Honeybees are a fascinating bunch of insects, it's no secret that we've enjoyed managing hives for many centuries; beekeeping can be traced back 9,000 years!
In fact, bees are one of the few types of insects that humans have decided to farm, mostly because of the honey, but some are in it for the fun of it (watching bees be bees can be fun), or to help sustain the population so we have honey for years to come. And not just honey, bees help pollinate most of plants we eat, so if they're gone so do most of our food.
If you are excited to get started with honeybees, you may find yourself feeling a tad overwhelmed with the information available to you. To make things a bit easier, let’s break down the basics of getting started with beekeeping.
Can You Keep Bees Legally?
Not everyone can keep bees. Depending on where you live, there might be zoning and legal restrictions that keep your from keeping bees. It's important to check with your local municipality first.
Legality is not everything, though. You should also talk to your neighbors before you get your bees because some people are intimidated by bees and some are allergic to bee stings.
On the other hand, you might still be able to keep bees even if you live in a dense urban area. Many cities now welcome bees because of how beneficial they are for the environment.
To see the full requirement of keeping bees, read the following article: The Legality of Keeping Bees, Cost, Time Commitment, and Bee Anatomy in a Nutshell.
Essential Beekeeping Equipment
It can be tempting to go out and buy a kit from your local store and think you are ready to get started with honeybees, but there are a few things that you must have to lay the foundation for your first hive.
If the thought of harvested honey makes your mouth water, but the image of attempting to gather it from the hive sends fear through the center of your heart, rest assure that with a smoker, you will easily be able to harvest your honey.
A smoker helps to provide you with a window of opportunity to collect your liquid gold by temporarily disorientating the busy bees within your hive.
It could be the hottest day of the year, but you will be glad to equip yourself with gloves that are specifically made for beekeepers. Leather gloves will be the best line of defense while harvesting your honey, but, if you are looking for a less costly alternative, rubber gloves or latex will work as well.
It will take some time to become accustomed to bulky gloves if you are using leather or canvas, and you may feel as though they are not worth the hassle while attempting to handle your hive. If you consider yourself a bee charmer, you may opt to go without it in the future. For the time being, however, consider investing in a pair of gloves to protect your skin from stings.
3. Suits and Veils
Bundle up! Just kidding, but you do need to protect your body from possible stings by suiting up! You can find beekeeping suits of all shapes and sizes but the best suits will cover your entire body, like a child’s onesie, and prevent bees from sneaking into your clothes.
Bees are more curious than aggressive, and most stings will only occur if you are too rough, take too long to harvest, or if a curious bee venture up your sleeve and becomes stuck. Be sure to tuck your pants into your boots and sleeves into your gloves to prevent a stray explorer from sneaking into your suit.
Veils protect your face from being stung while allowing you to see what you are doing with your hive. They are made from a protective netting which prevents bees from landing on your face.
Veils and suits will help build your confidence as you hone your beekeeping, and charming, skills. Some experienced beekeepers graduate to using minimal protection but, as a newbie, go ahead and protect your body from stings.
4. Hive Tools
Honeybees are notorious for sealing up cracks, seams, and crevices in their hives. When it’s time to harvest, prying apart your hive will be quite the task without the proper equipment. Hive tools are created specifically to force your hive apart at the frames, and other places your bees have sealed up.
Hive tools can be made from metal, wood, and sturdy plastic. If you have thin, strong, tools lying around the farm, feel free to use those, but these specific tools will probably make your life a bit easier, and get the honey on your toast faster.
5. Bee Brush
You will quickly learn that your bees like to hang out exactly where you don’t want them to spend their time. While harvesting, this can create problems for you, and you will need to find a way to move your beloved bees without harming them. Using gloved hands isn’t the best option because you can accidentally squish your bees.
A bee brush is any brush that has exceptionally soft and flexible bristles. If you have chickens on your farm, a stray rooster’s tail-feather is a perfect alternative if you do not have access to a bee brush.
To learn more about the other beekeeping equipment and what to use them for, read this article: 15 Essential Beekeeping Equipment Every Beekeeper Can’t Live Without.
Finally, it's also important to learn how to clean your beekeeping equipment.
Different Types of Beehives
When getting started with honeybees and you think of a beehive, what do you picture? If you are like most people, you see an upright dresser-like beehive, but did you know that there are other options available?
1. The Langstroth
This hive is one of the most common hives and the typical hive that most people envision when they dream of their new hives. Its been around for a long time and there’s a good reason for that. It is expandable and makes the best use of space based on your bee’s preference for their living space.
While the Langstroth can be heavy and clunky, it is also one of the most accessible hives available. If you need to replace parts on this hive, you can easily find them.
2. Top Bar Hive
The Top Bar Hive is another favorite amongst beekeepers. It is shaped differently than the Langstroth in that is longer than it is tall. Seasoned beekeepers like this hive because it tends to be easier to move around than others.
