Beekeeping Basics

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Beekeeping basics require a beehive and a bee suit. Author Keith Rawlinson displays one of his homemade hives.
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You don't need to be a master to build this basic beehive
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A bee finds an empty cell in its honeycomb.

According to the National Honey Board (that’s right), the United States’ honey crop last year brought in 145 million dollars. While beekeeping is both a hobby and a devotion for thousands across the country, it can also be a lucrative home business. I have met many people who are intrigued by the idea of keeping bees but who have never given it a try, simply because they don’t know where to begin. For such a big business, there is precious little information out there on how to get a bee enterprise’s wheels turning. What follows are beekeeping basics and my personal blueprint for success in the field. Like any other worthwhile accomplishment, the job is at once easy and arduous, a labor of love with a healthy dose of sweat equity.

Why Keep Bees?

A well cared-for hive of bees can be expected to produce from 30 to 100 pounds of honey or more per season in most parts of the country. Which means that, even after you and your family have stored all you can use, you still should have plenty left over to sell. I have supplemented my income significantly by keeping bees and selling honey.

Keeping bees also makes good garden sense. With so many bees in the wild having been killed off by disease and parasites, your garden may be suffering from insufficient pollination. Having your own bees ensures adequate pollination and generally results in noticeably higher yields from your vegetable plants.

It’s also possible to rent your bees out to farmers and serious gardeners in many areas of the country as a source of even more income.

How Many Hives Should I Start With?

I recommend that a beginning beekeeper start with a minimum of two hives of bees, and a maximum of four. With at least two hives, you are able to compare their progress, which is a great way of determining how your bees are doing. It also allows you to use one hive to help another if the need arises. For example, you may need to remove excess honey from one hive and give it to a second, if the latter does not have enough stored honey to feed itself. More than four can become overwhelming for a beginner.

What Special Equipment Will I Need to Get Started?

There is some basic equipment you will have to have in order to get started. Everything you will need is available through the suppliers listed at the end of this article. The first item is a bee suit. A bee suit is essentially white coveralls with elastics to close off the cuffs in the sleeves and pant legs, along with gloves and a veil. The veil is little more than a hat surrounded by screen mesh, which keeps the bees away from your face. There are many different styles and price ranges available, but they all pretty much accomplish the same thing. When properly dressed in a full bee suit, there is very little chance of being stung. In fact, during my first year of beekeeping I was stung only once — on the ankle — and that was because I failed to tuck a pant leg into my boot.

You will also need a smoker and a hive tool. The smoker is a device for creating puffs of smoke, which reduce the bees’ tendency to become alarmed while you are working with them. Although smokers come in a variety of sizes and price ranges, someone with only two to four colonies can get along just fine with the smallest and cheapest.

The hive tool is merely a small pry bar designed specifically for use on beehives. It is a fairly inexpensive tool and indispensable for separating hive parts — such as frames full of honey — which bees often stick together with a resinous substance called propolis, or bee glue, which they collect from the bark and buds of various trees and use to fill crevices and fix and varnish their combs.

What are the Parts of a Beehive?

A beehive consists of supers, covers, bottom board, frames, and foundation. The supers, also called hive bodies, are basically wooden boxes without tops or bottoms that are stacked on top of the bottom board and each other to create the hive. A flat piece of wood called an inner cover is placed on top of the uppermost super to close it up, and an outer cover is placed atop the entire hive to make it weather tight. (See our hive configuration diagram for a look at how these parts go together.)

Ten rectangular wooden frames are inserted into each super and are used to hold sheets of beeswax called foundation. This foundation gives the bees a place to build their wax combs neatly into each frame so that the frames can be removed from the hive for such purposes as harvesting the honey.

Exactly how many supers you will need for each hive depends on where you live and how severe the winters are. In my home state of Ohio, the general practice is to use two deep supers for the bees to live in, and three shallow supers per hive to collect the honey.

In more tropical areas, you may only need one deep super. Although supers come in sizes other than just deep and shallow, deep supers provide ample living space for the bees, and any super larger than a shallow size can become extremely heavy when filled with honey. For my beehives, I use only deep and shallow supers.

What Will I Need in Order to Put Together a Beehive?

For each hive you intend to assemble, I recommend the following: two deep supers, three shallow supers, 20 deep frames and sheets of deep-wired foundation, 30 shallow frames and sheets of shallow-wired foundation, an inner and outer cover, and a bottom board. You will also need a queen excluder, which goes between the deep and shallow supers, to make sure the queen lays her eggs in the deep supers and not up upon the shallow supers where the bees store the honey.

All hive parts mentioned above can be purchased through the suppliers listed at the end of the article, or you can save some money and build them yourself (see “Build Your Own Beehive“). You will need basic woodworking skills and access to a few basic woodworking tools.

Where Do I Get the Bees?

Surprisingly enough, the bees can be ordered and delivered through the U.S. mail. Mail order suppliers can be found in any copy of Bee Culture magazine. I cannot recommend any supplier in particular because it is generally good practice to order from a reputable supplier as close to your own vicinity as possible. This reduces the time the bees spend in transit and gives them the best chance of arriving healthy. Ordering one three-pound package with queen per hive will get you off to a good start. The books listed at the end of this article will tell you exactly how to put the bees into your hive once they arrive and how to care for them from that point on.

When Is the Best Time to Get Started?

The best time of year to get started in beekeeping is in the spring, but orders for bees should be placed in January or February to assure delivery. Starting in the spring, give the bees plenty of time to get established in their new home and to build up their population adequately so they can make it through the winter.

These are just the very basics for getting started in beekeeping. There is of course a bit more you will need to learn about what to do and when in order to properly care for your bees. Listed below are two books I strongly recommend: Starting Right With Bees and Hive Management. Also listed is the address to order a subscription to Bee Culture magazine. With these three publications, you’ll have more than enough information to be successful in beekeeping.

Bee Suppliers

Walter T Kelley Co. Inc.
807 W Main St.
P. O. Box 240
Clarkson, KY 42726-0240
(502) 242-2012

Better Bee Inc.
8 Meader Road
Greenwich, NY 12834
(518) 692-9669

Bee Publications:

The New Starting Right With Bees
(Root Publishing, 1988)
A. I. Root Co., Medina OH.

Hive Management
by Richard E. Bonney
(Storey Communications, 1990)
Storey Communications Inc., Pownal, VT

Bee Culture magazine

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