Beekeeping For Beginners: How To Start Beekeeping
Molly Grace8-minute read
August 16, 2021
Show me the honey.
Beekeeping, especially backyard or urban beekeeping, has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it’s hard not to see why: bees are fascinating, talented little creatures, and maintaining a colony can be a great way to help you feel closer to nature. Plus, you’ll have access to lots of fresh, free honey.
But while you might be buzzing to zip up your beekeeper’s suit, there are some things you need to know first. Here’s everything wannabe(e) beekeepers should know about how to keep bees in your backyard without getting stung (figuratively speaking, of course).
Why Start Beekeeping?
Beekeeping can be a lot of fun for those who want to take up a new hobby, learn about honeybees, start selling their own honey at the local farmer’s market or provide some extra pollinators for their garden.
A lot of people are drawn to the idea of beekeeping because they think it’s a good way to help the environment or “save the bees.” This is an awesome goal to have, but beekeeping probably isn’t the best way to go about it.
If you’re interested in beekeeping because you want to boost bee populations and help your local ecosystem, you might actually end up having the opposite effect, if you’re not careful. Contrary to what many people believe, honeybees aren’t actually the bees in need of saving – it’s the native bees and other pollinators local to your area that need your help.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy beekeeping as a hobby or a way to get your own honey – as long as you consider your local ecosystem and consult with experts on how to beekeep responsibly. But if you’re specifically interested in biodiversity and conservation, you might want to consider cultivating a native garden instead.
Honeybees Vs. Native Bees
Honeybees aren’t native to North America. And though honeybee colonies have had problems in the recent past, they aren’t in danger of becoming extinct.
Some species of native bees, on the other hand, are struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use, diseases and climate change.
Native bees are local to a specific area. There are around 4,000 different species of bee in the U.S. alone; worldwide, there are over 20,000. Your state may be home to hundreds of native bee species.
Native bees are vital to the health of your local ecosystem, the larger economy and our nation’s food supply. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, native bees are the primary insect pollinator of agricultural plants for most of the U.S. As a group, pollinators (which include bees, butterflies, bats, birds and other critters) increase crop values by over $15 billion each year.
Honeybees do a lot of pollinating for us as well, and we rely on them for their delicious honey. But introducing them into an environment where native bees are already struggling for resources can create unnecessary competition that harms the local bee populations. That’s why it’s important to consult with your local beekeeper’s association or university extension office to learn how you can beekeep responsibly and minimize your hive’s environmental impact.
How To Really ‘Save The Bees’
If you’re interested in bee husbandry because you want to make a positive impact on the environment and save the bees, you can start in your own backyard by avoiding pesticides and planting native grasses, wildflowers and other local plant species. Utilize a variety of plants that bloom in different seasons so that your bees will always have a source of pollen and nectar to feed on. Not sure what to plant? The Xerces Society, a nonprofit that works to promote and protect the invertebrates that are vital to our ecosystem, provides lists of pollinator-friendly plants that are native to different regions.
You can even do your own native version of “beekeeping” by building bee hotels. These are horizontal bundles of tubes that are often inserted into an open-faced box for individual bees to make nests in (fun fact: the majority of bee species are solitary). Tubes can be made of materials like bamboo or cardboard. You can also make a bee hotel by simply drilling holes into a block of wood (don’t drill all the way through the block – you want each “room” to have a backing). Bee hotels need to be cleaned each winter to prevent disease.
You can also help bees that nest in the ground by keeping your soil exposed without mulch and leaving dead trees or branches in your yard as natural habitats.
8 Steps For Starting Your Beekeeping Journey
Like we said, just because beekeeping isn’t as vital to saving the bees as many think it is doesn’t mean it can’t be a fulfilling or worthwhile hobby to take on.
If you want to start beekeeping for fun or for profit, here’s what you’ll need to do, step by step.
1. Do Your Due Diligence
First, if you’re going to start beekeeping, you need to make sure you can do it safely, responsibly and legally.
It should go without saying, but if you have serious allergic reactions to bee stings, you shouldn’t be a beekeeper. You will get stung at least a few times.
Work with your local beekeepers association or university extension office to learn how to introduce your bees safely and responsibly into your backyard and how to minimize their impact on your local ecosystem.
Understand what your local and state laws say regarding beekeeping. You may have to register as a beekeeper with your county, or there may be limits on where you can keep your bees. For example, you might be required to keep your hive a certain number of feet away from your neighbor’s property.
2. Connect With Your Local Beekeepers Association
Beekeeping can be difficult work, especially for newbies, so it’s great to have a mentor by your side who can walk you through your first year or two.
Your local beekeepers association can connect you with experts and teach you everything you need to know to get started – including all the beekeeping quirks that are unique to your area.
3. Learn As Much As You Can About Bees And Beekeeping
If you’re interested in beekeeping, you likely already have an interest in these fascinating critters. Channel that passion into doing as much research as you can about bees. Learn about their life cycles, the different types of bees you can keep and how to protect them from diseases and other threats.