Bees in the Top Bar Hive build their own honeycomb from wooden bars at the top of the hive, and thus, extra heavy frames are not present in this format. A lightweight hive is a huge selling point for some beekeepers, however, the combs are delicate and can break easily without the added support of the frames in Langstroth and Warre hives.
3. Warre Hive
The Warre Hive is like a mini-me version of the Langstroth, only in reverse. Instead of adding frames from the top of the hive, they are added from the bottom. The reasoning behind this design is to mimic how bees behave in nature. The Warre hive is meant to be like a natural space for the bees, similar to a tree.
The Warre hive requires less inspection time, with the assumption that bees take care of themselves in this natural-like space. However, this hive is hefty and awkward to move.
If you're planning to build your own bee hive, check out this collection of DIY bee hives.
Deciding on A Hive Location
When selecting the perfect location for your beehive, there are many things to consider. As they say, location location location and your bees will thank you for taking the time to find the prime location for their new home—paid in honey, of course. It’s in your best interest to be the best realtor you can be for your swarm.
The elements will be your biggest concern when surveying potential properties for your bees. The following are the most important factors to consider when deciding where to place your colony:
Your hive will need regular maintenance, and of course, you will be harvesting sweet gold from your bees, so you don’t want to make the process harder than it has to be. When you start, you might be a little nervous around your bees, so keeping your hive in an open space will be beneficial. In other words, give yourself some space.
2. Sunny Skies
This is where things get a little tricky. Your bees need the sun to get them moving in the morning… kind of how you might need a cup of coffee before work. However, if the hive is exposed to too much sun, for too long, it can be detrimental to the health and productivity of the bees. A good rule of thumb is to be sure to give your bees morning sun.
Once bees are moved in and settled, they venture out of their hive in search of their preferred garden. Once they find it, they will beeline-it to their favorite spot every single day. With that being said, it’s important to find a way to place the hive in an area that isn’t highly trafficked by humans.
Imagine if your bees were twice your size and you had to cross their busy highway…that's what it’s like if you aren’t considerate about where you place the hive.
Keep your hive near areas that appear more floral than others such as an orchard, and place it out of the way of any area you would not like to run into your bees. Even though you are thrilled to have new tenants, you probably don’t want to collide with them daily.
Just like every living creature, bees need water. They not only hydrate themselves with it, but they also use it to regulate moisture levels in their hives throughout the hot months. Additionally, if their honey becomes too thick, they may use small drops of water dilute it to maintain the desired consistency.
Keeping your hive near water that is either a natural source or meant for them, is ideal. Otherwise, your bees may decide to frequent your pool or your pet’s water dishes.
Speaking of moisture, if your hive becomes too humid, moisture may accumulate and drown your bees. Placing your hive in an area that isn’t overly shady, or damp, will help to prevent a waterlogged hive.
What's the Best Time to Get Started with Honeybees?
The best time to start a new hive is usually when the weather just starts to warm up after a cold winter. Spring, in most climates, is when bees naturally become more active and ready for action.
Ways to Obtain A Bee Colony
Amazingly, there are a handful of different ways to obtain your first colony to get started with honeybees. As a new beekeeper, starting small is the best way to learn the ins and outs of beekeeping without becoming overwhelmed with a colony of 60,000 bees.
1. Packaged Bees
It may sound a little silly, but these days many newbie beekeepers can even order a packaged bees online. Yup, bees come through the postal service, in a parcel.
Your local postal workers may not necessarily appreciate the buzzing box when it arrives, so be sure to be ready to pick them up ASAP. Your bees will want to get into their new hive as soon as they can, so don’t make your bees wait too long before you pick them up.
A package of bees can contain anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 bees and will usually be sold by the weight. This may sound like a lot of bees, but it’s actually on the smaller end of the beekeeping spectrum. Your box will come with worker bees and a queen. All set to go.
Ordering bees from a supplier is a great way to start small, rather than with a large, established, hive. Think of it as a way to get your feet wet without having to dive right into a serious beekeeping operation.
Experienced beekeepers find it thrilling to collect their bees in a more natural way. They wait for the perfect moment, a time when the bees are naturally separating, to collect the bees in nature.
Read this article if you're interested in learning about catching a swarm.
3. Full Hives
Lastly, you can purchase complete, established, hives. Your bees will come in their hive, with their queen, and they already have their daily routines established. If you decide to go this route, keep in mind that a full hive can include 60,000 bees. If you aren’t ready for that kind of responsibility, consider starting with a smaller package.
Putting Your Bees and Queen into The New Hive
Once your bees arrive, it’s time to move them into their new home and get officially started with honeybees.
Make sure you are suited up and ready to go with your chosen protective gear, gloves, and veil. A 1:1 ratio of sugar water solution in a misting bottle should be within reach as you begin to install your bees.
Step One: Prepare the Hive
Take a few frames out of your hive, and move those that remain to the side.
