Beekeeping + Getting Started
Bees! I have been talking about getting honeybees for a very long time, perhaps not on this space, but within my home. Oh, boy! I am definitely the type of person that once I get my mind set one something that I want, I just don't stop talking about it until it's happening, in front of me, and I am satisfied. I've begun to notice that Tad also has this habit, insisting that his chocolate milk be in his hand by the time he's sitting on the couch at 6 AM watching a cartoon while we all wake up. He does not let me forget about the chocolate milk, not even one day! And I love that about him. Whether this habit is good or bad, the consistent reminder of the goals we desire to accomplish, I have to assume that it is a good one. Even on the days where I feel like I am preaching to no one about my dreams, where they feel like they'll never happen, it does happen. Sometimes they take a long time, and that's okay. I have learned that patience is a tool. A few days before my birthday when my dad drove me to the farm + supply store, and we walked towards the aisle filled with beekeeping supplies, I knew that my dream of having honeybees on our backyard homestead was becoming real.
As an avid researcher, I knew that bees were something I could definitely handle. I love to learn about new things, and even though I think chickens are the bomb with their hilarious mannerisms and fluffy behinds, honeybees are an entirely different beast. They're complicated, unpredictable, and fascinating. I took a class several months ago to learn more about becoming a first time beekeeper. It was awesome, and I learned so much! And over the past year, my grandma and her friend decided to start a couple of hives in their backyard, and I was lucky enough to help out with checking their hives. Wow! I knew then that I was ready to try it myself, the fear of being stung or becoming a bee killer finally leaving.
Today, I want to share with you some ideas for how to get started with beekeeping if it is something that you have also been thinking about trying. Though a bit more difficult than keeping chickens, at least most people are more afraid of it for obvious reasons, I think keeping bees is more a possibility for most people than having chickens in the backyard is. It takes up less space, creates a lot less waste, doesn't require an ordinance (at least that's what I was taught... you'll have to double check me on that one!), and is incredibly beneficial not only to your own garden, but to the environment for everyone. Bees are dwindling, and even if you cannot keep your own honeybees, it's still a good idea to try saving some native bees in your area. Try establishing a bee house like this one in your yard for native bees to lay eggs!
Why should you choose bees? They're expensive and most people are afraid of them. I've never been exactly the person that throws a fit when a bee flies by (you know, thrashes their limbs and screams and runs away), but I haven't exactly wanted one crawling over me either. When you're unknowledgeable about something that visibly frightens others, your guard will instinctively be up. In truth, they're not much of a threat. When you think about how much work they do overall for our environment, especially if you are like me and are up front and personal with plants for a majority of your day, you appreciate them more. You wonder where they are...
When I started gardening this year, I noticed that I had quite a few zucchini plants that were producing oddly shaped fruit. They were bulbous at certain points, long and skinny at others. After looking into what was wrong, I discovered that oddly shaped fruiting vegetables often means they're not being pollinated enough throughout their development. I started to more closely pay attention to the bee and pollinator activity in my garden. It wasn't very high, save for a few cabbage moths and bumblebees. There's only one other person in our community who keeps bees on a residential property, and if you didn't know what a beehive looked like, you'd probably never even know. I wondered where their bees were; after my flowers finally started to bloom, I did notice there was more pollinator action happening in our garden.
Why are you hesitant about bees? Is it their sting? It's fairly likely that as a beekeeper you will eventually be stung. However, most honeybees won't sting unless they feel threatened; they can only sting once, and then they'll die. Is it because of your neighbors? Most people don't even notice bees until you come wandering outside in your veil and suit. It's impossible to know one insect from another, and unless your neighbors have a pool (bees are attracted to the largest source of water they can find), then I doubt anyone will say anything. If your neighbor(s) is concerned, you have a chance to educate them about staying away from the hive if need be, and you can always gift them some honey! Is it the work or the money? That one I can't sway you with. I have not yet experienced the work, but I have experienced the amount it costs to keep bees, and it's not low. It's an investment, for your bank and your time. If anything from the classes, books, and lectures I've witnessed, I have learned that beekeepers are patient, relaxed, and humble people.
