Beekeeping has grown increasingly popular in recent years. According to a survey by the modestfish, beekeeping is the #1 hobby in 2024. What’s behind this buzzworthy trend? Keeping bees offers numerous benefits beyond harvesting honey. It helps the environment, provides unique products like beeswax, and makes for a fascinating hobby.
Important Health Advisory: Bee Sting Allergies in Beekeeping
Before delving into beekeeping, it is paramount to recognize the potential health risks associated with bee stings, especially for individuals with allergies. Approximately 5% of the population is allergic to bee venom, and reactions can range from mild swelling and itching to severe anaphylaxis, requiring immediate medical intervention.
Emphasis on Health Precautions
If you, or anyone in your household, has a known bee allergy, engaging in beekeeping may pose substantial risks. It is strongly advised to consult with an allergist before starting beekeeping activities. Seeking professional medical advice will help assess the severity of the allergy and explore options such as immunotherapy to reduce the risks associated with bee stings.
Caution for All Individuals
Even if you don’t have known allergies, it’s crucial to be aware that repeated bee stings can lead to sensitivities over time. Therefore, all beekeepers, regardless of their allergy status, should prioritize proper protective gear and exercise vigilance during beekeeping tasks.
This health advisory aims to underscore the significance of personal safety in beekeeping and encourages all enthusiasts to approach this rewarding activity responsibly.
How to Start Beekeeping for Beginners
This article will cover everything a beginner needs to know about beekeeping, from setting up hives to harvesting honey. You’ll learn about common bee species, seasonal care, and tips for avoiding issues with diseases and pests. You can start with just a tiny investment and space in your backyard. Read on to learn the art of beekeeping from an experienced keeper’s perspective.
Bees play a vital role as pollinators in ecosystems. The US Department of Agriculture estimates one-third of food crops rely on pollination by honey bees. By supporting your hives, you’re helping sustain the bee population and pollination services that benefit the environment.
What would beekeeping be without the sweet reward of honey? Your colony allows you to harvest fresh, high-quality honey each season. The taste and aroma of homegrown honey are hard to beat. You can use it for cooking, baking, spreading on toast, homemade beauty products, and more.
In addition to honey, you can collect and purify beeswax from the hive to make products like candles, lip balm, lotion bars, furniture polish, and artisan creams and soaps. Beeswax is a sustainable, natural alternative to paraffin wax.
Home Garden Pollination
The more bees on hand, the better for the health of your vegetable garden and flower beds. Your bee colonies will pollinate your backyard crops and boost yields.
Many beekeepers feel relaxed and “at one with nature” while tending their hives. Working with bees requires patience and focus, offering a meditative escape from a busy life. The hive also presents an endlessly fascinating ecosystem to study.
Beekeeping lets you observe nature up close, making for a great educational hobby, especially for kids. Learning about pollinators teaches valuable biology and ecology lessons.
Once you gain experience, you can scale up your operation and even turn beekeeping into a profitable business selling honey, beeswax products, pollination services, colonies, and more. But it’s perfectly fine to stay at the hobbyist level, too.
I’ve found beekeeping to be a gratifying hobby. The environmental benefits are important, but I keep doing it for the fascination I feel learning about and interacting with these incredible creatures. – Mary Evans, 10-year beekeeper.
Before bringing home your first colony, it’s vital to understand some beekeeping basics. Let’s review the essential terms and equipment you’ll need to learn.
Types of Honey Bees
There are several races or breeds of honey bees commonly raised in North America:
Western Honey Bee – Apis mellifera ligustica. This Italian bee is gentle, productive, and does well in most climates. They are excellent for beginners.
Eastern or Russian Honey Bee – Apis mellifera caucasica. As their name suggests, these bees originate from Russia and are hardy suited for colder climates.
Carniolan Honey Bee – Apis mellifera carnica. This Central European bee adapts well to variable conditions and winters exceptionally well. They are also docile and unlikely to swarm.
