Need to get started with bee keeping but aren’t sure where to begin? Here are some basic bee keeping tips for newbies.
The first two things you should do
The first thing you should really do is to make sure what legalities are involved; check your city and/or county website for regulations regarding backyard bees. For instance, in my city, I have to register and post a sign in my yard that bees are there. Oh, and pay the ever-present yearly fee – don’t get me started.
With the popularity of bee keeping on the rise, those who sell packaged bees often sell out by Valentine’s Day or even before so, hopefully, you’ve already ordered yours and are waiting for their arrival if you’re reading this after Valentine’s Day. When you figure out if you can keep bees and you have them ordered, here are some things you’ll need to start gathering for the coming season (plan to pick up your bees in spring, whenever that is for you). Don’t worry, its not anything you can’t handle – how to prepare for bee keeping is a simple process.
Equipment to prepare for beekeeping
* You need a house for your bees – hive components like brood boxes, honey suppers (plus extras for switching out during honey flow), bottom board, top board, queen excluder, feeder (make it an internal feeder if you have cold winters) are all on the list if you’re using Langstroth hives (those boxes you see in orchards). We’ve used Better Beefor hive body parts because they sell the polystyrene boxes (called Beemax) which help with hive temperature regulation but there’s nothing wrong with wooden boxes and they’re cheaper! We like to use a bottom board with a screen and invite you to read this to learn why.
If you have trouble lifting 40-80 pounds (the varying weight of bees and honey in a box), you may also want to consider top bar hives, which is what we’re switching to next year. There are several options when it comes to deciding what kind of hive body to use; Talking with bees has a review of every kind of hive you’ll come across as well as a review of the top bar hives. Both articles are worth a read – fyi, they’re easy to read, too, without any elevated, snooty bee speak.
* The beekeeper needs stuff, too! Components like hive tool, smoker, veil, gloves, bee brush, jacket or suit (optional) and honey extractor will make your life easier in the bee yard. Sure, you can work your bees without a smoker (especially if its cold and they’re not interested in moving a lot) but why not get so much experience under your belt first that you can eventually become a tough guy who doesn’t use a smoker? (I actually use warm-ish water with honey mixed into it in a spray bottle which I then spray on the bees so they’ll go clean themselves instead of attacking me.) If you have pint-sized bee keepers, there are a few companies who make full sets of clothing for your kiddos. All my children, except the newborn, have worked the hives – there’s always something for them to do! Plus, that training ensures that they’ll be smart about bees even when I’m not around; I’d be totally shocked to discover one of my children throwing rocks at beehives because they’ve A) Been stung and would never do anything so dopey as to encourage a bee to sting them, and B) Know that bees die when they sting and would never be happy about that. We love bees!
For tips on keeping bees with kids, please visit our Farm Sprouts blog: Click here.
* The last thing I’ll suggest you get your hands on are some good books like Natural Beekeeping, The New Starting Right With Bees or Bee Keeping for Dummies – the first one features natural controls and organic management while the last two are pretty conventional but still good for information’s sake. In my opinion, most of the bee keeping books are pretty much the same (except for Conrad’s, Natural Beekeeping), and so just get a bunch from the library and see which one makes the most sense to you.
Special bee keeping equipment
Trying to keep all the terminology straight as you prepare for bee keeping?! Don’t worry, you’ll get it – just keep reading and handling the equipment you’re collecting.
* Over the years of being stung, I’ve developed a bee sting allergy and so I purchased myself a jacket with a veil connected to prevent the bees from getting anywhere near my face and trunk system. I would also suggest you get a few Epi pens for surprise, serious allergic reactions to bee stings in your family or visiting friends – less than 1% of the population will have a deadly allergic reaction to a bee sting but you and they may not know that your visiting friend is one of those people. If you don’t have sting allergies, you’re really fine wearing thick jeans and a few long sleeve shirts. Either way, you’re going to be warm since most of your intense work with the hive takes place in the summer. Suck it up, you’ll live, and you will be enjoying many years of a gorgeous garden and delectable honey. To find out how to get at that honey, follow this link.
