Almost three years ago we jumped feet-first into beekeeping when Philip did a tree job and discovered a beehive inside the tree. While he had spent a lot of time studying beekeeping before we got our first colony, we both have learned so much in the last few years. Bees are fascinating! If you’ve been considering bees, this beekeeping for beginners guide can help you decide if backyard beekeeping is right for you.
Thinking About Bees? Do This First!
Long before you head down to the local farm supply store to purchase beekeeping supplies, the very first thing you should do is educate yourself. While bees tend to themselves, they still require care and maintenance to ensure success. Education can come in many forms. Traditional books and YouTube offer a lot of valuable information to learn about beekeeping. Many communities have local beekeeping clubs. A local beekeeping organization is a great way to meet fellow beekeepers and possibly purchase your bees locally. Many beekeeping groups offer beekeeping classes that cover a variety of subjects regarding keeping honey bees.
One of the best reasons to find local clubs is that you can connect with a mentor. A mentor can be invaluable to give you hands-on experience in their bee yard or in yours. Undoubtedly you will have many questions during your first year of beekeeping. A mentor can help you navigate those first hive inspections as you learn the ins and outs of what a healthy hive looks like. They can also help you identify potential problems.
Secondly, check into the local ordinances where you plan to keep your bees. This post has a collection of beekeeping laws by state. Many cities have limitations on the number of hives you can keep based on your lot size. Your state may require you to register your bees and have annual inspections.
Necessary Equipment to Get Started
If you visit a beekeeping store or even your local farm store, you will find an abundance of tools. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with what you really need to get started. It’s even easier to spend a lot of money! As you develop your apiary, you may add tools as you grow, however, let’s cover the very basic beekeeping equipment that every beekeeper must have.
Undoubtedly you have seen beekeepers on social media without their protective clothing. While some colonies are more docile than others, every new beekeeper’s tool kit should include protective clothing. Protective clothing can be as simple as just a veil that just covers your face. Some beekeepers wear full beekeeping suits. Wearing a full suit won’t protect you from getting stung however, the layers of clothing certainly help. Many beekeepers wear full suits to keep them clean. Depending on the time of year, you will be covered in honey!
We wear a beekeeping jacket as well as gloves. The jackets cover our faces, arms, and torso. In the Florida heat, they are more comfortable than a full suit. The disadvantage of a jacket is that there will be weaknesses in your armor that might allow a bee to get through. Regardless of what you pick, ensure the elastic cuffs of the sleeves and waist, and/or legs all fit snuggly around your body to prevent bees from entering your protective wear. Be sure to choose a suit that is washable. Beekeeping is hard work and the extra layers of clothing can make for very sweaty jobs.
For gloves, we wear simple rubber gloves. However many beekeepers prefer goatskin beekeeping gloves. Goatskin gloves are more pliable than leather gloves made from cowhide, but they stop bee stings better than other types of gloves.
One tool that every beekeeper must have is a hive tool. Hive tools look like flat miniature crowbar. One end is flat, which allows the beekeeper to pry boxes apart. The curved end is good for working in small spaces. The hive tool is used for all aspects of a hive inspection. Prying open boxes, separating frames, and scraping propolis and wax away. Hive tools are inexpensive so get a spare!
Beehive Frame Perch
A beehive frame perch is a metal frame that hangs on the side of your bee box. This metal rack allows you to remove frames from the hive and hang them on the outside while you work. This inexpensive tool gives you an extra hand in the apiary!
Every beekeeper should have a smoker. When bees become alarmed they release pheromones to warn the colony. Smoke masks the pheromone response and interferes with the bees’ ability to communicate with the rest of the bees. As a result, the intrusion that might get the entire colony riled up is subdued because they can’t send a warning signal. The bees will continue working, unbothered by the intrusion. The smoke itself isn’t calming to the bees, it’s their lack of communication that keeps the colony calm.
We use smoke as needed. Some bees are more aggressive and may need a bit more smoke to keep them calm or reduce their ability to communicate longer. Some remain calm with a gentle breeze of smoke that gently blows across their hive.
Philip also uses smoke to make the bees move. If he needs to replace a box and the edge is covered with bees, he will smoke them, encouraging them to move. Any effects of the smoke on their ability to communicate are temporary.
We find that pine needles are the easiest fuel to get a smoker started. We keep buckets of them on hand to ensure they are dry and ready for use.
