Want to learn more about how to start beekeeping?
There are many ways to dive into the wonderful world of beekeeping, however, by taking certain steps ahead of time you’ll maximize your success, save money, and have more fun!
Table of Contents
Before You Start
The absolute first step in becoming a beekeeper is having a full understanding of what you are getting into. A bit of a reality check if you will.
Beekeeping comes with its challenges. To start, it is expensive. Hive losses are heartbreaking and average nearly 50% each year. Bees sting. Beekeeping requires time out of your busy days. It demands the physical ability to move hive equipment. The learning curve is steep and long and riddled with mistakes along the way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to discourage anyone from becoming a beekeeper. Many of these challenges can be adapted with some creativity or a helping hand. I personally feel that these things are important considerations that are not often addressed. I would hate for someone to eagerly get started, only to find out about these struggles down the road. So, just keep this in mind, ok?
The next important step is to ensure that having a hive on your property is even legal. Believe it or not, there are places where keeping bees is against the law, or there are limitations on the number of hives and their placement on a property. The best way to check is to look up your local city ordinances, as well as any neighborhood HOA or covenants.
Join Local and State Beekeeping Clubs
Yes, before you even purchase a single piece of beekeeping equipment, you should join your local and/or state beekeeping club. I think you should join a club at least a year before you get your first hive, if possible. This is for a number of reasons.
Beekeeping clubs are an excellent place to learn. Of course, you can read books, watch YouTube videos or listen to podcasts, however, there is a saying that all beekeeping is local. What does that mean? It means that your specific geological area will have some nuances, things that make beekeeping just a little different. Attending your local meeting will help you learn what they are and how to prepare for them.
While attending the club, you may find that they offer a field day. You may also find a beekeeper that is willing to let you visit their apiary. I think it is a good experience to see a hive up close and personal before diving in on your own. Not only is it a good learning experience, but it also helps you decided if you really want to become a beekeeper.
Finding a mentor will skyrocket your beekeeping success, and your local club is the ideal place to start looking. Now, don’t just expect or assume that everyone there is willing to mentor you. The best way to find a mentor is to offer to help them work their hives. Your free labor will be paid in knowledge and experience.
Some beekeeping groups have discounts with woodenware or bee suppliers, thereby saving you money when you order your supplies. Additionally, most clubs have a swarm list that you can put your name on. Each club is different, but this is a way to get free (or very cheap) bees!
Even if you have a local club, I always recommend joining your state club as well. Each membership should be relatively inexpensive, and the resources and education that comes from them are invaluable.
Take A Full Beginners Class
Once again, before buying any equipment, find a full beekeeping class. There are often some small introductory lessons, but a full beekeeping class is generally a two or more day event.
These classes will help build upon any knowledge that you have, and undoubtedly add more information. Be sure to bring something to take lots of notes!
Read, read and read some more….with discrimination
You know how everything on the internet is 100% true? Ok, well maybe not.
Just because something is online does not mean that the information presented is correct. As you peruse the internet and come across various blogs and websites, be aware that there is a LOT of misinformation out there about beekeeping. I would recommend sticking to experienced beekeepers, experts, and research material if possible, to ensure you are receiving the most accurate information available.
Books are also a great place to find reputable material. Be sure to check your local library, as they may have some of the best books for beginners.
Buy The Basics
Now that you have (hopefully) decided to become a beekeeper, checked your local laws, joined the local club, took a beekeeping class, found a mentor, and read your heart out, it’s time to buy the basics.
If you have a mentor, talk to them about what you are thinking about purchasing first. There may be some things that work better in your area, and your mentor can help.