The American Beekeeping Federation has a list of resources for beekeepers on their website. Their beginning beekeeping toolkit is also a great resource if you’re looking for more in-depth information.
4. Get The Proper Beekeeping Equipment
You can find beekeeping equipment online, or you can reach out to your local beekeepers association to get recommendations on where to buy.
To be a successful beekeeper, you’ll need:
- Hive: This is where your bees will live and store their delicious honey. These are wooden, vertical structures made up of several individual boxes stacked on top of each other. Each of the boxes is filled with removable frames, on which bees build their honeycombs. Generally, you’ll need one or two brood boxes, which is where the queen lays her eggs. Boxes called honey supers sit at the top of the structure. This is where surplus honey is stored, which is the honey you’ll be able to harvest. You might also want a queen excluder for your hive, which is a screen that prevents the queen from entering the honey supers and laying eggs there.
- Veil, suit and gloves: The most vital piece of clothing you’ll need for beekeeping is a veil, because you want to avoid getting stung on your face, neck or head. Beginners might want to spring for a full beekeeper’s suit, which includes coveralls and an attached hood with a veil. Gloves are optional, but can help new beekeepers get used to working around the bees without fear. However, gloves reduce your dexterity and increase the likelihood of accidentally hurting or crushing a bee.
- Smoker: Smoke is used to calm the bees while you inspect their hive.
- Hive tool: This is the tool you’ll use to open the hive and pull out frames.
5. Learn How To Work With Bees (And Not Get Stung)
It will likely take some time for you to get used to working with your bees, but eventually, you might even feel comfortable enough to work with minimal gear. However, you should always wear a veil.
Always be gentle with your bees. Don’t make sudden movements, but move in a relaxed and confident manner. Utilize your smoker to calm the bees. Get used to working without gloves so you’re less likely to inadvertently harm them.
It’s best to inspect your bees on nice, sunny days. Cloudy or rainy days can make bees a little grumpy and more likely to sting.
If you’re stung, you can use your fingernail or a credit card to scrape the stinger out of your skin. You want to do this as quickly as possible to minimize your exposure to the venom, which can cause local swelling and irritation.
6. Find The Perfect Spot For Your Hive
The old real estate adage also rings true for beehives: location, location, location.
Make sure there’s a sufficient supply of flowering plants nearby. Locate the hive in a warm, dry spot where they can get sun in the morning and a little bit of shade in the afternoon. Keep them away from high-traffic areas and neighboring properties.
7. Purchase And Install Your Bees
Now that you’re equipment’s all set up, where exactly do you get bees from?
Reach out to your local beekeepers association to learn about what type of bees are best for your area and where you can get them.
There are a few different methods for starting out your colony.
- Package: When you purchase package bees, you’ll get a screen box filled with around 10,000 bees and a queen kept in a separate cage to allow the worker and drone bees to acclimate to her.
- Nucleus colonies: Known as nucs, these are smaller, already established colonies, with bees, frames, honey, a queen and brood.
- Swarms: You can also capture a swarm, which is a cluster of honeybees that has broken off from a larger, overcrowded colony. Swarms can often be found in trees, where the bees group together until scout bees can find a new home for the colony. You can gently shake these swarms into a container to transfer to your hive. Swarms tend to be fairly docile, but be sure to wear protective equipment when you do this.
8. Be Prepared To Fail
Beekeeping can be hard to stick with, especially since so many new beekeepers fail their first couple of years. So be prepared for your bees to not survive the winter.
An extremely common reason for this is varroa mites. To keep your colony healthy, you’ll have to work to keep these mites under control. Reach out to your local beekeepers association or university extension office to learn more about controlling varroa levels and preventing other diseases that could threaten your colony.
The Best Time To Start Beekeeping
Like gardening, beekeeping follows a seasonal schedule.
You’ll receive and install your colony in the spring, but you’ll want to start preparing and find a supplier well ahead of time.
Don’t expect to be able to harvest any honey in your first year; this year is all about getting your colony established and ensuring they have enough food stores to last them through the winter.
Once your colony is well-established, you can typically harvest honey toward the end of the summer.
How Much Does It Cost To Start Beekeeping?
How much you’ll spend on your beekeeping setup depends on the type of bees you get (package bees are often cheaper than nucs, for example), your hive and what kind of equipment you buy. You could end up paying anywhere between a few hundred dollars to $700 or more.
The Bottom Line: Beekeeping Can Be A Rewarding, But Challenging, Hobby
Beekeeping takes a lot of knowledge, hard work and experience to be successful. We’ve barely scratched the surface here, so before you get started, it’s a good idea to do some more research and make friends with other local beekeepers to learn the tips and tricks that have helped them raise successful colonies.
Interested in learning more about cultivating a natural outdoor space? Check out our article on how to plan your spring garden.
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