Anatomy of A Bee Hive
Most beekeepers begin with a vertical Langstroth hive, this is the traditional stack of boxes that are common in commercial and hobby beekeeping. At a recent conference, we were introduced to horizontal Langstroth hives which Philip has found very intriguing. Other beekeepers use a top-bar hive instead. Top bar hives don’t use frames like Langstroth hives, they provide the honey bee colonies with a single top bar with a starter strip and the bees make their own honeycomb without a foundation using the starter strip to anchor the comb.
Basic Set-Up of a Vertical Langstroth Hive
A beehive is simply a nest for bees. In beekeeping, we use a series of hive boxes that produce a suitable nesting place for bees. Traditional bee hives use frames to organize the comb. This makes it easy to inspect and remove resources, such as honey!
Beehives come in two sizes: 8 frames and 10-frame boxes. Eight frame boxes weigh about 20% less than 10 frame boxes. This is important considering that a single full deep box can weigh about 70 pounds! However, the disadvantage of 8 frame boxes is that typically you will need more boxes to give the bees the same space. You will need to stack your beehive higher.
Select your boxes based on your lifting abilities and the size of your colony. Once you decide on the size of your hives, the beehives can be built in different configurations. We typically use 10 frame boxes, however, Philip likes to buy used whenever he can, so likely we have some 8 frame boxes thrown in.
The brood boxes are typically at the bottom of the stack of a bee hive. This is the actual nest of the beehive. The brood lives in the brood box as well as the queen. She can be found hard at work laying eggs. Brood refers to the eggs, larvae, and pupae of the beehive. A brood box is usually a deep box. They measure approximately 16″ wide by 19 7/8″ long by 9 5/8″ deep. This size box will hold 10 frames.
As a beginner beekeeper, your first hive may only have a single brood box. The entire box, including any honey, belongs to the bees. It’s important not to give them too much space to start with. The bees will have to spread out too thin with too much space to work and defend. They will also struggle to maintain the temperature and humidity of the hive. This will actually slow their progress. When deciding if it’s time to add another box to your beehive, use the 7 to 10 Rule. Once the bees have successfully drawn out 7 of the 10 frames (or 70% to 80% of the frames) you can add another box.
When it comes to frames, Philip likes to use black foundation frames for his brood boxes. The dark foundation makes it easier to spot the eggs.
Most beekeepers allow their bees two boxes for brood once they have sufficiently built out their first brood box. In the past, deep boxes were typically used for brood exclusively. However, due to the weight of a stack of deep boxes, many beekeepers use medium boxes when adding to their beehives for both brood and honey. Medium boxes are 16″ wide by 19 7/8″ long by 6 1/4″ deep.
The disadvantage of using a mixture of deep and medium boxes is the investment in the equipment. As a new beekeeper, you will want to make decisions determining your ability to invest in equipment and also your ability to move heavy boxes. A medium box full of honey weighs about 55 pounds, while a deep box full of honey weighs about 75 pounds.
What’s a Super?
Simply put a super is a box that is reserved exclusively for honey. They are referred to as honey supers. Technically a beekeeper can use any kind of bee box for a honey super, including a deep box. Often in commercial honey production, they do just that. However honey is heavy! Medium boxes are most often used for honey supers just because they are easier to manage.
As a rule, you shouldn’t expect to pull honey from a new hive the first year. Honey is the bee’s way of preserving food for the future. The best use of the first year is to allow the bees to establish a strong colony. Allow them to create a stockpile of honey that will see them through hard times. Use the first year to study your bees, and get to know them to prepare for a strong second year.
When to Add a Super?
The best times to add a super are typically in the spring and summer. Look for periods of natural growth in the hive, during the honey flow (when pollen is plentiful), or during swarm season. Follow the same 7 to 10 Rule when it comes to adding a honey super. The bees should have 7 of the 10 frames mostly filled out before adding more boxes.
A queen excluder is used to prevent the queen from entering the honey super. Queen excluders are a plastic or metal perforated barrier that allows worker bees to pass through but prevent a queen from entering. A mature queen bee is larger than worker bees and will not fit through the barrier. With the absence of any brood, the bees will use the space exclusively for honey. We use yellow foundations in our honey frames instead of black.
Extracting honey requires a different set of equipment to make the job as easy as possible. Check out this post to learn more.
What’s a Nuc?
