So, You Want to Be a Beekeeper?

Reader Contribution by Ron Lane
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As I sit down to write this article the thermometer reads just one degree. Last night’s low was 3 degrees and tonight it’s supposed to be a few degrees below zero. I can’t help thinking of my girls outside in their hives, shivering their wings to maintain a temperature of about ninety degrees within their cluster.

They are amazing little creatures and all of them have already survived temperatures of minus 17 degrees this winter. How do I know they survived? During a break in the winter weather I saw bees flying from most of the hives, while others were visiting the dog’s water dish. What about the hives that had little or no activity? A simple test can give you a good read on what’s going on inside without opening the hive, which you do not want to do in the dead of winter. I put my ear to the side of the hive and listened for a familiar buzz. The three hives that were less active all had a nice buzz to them.

You might think that January is a little early to be thinking about taking up beekeeping, so it may surprise you if I said you might be a year behind. Beekeeping is becoming more popular all the time, but long term success has not been the result and many abandon the hobby after only a few years. So contrary to the many articles you can read that encourage you to jump right in, I hope, not so much to discourage you, but to help you make an educated decision about whether beekeeping is right for you or not. Would you make a good beekeeper?

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Begin Keeping Bees

Let me ask you some questions first.

1. How much reading have you done? You may be surprised at how much you really don’t understand about bee culture and how the hives function. Do your homework.

2. Have you spent any time with a local beekeeper, inspecting hives and learning from someone with experience, and yes, even getting stung? Find a mentor that is successful with his/her own bees.

3. What is your goal? One or two hives for the joy of having them, for pollination of your garden and sharing in a little raw honey, or maybe just for the simple relaxation of spending time with your girls? Or possibly getting the feel of things and then going whole hog?

4. Have you figured your start up costs? How about the time commitment? Type of equipment? Read.

5. Have you considered the type of hive you want? Langstroth, Top-bar, Warre, Other?

6. Packages or Nucs?

7. Know you’re zoning laws. Are you allowed to keep bees? What about your neighbors? Did I mention read?

8. How much time are you willing to commit to your new hobby?

My point is this: Beekeeping has become a very popular pass time, but paralleling its popularity has been a corresponding rate of failure and hive abandonment. More beekeepers experiencing long term success would be good for our honeybees. Numerous failed hives abandoned in people’s backyards is not a good thing for our honeybees. Some of those hives are dead because they were diseased and when left abandoned, the disease can quickly be spread to other healthy hives when bees that come to rob the honey bring the disease home with them.

As much as I love to see new folks experience the joy associated with keeping bees, our honeybees have enough issues facing them. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you to just go for it without addressing some of the key components you must consider if you want to avoid the majority of new beekeepers who abandon the hobby just a few years down the road.

The Two Most Important Rules of Beekeeping

So let’s begin. Lets first memorize the two most important rules of beekeeping:

Rule No. 1. There are Absolutely No Absolutes when it comes to beekeeping. You will find divergent viewpoints on every single aspect of beekeeping. You must decide for yourself what is right for you and your bees and then diligently pursue your chosen course.(see item number one above)

Rule No. 2: Maintain some perspective. You are going to experience failures along with your success. Failures are not the end of the world unless you throw up your hands and refuse to learn from them. An easy going attitude that brings a calm, relaxed manner to your beekeeping will be appreciated by your bees and your spouse as well. If you simply must worry about something, then worry about something constructive, like a solution to rid us of those malicious parasites that cause more problems and losses than all others……No, not mites. Politicians!

Here in early January it may surprise you to think the queen bees in those hives are also gearing up for spring. You see it won’t be long before the queen begins to lay again. She’s been taking a few weeks of well deserved rest after eleven months of laying eggs. But just as she begins to slow her egg laying after the summer solstice (longest day), she soon begins laying eggs again not long after winters shortest day, (between December twenty first and twenty second) when we experience the shortest day and longest night.

So, like I said, it might be just one degree outside on this first day of January, but if you’re going to keep bees this year you might already be late for the party unless you really get to crackin’!

When starting out you are going to be faced with two decisions that will direct the majority of your actions when purchasing equipment and more specifically, how you intend to manage your bees. If you have been doing the reading you need to do to prepare yourself, you already know about the discussion concerning various types of foundation, small cell or even foundationless. The details of that discussion are outside the scope of this article though we will touch on some aspects of it when discussing equipment. The type of hive and frames you decide to use direct your purchase of equipment. This is where going to the field with a mentor pays big dividends.

The second decision you must make is if you are going to use chemicals in your hives to treat for mites and disease or if you are going to manage for these issues without the use of chemicals. Once again, read, read, read and spend time in the field with a mentor who manages his bees in the same manner you would want to manage your own.

So Let’s Get Started – Where To Site your Bees

If you have checked to make sure local regulations allow you to keep bees (I had to petition city hall and work through the process to get our local regulations changed to allow bees to be kept within city limits), most likely you will have found you need a six foot fence around your hives to raise the bees flight path above head level. Some people also use sheds, stacked firewood and vegetation to accomplish this.

