Beekeeping for Beginners: Bee Supplies to Get Now

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Ensure a successful first year of beekeeping with the help of author and experienced beekeeper Alethea Morrison in "Homegrown Honeybees."
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Beginner beekeepers should always use basic protection such as a helmet and vail. Gloves are a good idea too, in order to avoid bee stings.

Homegrown HoneyBees (Storey Publishing, 2013) provides the essential information on beekeeping for beginners. Author Alethea Morrison gives practical instruction as well as her own personal observations in beekeeping. Find out what necessary bee supplies first-time beekeepers need in this excerpt from chapter five, “The Gear.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store:Homegrown Honey Bees.

Most beekeepers in industrialized nations use Langstroth hives. This hive style comes in two sizes, the most common of which accommodates ten frames. I use eight-frame hives because the smaller size makes them lighter, but I’m so scrawny that my nickname in my old NYC neighborhood was Olive Oyl. We can’t all be Popeye, so I don’t sweat it. Suppliers manufacture Langstroth hive boxes in both wood and polystyrene. I use wooden hives out of a preference for natural materials.

The chart below shows how heavy boxes filled with honey will be. Think conservatively and honestly about what size you can lift without killing your back.

Buyer beware. To save money you might find some used supplies from another beekeeper who is upgrading or wants out altogether. Be cautious when purchasing used frames or boxes — they could contain hidden diseases. You’ll have to weigh that risk against the obvious cost savings.

How Strong Are You?

Approximate weights of wooden supers filled with honey

10-frame medium super: 55lb

8-frame medium super: 44lb

10-frame shallow super: 40lb

8-frame shallow super: 32lb

Outer Cover: The Roof

Choose an outer cover that telescopes over the sides of the top box and is made of wood covered with metal, features that will make the cover last a long time and keep the wet weather out of the hive.

You need a heavy weight, such as a large rock, to place on top of the outer cover to prevent a particularly strong gust of wind from blowing it off and exposing your bees to inclement weather.

Inner Cover: The Ceiling

The inner cover is a thin board with a capsule-shaped hole in the center that provides ventilation. Because bees don’t recognize anything above the inner cover as being part of their livable house, you can set a feeder on top of it without too much risk of their taking up residence. You will also blow smoke through the cover’s center hole to calm the bees before you fully open up the hive.

The best choice is an inner cover with another hole notched into the front side to provide additional ventilation as well as a secondary entrance and exit for the bees. If your inner cover doesn’t have this feature, it is easy to cut a three-quarter-inch notch out of the rim yourself. If the inner cover you get is flat on one side and has a rim on the other, you place the cover rim-side up during the bees’ active season and rim-side down during the winter to create air space and cut down on condensation.

Supers: The Attic

These boxes are storage spaces that your bees will pack full of the surplus honey they hoard. You will relieve your bees of their excess wealth by removing these supers from the hive and collecting the honey for your own enjoyment and nourishment.

Supers come in medium and shallow depths. The advantages of the medium boxes over the shallow are that you can store more honey in the same amount of equipment, and with fewer frames you’ll spend less time extracting the honey. If you are likely to injure yourself lifting that weight, though, it’s sensible to opt for the shallow boxes.

The number of supers you need will vary depending on how strong your hive is and how abundant the nectar flows are that year. Buy two supers for each hive as a starting point. You’re not likely to need more than that in your first year, but if your bees are going gangbusters, you can always extract the honey and put the supers back on for a refill.

Hive Bodies: Hearth and Home

The hive bodies are the main living space for your bees. They raise their brood in these boxes and also store honey and pollen here for their own food. Since a fully populated hive would be too heavy for mere mortals to lift, hive bodies are manufactured at more manageable sizes, and you stack them in multiples. Most people use two deeps per hive.

You may occasionally hear hive bodies referred to as deep supers, which can be confusing, as “super” refers to the box that stores the honey you will take. You rarely remove honey from the “deeps,” as the bees need a certain amount to sustain themselves.

Frames and Foundation: No-Waste System

Frames are rectangles made of wood or plastic, providing a structure onto which your bees will draw out wax in the much-celebrated interlocking pattern of hexagons known as comb. Each hexagon is called a cell, and your most fervent hope as a beekeeper will be that your bees fill as many cells as their busy little bodies can with honey, pollen, and brood.

Each frame should have side bars, ensuring you have the optimal amount of space between them when they are pushed together and touching. Usually, each frame also has a sheet of foundation set within the outer rim. Foundation comes in several different designs, all with the purpose of supporting the wax comb so it’s easier for the beekeeper to handle and manage.

Many proponents of natural beekeeping try to avoid bossing the bees around and so advocate using frames without any foundation, letting the colony organize the nest and build the comb more like the way it would in the wild. The theory is the bees instinctively act in their best interest, and overmanagement compromises their ability to manage their well-being. If you go that route, buy wooden frames with wedge-style top bars. Remove the wedge on each frame, rotate the strip of wood ninety degrees, and using nails or staples, reattach it to the top bar to serve as a guide for the comb.