Italian Honey Bee – Apis mellifera lingustica. This bee has golden coloration and is known for productivity and forming giant hives. However, they do swarm frequently.
Russian Honey Bee – Apis mellifera caucasian. Bred for resilience, these dark bees do well in cold weather. They demonstrate strong resistance to Varroa mites.
I’d recommend starting with the Italian or Carniolan types as a beginner. Your local beekeeping association can help you find reputable suppliers.
You’ll need a few critical pieces of equipment for safe beekeeping:
Bee Suit – This full-body suit zips up and has long sleeves with elastic cuffs to keep bees away from your skin. Mesh veils are best for visibility and ventilation.
Smoker – Smoking your bees has a calming effect, so they are less aggressive during hive inspections. Fuel options include wood chips, cotton, and pine needles.
Hive Tool – A metal hive tool helps pry apart boxes and frames stuck together with wax or propolis.
Bee Brush – Use a soft bristle brush to remove bees from frames and boxes gently.
Leather gloves also provide sting protection for your hands when handling frames. Start with economy-grade gear and upgrade once you gain experience. Always buy new when possible since used items may harbor diseases.
Choosing a Location
When setting up your first hive, choose a spot that meets these criteria:
Gets Full Sun – Bees thrive in locations with 6-8 hours of direct sunlight to warm the hive.
Near a Water Source – Bees need constant fresh water. A bird bath or small pond within 50 feet is ideal.
Sheltered from Wind – Protect hives from harsh winds, which make it hard for bees to navigate and ventilate the hive.
Away from High Traffic Areas – The hive entrance should face away from areas where people or pets frequently pass within 3 feet.
Check Local Laws – Some municipalities restrict beekeeping on urban lots or may require permits. Research the ordinances for your area.
Have a convenience outlet nearby to plug in your smoker. Avoid low spots where cold air settles. Face hives south or east to get early sun.
Types of Hives
Most backyard beekeepers use one of these three common hive styles:
Langstroth Hive – The most popular option with stacked, modular boxes. They allow easy inspections and honey harvesting.
Top Bar Hive – A horizontal hive with movable top bars from which the bees build a comb. This customizable, low-maintenance option works well for small-scale needs.
Warre Hive – Named after its inventor, these hives contain stacked boxes with hanging, top-bar frames inside. Warre hives require minimal intervention.
As a beginner, I’d suggest a classic Langstroth setup. It comes down to personal preference and goals for your hive.
Setting Up the Hive
Once you choose a spot and acquire the hive components, it’s time to set things up for your bees. Here are the basic steps:
Assemble Hive Bodies – Stack and align your brood boxes, honey supers, bottom board, inner cover, and outer lid. Use nails or screws.
Add Frames – Slide frames into each box and ensure they are tight, evenly spaced, and correctly oriented.
Insert Foundation – If using Langstroth frames, insert wax or plastic foundation sheets into each frame. Alternatively, you can let the bees draw a natural comb.
Feeder Box – Provide a hive-top feeder box with sugar syrup to sustain your new colony while it builds up foraging resources.
Leave a small upper entrance for ventilation. Make sure your components are level, clean, and securely assembled. Over time, you may add “honey supers” boxes for the bees to fill with surplus honey.
To get your colony started, you’ll need to acquire bees through one of these methods:
Buy an Established Colony – Find a reputable local beekeeper selling colonies and package bees. Expect to pay around $150-$200.
Order Package Bees – Retailers like Mann Lake Ltd. ship packages of 10,000-20,000 worker bees with a mated queen. Install them in your hive upon arrival.
Catch a Swarm – You may be able to collect a natural swarm from a feral hive, but this can be unpredictable.
Buy a Nucleus Colony – A “nuc” is a small starter colony sold in a 5-frame box. This is an easy way for beginners to obtain bees.
No matter how you acquire bees, ensuring they are healthy and disease-free is vital. Always ask about certifications. Package bees and nucs require extra care and attention to detail during the introduction to a new hive. An experienced beekeeper can show you proper installation techniques.
