Backyard Beekeeping for Beginners

Backyard beekeeping can provide you with fresh honey and pollinated crops, use these tips to start your own hive.
By Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson
April 23, 2014
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Deep inside the beehive, worker bees are making comb. This comb will be used for storing brood, honey and pollen. The wax is put into place by mouth.
Photo by Daniel Johnson
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The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping (Voyageur Press, 2013) can help you start your first beehive the right way. Veteran beekeepers and farming professionals Daniel and Samantha Johnson walk you through their tips on raising honey bees. Use this excerpt from chapter 2, “Starting Out as a Beekeeper,” to help you enter the world of backyard beekeeping.

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping.

Finding Bee Breeders

Here’s a great question that probably has been bouncing around in your mind for a while, and perhaps you’ve even skipped ahead in the text to find the answer: Where exactly are your bees going to come from?

Well, unless you plan on tracking down and capturing a swarm of loose bees (possible, although challenging and beyond the scope of a beginner) or collecting them one by one off of dandelions and daisies (not practical), you will be purchasing your bees from someone else—either a bee breeder (who may live far from you) or a local beekeeper. And that’s a good idea, because this way you will be able to do your research and purchase from an established, reputable source—and besides, that wild bee roundup idea sounds a little too ambitious!

Most bee breeders in the United States are located in the southern portions of the country and California (because of the warm year-round temperatures) but will ship packages of bees and queens all over the country. If you’re not planning on buying locally, then explore bee journals and magazines for bee breeders who will ship to your location. (A breeder that offers a package replacement guarantee is a good thing—just in case your bees perish during shipment.)

Generally speaking, you can purchase your bees in three different ways.

1. Packages. A package of bees is a small screened box—most commonly about three pounds when full—that contains a queen and about 10,000 rarin’-to-go workers. Ten thousand bees is just the right amount for an up-and-coming hive. The benefits of the package system is that you can purchase your bees from almost anywhere and have them shipped in the package right to you, either through the U.S. Mail or by another carrier like UPS. Be aware however, that shipping through the mail like this can be stressful on the bees. It is less stressful on them if they are hand delivered—for example—by a local bee enthusiast who has had the packages trucked directly to his door or has picked them up himself and brought them directly back home. In the past, we’ve purchased bees from a local beekeeper who travels each spring from Wisconsin to California to pick up a truckload of bees, which he then disperses to beekeepers throughout Wisconsin.

Your package of bees will be made up of the screened box, a small metal can of syrup that provides the bees with a meal during their cross-country excursion, and a very small, separate screened cage for the queen. She is separated from the workers because she has only just been introduced to them. The queen is, in effect, an adopted queen, and the rest of the packaged colony will need some time to become acquainted with her unique smell and personality. The queen cage provides an opportunity for the bees and the queen to get to know each other, without getting too close too soon.

Installing a package of bees into an empty hive is an exciting job that requires a bit of finesse—you can purchase The Beginner's Guide to Backyard Beekeeping in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store for more detailed information on installing your bees safely and effectively.

2. Nucs. A “nuc” (short for “nucleus”) is a somewhat more elaborate way of obtaining your bees. Instead of shipping the bees in a simple box, a nuc can be thought of as a tiny hive (with only a handful of frames—see “Anatomy of a Beehive” later in this article). A nuc has a small group of workers, an established queen, and some brood. When it’s time to install the bees into their new hive at your home, all that is required is the careful transfer of the nuc frames into a new empty hive. Ta-da! You’re ready to go.

A nuc doesn’t get shipped through a parcel carrier; instead, you will need to visit the bee breeder yourself. It can be difficult to locate a beekeeper who offers nucs, but if you can, it’s a good option.

