It might seem like beekeeping is becoming more and more popular these days, but it’s actually been around for a very long time.
In fact, honey bees are the first insect to be domesticated and raised as livestock by humans.
Beekeeping is a great way to become more in touch with the environment around you, and if you do it right you’ll be able to enjoy delicious honey from your own backyard. It also comes with a lot of responsibility, so it’s important to learn as much as you can before getting started.
If you’ve been considering beekeeping, get all the basics below that will help you embark on your new journey.
Is Beekeeping for You?
Harvesting your own honey sounds great, but beekeeping takes a lot of time, resources, and education before you can even start to think about honey.
It can be a very frustrating but rewarding hobby where things won’t always go right despite your best efforts. Remember that you’re dealing with very intelligent, living creatures, and it’s up to you to keep them healthy and happy.
Beekeeping isn’t usually a super time-consuming activity, but you will have to be prepared and plan ahead to ensure it’s doable for you.
And, of course, if you’re terrified of or severely allergic to bees, it’s safe to say beekeeping is not a good fit for you. Many beekeepers will keep an Epi-Pen on hand just in case they have an unexpected reaction to a sting.
It’s no fun, but expect to get stung by your bees. Proper safety equipment will make stings less frequent and severe, but nothing will fully prevent them.
These are just some of the considerations to decide if beekeeping is right for you.
Benefits of Beekeeping
There are so many amazing benefits to beekeeping.
Of course, a lot of people want to get into it for the honey, but there’s so much more to it than that. You can harvest other things like beeswax, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly from honey bees as well.
It’s well known that honey bees are one of many essential pollinators that we rely on to help a huge variety of plants grow. For many, keeping their own honey bees is a great way to support pollinator populations.
Similarly, beekeeping forces you to be fully tuned in to your environment. You’ll need to be in touch with seasonal changes, what’s in bloom in your area, and so much more.
Finally, it’s always great to learn a new skill. Beekeeping can make you more self-sufficient and is hugely beneficial for your own garden or farm.
If it sounds like this is something you want to do, you should know first and foremost that beekeeping is not a hobby that you jump into and figure everything out as you go.
It’s important to do as much research as possible before you get started and soak up as much information as you can. While you’ll never be prepared for every possibility, responsible beekeeping requires foundational knowledge before anything else.
Seek out educational opportunities as much as you can. Look for local or virtual beginner classes, watch videos, and read all the books you can find.
Some great books to get started with include Beekeeping for Dummies, The Beekeeping Bible, and The Backyard Beekeeper. This will allow you to get multiple perspectives so you can use a combination of techniques that make the most sense for you.
You can never do too much research, but as the saying goes, “Ask 10 beekeepers, and you’ll get 11 different answers.” Let everything you learn guide you, but ultimately, your experience will be unique to you.
In addition to your own research, it’s important to find local resources that will help you understand what will work best in your area. You may also find opportunities to get some hands-on experience to really see if beekeeping is for you before you really dive in.
You likely have a beekeeping club in your area you can join that hosts guest speakers and meetings throughout the year. Clubs are a great way to find resources and connect with other beekeepers.
Finding a mentor also makes a huge difference. They can let you work on their hives with their guidance and they can help you with your own if you encounter anything that really stumps you. It happens to everyone!
Beekeeping varies widely depending on where you live, your climate, and what grows in your area, and nothing will be as helpful as local advice. Just keep in mind that everyone has their own methods and opinions that won’t always work for you.
There are some basic tools and pieces of equipment that you’ll need to get started.
A bee suit, veil, and gloves are essential for safety, especially while you’re gaining confidence as a new beekeeper. As a beginner, you can start with a complete set to make sure you have all the right pieces.
Of course, you’ll need an actual hive for your bees to live in. The most common one is a Langstroth, but there are many different types out there depending on your preferences. You can build your own to save money or buy them fully assembled.
You’ll also need a smoker and a hive tool for hive inspections. The smoker will help calm the bees to avoid them attacking you, and the hive tool will allow you to pry the components apart once the bees have begun gluing everything together with propolis.
Try this full starter kit that comes with everything you need. There are many other items you can use, but it’s best to start with the basics and see what you like.
Beekeeping is a major investment, so it’s important to be realistic about how affordable it is for you. However, there are ways to make it a little easier on your wallet.
Fully assembled hives cost more than building them yourself. You can get hives second-hand, but be careful as they can harbor disease or pests.
Other supplies, like suits and veils, are great to buy used to save a little cash.
Purchasing the bees themselves is pricey, usually over $100 for a single colony to start with, or you can try your hand at catching a swarm for free.
Your bees will need pest testing and treatments, feed, and often other unexpected items you didn’t plan for.
You might feel ready to get going, but unless it’s springtime, you’ll have to wait.