Seasonal Beekeeping Tasks
Caring for your colony involves different activities depending on the time of year. Here are the typical tasks by season:
Springtime prep ensures your bees start growing firmly once nectar flows begin.
- Feeding – Continue feeding 2:1 sugar syrup if honey stores are low.
- Requeening – Replace old or failing queens with new mated queens from local suppliers.
- Adding Supers – Stack honey supers with frames to give bees room to expand.
- Swarm Prevention – Use techniques like creating splits to deter natural swarming.
- Mite Monitoring – Check mite levels and treat if needed.
The active foraging season keeps beekeepers busy in summer.
- Add Supers – Continue adding honey supers and excluders as the hive expands.
- Ensure Ventilation – Prevent overheating by providing upper vents and shade.
- Harvest Honey – Use a bee escape to usher bees out of supers, then extract honey.
- Replace Old Comb – Swap out dark comb on brood frames for wax foundation.
- Requeen Again – Request again if needed to prevent late summer swarming.
Fall preparation helps your bees survive the winter months.
- Pest Management – Treat for Varroa mites and control small hive beetles.
- Feed 2:1 Syrup – Dwindling nectar in fall calls for heavy syrup feeding to boost honey stores.
- Reduce Hive Entrances – Install reducer inserts to keep the hive interior insulated.
- Add Insulation – Slide foam insulation into gaps between hive bodies if needed in cold climates.
- Wind Protection – Shield hives from harsh winds, which strain bees’ efforts to maintain hive temperature.
- Insulate Hives – Wrap hives in black tar paper or insulated hive wrap when temperatures drop below 50°F.
- Ventilate – Keep upper vents open to allow moisture to escape on milder winter days.
- Monitor Stores – Heft hives or check quickly on warm days to ensure bees have sufficient honey.
- Treat for Mold – Replace moldy frames and keep entrances clear of dead bees.
Overwintered colonies build up rapidly in early spring, giving you a strong head start on honey production. Watch for late winter starvation, which can set colonies back.
Harvesting Honey and Beeswax
Extracting honey and beeswax are among the most exciting parts of beekeeping. Here’s an overview of the processes:
- Know When to Harvest – Honey is ready when comb cells are capped with wax. Wait until most frames are at least 80% capped to harvest.
- Remove Frames – Use a bee escape for a day or two before pulling frames to allow bees to vacate the super. Brush off, stragglers.
- Uncap the Cells – Use a heated uncapping knife to slice off wax caps so honey can drain.
- Extract Honey – Place frames in a tangential or radial extractor to spin out honey using centrifugal force.
- Strain and Bottle – Filter honey through cheesecloth or a sieve to remove wax bits. Pour into jars for commercial sale or home use.
- Store Properly – Keep honey between 70-80°F. Refrigeration causes crystallization.
- Collect Cappings – As you uncap honey frames, set wax cappings aside to render later.
- Melt Down – Melt cappings and old brood comb in a solar or electric wax melter at around 150°F.
- Filter – Pour melted wax through cheesecloth to remove impurities.
- Pour into Molds – For ease of use, pour filtered wax into silicone molds to form wax blocks or candles.
- Cool and Package – Allow molded wax products to cool and harden before use fully.
Render wax in dedicated equipment is only used for that purpose. Never reuse brood comb – always melt it down annually to prevent disease. Over time, you can stockpile substantial beeswax for projects or sales.
Common Bee Diseases and Pests
Unfortunately, bees can be afflicted by various diseases and hive pests. Here are some of the main ones to be aware of:
Varroa mites are external parasites that attack both adult and developing bees. They feed on hemolymph (bee blood) and can spread dangerous viruses. Varroa is a major factor behind increased winter colony losses.
Careful monitoring and integrated pest management are key to controlling mites:
- Monitor mite levels using sticky boards or alcohol washes. Aim to keep infestation below 3 mites per 100 bees.
- Drone brood removal tricks mites into capping drone cells which are then frozen to kill the parasites.