Next you will want to locate your bee hives so they receive the morning sun to warm them. Mid to late day dappled shade can be nice for those blistering hot summer days but is not required. Finally you will need to provide a source of water near the hives if you don’t want your bees visiting the neighbor’s hot tub or child’s wading pool.  (I use a 3 x 5 tub about six inches deep with rocks for them to land on because bees can’t swim)

Basic Beekeeping Equipment

• A smoker, hive tool, bee brush and a pair of boots that will keep the bees out is a good place to start. You may want some other hand tools as well but it’s not necessary to purchase the “kits” put together for beginners as they usually include a fair amount of equipment you don’t need.
• Hive boxes
• Frames and foundation. I suggest avoiding plastic frames. Bees prefer wax foundation or no foundation at all. Most foundation comes imprinted with a pattern that matches the cells the bees will build their comb on. If you go the foundationless route, the bees will build their own comb without following a predetermined pattern.
• A bee suit and gloves. Don’t be intimidated by the numerous video’s you find on the web showing people inspecting a hive with nothing on but a veil, t-shirt and shorts. This is not about being macho. Wear what makes you comfortable so you can calmly spend time with your bees without being nervous.
• You want to practice slow, fluid movements that are least likely to disturb your bees.
• A stand that keeps your hives off the ground. Two 2×6’s spaced and nailed together at a width that accommodates the bottom board of your hive and some cinder blocks to set it upon make a simple and cost effective hive stand.
• A gallon of paint or natural sealant. White is the customary color and it helps to prevent the hives from overheating in the summer.

Most beekeepers order pre-cut frame and hive components that are easily assembled at home with glue and nails. I do not recommend buying used hive components unless it’s from a trusted source. (Remember that mentor I’ve mentioned) You can find used smokers and bee suits but don’t skimp on the hive and frames. Used hives, frames and the comb that comes with them can contain disease.

What does all this cost? You can expect to spend $500 to $600 for two hives and a weekend assembling it all.

How to Order Bees for Beekeeping

One of the main reasons a new beekeeper needs to plan ahead is the need to order bees early. Last summer I ran into two people who were ready and anxious to begin beekeeping. They set up their hives, prepared a water source and then found out they could not get the bees they needed.

Beekeeping is no longer just for the farmer or other rural folk as more and more urbanites have come to enjoy the hobby. Therefore you will want to order your bees early because demand can outstrip supply. If you have already been working with a mentor it is likely they will be a good source for your bees. If you need to purchase your bees from a supplier now is the time to get on board with them and place your order, or at least find out when they will begin taking orders.

You will want to look into suppliers who offer bees bred for “Hygienic behavior.” This is a trait that helps bees to naturally control mites.

Prior to ordering you will need to decide if you want to begin with a Nuc (short for nucleus hive) or a package. Nucs come in a small box, normally with four or five frames, a laying queen, drawn out comb containing eggs and capped brood and plenty of worker bees.

A 3-pound package of bees will contain approximately 12,000 workers and a queen that comes in a small cage you install in the hive. The bees will release the queen in a few short days after she is installed. With a package all you get are the bees. There is no drawn comb containing eggs and larva. Both approaches work well, but I like the package approach for beginners because they get to see the bees build comb and the queen begin laying eggs. Observing this process helps to train the new beekeepers eye to recognize eggs, larva, capped worker brood/drone brood and stores the bees put away.

Beginning with at least two hives will allow the beginner to compare hives and see how one is progressing compared to the other. Or in the case you lose a hive (it happens) you are not without bees.

What will your bees cost? (This is in addition to the cost for hives and equipment) Depending on where you live, Nucs sell for $100 to $125 and packages will go for $85 to $100. Your total layout after purchasing bees now comes to at least $700 to $800.

Time Commitment

A few years back it was all the rage for urbanites to have a few backyard chickens. It seemed simple enough. Keep a few chickens and have your own farm-fresh eggs. Some people did stay with it, but it wasn’t long before things like cleaning the coop, raising replacement birds and all the other things that were not considered, left a lot of empty coops sitting in people’s backyards. Craigslist was full of advertisements for equipment and chicken coops for sale.

The intent of this article is not to discourage you from taking up beekeeping but to spur a little thinking about your own commitment to this hobby. It’s why reading and spending time with a mentor are so highly recommended.

Many of the books out there will tell you not to open and disturb the hive very often, but just how are you supposed to learn if you don’t? For a person brand new to beekeeping I would suggest a hive inspection every week to ten days so you can train your eye and understand what you are looking at. Are you willing to make that kind of time commitment? For some that will be a challenge, yet for others, they won’t be able to wait until they can return to the hive and see what “their girls” have been up to. It is my hope you are part of the latter group.

Honeybee Headlines

Honeybee stories are familiar headlines to most. Colony Collapse Disorder has brought them to our attention and so has the important role bees play in the pollination of much of the food we eat. If you educate and prepare yourself well, you can contribute to a healthy population of honeybees. The bees owned by most hobby beekeepers do not get the same exposure to toxic chemicals like those of commercial beekeepers. There are even reports that loses for involved, proactive, small scale beekeepers are less than those of commercial beekeepers.

This article just scratches the surface. Remember what I said about reading? But a person must also get their hands dirty to avoid paralysis by analysis. It is hoped the information provided here will help you determine if you are ready to make the commitment it takes to become a successful beekeeper.

To further assist you in your beekeeping efforts I will be blogging a season of beekeeping in the Pacific Northwest. So please check back for updates as the season progresses and we will discuss the various issues that come up over the course of the season.

In the mean time, locate a local beekeeper and inquire about their practices. Most beekeepers love to share what they have learned about their craft and will welcome you with open arms. Find a mentor if you have not already done so and tell him/her of your desire to get started with your own hives. If you are going to keep bees this summer, do not wait to get started. Now is the time, even if the temperature is hovering just above zero outside.

Backyard Beekeeping Resources

The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum (One of the best in my opinion)

Beekeeping for Dummies (Other books often overlook some of the very basic questions the newbie has.)

The Beekeepers Handbook

Bee Culture is an excellent magazine you can subscribe to.

Beekeeping Equipment Suppliers

Include but are not limited to:

Mann Lake
Walter T. Kelly Co.
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm
Dadant and Sons
Ruhl Bee Supply
Glory Bee Foods

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