My dad was a wonderful beekeeper, some of my greatest memories were harvesting honey with him and turning it into beautiful jars and packages. I also traveled to Norway for my first book “Food Heroes” to tell the story of an incredible beekeeper and learned so much about why bees are crucial to our planet. I’m taking up beekeeping myself this Spring in my community garden plot here in Austin, so I’m so happy to have our guest contributor Thad here to share his wisdom on how to start beekeeping.
Winter is the time to start planning for the start of beekeeping season in the spring. If you haven’t considered getting into beekeeping here are a few of the benefits.
Honey, sweet honey, is the obvious benefit but some of the intangibles are joy as you see your first honey flow, accomplishment as you get your first hive started and harvest your first crop, a clear sense of responsibility as you take on this unique animal husbandry, and pride in contributing to the natural environment. You will need to prepare yourself for the ups and downs of the endeavor or you may become discouraged as your hive or hives fail to thrive, or swarm, or even die and you don’t understand why. If you are fearful of bee stings, this may not be for you, because even with proper beekeeping attire, you will eventually get stung. You can make your beekeeping a family affair by enlisting your spouse or children in assembling equipment and extracting honey or rendering beeswax. All things together keeping bees is a worthy hobby.
How to Get Started
You’ll need to source the equipment and tools and then find a source for bees. A quick search of the internet and you’ll find a number of suppliers for equipment and tools or find a local beekeeper willing to sell you some used equipment. Check out the American Bee Journal or Gleanings in Bee Culture for current articles and advertisements for bees. Also, Mann Lake and Dadant are two well-known beekeeping suppliers.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need a bee suit, veil and gloves to protect yourself from bee stings. A smoker and hive tool are needed to work your hives. The hive equipment needed are bottom boards, hive boxes and frames with comb (or foundation), covers and feeders. You may also want queen excluders to prevent the queen from ascending into the honey boxes (beekeepers call these supers). Then you’ll need to acquire the bees.
How to Order the Bees
You can order what is called a package, a cage with about 2 pounds of bees and a mated queen, or purchase a “nuc” from a local beekeeper. A package of bees can be dumped into your equipment and the queen cage wedged between two frames with the plug removed. You’ll need to feed the package bees in order for them to get started drawing comb for the queen to lay eggs. Nuc, stands for nucleus and it is basically a 3 or 4 frame hive that can easily be transferred into your equipment.
Consult Town Ordinances
If you live in a city or town, consult their ordinances regarding keeping bees. Most cities and towns allow beekeeping but some have requirements to obtain permission from the council and even neighbors.
Where to Get Extracting Equipment and Continuing Education
Finally, you’ll need honey extracting equipment or you can find a beekeeping hobby group that shares extracting equipment. Check around locally to see if you can find any classes that teach beekeeping or beekeeping clubs. A class or club membership will take you a long way forward in understanding how to properly care for your bees. In my region, the University of Minnesota has an active bee research group that teaches classes and is a great resource for all kinds of information about bees.
Basic Terminology + Hive Hierarchy
So what are the basics of beekeeping? First, some terminology needs to be defined. A bee hive is also known as a colony. It consists of a single queen bee, many worker bees and some drones. The worker bees are sterile females that do all the colony maintenance including making beeswax comb, rearing the young (brood), caring for the queen, cleaning the hive, protecting the hive, gathering the food resources (honey and pollen), gathering plant and tree resins to make propolis and rearing a new queen when needed. The workers advance from internal jobs to the external foraging job as they age. The queen’s job is to lay the eggs. She is produced when the hive loses its queen and the workers begin feeding a normal worker larva with a special food called royal jelly. This special diet is what makes this bee a fertile female, a queen. When the queen hatches, she needs to mate in order to begin laying eggs. She flies away from the hive and mates in flight with a number of drones, the males of the bee world. She then returns to the hive and begins to lay eggs, both workers and some drones. The drones are few in number, larger than the workers and have no stinger. His only purpose is to mate with a queen and towards the fall of the year is forced from the hive to conserve resources for the winter. It is a truly amazing natural society.
Physical Structure of the Colony
The physical aspects of the colony are the brood chamber and the honey stores. The brood chamber is generally a spherical area in the center and lower level of the hive. On the fringes of the brood chamber the bees store pollen which is the protein source fed to the developing larva. Outside the pollen stores are the honey stores which are the carbohydrate source that fuels the entire colony. Brood chamber honey comb turns black over time as many generations of brood are reared. A queen excluder between the brood chamber and the honey supers will prevent the comb in the honey supers from darkening. A queen excluder also helps to make extracting honey easier by preventing the queen from laying eggs up into the honey stores. However, some beekeepers avoid using queen excluders because they tend to force bees to load the brood chamber with honey before moving up into the honey supers. This may reduce honey harvested but also means more honey available to the colony for winter after the honey supers are removed. Some beekeepers also think that queen excluders may encourage swarming behavior because of the tendency to pack the brood chamber.
What Is Swarming?
Swarming is the natural means for honey bee colony reproduction. If you think about a natural space that a colony may occupy, like a hollow tree, the space eventually gets used up and for the hive to continue to grow and thrive, swarming occurs. Something in an overcrowded bee colony triggers the workers to begin rearing a new queen then about half the workers and the queen leave the hive to seek a new space to establish a new colony. They leave behind a reduced colony to continue using the same space. The swarm typically lands on a tree branch nearby and sends out scouts to find that new space then flies to the scouted location to begin a new colony, building honey comb for the queen to begin laying eggs. (Go here for tips on how to fix an unwanted bee swarm).
How to Establish Your Colony
The first task of establishing a colony is establishing the brood chamber. Modern day honey bee hives typically consist of a wooden box with wooden frames that have a base honeycomb foundation that the bees can draw honeycomb on. Once the honeycomb is drawn out by the bees, it can be reused almost indefinitely. Locate the bee hive well away from active areas. Honey bees are protective of their hive and will seek to sting a perceived threat. Ideally, the location will be somewhat isolated at the back of your property.
How To Feed Your Bee Colony
A package of bees can be shaken into a box with foundation frames and then fed with sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) to get them started. The syrup feeder can be an internal frame feeder that occupies one of the outside frame spaces or a bucket feeder that goes on top of the cover with a hole for the bees to access the feed. Keep feeding the bees until they begin storing their own honey. You will also need to check that the queen has established and is laying eggs. About one week after you have placed the package in the hive, open the hive and gently smoke the bees, then carefully remove a side frame and pry frames to the side until the center frame can be accessed then begin looking in the comb for the little white eggs or little curved larva that have hatched from the eggs. With new comb it is harder to see these because there is not as much color contrast as with dark, well used, comb. Once you have confirmed that the queen is laying eggs, you have established your hive.
When To Expand Your Hive
You can monitor the hives progress once each week and begin adding extra hive space as the colony strengthens and occupies the space from the center to each side. Once you have two boxes filled with bees you can add a honey super (with or without a queen excluder) and continue monitoring for the sweet rewards of your labor.
p.s. Here is Georgia’s dad’s recipe for “Honey Bee Healthy” to keep your hives and bees happy. Enjoy! And share your beekeeping adventure with us in the comment.