For the standard beekeeper, a beehive can cost anywhere from $300-$500. There are several pieces and parts that you need, though you can suitably house bees in any sort of structure that you wish to create. For most modern beekeepers, it will be the Langstroth hive. This particular hive, which we now associate as the tall, tower-like structure filled with removeable frames, was patented in 1852 by L.L. Langstroth. It was an invention that unlike anything previously used in history; it allowed the bees space to create comb within the frames of the hive and gave beekeepers some much needed space to extract honey without disturbing or destroying the hive. It's interesting to read how ancient beekeeping was done. The earliest form of beekeeping we know happened in Ancient Egypt! How incredible is that? The Egyptians kept hives inside of large woven baskets dating back to 5000 BC; these hives could be stationary, or they even created the concept of migratory hives, which floated on rafts down the Nile River and allowed the bees to forage for different plants, resulting in different flavored honeys. Pretty ingenious, right? We actually did not have beekeeping in North America until the 17th century, when Europeans brought their hives with them and many swarms flew off into the country to make homes there.
The hive is where bees live, create honey, reproduce, and feel safe. As a beekeeper, it is your job to provide them with sufficient resources like food, water (yep! bees drink water), shelter, warmth, and protection.
Parts of the Hive
The modern beehive, if you choose to try a Langstroth hive, has a few components. You will need all of these to create a thriving colony of honeybees!
- Stand | This can be as simple or as complicated as you prefer. Most people set their hives atop stacked cinder blocks or even old pallets. You can build legs or a proper base, but it's really up to you. You want your hive to be off the ground so that other crawling insects don't enter the hive or other animals don't bother the entrance. Also, if your bees' entrance was buried in the grass, it might be difficult for them to get inside.
- Bottom Board | This is what the hive sits atop and where the bees enter the structure. I bought my hive from Little Giant, which is a 10-frame hive, but we'll get into that in a minute! Basically, this hive came with a foam mite board, and I am not sure if all other brands of hives come with one! Anyway, it's a tool used to detect for mites in the hive (a terrible pest of bees). Mites will fall through the screened bottom of the bottom board and onto the foam core to detect for infestations. Might be something you would want if your hive kit doesn't come with one!
- Entrance Reducer | This is a small removable piece of wood that allows you to adjust the size of the entrance where your bees will fly into the hive. It limits access to the hive and controls ventilation and temperature inside the hive during colder months. It can also be used when you first begin beekeeping to establish a new hive or to keep out other pests.
- Deep Hive Body | This is the first large box on your hive! For most hives, you will have either 8 or 10 frames. Mine has 10, which means it's just a little bit larger than a hive with 8 frames. For your first hive, you will want two deep hive bodies. The first five body, or the lower deep, is used as a bee nursery. This is also called a brood chamber, where the queen lays fertilized eggs and the nursery worker bees care for them after they hatch. The upper deep is used as food storage for the hive. This is not where you get your honey from! The bees need to eat, too, and this second deep hive body is mainly a storage of honey, pollen, and wax for the entire colony's use throughout the year.
- Honey Super | A honey super, medium or shallow, is the smaller box that sits at the highest part of the hive, below the lid. This is where the honey that you may harvest will be kept! It also explains why most first time beekeepers don't get a lot of honey - if your hive is small and still growing, they may not make a lot of extra honey. Why would bees make extra honey, anyway? Because they never stop working! Bees will keep filling up honey supers if they have the room. This is also why they might end up leaving your hive... you don't have enough space for them to continue to thrive! The more room you give them to grow and produce more honey, the more bees they will produce to feed. You can add as many honey supers as you like throughout the process, stacking them high. Most first year beekeepers only need one or two. For now, we have bought one and will see how the season goes in the spring!
- Frames | These are the small structures, long and shaped into comb, that fit inside the hive bodies and supers. They are easy to remove (when not stuck with honey and wax) and are where the bees will start creating their comb to either house eggs and young bees and fill with honey or royal jelly. These can be sold as plastic or just plain open frames made of wood that you fill with a natural wax. There are plenty of opinions out there on which kind to use, and I tend to always lean towards anything natural, but my hive kit just came with the plastic foundations that resemble honey comb. They are coated with a layer of beeswax to encourage the building of comb. Plastic lasts much longer than just using a molded wax, but can take longer for bees to get used to building on the frame. It's up to you which you will choose!
