So you want to keep bees, but aren’t quite sure where to start? When I decided to become a beekeeper, I had just barely managed to squeeze a weekend class and some dedicated YouTubing under my belt before I received an unexpected swarm call and my new life began. Catching my first swarm was exhilarating, intimidating and required a lot of patients. I made some mistakes, but the bees ended up safely settled into their new top bar hive, and I, beaming, fell utterly in love.
Becoming a beekeeper is both joyful and, at first, rather daunting. After working with many different people interested in beekeeping, I’ve developed a list of questions and considerations for Bee Guardians-to-bee. I find that beekeeping at its best is a fine blend of well-read research, intuitive listening, constant sharing and learning with other beekeepers, and a healthy dose of just going for it. There is so much information out there. So many books. So many methods. I suggest starting with a basic list of questions and leaping into the deep from there.
1) Why Do I Want to Keep Bees?
Yep. Let's start with the basic, most important, yet often overlooked question out there. Identifying why you want to keep bees will greatly inform what kind of beekeeper you will become. Are you in it for the honey? To do your part to save the bees? Does your garden needs help? Have you’ve got a scientific fascination with the species? Do you feel a sacred connection to this enigmatic species? All of the above?
Understanding your drive to keep bees is the first step toward becoming the best bee guardian you can be. Some people use beekeeping as a way to interact with nature and spend more time outside. Some people want to use hive products and bee sting therapy for their health benefits. Others want to add pollinators to their urban homestead. Whatever the reasons, take a moment to ask why.
2) Is There Pesticide-Free Bee Forage Nearby?
Pesticides and herbicides are extremely harmful to bees and native pollinators. Bee food is flower nectar and pollen. Bee harvest nectar from flowers, mixing it with enzymes in their stomaches that convert the pure sucrose into glucose and fructose. This substances is then stored in comb to become honey. Many studies and articles have surfaced connecting bee deaths to pesticide use. While some argue that there is no proof, any beekeeper will tell you of the horrors of neonicotinoids (a kind of pesticide) and what happens to bees who consume nectar an pollen from pesticide-laden plants. If you want to keep bees, stop using pesticides immediately, and check with your neighbors to find out if they are using these harmful toxins. Kindly convince them not to use bee-killing pesticides and maybe bring them a fresh baked pesticide-free berry pie.
While we're at it, let's say you decide not to keep bees, but still want to save the bees and our planet’s food sources as a whole. Stop using pesticides. Immediately. Please, please, please. You already garden organically? Rad. Let’s hangout. But first, go talk to your neighbors about pesticides. Bees are responsible for 1/3 of our food supply and without them we are in trouble. Develop a hard-line on pesticide use, and stick to it.
3) Is It Legal In My City/Do I Have Permission From Neighbors?
Every city has different laws and regulations regarding beekeeping. Some cities require permitting, such as Portland, while others, such as San Francisco (for now), do not. Furthermore, cities will often have regulations including limiting the number of hives on one property, requiring notification to, or permission from neighbors, proximity of hives to neighbors, proximity of hives to roadways, barriers to reduce visibility, and types of hive. In most cities and counties in the United Sates, hives must be able to be inspected at any time. This means the hives must contain movable frames. In this case, completely natural hives with no frames, such as Tree Hives, can be at risk of being removed at owner’s expense.
You can find out what the beekeeping regulations are in your city through a quick internet search or by contacting your local beekeeping association.
4) Do I Have A Water Source For The Hive?
This is one of the most crucial and easily over-looked components of starting a hive. Bees need water just as much as any other animal. Bees use water to maintain optimal temperatures inside their hive, aid in digestion, mix with pollen for feeding to larvae, and to dilute crystalized honey so that it can be readily consumed. Bees will source water from anywhere, including your neighbor’s pool or doggie dish. By providing bees with their own fresh water source, you reduce the risk of drowned bees, stung puppy dogs and annoyed or frightened neighbors. A fountain, very nearby creek/pond, or a shallow dish of water all work well. Make sure the water is fresh and that the bees have rocks, floating cork board or something else to crawl on. Bees like to drink water from between the cracks of stones, wood or some other naturally absorbent material. Having something from them to land and drink from also prevents a tragic amount of drowned bees.
5) What Kind of Hive Style Do I Want?
Here’s a simple question with a long, complex answer. Chances are, as you learn to keep bees you will develop your own hive preferences. There are many hive styles, but for the purpose of simplifying things the best three choices for new beekeepers are Horizontal Top Bar hives (pictured to the left above), Warré hives, and conventional Langstroth hives (picture to the right above).
I could dedicate an entire book to the pros and cons of each hive style, but luckily, Bee Thinking has created a very user friendly guide. Needless to say, I am pro Top Bar and Warré hives as a beekeeper in terms of how they benefit the bees. While I do have experience with Langstroth hives, I’m decidedly not a fan. They are heavy and hard to maneuver, inspection requires taking the whole hive apart which disrupts the brood chamber and the delicate internal ecosystem of the hive. Basically, they are not very bee-friendly. If you go in the direction of the Langstroth hive consider foundationless frames: taking out the plastic foundation out and letting the bees build natural comb the way they want to.