Starting in the spring gives your bees as much time as possible to settle in and make it through the winter.
You’ll also need to plan the timing for feeding, mite treatments, and harvesting honey.
Expect to do a hive inspection roughly once a week as long as it’s warm enough.
Getting Your Bees
Unless you’re inheriting functioning hives, you’ll have to acquire bees. There are a few different ways to go about this.
Many people recommend starting with a minimum of two hives, which will allow you to share resources if one isn’t doing as well as the others.
Where to Find Honey Bees
The most common way to get bees is by purchasing a package. Each package is about 3 pounds or roughly 10,000 bees plus a caged marked queen. You can order packages in the mail, but getting them locally is preferable in case they don’t survive the journey.
A nucleus colony is another popular way to get started but a little more expensive. This is a small colony of a queen with her workers that you’ll need to install in your hive.
Buying bees from an ethical breeder gives you more flexibility to choose bees that are best suited to your needs. Some are more calm and gentle, others handle cold weather better, and some are absolute honey-making machines.
Catching swarms is free, but not a sure thing. You never know quite what the bees will be like, but the benefit is that they’re likely well-acclimated to your climate.
Basics of Beekeeping
The actual practice of beekeeping will look different all over the world, and even right in the same area.
No matter what, there are basic considerations that will apply to all hives.
Prepping Your Hive
Before bringing your bees home, your hive needs to be set up and ready for them to move in.
Choose a location where they can easily access water. You may want to keep them further away from your home, but chances are they won’t bother you much.
Give yourself plenty of space to move freely around the hive during inspections.
An ideal spot is flat, relatively open, has something nearby to block high winds, and has a combination of sun and shade. This will help the bees stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Adding the Bees
Whether you’re using a package or a nucleus colony, carefully and thoroughly review the process for getting the bees into the hive.
Read through the books and watch videos to get a good idea of what to do. If you have a mentor or are part of a local club, you may also have the opportunity to get some hands-on experience.
You will need to regularly check inside the hive so you know how the bees are doing and what they need.
Inspections should always be kept as short as possible to avoid disturbing the bees more than is absolutely necessary. Think ahead about what you’re looking for and take detailed notes afterward so you remember your progress and can look back on what you’ve seen before.
Most inspections will be checking for eggs, larvae, capped brood, pollen and nectar stores, and any irregular comb, also known as burr comb, being built in the hive.
Everything you observe during hive inspections will inform your next move.
Pests and Diseases
During hive inspections, you also need to keep an eye out for potential pest infestations or illnesses.
The most common pests are varroa mites, small hive beetles, and wax moths. Varroa mites, in particular, are a very common cause of hive failure, so it’s important to test your colony for mites and treat them appropriately.
Signs of disease include foul smell and darkened brood. Be aware of other beekeepers in the area as well, so you know if there are any illnesses going around. Honey bees can forage up to five miles away from the hive, so diseases can be easily transmitted.
Some pests and diseases can be treated, while others, unfortunately, can’t. Being vigilant is the best way to catch any problems before they get too serious or pose a threat to nearby colonies.
There may be times throughout the year when you need to provide food for your bees because they don’t have access to pollen and nectar.
New colonies or colonies coming out of winter often benefit from sugar syrup in a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water to mimic nectar. Fall feeding is a ratio of 2:1 to encourage them to prepare for winter.
This is a great feeder to start with to keep your bees fed, and there are many other kinds available.
Ideally, your bees will have enough honey to survive the winter on their own, but it’s always good insurance to add a winter patty to provide sugar and protein.
Seasonal preparation will look different depending on where you live, but it’s important to think about what each season will bring.
Be aware of what is in bloom in your area throughout the spring, summer, and fall, so you know what your honey bees are foraging from.
It’s especially important to prepare for winter if you experience colder weather, as the bees will have to stay in the hive and cluster. They may need insulation, ventilation, and food once they’re unable to leave the hive to keep them healthy and safe.
While it’s exciting to think about harvesting your own honey, it’s very possible that you won’t be able to within the first year or more.
It takes a lot of work for the bees to build out all of the comb to make honey in, and you won’t be able to take honey that they need to live on themselves.
The only honey you should take is what the honey bees have been able to store in honey supers.
If you have enough to harvest, you’ll need some kind of uncapping tool, buckets, strainers, and an extractor. It’s a sticky, messy process! You may want to wait to invest in these items until you know you need them.
Fall in Love With Beekeeping
It might seem intimidating, but beekeeping is a wonderful hobby with endless opportunities to continue learning more about these incredible creatures.
You can keep bees at a large or small scale and really adapt it to your preferences and abilities. It often takes a lot of experimenting and trial and error to figure out what works best for you.
If you enjoyed this overview of beekeeping basics, learn How to Start a Beehive!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.