- Essential oil treatments like thymol disrupt mite reproduction and can be used to control infestations. Follow label directions carefully.
- Formic acid effectively kills mites but requires precise dosage and timing. Only apply when honey supers are removed.
- Screen bottom boards allow mites to fall through and regular cleaning further reduces buildup.
a microsporidian fungal disease, poses a significant threat to bee colonies, primarily affecting adult bees during the spring. This insidious ailment can result in dysentery and compromise the overall health of the hive. Preventive measures play a crucial role in managing Nosema:
- Hive Maintenance: Keeping hives clean is paramount. Regularly remove debris and maintain a hygienic environment within the hive.
- Moisture Control: Avoiding moisture buildup is key to reducing the conditions favorable for Nosema development. Well-ventilated hives contribute to a less hospitable environment for the fungus.
- Vigilant Monitoring: Regularly monitor bee colonies, especially during the vulnerable spring season. Early detection of Nosema is vital for prompt intervention.
Foulbrood, a highly contagious bacterial disease, presents a severe menace to bee colonies, with the incurable American foulbrood variant being particularly insidious. The gravity of this situation demands decisive and heart-wrenching action:
- Burning Infected Hives: The necessity of burning infected hives arises as a crucial step to prevent the further spread of the disease. This extreme measure is not just a response to the immediate threat but also a vital strategy to preserve the overall health of neighboring colonies.
- Preserving Colony Health: The deliberate act of burning infected hives is undertaken not only to contain the disease but also to safeguard the integrity and sustainability of bee populations in the face of this relentless threat.
This intense battle against foulbrood emphasizes key strategies:
- Vigilant Monitoring: Regular and thorough monitoring is essential for early identification of foulbrood, enabling swift intervention.
- Biosecurity Measures: Strict implementation of biosecurity measures becomes paramount in preventing the introduction and spread of the disease within and across colonies.
Small Hive Beetles
Small Hive Beetles (SHBs) pose a threat to bee colonies, acting as scavenging beetles with a voracious appetite for honey, wax, and bee larvae. Effective management strategies are crucial to mitigate their impact:
- Utilize Traps: Deploying traps is an effective method to control Small Hive Beetle populations. These traps help in capturing and reducing the number of these scavengers within the hive.
- Maintain Strong Colonies: Strengthening bee colonies is a proactive approach to SHB management. A robust and healthy hive is better equipped to fend off infestations and minimize the potential damage caused by Small Hive Beetles.
Wax moths, represented by their larvae that tunnel through the wax comb, pose a threat to the integrity of bee colonies. To prevent and manage infestations, beekeepers should adopt strategic measures:
- Maintain Strong Colonies: A proactive approach involves maintaining strong and vibrant bee colonies. Healthy hives are more resilient and better equipped to defend against wax moth infestations.
- Pest-Free Equipment Storage: Proper storage of beekeeping equipment is essential. Ensuring that storage spaces are free from pests, including wax moths, helps prevent infestations in stored combs and equipment.
Careful inspections and integrated pest management can help you avoid most issues. Continuously monitor for signs of disease and consult local beekeepers if you have concerns.
Proactive steps can reduce problems with contagious hive diseases:
- Replace old brood comb every 3-5 years to limit disease reservoirs.
- Disinfect hive tools and equipment between hives to prevent the spread of bacteria.
- Avoid mixing populations by requiring separate hives rather than exchanging frames of brood.
- Control swarming, which can transmit diseases to new colonies.
- Remove and destroy any frames showing signs of chalkbrood or foulbrood disease.
- Practice good sanitation and isolate or requeen colonies showing clinical signs of illness.
In addition to mites, pests like small hive beetles and wax moths can damage hives:
- Keep colonies strong with adequate food reserves and space. Weak hives are more susceptible.
- Use beetle traps above the brood nest area to catch and drown adult beetles.
- Minimize openings in the hive where beetles and moths can enter.
- Extract honey promptly before pests can infiltrate and contaminate it.
- Store drawn comb and equipment in air-tight containers to prevent moth infestations when not in use.