Bottom Board: The Floor

The bottom board has a rim around the edges that will lift your boxes up a bit to provide the bees’ main entrance.

Beekeepers are battling the omnipresent hive pest known as the Varroa mite. One tool at your disposal is the Varroa screen: mites fall through the screen to a debris tray below and are unable to reenter. (Clean the tray regularly to discourage wax moth larvae from feeding on the debris.) The screen also provides much-needed ventilation. You can use a Varroa screen by itself as your hive floor or in combination with a solid bottom board.

Entrance Reducer: The Gate

In a peaceable world we wouldn’t need locks for our doors, but life isn’t any safer for bees than it is for us. For starters, when you first install your bees, they will be weak in number and organizational efficiency. Other bees or wasps may take advantage of this weakness and waltz right into the hive to steal some food. As a beekeeper, it is your responsibility to protect them from robbers, and an entrance reducer will do the trick nicely.

When you buy your bottom board, you may receive a wooden entrance reducer for free. It slots into the space between the Varroa screen and the hive body, blocking most of the entrance and leaving just a small space open. The smaller entrance makes it much easier for the bees to defend their home.

A wooden entrance reducer with a notched hole will be sufficient for deterring robbing insects, but it will not keep mice out once the weather turns cold and they are seeking a cozy burrow. To protect your bees from these interlopers, you will need a metal reducer that is mounted to your equipment. Beekeeping suppliers will have these, or you can make one yourself with some wire mesh or hardware cloth. Half-inch mesh will have holes large enough for a bee to pass through but small enough to lock out pesky rodents.

Hive Stand: The Cellar

You need a base to keep your hive off the ground so it stays drier and has an insulating layer of airspace.

Some prefer a base that lifts the boxes high enough that you don’t have to bend as much during inspections of the hive bodies. A higher stand also keeps the hive entrance above unmanaged weeds and grass. Others prefer low stands because if there is a bumper crop and the hive gets very tall, the top supers become impossible to reach without a ladder and the hive is more likely to tip in the wind.

You can purchase hive stands or make your own platform. A wooden pallet or cement chimney block also works well.

Bee Smoker: Your Best Friend

The bee smoker is your best friend. Never work a hive without it! I am by nature an impatient person, and I find the delay of firing up my smoker to be a nuisance. I have tried on more than one occasion to check on my bees without one, and my last words on the subject are these: don’t do it. Smoke calms bees down, and quiet bees will not sting you.

Don’t forget that you will need fuel for your bee smoker as well. There are many options for free or for sale. Your fuel must be dry, free of chemicals, and relatively slow burning. You can use paper to get your fire started, but it burns too hot and fast to be of much use as your primary fuel.

Here are some good options:

• Pine shavings, which I happen to have around anyway as bedding for my chickens

• Untreated baling twine

• Untreated burlap

• Pine needles you’ve foraged from the woods

• Old cotton shirts or dryer lint

I’ve already stressed the words “chemical free” and “untreated,” but let me be explicit: you must be sure any materials you burn will not release noxious fumes into the hive. You merely want to settle the bees down, not bury them six feet under.

Pick up a fireplace lighter from the grocery store, and keep it with your smoker. I kept running back into the house to get a lighter from the kitchen until I finally realized that for a few dollars I could spare myself the trouble.

Hive Tool: Your Other Best Friend

Well, maybe the hive tool is your best friend, not the smoker. It’s a tough call. This is your all-?purpose tool for working the hive, and you’ll want it to stick to you like glue. It pries open your boxes, helps lift out your frames, and scrapes away unwanted propolis and stray comb.

Helmet and Veil: Basic Protection

If you’ve seen beekeepers working hives without a helmet and veil, don’t be tempted to do so yourself. The overwhelming majority of beekeepers, even serious and experienced veterans, consider it irresponsible to work without this minimal amount of protection. Bees go for the head first, and while no sting is fun, a sting to the face is about as fun as a sharp stick in the eye.

Gloves: Comfort for Beginners

Many, if not most, experienced beekeepers usually work their hives without gloves because you are definitely less clumsy when your hands are bare. I could have put gloves in the section on optional equipment, but I think for beginning beekeepers they really are essential.

I didn’t start this beekeeping adventure with any fear of bees or stings, and in the beginning I worked my hives without gloves. As my colonies gained strength, however, and the bees grew in number, one day I opened up a box and couldn’t bring myself to plunge my unprotected hands into a roiling mass of stinging insects. I put gloves on and was happy to have them. Even if you are braver than I, every beekeeper should own a pair of gloves for unusually sticky situations involving particularly annoyed bees.

More from Homegrown Honey Bees

How to Keep Bees: Getting Through the First Season
A Guide to the Different Types of Honey Bees
Buying Bees: Starter Colonies for Beekeeping Beginners

Excerpted from Homegrown Honey Bees © Alethea Morrison, photography © Mars Vilaubi, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store:Homegrown Honey Bees.