Within the natural beekeeping movement there are also some fantastic sources for bee-centric hive designs such as bee skeps, sun hives, golden ratio hives and log hives. It’s worth taking some time to learn about what hive inspires and feels approachable for you.
6) Where am I getting my bees?
Where do you find a few pounds of flying, stinging insects? Not the most usual request eh? Acquiring bees requires some careful attention into source practices and health of the bee stock you select. There are three common ways to get bees, all of which I list in my blog post on obtaining bees.
First, you can get bees in a package that is either shipped to you or picked up on a pre-selected date in April or early May. Second, you can buy a nuc, or nucleus colony, which is basically a mini colony of bees on about 5 frames, some of which contain bees, capped brood and larvae, while the others contain pollen and capped honey. These designed to be inserted directly into a Langstroth hive. Sadly, there are very few sources for top bar or warré nucs. Third, and my personal preference, you can catch a swarm yourself (yay yay yay!) or contact a local beekeeper who may be willing to sell you a swarm if they find one. Try out Bee Allies if you’re a swarm hopeful.
7) Where do i put my bees?
ocation can depend on a number of factors and it often helps to consult with a beekeeper to determine best placement. I’ve seen bee hives on rooftops, balconies, in tree groves, gardens and more. They even keep hives on top of Notre Dame in Paris!
Ideally your hive is located in a spot with dappled shade, access to water and at least 5-8 feet away from any areas of high foot or car traffic.
Make sure there isn’t a large wall or hedge directly in front of your hive entrance, as the bees need a few feet of fly space to exit the hive.
Leave two to three feet of space on all sides of the hive for you to move around while performing inspections.
Consider facing your hive entrance in an east or southeasterly direction to encourage access to morning sunlight. The reason for this, is it will help warm and wake the bees earlier in the day, which can aid in honey production. It is not entirely necessary.
Full sun can be challenging for bees in drought-ridden summers.
Full shade can be too cold for bees in the winter months and will shorten their foraging hours and ability to collect enough pollen and honey for the winter.
8) What Equipment do I need?
Protective Covering: While it is not necessary to wear a full suit, it is important to feel relaxed and safe when working with bees. I recommend always having a pair of gloves and a bee veil. You can use garden gloves, but bee gloves that extend all the way up to the elbow are better and prevent bees from crawling under the glove cuff. If you do not get a suit, I recommend long sleeve shirts, pants and boots. Tuck your pants into your boots so bees that fall on the ground don’t end up inside your pants. Bees will crawl up off the ground as opposed to fly. This makes your legs a common place to find fallen ladies. Despite that, you can also wear a skirt. I do it all the time. I also wear flip flops sometimes, a t-shirt and no gloves. I get stung sometimes too. It’s all about your comfort level and how you approach and listen to the hive.
Smoker: I rarely use a smoker directly on a hive, but I like to have one lit and nearby. I only smoke a hive when I’m trying to close a hive back up and the bees have become agitated. I prefer not to use the smoker whenever possible. If the bees are agitated to begin with, I don’t bother them.
The main reason I like a smoker around for bee stings. If you get stung, smoke the area on your body where you were stung to mask the pheromone that leads other bees to the same sting site for more defensive action.
Other Basic Tools:
• A bee brush is useful, but I prefer to use bundles of grass.
• Long-handled lighter and dried grass/plant material for your smoker
• Feeder, jar and honey to feed your bees
9) Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My!?
Well, maybe not lions and tigers, but bears for sure. If you live in bear country you need to take extra care. Bears love bees and honey. While Winnie the Poo may just like to stick his paw in for a taste, a real bear will destroy your hives. If they find a hive or an apiary, a bear will keep coming back until every hive is dead and the hive boxes are in pieces. It’s devastating. If you live in bear country you need to invest in electrical fencing to bear proof your apiary. Alternatively, I have heard of beekeepers using a movement detector alarm to good effect. Don’t just hope it won’t happen. Bears will eventually find your bees. Be prepared.
10) Am I in it for the long haul?
The rise in awareness around bees and their plight has helped to create a lot of new beekeepers. This is fantastic, but it has a downside. Many new beekeepers don’t put in the time, research and care that’s needed to become effective hive guardians. As a result, hives are often lost due to starvation or other preventable issues.
Beekeeping is so much more than simply getting a hive, plopping it down in your backyard and calling it good. While I’m all for less invasive practices and minimal inspections, I do believe that once you put bees in a box, you are responsible for them. This means troubleshooting, research, reading and active observance of your hive. It’s a sad thing to see hives abandoned and suffering as a result. Healthy hives can live for years, which is the goal! So many hives are lost to varroa mites or Colony Collapse Disorder. To do your part as a beekeeper, be willing to educate yourself on these issues and stick with your girls through the tough times. They will begin to recognize you, they will love you, you will love them, and they will change your life.
My final two cents:
Now that you’ve created a solid foundation for moving forward, it’s time to ask, is becoming a beekeeper a Yes! for you? I always believe the best way to make a decision is, do you research and be informed. Then, put that all aside and ask your heart and your body to give you a clear Yes or No. Listen to where the answer lands in your body. Go out an sit at the sight you want to keep your bees. Take a deep breath, trust yourself and dive in.