* If you live in a place with cold winters, get an internal feeder for early spring feeding; I learned the hard way that a cold colony may not travel upwards to feed from a top feeder if it’s too chilly. When I lived in Northern California, I never even used a feeder because the growing season is about eleven months long – ah, those were the days. By early spring, though, the bees in cold areas may have gone through their food stores and need a little boost before the spring bloomers start appearing. I always feed them back their own honey, diluted with filtered water, with a few drops of essential oil added now and then; I never, ever use corn syrup or table sugar (if I wouldn’t eat it, I ain’t given it to my babies!).
* If you do use a smoker, you can buy fuel pellets to put inside that you can simply light and take to the bee yard without having to stop and refill your smoker with more twigs or grass or whatever. It may seem like cheating but I love those things! Just do an online search for “bee smoker fuel” and you’ll find them.
* The other piece of special bee keeping equipment you might want is a frame lifter. Inside the boxes are frames that fill with honey and bee brood and when you’re called upon to move those frames, you have to unstick them and pry them up gently. I usually use the corner of my hive tool to carefully extract the frame but quite often it a battle of wits with the laws of physics to get the frame out without popping its sides or damaging the box or killing a bee. The frame lifter just clamps right onto the top of the frame and you lift straight up – love it! You may not need one if you’re using top bar hives as everything is so much smaller and lighter with those.
For those in Utah, my local IFA (farmer’s co-op/country store) actually has bee stuff this year! Hive bodies, racks, suits, you name it. We also have a few local stores and wherever you are, of course, try those first. A lot of the bee stores will also offer classes, of which I highly recommend you avail yourself. There will most likely be a bee keeping associations for your city, county and/or state so be sure and check out the Internet for those; associations are a great place for novice and seasoned bee keepers learn and share. Your local University Extension will also have information for you, especially about local bee inspectors in case you have a problem.
Also, we have a company here in Utah that will set up and manage hives on your property for you if you don’t want to mess with it or they’ll come to you and educate you about how to do it yourself; you may have a similar company in your area. We recently met one of the gentlemen who runs Neighborhood Beekeeping, aforementioned company, when we were at Utah Natural Meat and he was very friendly; he was also passing out samples of their honey which made him seem like Santa Claus as it was quite delicious.
As a side note, it was him who told me that if you plant Cat Mint next to your hives, it will help control mites, which can cause real havoc in the hive. He did specify that it wasn’t Catnip but I’m guessing any kind of Nepeta will suffice since anything remotely related to mint is going to have a high amount of powerful oils and will naturally act as a pest deterrent. Plant several varieties and see what happens! Here’s a link for other blooms for your bee yard.
What kind of bees do I want?
As far as what kind of bees to get, ahhhh….do your own homework on that one and see what works for your area – ask a bee keeper near you! I’ve had Italians, Russians, Hygienics and there are pluses and minuses with each but they’ve all been basically good. The Hygienics are THE cleanest bees (no mites) I’ve ever had but I’ve struggled with them so far here in Utah; I’m not willing to say they won’t survive here yet, but I did switch to Italians last year when I had to replace both my hives. (Everyone up and down the valley lost copious amounts of bees last year, though – it was ugly all around.) Whatever you do, start with at least two hives; that way, if you lose one, you still have bees to build on and won’t have lost a whole season and have to live without bees.
The rest you’ll discover on your own, I promise, and it will be an awesome journey. I can’t imagine life without bees at this point; they’ve been part of home for nearly twenty years!
If you want a quick and edifying bee read, try Honeybee, by Marlena Marchese – here’s our review of it. If you have someone in your house who isn’t sold on the idea of bees but they like to read and they like a little science/history, have them try Letters From the Hive. This book is a worthy, but nerdy, tribute to the honey bees – their history, their usefulness and their coolness. Sometimes, there are those among us who, for whatever reason, need a little convincing before they house 60,000 -120,000 bees on their property. Go figure.
Here’s a great article by The Homesteading Hippy on beginning bee keeping – enjoy!
Can also be viewed at Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Homestead Barn Hop, Tuesdays with a Twist, Natural Living Monday, Make the Scene Monday, Monday Menagerie, The Backyard Farming Connection, Teach Me Tuesday. Wildcrafting Wednesday