A nuc is short for a nucleus hive. Nucs are standard wooden bee boxes except they hold only 5 frames. We also have plastic nucs that allow for easy travel and the sale of honeybees. However plastic nucs are not suitable to keep bees full-time. The plastic boxes will not provide protection from heat and cold like a wooden box. Nucs are best used for very new or struggling colonies. We use nucs regularly for rescued colonies. Too much space is stressful for the bees. They will struggle to maintain the temperature and the humidity of the hive when the space is greater than they need. Nucs can be a great starter box for new beekeepers. However, they will need to be upgraded when the bees begin to multiply.
Bees presented with empty frames will have to build the honeycomb before they can begin raising brood or producing honey. If you are lucky enough to acquire drawn-out honeycomb to give to a new colony, you will give them a head start to building a strong hive.
Where to Get Bees?
Bees can be attained in several ways. Local beekeepers may be your best source to purchase a colony of bees. A local beekeeper might sell you an entire hive. Full brood boxes in 10-frame hives will be full of honey, brood, and an established queen.
Nuc of Bees
Some beekeepers and commercial apiaries sell bees in nucs. A nuc is a small colony that usually comes in a plastic nuc box. This is used for temporary housing only. Be prepared to move your bees to an appropriate bee hive shortly after arrival. If you can’t install them immediately, keep the box in an area that is protected from heat and cold. When you purchase a nuc of bees they include 5 frames. Two frames of brood, two frames of honey, and an established young queen. An established queen is already mated and has established brood patterns. She has been living with her colony for some time and has been accepted.
Package of Bees
Bees can also be purchased in what is called a package. The best package size of bees to purchase is a 3-pound package. This will include approximately 10,000 bees! In addition to the worker bees, the package will include a mated queen. The main difference between a package and a nuc of bees is that a package of bees is not an established colony. A random group of bees is paired with a random queen. The queens are kept in queen cages until you release them into the colony. At this point, the colony is meeting her for the very first time. They have not accepted her and she is not a proven queen. A package of bees doesn’t come with any honeycomb or resources. The one advantage of purchasing a package is that it can be shipped through the mail.
While purchasing a package of bees is cheaper than a nuc, it can be a more difficult route for a new beekeeper. Philip recommends purchasing a nuc or established hive as the best option. Philips also recommends that a new beekeeper starts with two hives. A new beekeeper might not spot a problem, but two hives with very different activities can alert a new beekeeper to seek help. Additionally, if one of the colonies is struggling, a beekeeper can use resources such as removing eggs or honeycomb from a strong hive to assist a weaker hive.
Catch a Swarm
Another way to get bees is to catch a swarm. Swarming is a natural means of reproduction. Bees reproduce in two ways, one by laying eggs and creating new bees. The other is by creating new colonies by splitting and swarming. Catching swarms take a lot of patience and a bit of know-how. After we got our first colonies of bees, Philip became a swarm chaser! While he did catch more than one swarm of bees, getting them to stay comes with its own challenges.
We got our very first colony of bees through a bee rescue. Philip is a tree surgeon. He found the bees inside a tree he was hired to remove. He had the equipment necessary that made rescuing them a lot easier without having experience in handling bees. Normally rescuing bees takes some skill and familiarity with bees to be successful. It is challenging if they need to be removed from a hollow tree or a structure.
While swarms tend to be native bees that have split and swarmed from local beehives, bee rescues may be feral bees. Wild bees can come with a host of issues. Feral bees are best kept in a dirty bee yard away from your apiary.
Three Kinds of Bees in a Colony
Every healthy, productive beehive has three kinds of bees. Worker bees, a queen bee, and drones.
The majority of the bees you will find in the colony are worker bees. They are all female bees who are not mated. Worker bees only live about 6 weeks, but in their short life, they will fulfill many roles in the colony. A worker bee will be a housekeeper, nurse, attendant to the queen, wax mason, ventilator, guard, and forager. The youngest bees work inside the colony. As she gets older, she will take on more dangerous roles. Forager is the final role of a worker bee’s life.
Personally, I find this fascinating. The colony will not survive without a host of worker bees to do the work of the colony. Bees so wisely, send their oldest bees out to do the job that they are most vulnerable, leaving the youngest generations to continue the work safely. If the youngest bees were foragers and never returned after being attracted by dragonflies, the oldest bees doing the work in the hive will die anyway. The colony would soon die without younger bees to pick up the mantle and carry on.
The worker bees run the colony. It’s often misconceived that the queen rules the colony. While she is very important to the colony, the workers call the shots. If the workers feel the queen is not laying appropriately, they will replace her. If the workers feel the colony is too crowded, they will prepare the hive and the queen to swarm.