3. Complete hives. It is also possible to purchase an established functioning beehive from a breeder or beekeeper. While this option has its merits—you are immediately in the beekeeping game with a producing queen and plenty of workers—it usually isn’t recommended for the novice beekeeper. For one thing, you will have to be immediately prepared to deal with the upkeep and care of a large hive, without the benefit of the learning curve that you might otherwise obtain when starting out small. There will also be a lot of bees in an established hive, which can be intimidating to work with, and they may be a bit more aggressive than a newly established hive from a package or nuc.

For these reasons, we recommend you go for the package or nuc route.

Anatomy of a Beehive

In the wild, bees will create a home and hive just about anywhere that’s cozy, dry, and defendable. This could be inside a tree, or log, or even in the walls of an old house. However, these locations don’t exactly lend themselves to easy access by a beekeeper! Instead, domesticated bees are (generally) kept in manmade hives that are both easy to work with, easy to access, and comfortable for the bees.

Hives can be purchased preassembled, or in a kit that requires your own skill to put together. Another option, of course, is to build your own from scratch. If you’re ambitious and skilled in woodworking, then this makes a terrific project!

If you’re anxious to get going with your bees and aren’t particularly interested in building things, then you’ll want to stick with the preassembled hives, which are available from many beekeeping supply companies.

While a variety of different manmade hives have been used throughout history, in this book we’ll be concentrating on the very common Langstroth hive, named after its patentee. Before the Langstroth hive came into use during the mid-1800s, it was difficult for a beekeeper to retrieve honey at the end of the summer—in fact it often resulted in the destruction of the colony. The Langstroth hive solved these problems by allowing easy and undisruptive access to the bees, combs, brood, and honey. It accomplishes these by the use of frames.

Let’s take a quick walk-through of a standard Langstroth hive, so you will be able to identify each part and understand its function. We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up:

1. Stand and landing board. This is the very bottom of the hive, which is basically an empty square with a small ramp built on the front … the ramp is there to give your bees a nice landing space and an easy way to crawl back home after a hard day of visiting flowers.

2. Bottom board. The screened bottom board is just that—just a floor for the hive with little else to do.

3. Next we come to the actual hive boxes—the parts that really make up the bulk of your colony’s home. The hive boxes have no floor and no ceilings—just walls. First we have the “deep” hive, or the “brood” hive, as some people call it. Typically, this is the deepest box, and the one where the queen will be living, along with her growing brood. A modest amount of honey may be kept down the deep hive, but this honey is for the care and feeding of the hive population—it’s not honey you will be harvesting.

4. The honey that you’ll be harvesting is kept up higher in the hive—in boxes called supers (which is Latin for “above,” or, “higher”—as in “superior.”) Typically, supers are not as deep as brood boxes. This is to keep them easier to handle—a box full of honey can be quite heavy. The bees don’t care one way or another if the supers aren’t as deep as the brood box.

5. Above the supers comes the inner cover, which is a rather simple lid with an oval hole for ventilation. This inner cover is, in turn, covered by the outer cover. Outer covers usually have a tough exterior made of metal or copper. Simple outer covers are flat, but some hives have gabled roofs to make them more attractive in your bee yard.

6. There is one more piece of the hive that we should talk about, and that is the entrance reducer. This is a small, long, wooden piece that has two notches carved into it: one notch is quite small, and another is somewhat larger. Once in place, the entrance reducer is used as a kind of doorway to the hive. Depending on its orientation, the entrance reducer can be installed so that either the large notch is used, making a long, wide doorway for the bees, or that the small notch is present, making a short square entrance.

Why are there two entrance sizes? Well, the small notch is used in the winter (to limit cold air pouring into the hive) and is also used on new hives that are just starting out (so it’s easier for the bees to guard the entrance). The longer notch is typically used once the hive is established and bees are better able to guard it. It’s also used in the summer when more ventilation is needed. Keep in mind that later in the summer when the bees are very busy and the hive is established, you may want to simply remove the reducer altogether.


Reprinted with permission from The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping: Everything You Need to Know by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson and published by Voyageur Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping.


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