Controversies and Challenges
Some controversial practices in commercial beekeeping should be considered:
- Routine use of miticides and antibiotics may lead to resistant pests and weakened bee immunity over time.
- Large-scale monoculture crops of limited floral diversity restrict nutrition options for pollinators.
- Long-distance trucking of bees across the country for pollination services stresses colonies.
- Artificial diets of corn syrup and soy protein are inferior to the diversity of natural foraging.
Hobbyist beekeepers have an opportunity to implement more sustainable practices. But significant challenges remain regarding pests, diseases, poor nutrition, and exposure to agricultural pesticides – underscoring the importance of continuous education.
Make sure to research any local ordinances related to beekeeping before establishing hives. Many urban and suburban areas prohibit or restrict beekeeping on private property. Regulations may cover the number of hives allowed, required setbacks from property lines, barrier fencing, water sources, flyway barriers, and notification of neighbors.
Some homeowner associations explicitly prohibit beekeeping. Registration and permits may be required. Violating local laws could lead to significant fines. Contact your municipal code enforcement office to learn about specifications in your community. Abide by all laws and regulations to remain a responsible, legal beekeeper.
Take great care when acquiring your first bees. The bee packages, nucleus colonies, or established hives should come from reputable producers with a proven track record of health and gentle stock. Beware of buying from unknown sources or beekeepers who cannot provide pest and disease history for their apiaries.
Ask sellers detailed questions about their bee breeding, any treatments applied, certifications obtained, losses experienced, and overall management philosophy. Ideally, find a commercial operation that allows you to inspect colonies before purchasing visually. Thoroughly examine bees for any signs of problems.
Beginner beekeepers are highly encouraged to connect with local beekeeping associations for guidance on where to obtain bees safely. You want to start with the healthiest possible stock to avoid devastating issues with mites, diseases, or aggressive behavior. While a great deal of bees may be tempting, unhealthy colonies often require extensive troubleshooting and frequently fail. Invest in quality over cut-rate pricing when starting your first hive.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re new to beekeeping, chances are you still have plenty of questions. Here are some common FAQs:
How much time does beekeeping require?
Expect to spend about one hour weekly doing hive checks and maintenance during the production season. Additional major tasks like harvesting honey and overwinter prep will take full weekends.
How much does it cost to start beekeeping?
The essential equipment like a hive, frames, suit, and accessories will cost $300-600 or more. Bees and other recurring costs can run $100-200 per year. The overall budget is $500-800 to start.
How much space do I need for hives?
Plan for about one square yard per hive. Urban lots as small as .10 acres can accommodate 2-4 hives. Make sure to factor in the distance to neighboring houses and leave room to work around hives.
How much honey will I get from my hives?
That depends heavily on your local climate and nectar conditions in any given year. Expect 30-60 pounds of harvestable honey per productive hive.
What clothing/gear do I need as a beginner?
At a minimum, start with a ventilated bee suit and hat, leather gloves, hive tool, smoker, bee brush, and feeder box. You’ll add more specialized tools over time.
Don’t hesitate to contact local beekeeping clubs and associations with any other questions you may have when starting. Beekeepers love to share their passion and are always happy to advise newcomers.
This overview gives you a great starting point for beginning your beekeeping journey. Beekeeping offers such a profoundly rewarding connection with nature. By understanding honey bee biology and the seasonal rhythms of a hive, you can quickly gain confidence in caring for your colonies.
There will be challenges like pests and diseases to manage, but that comes with any gardening endeavor. You can become a successful beekeeper even in your first year with proper knowledge and vigilance. The symbiotic relationship between bees and beekeepers brings peace, satisfaction, and sweet honey rewards!
To learn more, check out these excellent resources:
- Local beekeeping association
- State extension office beekeeping resources
- Backyard Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston
- The Beekeeper’s Bible by Richard Jones
I wish you the best as you delve into the endlessly fascinating world of bees. Feel free to ask any other questions as you start this rewarding hobby.