Drones are the male bees of the colony. They are larger than both queen and worker bees and have large eyes that help them spot queens. While they are important to the survival of the species, the drones of the colony only mate with queens from outside their colony. When a queen is ready to mate, she seeks out a drone congregation area. These areas are high above the ground where drones are gathered in groups. Mating never takes place on the ground or in the hive.
When a queen bee arrives, the drones are attracted to her by pheromones. The quickest drones will mate with her first. A queen may mate with 12 to 20 drones before she returns to the colony. Unfortunately for the drones, the sheer act of mating will kill them in the process.
When winter comes, any drones in the colony have not fulfilled their duty to mate. These drones are a strain on valuable food resources. Worker bees evict drones as winter settles in to save resources for the colony.
A queen bee is a very important member of the colony, as she is the only bee who will lay fertile and infertile eggs to ensure the growth of the colony. Fertile eggs become worker bees or queen bees. While infertile eggs become drones. A young queen will lay over 3000 eggs a day in her prime. While worker bees live only 6 weeks, a queen bee can live for over 7 years. However, their egg production will decrease as they age. Interestingly worker bees can lay infertile eggs, which most often happens in the absence of a queen in the colony. Infertile eggs develop into drones.
While the queen bee does not lead the colony, her pheromones’ do have an effect on the bees and guide their actions. A bee colony requires a constant turnover of bees to survive. If the queen is lost, sick, or not laying well, the worker bees will sense the changes in her pheromones. This will cause them to work on replacing her. A queenless colony will die if they are unsuccessful in replacing her.
Queen bees are larger than worker bees and have long bodies. They have a reusable stinger and will not die after using it. Most interestingly, while queen bees look different, live longer, and have a totally different physiology, they are hatched from the very same egg as any worker bee. The main difference is that queen bees are fed royal jelly their entire life.
Where to Place Your Apiary
Now that you have a brief understanding of your hive boxes and the bees, it’s time to consider where you will place your bees. First, be aware of any local ordinances that might have some basic guidelines. The state may require your apiary to be fenced. Some may require bees to be a certain distance from the property line. Do your research before you get your bees.
As a general rule, a bee hive should be placed in an area that is dry and gets dappled sun for at least part of the day. It’s best if you place the hive entrance southeast. This ensures that the entrance of the hive gets the early morning sun and is protected from the cold north winds.
It’s easiest to place your beehive on some type of stand, this is for you! It will make you much more comfortable as you work your beehive. It’s best to place some type of ground barrier under the hives to help prevent pests in the hives.
Keep your beehives protected from heavy winds. Depending if you have screen bottom boards or solid bottom boards in your hives can make it much more difficult for bees to manage the temperature in their hives. Not to mention, heavy winds can knock hives down.
Ensure your bees have a water source and a food source outside of heavy traffic areas. A water source can simply be a shallow bowl full of pebbles that will allow the bees to get water but not drown. Plant bee-friendly flowers in your yard. While bees can forage for miles, easily accessible pollen sources are always a bonus.
Overview of Hive Inspections
Once you get your bees, expect that you will need to do regular hive inspections. During a hive inspection, you will be watching for the growth of the colony and issues. Are the bees active, do they come and go from the hive, do they return with pollen?
You will want to look for the queen or at least signs of the queen. We mark our queens to make them easier to spot. If you don’t spot her, are you finding fresh eggs or young larvae? Is the queen laying in a consistent pattern, or is it spotty?
Look for signs of pests. Do you see ants, wax moths, or hive beetles? What about mice? Is your hive entrance reduced to prevent small rodents from entering the hive? Is the entrance too large of an opening for the bees to guard?
Your hive should smell like honey and beeswax, does it have a foul odor? That is a sign of a problem. Are your frames full, do your bees need more space? Do they have too much space?
In addition to hive inspections, bees will also require regular treatment for varroa mites. We treat our bees three times a year to prevent an infestation that can collapse a healthy colony.
Becoming a Beekeeper
As a self-proclaimed science nerd, beekeeping is fascinating! Beekeeping is not a cheap hobby or a cheap way to get honey. It’s part of the homestead that requires tending and regular maintenance. While I don’t think I will ever get used to being stung, the benefit of having our own bees for pollination on our homestead and the sweet perk of an abundance of honey make beekeeping worthwhile. While studying beekeeping to better understand bees, determine your why. We raise bees for pollination and the selling of bees. Others choose to raise bees for honey or beeswax. Different end goals will dictate your beekeeping practices.
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About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.