If you don’t have a mentor, I recommend buying a basic starter hive kit. You can choose assembled or unassembled, depending on if you want to put them together or not. You can also choose painted or unpainted (if you paint your own, NEVER paint the inside!). Either way, I suggest buying a basic Langstroth hive and a few other items:
- Telescoping lid
- Inner cover
- Medium (or “shallow) hive body with wax foundation frames
- Two Deep (or “super”) hive bodies with wax foundation frames
- Screened bottom board
- Entrance reducer
- Hive tool
- Bee suit
This starter hive will cost about $200, plus the expense of the bee suit, gloves, smoker and hive tool, and is the bare minimum to get started. If you want to spend more money, take a look at Tools Every Beekeeper Needs To Have.
You can pick either an 8 or a 10 frame hive. I recommend a 10 frame hive for simplicity. This would also be something to talk to your mentor about.
I know there are endless possibilities with the different ways to customize your hive, and it can become overwhelming (and expensive). But until you have hands on experience with a beehive, I think the very basic set up is ideal. Once you start to learn what you like and don’t like, you can make changes to customize to your needs and desires. I think it is unwise to spend money on lots of accessories and things that you don’t even know if you’ll like.
My only exception to the above statement is I believe that everyone should start with 2-3 hives. If you can afford the cost of two hives up front, do it. Having two hives allow you to see the differences between one hive and another, you can use brood from one hive if something happens to the other hives queen, and if one hive was to die you have a backup.
There are a few options when it comes to obtaining the actual honey bees for your new hive. You can choose a package, nuc, or swarm.
A package is a wire cage filled with a few pounds of bees and an unrelated queen. These packages generally come from California, and are usually the cheapest bees to purchase. Personally, I am not a fan of packages and recommend avoiding them if you can. These bees are not local stock and are not related to the queen. If something happens to the queen, or she is released too early and they kill her, then you’ll end up with a hive full of workers (long story short, it won’t survive without a queen).
Nuc is short for Nucleus. Nucs are “mini hives”, that comes with 5 frames of honey, pollen, brood, worker bees, and the Queen that made it all happen. These bees are all a part of one colony, the workers are already caring for the queen, and the queen is laying eggs. Also, nucs are local or somewhat local, because they can’t be shipped like packages usually are. Once you receive your nuc, simply place the 5 frames in your new beehive, and the bees will start expanding their colony right away.
I recommend that everyone starts with nucs if possible. Check with your bee club to find the closest apiary with nucs, and one with a good reputation. Packages are generally more expensive than packages, but worth the additional expense.
With the exception of one queen that I bought as an experiment, I have never purchased bees.
Once I had my apiary set up, I posted ads on Craigslist for swarm collection. Within a few days, I had my first call, and was able to populate my hive with bees for free.
Swarms are a colony’s way of reproducing. A queen bee does not send individual bees into the world to start their own colonies. Instead, when a colony reaches a state of overpopulation, they send half of the bees (with the mother queen) out to start a new colony. They leave behind queen cells (baby queens that haven’t hatched yet) to reign over the bees that remain.
These swarms are homeless bees with a queen looking for a new cavity to call home. Until they find their new home, they hang out in a cluster on a tree limb, the side of the building, on the ground, or wherever they land.
When bees are in this swarm cluster, they are easy to collect. If you are able to find one, or are on a swarm list with your local club, you can populate your hives for free!
Now The Fun Begins!
Congratulations! Now you have taken the leap into the wonderful world of beekeeping. You’ll find that as you keep bees, you’ll notice new things that have nothing to do with the bees- like where your food comes from, changes in weather patterns, when plants start to flower and more. I find bees connect the beekeeper to the natural world. Bees are fascinating, and beekeeping is extremely rewarding. I wish you the best of luck!
Below are some of my personal thoughts and feelings that I think will help you as you go forth in beekeeping.
Don’t Give Up
Keep in mind that you’ll face challenges, but it is important to learn from them and not give up. You may lose a hive (or two or three). You may accidentally drop a frame. You are human and mistakes happen. I’d like to offer a few takeaways to help you succeed.
There is a statistic that says as many as 80% of beekeepers quit in their first two years. This is often due to a large number of hive losses, and new beekeepers become discouraged. When you lose a hive (and know that you will), try to figure out what happened and use it to improve your beekeeping skills. There is never a shortage of things to learn with bees!
