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Starting With Honey Bees

Updated on September 4, 2018
m-a-w-g profile image

Chris has been a beekeeper quickly approaching 10 years. He enjoys learning about bees from others and a good conversation about honey bees

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When To Begin

Over the years, there have been many people who come to me and say they want to be a beekeeper. I think that it is awesome, but generally the time table that people are talking to me and wanting bees are grossly misjudged.

The honey bee is an extremely interesting insect. If there were more beekeepers, it would be great. When a person is ready to become a beekeeper, they should start planning to become a beekeeper the following spring. There are several topics that need to be considered and learned about.

  1. Mentorship
  2. Apiary placement
  3. Wooden wares needed
  4. Supplies needed
  5. Procure honey bees

Mentorship

Probably the biggest thing I like about beekeeping is that most beekeepers are willing to talk. Previous employees use to joke about other beekeepers coming in and talking about beekeeping, my staff would say we were speaking "beeinese". But most beekeepers will share their knowledge willingly with others.

There are plenty of beekeeper groups, if you live in North America check out Bee Culture Magazine's Local Listings. Knowing several of the locals groups in my area has shown me multiple times the knowledge base that is offered and resources that are pooled by these groups. Especially good for the beginner who doesn't have the resources or current desire to purchase all the equipment associated with beekeeping and honey harvesting.

If a person doesn't want to be as social, there are plenty of books on beekeeping and online articles such as "What Do Beekeepers Do In Spring" and other seasonally appropriate articles. A great book for beginners is The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. Kim is one of the most if not the most published beekeeper with great knowledge on general beekeeping as well as commercial beekeeping.

Many people have a friend who is a beekeeping that offers more of a leisure mentor with an offer of call anytime you need. Which can be good because the new beekeeper hopefully is willing to network and read to become a well rounded beekeeper in their own right.


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Apiaries look quite different from each other.
Apiaries look quite different from each other.
Apiaries look quite different from each other.

Apiary Placement

Apiary placement is important. Too much shade seems to create an issue with Small Hive Beetles, too much wind seems to have more of a winter impact, too much sun and the bees spend resources cooling the hive, etc. I prefer sun light, at the edge of a wooded area with the entrance facing the sun. If I need to place a barrier for the winter or a wind break, so be it. Things to consider will be seasonal surrounding, water source, nectar and pollen sources, chemical usage, and direction for hives to face.

Seasonal surroundings means what is the year going to be in every season. How much shade is there, snow build up, rain and moisture, wind, etc. Having your apiary with a mild amount of all these elements is fine, but you want to avoid being on the extreme end of any of these issues or events.

Water source simply means that you need to have a water source for the honey bees. There will be a lot of water used so having a close water source is better. If a beekeeper needs to add a water source, that is an option. Make sure to use pebbles or some other footing for the honey bees so they do not drown while getting water.

Nectar and pollen sources are generally pretty simple to get to. Honey bees will fly up to five miles to get to nectar and pollen, although many times they don't need to travel that far. But knowing what is close helps. Is there a hay field with clover, apple orchard, blueberry patch, raspberries, etc. There are many sources and the easiest to find is generally the agriculture fields.

Chemical usage can be devastating to honey bee hives. Talking to local farmers and touching base when they will be spraying. This could mean covering the beehives until the spraying is done or not setting up in the area. Most will be nice enough as long as approached open-minded and friendly. Honey bees and agriculture go hand in hand and colony collapse is not just because of insecticides and herbicides and the honey bees harvest won't be as good without the fields.

I always face the hive towards the rising sun. By facing honey bee hives towards the East the first light and warmth is on the entrance and warming that area up first. It allows the bees to become more active faster instead of having a shadow cast on them half the day.

