Learn how to keep bees
Here, I'll provide a bunch of content, links and other info that will help you learn about beekeeping and related topics. I'll start with "getting started" and add content as I go. A list of links to each post is provided to the right. Please feel free to email me for more information.
Getting started with beekeeping:
The basics of beekeeping are actually a very large swath of information and takes a long time to internalize. I've been beekeeping a while now and can't say with certainty that I know all of the basics by heart. Here's a list of great links and documents that will help us get the basics down while I continually edit this website.
Getting started by Kevin Inglin at Beekeeper's Corner Podcast
Now Here's some of my own take on the subject!
I must warn you, if you haven’t begun beekeeping and you’re reading this post, beekeeping can be very addictive. The draw is a complicated mix of stimulating one’s creative side and immersing oneself in nature. It drastically changes the way you see the world around you and once you begin, you have ample opportunity to meet the amazingly unassuming group of fellow keepers that you probably never knew. But I can’t easily understate the value of a passionate, persistent and productive beekeeper. So I hope that you’re considering getting started. If not, that’s great too! You can support beekeepers in other ways that I’ll get into in another post! But you’re right, there is quite a bit of mystery involved.
Here, I’ll try to reveal some of the basics so that you can begin beekeeping with a little less anxiety. How do we start? Here’s a run-down of how this post is going to go. I'll add each section periodically.
- Please try and find yourself in a beekeeping class
- What’s YOUR goal for keeping bees?
- How do I get bees?
- Where do I put them?
- In what do I put them?
- What about bears!?
- What do I do now?
- Some concluding thoughts.
1. Beekeeping class
Beekeeping is a game that taxes your mental, physical and emotional resources along with you know… your financial resources as well. So with all of that investment, it’s worth getting a word or two from someone who is more experienced than you are. I believe that the best way is to take a class with real people. You CAN do the beekeeping thing on books but I don’t recommend it. There is a nearly 100% chance that there’s a beekeeping class in your area. If there isn’t… then let me know! TANGENT WARNING Firstly, if this is the case then contact me! I can try to answer some of your questions and point you to some of the good information that you can make due with. Secondly, I’d love to be aware of a geographical location that has that kind of need. Anywhere there are plants growing should have bees. Therefore, a location without any beekeepers is an interesting occurrence indeed. END TANGENT The moral of this story is that you should never go into beekeeping uninformed and there are seldom any circumstances in which you should go it alone.
I highly recommend finding your local beekeeping community both to support them and also to allow them to support you!s
I've only ever been to beekeeping class when I was in middle school. Everything else, I've read, asked around about or just dove right in. BUT, I want to mention that each year, my local area has bee school in a variety of locations. If you're local, check out the following links.
Seacoast Beekeeper's Association (SBA)- Their bee school
Pawtuckaway Beekeeper's Association (PBA)- Their bee school
Also useful is a book that I know the PBA bee school uses Beekeeping for Dummies (link below)
2. What’s YOUR goal?
So, I’m a scientist. Any time that I design an experiment or study, all of my actions are born out of my overall goal. Everything from my experimental design to how I format my research reports are informed by my goals. In the same way, the beekeeping that you do should be informed by your goals as well. If you’re new to beekeeping there are likely only a few different goals you might have. These could be learning how to keep bees, producing honey, pollinating your garden or any combination of those. Furthermore, these goals change over time. I personally started out wanting to keep bees because they’re cool and honey is nice. Now, I’m more interested in trying to breed bees that are better suited to my climate. My goals started out pretty basic and grew from there but these differences in mindsets changed how I keep my bees. For example, I now plan on making breeding queens an integral part of my business. You will not likely get too deep into queen breeding in your first year (though this is NOT out of the question). I recommend that in your first year you make learning the basics one of your primary goals. It means avoiding buying like 10 hives and getting too far in over your head! Bad things happen when you jump in the deep end and don’t even know how to swim.
Overall, it's important to remember what your goals are and/or modify your goals when appropriate in order to help inform your decision-making process!
3. How do I get bees?
This is a very good question. You’ve built a few hopes, dreams and goals in your head… now how do you begin pursuing them? Well, when it comes to beekeeping, getting the bees is an important consideration. You should know that bees are not cheap. This is especially true since they seem to be getting harder and harder to get through winter! But here are the three main sources of bees
- Purchase a fully established hive
- Buy a nucleus colony (aka nuc… yes pronounced nuke)
- Buy a package
The first option is is probably the most expensive one out of pocket. I also have very rarely seen fully established hives for sale. This will most likely occur when a beekeeper no longer wishes to keep their bees and so sells them. It can be quite a find for the newcomer! A fully established hive can have a monetary value of like $600 easily. It is said that a frame of wax (that’s the wax the bees make) is worth approximately $20 and there are typically around 30 in a 3-box hive.