Be a Beekeeper
It is also important to understand that honey bees are an introduced species, not native to the United States. Further, while native bee populations are on the decline, honey bees are not at risk in the United States. Keeping honey bees in artificial hives is anything but natural. With this, understand that one must be a beeKEEPER. Because we have housed bees in an artificial environment, we need to take measures to ensure their survival. Honey bees are truly managed livestock in this scenario, as an apiary full of thin-walled wooden boxes placed in close proximity to each other is nothing like a bees native home- tree hollows spaced many kilometers apart. Expecting bees to survive in an apiary with no beekeeper intervention is like putting cattle in a field and expecting them to survive on their own. The unfortunate fact is that the cattle will need to be fed, vaccinated, protected from predators, moved to other fields, etc.
With this understanding, it is important to work with a mentor or read online and understand when you may need to feed bees, treat them for various diseases, perform mite checks, and adjust the hive for seasonal changes.
There is a hot debate on whether or not bees should be treated for mites. Ultimately, the decision to treat or not is your own. However, I have recently interviewed several honey bee researchers for the Backyard Bounty Podcast, and they all say the same thing.
- Honey bees should have mite checks done, and only treat when mites levels are at 3 per 100 bees
- Bees are unable to develop a natural mite resistance in a short period of time. Not treating infested bees in hopes to develop your own mite resistant strain is very similar to allowing your dog to die of a tick infestation
- Bees dying from mite infestations die a miserable death. If you chose not to treat a mite infested hive, the humane thing to do is to kill the colony
- Studies have shown that colonies dying of mite infestations abandon the hive and individual bees integrate themselves into neighboring hives. These bees introduce mites and diseases into the hive. So, by allowing a hive to die from mites, you are helping to spread diseases to other hives.
You can listen to the Backyard Bounty podcast episodes with the researchers and hear for yourself.
It is my personal recommendation to treat for mites, but ultimately what you chose to do is your own decision. However, I ask that everyone performs mite checks. You can do this as a powdered sugar roll which won’t hurt the bees. It is a good idea to know what your mite loads are and to track them, even if you choose not to treat them.
Bees are bees
There is a term I never heard until beekeeping- anthropomorphized. Anthropomorphize means to assign human characteristics to animals. I often see this about bees, they are often romanticized and anthropomorphized. While I don’t think it’s a horrible thing to be connected to your bees, don’t forget that they are honey bees and not fuzzy striped people. They don’t really care about your feelings and they will sting you if you try to squish them.
Lastly, I will suggest a bit of caution when posting bee related questions on social media groups. Unfortunately the people online can be extremely opinionated and just plain mean. Depending on where you post, you may receive comments that make you angry or hurt your feelings. Not all groups are like this but know that some people are REALLY passionate about their opinions.
You may have a unique way of doing things, and that is ok. If it works for you and your bees, you don’t need to change it just because a group of strangers offers their opinion. If you ask a question, you will likely receive a variety of responses. Pick whatever sounds best for you, do a little research on it, and decide if that is the answer you are looking for.
If you like Facebook, you are invited to join our Hens & Hives Facebook Group group and ask your beekeeping questions there.
Bonus: Get the beekeepers calendar for free
You’ll find 37 pages filled with detailed information to help you make this the best beekeeping season yet! Stay ahead of upcoming tasks and know what to look for with the guidance of A Years Journey In Beekeeping: The Beekeepers Calendar.
- 12 months of in depth information addressing key activities and objectives
- A full 4 pages detail common pests and diseases, along with mitigation options
- Additional Resources section lists more than 20 excellent resources for more beekeeping information
- Plus, you’ll obtain access to our Farmstead Google Calendar to help keep you on track
Download your free copy today! Simply fill out the form below and A Years Journey In Beekeeping: The Beekeepers Calendar will be sent right to your inbox.
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