Step Two: Prepare the Bees
Mist your bees with the sugar water solution, which makes it difficult for them to fly and keeps them busy while you are moving them into their hive.
Note: You don't have to overdo the sugar water; you only want to weigh them down and keep them preoccupied, not drown them.
Step Three: Position the Bees
With your gloves on, take your package of bees and gently tap it on the ground. This will shake your bees loose, and move them to the bottom of the container so you can open the top without losing a lot of bees.
Step Four: Remove the Queen
Using a hive tool, pry open the top of the package and look for the queen cage. Remove the queen cage and any additional feed containers that may have been packaged along with the bees.
Replace the lid for now, and set the box of bees aside while you do a wellness-check on your new queen. If she is alive and well, set her aside. If she has died, you should call for a replacement asap. The remainder of the bees can be installed without a queen for now, if need be.
Step Five: Prepare the Queen's Cage
The queen is shipped separately for her protection. The worker bees are not familiar with her scent at the time of shipment, and they may kill her in transit. Most queen’s cages have a plug of sugar which the queen uses as an in-flight snack during travel.
It doubles as a way for the worker bees to release the queen, on their own accord, as they chew through the candy to reach the queen. This allows the worker bees enough time to become accustomed to the queen bee's scent.
Make sure the sugar plug is exposed to the worker bees by removing any corks, or coverings, that were in place during transit. You can help the bees along by making a small puncture in the plug; they will then happily munch their way to their new queen.
Step Six: Install the Queen and Release the Bees
Place the queen, sugar plug up, in the empty hive and just before installing the bees, spray them with the sugar water and give them another shake so they fall to the bottom of the box.
Remove the lid on your bee box and gently shake them into their new home. Now, you can replace the frames, food source, and lid by slowly moving the parts into place. Your bees won’t want to get squished, so slow, deliberate, movements will give them time to move out of your way.
Some bees may accidentally get squished during installation. Try not to let it bother you, as you have an entire hive that needs to be tended to. Keep moving slowly, and deliberately, to install the remainder of your colony.
Step Seven: Return to Your Hive
Check on your bees in about a week to ensure that they were able to chew through the queen's cage and ensure that she has survived. If the worker bees have not released the queen, you can manually release her at this point. She has been with the hive long enough, and they should now be accustomed to her scent.
Inform Your Family and Neighbors
As we mentioned previously, people can be intimidated by bees, so it's only polite to inform family members and neighbors who are close by.
Bees typically travel up to 2 miles to find the good stuff, so if your neighbors happen to have a delicious-looking flower garden, give them a heads-up.
It may sound intimidating, and to some unnecessary, to inform your neighbors about your new hive, but think of it as a time to also educate anyone who might want to learn more. People tend to fear bees, and some are deathly allergic, so it is only fair to let them know that they may expect some new visitors.
If your neighbors seem wary of your new beekeeping adventure, you can try to win them over when you start harvesting your honey with a few gifts for them to enjoy.
Inspecting Your Hive
Beekeeping is generally not a time-consuming activity, but there are more things to do other than setting up hives. As a beekeeper, you need to make sure your colony is healthy, happy, and produce honey.
Hive inspection should be done every two weeks in spring and fall. As a beginner, you might be tempted to do it more often, but it's actually harmful to open your hive too frequently.
Before you start the inspection, it's handy to keep a journal for each hive. Give each hive a name, and take note of the setup date, origin, and the location.
Here's what to do during your inspection:
- Suit up and get your smoker ready
- Lift the hive top and use your smoker, then wait for the smoke to take effect, repeat for each section
- Locate the queen and make sure she looks okay
- See if there are pests or parasites
- See if there are eggs, larvae, and young bees. A healthy hive should have all three
- Keep records in your journal
For the complete beehive management learning guide, read this article: Beehive Management – How to Inspect, Handle, and Feed Your Bees. The article also has some tips to take care of your hive in each season, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
In winter, when your bees might not be able to find food source nearby, you can help them survive by feeding them with grease patties and fondant.
Bee Problems, Pests, and Diseases
This is a very important topic that every beekeeper should know if they want to prevent losing the hive. Because of the importance, we have to create a separate article for it, otherwise this long guide would be much longer.
So go ahead and read the guide: Common Bee Problems, Pests, and Diseases, and How to Fix Them.
Varroa Mites are one of the most threatening problems for your bees. They can single-handedly destroy your whole colonies if not detected early. Which is why we made another separate guide to help you learn how to identify the early sign of Varroa Mite infestation and how to treat them.
Other than mites and diseases, there are also insects and big animals that might threaten your hive. As a colony, bees are actually pretty good at defending themselves. But in case they need some help, here are the things you can do to protect your hive from predators.
By this point, you should already learned pretty much everything you need to know about beekeeping. The final step is learning how to harvest honey and beeswax from your hive, and then maybe sell the harvest for some extra money.
If you have too many bees for your needs, you can also rent them to people who need pollinators.