- Inner Cover | This is wooden cover that always goes on top of the boxes, no matter how many honey supers you add over time. It will most likely be sealed to the hive each time you go to open it with wax or propolis (I'll teach you what that is in a different post!). There is a hole cut in the center of the cover, which is for ventilation into the hive.
- Outer Cover | Outer covers usually have a steel outer tray, that helps protect from the elements. My entire hive is made of pine and is actually topped with aluminum. It is smart to have a lid, or outer cover, that is a bit larger than your hive to help keep everything sealed. Most beekeepers also place a brick on the top of the outer cover for extra security to keep the hive closed.
Now that you know all of the parts of the hive, you may want to get a few other tools to help with opening the hive when you make your routine checks, protective gear for your body, and also tools that help when extracting and processing honey!
- Veil, Suit, and Gloves | A veil is the hooded hat, which usually has a mesh face guard so you may see, which protects from bees flying at your face. From personal experience, when you open a hive, you will have bees crawling all over you! It's pretty fascinating, and it's nice to have an added layer of protection. You'll want to find a pair of gloves that are made of leather. Protect your hands! Also, opening a hive and handling frames is sticky business, so gloves will help keep you clean and also help you hold sticky frames. You can choose to get a full body suit, but some people opt to not have one.
- Smoker + Fuel | This is a device used to calm bees while working inside of your hive. By using natural fuel like cotton, burlap, dried herbs, citrus peels, and pine needles. You can buy manufactured smoker fuel, but why even bother when you can just use what you have around you! The smoke creates a lull in the bees and leaves them stress-free while you open up and pull apart their home. It sounds cruel, but truly you are helping them by checking for intruders or disease. Saving the bees may cause a few casualties while you inspect and put the hive back together.
- Hive Tool | I know, it sounds a bit generalized, but a hive tool is simply a small scraper/crow bar that can be used in multiple ways. It can help detach hive boxes when they are stuck together with propolis, to scrape comb that has been created in the wrong place like atop the frames, and to pry frames loose when inspecting them.
- Bee Brush | Not necessary, but I enjoyed having it around when I have helped open a hive! It is a thick, soft-bristled brush that is used to brush aside bees from frames or yourself without hurting them. If you were to brush with your hands, it's possible you could accidentally crush a bee.
- Frame Rest | I don't have one, but I am definitely going to get one! While removing frames, it can be difficult to get around them and in between them while inspecting. To inspect inside a hive, you'll want to remove each frame to check for proper comb construction. This gadget hangs out on the side of your hive and can hold individual frames while you work.
- Feeders | There are so many different types of feeders! In fact, you can just make them yourself. Did you know that you need to feed your bees? It's not for always, but when there are not any flowering plants to give off nectar and pollen, your bees need something to eat. You can feed them sugar water or syrup. Feeders can also be used to provide medication to hives that need it. We purchased a frame feeder and an entrance feeder. The frame feeder can act as a replacement frame and sits inside the hive. The entrance feeder looks like an overturned mason jar attached to a little box that sits right at the hive's entrance. However, entrance feeders can have many problems like allowing other insects or bees from a different hive to drink the syrup, it sits in the hot sun, frequent refilling, and more.
It's a lot to drink in, especially when you haven't even learned about the bees themselves yet! Typically, when you purchase bees for your hive, you can spend anywhere from $120-$200 for a package of 10,000 bees, including the queen and attendants. I will most likely be purchasing my bee package from Ebert Honey Company in Lynnville, Iowa unless I can find something closer! I am really excited to write more about the process of purchasing bee packages and bringing them home, but I probably won't do that until I actually get mine, you know? I don't want to get too ahead of myself! There is a huge possibility that my hive might fail, and I am fully ready for that. I went into keeping our chickens and growing our garden with that belief as well, and that's what this blog is all about. Trying something new, showing you the true successes and failures, and hoping that you enjoy the journey. You cannot control nature, even if you keep it in a box, you know? My hope is to share more overviews of beekeeping and why it is so cool and important with you this autumn and winter! Bee anatomy and behavior is like the coolest thing I have ever researched - you'll love it.
What questions do you have? Will you be trying out this new journey with me next spring?! Let me know in the comments; I'd love to chat bees with you!