Keeping bees is a fascinating and rewarding hobby. For many people, once they get started they are quickly infected with what is known as “Bee-fever” and there is no turning back. Some beekeepers are content with a single or a pair of hives in the backyard, others can’t help but grow their little apiary year after year.
If you’re think about setting up a hive in your back yard, here are 10-steps to point you in the right direction.
1. Do your homework!
People who are not beekeepers cannot fathom the amount of information there is to learn about bees and beekeeping. I am repeatedly asked “How much can there be to learn? They’re just bees!” Beekeepers who have been at it for forty years will tell you that they’re still learning new things about these tiny little, amazing creatures. So do some research, read some beekeeping books, study some online websites, watch YouTube videos, and start learning more about bees!
2. Take a beekeeping course.
If you have one available in your area, it is a great idea to take a beekeeping course. Typically these are offered by local beekeepers as part of an adult-ed program, or held at your local county extension office. Look online to see if your state’s beekeeper’s organization lists up-coming bee-schools, ask the friendly folks at the extension office, they may be able to point you in the right direction.
3. Join a local beekeeping organization.
If you have one available to you, a group of beekeepers is a great learning tool–not to mention it’s just plain fun to gather with the eclectic sorts of people that beekeeping attracts. Beekeeping clubs offer the new and experienced beekeeper educational opportunities to learn more about bees and beekeeping. They will host guest-speakers, workshops, hands-on open-hive sessions during the summer, mentoring, resources to borrow, and the opportunity to interact and socialize with a spectrum of beekeepers from all experience levels.
4. Find a bee-supplier.
Bees come in two ways. By package and by Nuc (pronounced “nuke”–short for nucleus colony).
A package is made up of wood and wire-mesh, and contains about 3000 or so bees with or without their Queen. If you live in the northern part of the country, like those of us here in Maine, you can generally expect that packages are going to be shipped to you from somewhere southwards. Our are usually coming from Georgia.
A Nuc is essentially a mini-colony, and it will come in a cardboard or wooden box–depending on the preferences and methods of the beekeeper you’re purchasing them from. The nuc is made up of anywhere from 3 to 5 frames possessing brood in all stages, as well as worker and forager bees, their Queen, and a bit of pollen and honey.
You will be surprised at how quickly beekeepers who sell bees will sell out. Usually these beekeepers will begin accepting orders for bees very early in the year–January or February. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to be able to get bees. If it gets to May and you still have not set something up, there’s a chance you may be able to get a split off somebody in your beekeeping group, or perhaps catch a swarm of feral bees, but your best bet is to sign up early in the year.
5. Gather your materials and gear.
Everyone knows beekeepers use a smoker, and what new beekeeper would be without a veil and some gloves? But there are a number of other tools that come in handy when you’re out at the apiary which you may want to invest in–the very least of which being the hive-tool, which is used to pry apart boxes and frames, scrape away burr-comb, and is a beekeeper’s go-to in the tool-box–as well as all the components that make up the beehive.
There are plenty of online suppliers of beekeeping equipment, but you may be surprised to find a few local distributors as well. Go ahead and ask around at your beekeepers’ group to see where folks in your area are buying theirs.
6. Put together your hive equipment.
It’s a smart idea to begin gathering your equipment in advance, long before the expected arrival date of your bees. Boxes will need to be assembled and painted, frames and foundation will need to be put together, and you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to get it all done and to take care of any issues that crop up.
7. Go pick up your bees.
When your bees will be ready to pick up and bring home depends largely on where you live, but the weather also plays a significant factor. In Maine, we generally get the call sometime in May. If you’re getting a Nuc, you’ll probably be asked to arrive early in the morning, since your bees will be confined to their box, and will need to be released at their new home as soon as possible. Drive safely!
8. Install the bees.
When you arrive home with your bees, if you have a Nuc you will simply place the Nuc-box directly atop your prepared hive and release them from confinement. The bees should start pouring out of the box at this point, and alighting, circling the box two or three times to orient themselves, and then they will get to work. In 24-48 hours you can go back and transfer the frames from the Nuc to their new home in your hive.
If you arrive home with a package you should feed them immediately with sugar-syrup, just mist the syrup onto the screen of the package. Keep the package out of direct sunlight, but in a dry place until you can install them into their hive. It’s a good idea to feed package bees sugar-syrup at least until they are well established. Since they will come with no drawn comb, these bees are going to have to get right to work making comb for their Queen to begin laying her eggs in. Making wax requires an exponential amount of energy on the part of the bee, and they need to have a nectar-flow underway to do so. You can simulate a nectar flow with the syrup.
9. Manage your hive.
Some beekeepers install their bees and walk away, never to touch them again, and some of those colonies survive just fine. But more often than not, if left unattended the colony will eventually dwindle and die. Studies have shown that a colony that is untreated will typically die within 2-3 years.
It is crucially important to keep a management routine and check on the conditions inside your hive periodically. How often this is done is really a matter of personal preference. Some beekeepers only check inside their hives a few times throughout the season, others are in there every 2-3 weeks. Even more frequently if something is amiss.
The benefit of opening the hive up and going through the boxes and frames more often is that if there’s a problem you stand a better chance of catching it early. You will then have the opportunity to do something about it, and probably save the hive from what could be disastrous consequences.
The downside of going through the hive more regularly is that you will stand a greater risk of damaging your Queen.
And of course, be sure to check the colony periodically during a nectar flow, so that you can add more honey-supers. This does not require an invasive inspection, merely a lift of the lid and inner cover to see how close the bees are to filling the first box. When the box is three-quarters or more full of frames of capped honey, it is time to add another super.
At the end of the flow you will be able to remove all of the frames of capped honey, take them home and proceed to extract your bounty.
Be sure to leave your bees with enough honey for themselves, and at the end of the season prepare the hive for the up-coming winter (especially crucial for beekeepers in colder climates!).
10. Continue learning more about bees and beekeeping.
Once you’ve actually been keeping bees you may discover that you have more questions than when you began! This is when continued attendance to your local beekeeper’s group is really going to benefit you. Go and ask your questions, talk with other beekeepers, and learn from others’ experiences. Borrow a book from the local library, and subscribe to a beekeeping publication such as Bee Culture. I promise you, if you’ve been stung by bee-fever you won’t be able to stop yourself anyway, so indulge yourself.
Have fun with your bees!