The next option listed is a bit lower down on the price list as well. The nuc is a miniature hive that typically consists of 5 frames and includes a queen. The benefit here is that the bees are pretty well established and can hit he ground running once you get them. The growth of a nucleus colony is often quite rapid!
The third option is the package and it is quite common among new beekeepers. It comes with 3 lbs of bees and a queen. It is pretty affordable and is said to be less likely than the others to have problems with parasites (this is under debate now though).
I would personally recommend purchasing nucleus colonies. That’s mostly because I’m in New England and the bees tend to need the head start that a nucleus colony provides.
Do NOT take lightly the prospect of transporting bees from one location to another. You should never drive bees around inside your car. You should try to ensure that the bees you're transporting have enough ventilation. They're respiring. This process produces a substantial amount of heat.
4. Where do I put them?
This question is not necessarily simple to answer. There are a large number of possible places that bees can live successfully. The important thing is that the bees have access to what they need to survive. So, what do they need to survive? They need a sheltered location in which they can maintain 95° F when rearing brood (baby bees). They need access to water preferentially within a mile. They need a varied source of nectar and pollen within a 3 mile radius (the more flowers the better!). And ideally, they need a spot where the sun won't overheat them and the shade won't keep them too cool and moist. Consider placing the bee hives on some kind of stand so that the woodwork will last longer because you're avoiding rot caused by too much moisture. The other problem we have to think about when placing bees is the wildlife. Keeping bees ~20 yards away from the treeline of your local wooded area has served my bees quite well.
Depending on where your bees live, you have to account for seasonal weather patterns. Here in New England, we're subject to all manner of weather. The weather that worries me most as a beekeeper is extreme wind, extreme cold, the combination of the two and lightning. The wind can blow my hives over. The extreme cold can reduce honey stores to dangerously low limits. The wind and cold makes the cold even worse, and lightning makes trees fall down sometimes... and trees could fall on my bees... which would be a mighty mess to clean up!
Below, I show an example of one of my early bee yards. No bee yard is "perfect" but instead is a combination of all of the choices you have to make as a keeper. My bees are on wooden pallets in a little "nook" bordered by two hills, a field and a line of trees. The hills guide heavy rains just slightly away from my hives as they are about a yard elevated above the lowest local point. They also provide some wind protection in cooperation with the line of trees. I have never tied down my hives in this location and even so have never had the hives blown over. Honestly, I think I should have to tie down my hives but I believe they've avoided toppling thus far because of the immediate landscape around them. This particular apiary gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Ideally, we might have at least a little midday shade but in my climate, we only get a few REALLY hot days that the bees can't deal with.
Overall, keep a weather eye out! It matters where you put your bees, but they need sun, protection from wind, food and water. The ability to take pretty pictures each season of the year is a mere secondary bonus.
5. In What do I put them?
SOOOO many types of hives and so many ways to procure them AND so many posts online about them! But here's my take. I've listed them in order of my favorites.
Langstroth Hive -
BY FAR the most common type of hive in the US (and yes, even considering the Flow Hive... which IS a Langstroth). It is a cover on a box on a box maybe on a couple more boxes all filled with frames on a board. I've built a couple of my own and I've bought or acquired the rest. The original design came from Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth... I think his parents were playing a bit of a joke on the poor guy... 3 Ls??? At any rate, he made up for it by becoming one of the most influential beekeepers... like ever! Before he invented this series of boxes, many beekeepers would keep bees in baskets called skeps. Then in the fall he would just kill all of the bees and get the honey out! That kind of practice seems kind of unthinkable to the beekeeping community today but it was how it was done. LLL came along and changed the scene. The biggest improvement made was the interchangeable parts. Not unlike the huge improvements Ford made to the auto industry, one could take frames out of one hive and put them in another. The honey could be harvested from a frame by spinning it out and then put back in the hive and re-used. It was really a revolutionary idea. It allowed more control over the hive than ever before.
I use this kind of hive and it comes in nearly any size you need. I use 5 frame hives for small nucleus colonies. I use 8 frame hives experimentally to see if they work well in my area (smaller hive body to maintain for the bees in the winter). I also use a lot of 10 frame equipment simply because that is what I started with and is what is mostly used. Something of note when using a Langstroth hive is that the design is for the beekeeper's benefit. It may or may not be the best home from the bee's perspective.
Basic Bee biology
If we want to become better at keeping bees, we must first understand her (and her brothers) better. I will continue to edit this page over time, but for now, get a head start! Read this great document published by the sierra beekeepers.
Another important piece of information is how to recognize different kinds of bees! Wasps and hornets, honeybees, flies, stingless bees are all different! Take a look at this great resource shared with me by a grateful reader.