Wooden Wares

An error within beekeeping may be how the beginner sets are packaged. The most common beginner kit is as the one listed below. Unfortunately, this is not everything a first year beekeeper will need for a honey bee hive. A full list would:

  • Bee hive stand
  • Hive bottom
  • 2 Deep Supers with 10 frames and foundations
  • 1 Medium Super with 10 frames and foundations
  • Inner cover
  • Top Cover
  • Brick or rock to hold top down
  • Entrance reducer

What is listed is not just wooden wares, but that is the honey bee hive set up for a basic single hive with absolutely no back up frames and foundations for honey exchange. The beginning beekeeper kits list the hive bottom, single deep super, inner cover, top cover and that is about it. That leaves two boxes, a deep and a medium still to purchase.

Supplies Needed

There are plenty of supplies to be a beekeeper. A short list would be as follows:

  • Honey or sugar water
  • Pollen Patties
  • smoker
  • smoke fuel
  • hive tool
  • veil, jacket, or suit
  • gloves
  • Filter sieve
  • cold or hot knife
  • access to honey extractor
  • 5 gallon bucket

There is always more you could buy, but these are what I would consider the basics to be self-sufficient. Some of these items can be found from beekeeper associations, estate sales, yard sales, and many other locations instead of purchasing new. Just be cautious and ready to thoroughly clean and disinfect the supplies.

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Procure Honey Bees

Honey bees can be obtained a number of ways. I will list several ways by seasonality of availability:

  • Purchase packaged bees
  • Capture swarm
  • Purchase nuc or split
  • Extraction

I have never found a beehive itself for sale, although it can happen. Packaged honey bees is probably the most common way for beginners to receive their first beehive. In the last year, advertisements for two pound packages have been seen. Simply talk to a local beekeepers association and find the closest reputable bee supplier and purchase a three pound package. It is a possibility that the first year beekeeper from a package of honey bees may not receive surplus honey. I found this to be a rarity, but I would not plan on having honey the first year.

Capturing a swarm of honey bees can start occurring shortly into spring. A honey bee hive will expand quicker than a beekeeper expects and swarm, or a feral hive will expand and swarm. If a member of a beekeeper's association it is possible to join a capture and sometimes receive them as a starter hive. Buying or building a swarm trap is an option, I would recommend finding information at the Bee Source Forums. This keeps entry costs down on becoming a beekeeper. There are years that I will place an empty hive in the apiary and most years will catch a swarm or two that just move in with little to no work from this beekeeper. I do not have to worry about Africanized honey bees in my area, so I do not have an issue doing this.

In the early summer, beekeepers will begin selling nucs and splits. This generally sells very quickly and there may be a waiting list because nucs and splits are generally less work than packaged bees. There is already four to five frames full of resources for the honey bees and brood is already being developed by the small hive. The earlier this is inquired into the more likely an individual can purchase a nuc or split the same year.

Extractions seem to happen later in the summer and early fall. People don't realize that honey bees moved into their structure, garage, or a nuisance area for the homeowner until the honey bees have a have built already. I would not recommend any new beekeeper to try an extraction by themselves the first few times. Find an experienced beekeeper willing to help. This may involve cutting walls open to remove honey bees and comb. I have never had an extraction that worked quite as planned and experience is welcome on these trips.

Knowledge

Finding a source for information is the most important part of being a beekeeper. There is always something else to learn or new research. Waiting to be an expert before starting to be a beekeeper simply means that an individual probably won't become a beekeeper. A new experience is just around the corner, if you are interest in becoming a beekeeper - then become a beekeeper.

© 2018 Chris Andrews

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    • m-a-w-g profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Andrews 

      2 months ago from Ohio

      Packaged bees come in a small container with screened sides and a soup size can inset into the top of the box. There is a smaller package with a mated queen bee that hangs by a piece of metal that is pinched between the larger container and the soup can. The soup can has sugar water in it for the bees to eat. This is how they ship honey bees.

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      2 months ago from Chicago, IL

      This is a great article. I never knew how much went into keeping honey bees. When you buy them packaged what does that mean? How are they kept alive in the package or does this mean they are somehow kept in a cage of sorts? Thanks for the information.

    • m-a-w-g profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Andrews 

      2 months ago from Ohio

      I enjoy the bees, could be great for people to do.

    • profile image

      Joyce Dykstra 

      2 months ago

      I have been thinking this would be a great retirement hobby and enjoy your input.

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