Here’s What Every Beginning Beekeeper Needs to Know
Interested in becoming a beginning beekeeper? Follow along on a new beekeeper's journey and learn how to get your own backyard abuzz.
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Beginning Beekeeper Tips: How to Get Started
“I’ve always wanted to raise bees.” That offhand comment was all it took for my friend Pete to give me a beginning beekeeper gift, complete with bee box and how-to books, for Mother’s Day two years ago. But Pete’s thoughtful present arrived a little late to order bees, so it sat on a shelf in the garage for a year.
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Find a Mentor
Last spring, my daughter told a beekeeper about my failure to launch, and the next thing I knew, two enthusiastic beekeepers, Cesar Cerna and Carol Kremer, were buzzing around my yard, ready to get my hive off the ground. Beekeepers for seven years, they learned by attending beekeeping workshops. Now they pay it forward and mentor newbies like me.
“I taught myself how to keep bees by reading books,” says Tina Newfield, a nature lover and gardener who’s been tending bees in her New Jersey backyard for five years. She also found a mentor who showed her the ropes. “There is no one way to keep bees,” Tina notes, “so I suggest asking only one person for advice—someone local.” To find experienced folks, join a beekeeping group in your area. Many groups are on Facebook. Just search “beekeeping [your state]” to get connected.
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Essential Beginning Beekeeper Supplies
For about $300, you can get started as a beginning beekeeper. That’s the standard rate for a beginner kit that includes an assembled wooden hive, leather gloves, a veil, a smoker and a hive tool for lifting out frames—plus a package of 3 pounds of honeybees, or roughly 10,000 individuals including a queen.
Or you can build your own box and gather your own supplies. Bee suits are sold separately. Inexpensive painter’s suits ward off most stings, although they may make you sweat. Many beekeepers simply wear a long-sleeved shirt with their veil and gloves, covering the main targets for stings.
The first thing I needed was a complete bee box. I had only a 10-frame super (the structure to hold the bees), but I lacked other critical items such as inner and outer covers, a bottom and a stand. I also didn’t have a protective veil or gloves. Or bees. But Cesar and Carol patiently helped me order everything I needed. Cesar also lent me a top for the box, and Carol lent her sugar water jar, which is used to feed the bees until they get comfy in their new home and start foraging on their own.
Choose Your Bee Hive Location
One thing I did have was the perfect sunny spot for the hive among the fruit trees and flowers in my large garden. Sheltered inside a fenced area, it’s also safe from strong winds and hungry animals.
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Getting Your Bees
I started my hive with a nucleus colony, which is fully established with a fertilized queen, larvae, combs and honey. The queen is larger than the others; her wings cover only two-thirds of her body. We located her nestled among the drones, which mate with the queen, and the worker bees, which guard the hive and collect nectar.
We set the five-frame nucleus colony inside the 10-frame super, added the lid, set out the sugar water and let the bees settle into their new home. After a week or two, Cesar and Carol came back to check on the queen. We needed to make sure she hadn’t packed her bags instead of producing offspring. It didn’t take much searching to find white ricelike eggs and healthy, pearly white larvae and pupae in capped cells. Things were going so well, I had to expand their home with another super to give the bees more space.
I was excited to find many of the bees visiting my flowerbeds. On hot days, I saw clusters near the hive entrance. Cesar assured me this was normal behavior during hot weather. He said it was called bearding, which is when some worker bees exit the hive to keep things cooler inside. They fan their wings to move cooler air into and through the hive.
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Troubleshooting Hive Problems
About two months in, it was time to add a half-super for the bees to store honey. Although the colony had been coming along nicely, we belatedly realized that the hive was leaning to one side. The wooden stand was not holding up to outdoor conditions as well as we’d hoped. Pete and I put a new one together, this time made of tough cement blocks so it would be sure to last. It was a perfectly simple solution, but then we ran into a different problem: how to transfer the heavy bee- and honey-filled hive to its new stand.
We definitely didn’t want to agitate the bees. But Cesar and Carol came to the rescue once again. We smoked the hive with a smoker to keep the bees calm during the move. The smoke hinders their sense of smell, which bees use to communicate. Normally, if there’s a hive intruder, bees release an alarm pheromone to ready a group attack. If they can’t smell the pheromone, they stay calm.
Cesar was excited to share the hive progress with Pete, and he handed him a bee-filled frame once the bees were soothed. Pete hadn’t expected to be so involved with my beekeeping adventure!
Then it was time to hold the bee-filled super, which probably weighed over 50 pounds. Pete later told me that he was so focused on the risk of an angry bee flying up his shorts that he didn’t even notice how heavy the super was. The good news is that none of us, including the bees, were harmed during the move.
Helping Bees in Winter
Once everyone was settled in again, the super filled up fast, and I added a second one a month later. I left the honey for the bees this first year so they’d have plenty of food to get them through the winter. Straw bales now surround the hive to keep the bees warm during the cold Wisconsin weather. They’ll huddle inside to live off their honey stores until next spring, when the flowers will bloom and my honeybees will return to my backyard garden.
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How to Prevent Bee Stings
It’s true that if you become a beginning beekeeper, you will occasionally get stung. But a honeybee sting is not nearly as painful as being stung by a wasp, and there are a lot of precautions you can take, like using a smoker and donning protective clothing.
It’s also helpful to move slowly around the hive, avoid swatting at the bees, and open the hive only on warm days when most of the bees are out foraging. Beekeepers will tell you that the fresh honey and productive gardens are more than worth the occasional sting.
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Benefits of Raising Bees
Helping vital pollinators whose population has declined due to mites, viruses and pesticides is a fine reason to keep bees. But there’s a more personal payoff, too. A beginning beekeeper quickly becomes emotionally attached to the colony under their care. To many, the bees become almost like beloved pets. A stroll around the yard includes keeping an eye on the doings of the bees that are out and about.
You can’t help but notice which flowers “the girls” are visiting most often and what color pollen they are bringing home to nourish the colony. You may also worry whether they’re making enough honey to get through winter, and if there will be extra to harvest and put in honey bear bottles.
“Only beekeepers understand the connection another beekeeper has with their bees,” says Tina. “The average person just thinks we are crazy!”
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The honey harvest is the end of season payoff. But “a frame full of honey is heavy,” cautions Tina, “and some physical strength is required.” Another tip she’s learned by doing: “When harvesting honey, try to find a processing area other than your household kitchen. It’s sticky, sticky, sticky!”
“My bees are such a part of my life,” she says. “On a sunny day, I love to just sit by my hives, listening, watching and smelling.”
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Sweet Honey Facts
- Before gas or electric lights, beeswax for candles was as prized as honey.
- North Dakota is the No. 1 honey-producing state. One of the big sources of nectar? Sunflower fields!
- A single bee produces about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey, according to the National Honey Board.
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