. Make sure you have the time to devote to bees before you get into them.
Understanding the bees you want to keep and knowing what you are getting into will be the key to your success beekeeping. Here’s to your successful buzzing!