Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
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Beekeeping is fast catching on. Sales of bees and beekeeping equipment are at levels unseen before. Beekeeping basics are relatively simple, though you soon learn this is much more of an art than a science.
If you are interested in beekeeping you should consider visiting with a local beekeeper and see if you can do a hive inspection with them. Don’t know a beekeeper? Attend a meeting with your local beekeeping club. There you will find members willing to teach a “NewBee” how to get started. Certainly you can take this up on your own, but it’s a lot more fun with a mentor.
After visiting a hive and getting some hands on experience, do you still want to continue with bees? If so, read, read, read. Some books to consider are listed at the end of this article. There are a lot of resources out there and you will want to learn from more than one individuals view point. Don’t forget to research your city and county ordinances regulating beekeeping in your area.
Part of your research will include what equipment to buy. About the only “don’t” I would pass along is don’t buy the packaged deals many equipment providers sell to “NewBees” because some of it you will never use and most the time you will want about twice the hive equipment included in a kit. Below I outline the basic equipment for a beginner.
Let’s start from the ground up.
Hive stand – Most folks build their own using 2x4’s or cinder blocks to raise the hive off the ground. It is not necessary to buy one.
Screened Bottom Board – Some package deals only sell a plain bottom board. Make sure you get one with a screen. It helps with mite control.
Entrance Reducer/Mouse Guard – You will want one of each. An entrance reducer makes it easier for a new hive to guard against robbing. This is important when you first install your package of bees. Your girls will maintain a temperature of ninety degrees inside and mice find it makes a lovely winter home, but they will also make a royal mess out of things. Keep the mice out by placing a Mouse Guard at the entrance in the fall.
Supers – This is the box that will house the bees. They come in deep, medium and shallow. A deep super full of honey weighs about ninety pounds! If lifting ninety pounds doesn’t sound like fun, go with medium supers. Many packages come with a deep, a medium and a shallow super. Experience has taught me that using all the same size supers (mediums) gives the beekeeper a lot more flexibility when it comes to hive management. Therefore my own suggestion is to start with at least five (5) medium supers.
Frames – Ten frames go inside each Super, so you will need fifty of them. Each frame contains foundation. This is what the bees will build their comb on. I suggest purchasing what is known as “small cell”, foundation, (4.9mm). Currently there is much debate over the size of the cells used in the makeup of each piece of foundation, but small cell is closer to what the bees naturally build themselves. This is a good example of why it is important for you to read and research beekeeping as recommended at the beginning of this article, so you can decide what’s rights for you.
Feeder – A new hive will need to be fed a sugar syrup mixture. They have no food reserves in the new hive and it takes a lot of energy to build comb. Use a (1 to 1) mixture, that is one part sugar to one part water. Make sure the sugar is dissolved and do not heat the mixture after adding the sugar. Over heating the sugar will cause it to caramelize and that will make your bees sick. I prefer a hive top feeder because it’s easy to access, but there are many options to choose from.
Inner Cover and Telescoping Cover – The inner cover could be considered the “ceiling” of your hive. The Telescoping Cover is the roof that goes on top.
Smoker and Hive Tool – Necessary components needed to inspect your hive.
Protective Clothing – A jacket with an attached veil is most convenient. Though it provides more protection, I don’t recommend the coverall as even the jacket can be quite warm in the summer time and you will soon find you are comfortable with just the jacket and veil anyway. I also wear a pair of rubber irrigation boots to keep any bees on the ground from crawling up my pant legs.
Gloves – Experienced beekeepers will tell you not to use them and in general, I would agree with that, but it is important a “NewBee” be comfortable during his first visits to the hive. If the gloves instill more confidence on your first trips into your bee’s world then wear them. It won’t be long before you leave them behind and use bare hands. But gloves are a necessary part of any beekeeping kit.
Books – Naturally you will want reference material to refer to for questions.
Optional Equipment – A bee brush. I rarely use mine but they can be handy when collecting swarms.
This package of equipment will cost you four to five hundred dollars. If you have the tools and the skill, you can greatly reduce this cost by building your own hives. Design plans can be found on the internet and in some of the books listed at the end of this article.
Its fine to start with one hive, but you will soon find you want another and a second hive provides certain management options not available with a single hive. Consider starting with two hives.
Location - Before your bees arrive select a location for your hive and set up the equipment so you are completely ready prior to picking up your bees. Choose a location away from neighbors and passersby. The site should also be easy for you to access yet out of the way of daily chores. A site in full sun and protected from the wind works well, though a little shade in mid-day heat would be ideal. If your site lacks the shade don’t worry about it. Bees are quite adaptable.
Bees – There are many races of bees from which to choose; Italians, Carniolans, Caucasian, Buckfast, Russian and Starline to name a few. The traits of each race vary somewhat and you will want to consider, gentleness, disease resistance, productivity and how well they winter in cold climates if you live in one.
Once you have decided on the race of bee you want, you will need to contact a bee supplier. A quick search of the web will tell you where you need to go to acquire your bees. There are two things to keep in mind when purchasing bees. Order early, bee suppliers quickly sell out and buy locally if you can.
You can purchase bees in two or three pound packages, or in nucs. (A nuc is basically a miniature hive) A package contains bees and a queen with no comb or foundation. The bees build a hive from scratch. A nuc, or nucleus hive, contains four or five frames of foundation full of bees, capped brood, (bees soon to be hatched) a queen and maybe a bit of stored pollen and honey. Nuc’s cost more than packages. I have had great success starting out with packages. Your own research will help you decide which way to go. One caveat; A nuc is going to come with frames intended to fit inside a “deep” super. If you have chosen all medium supers for your hive, deep frames will not fit in them.
Packages of bees typically cost eighty to one hundred dollars and “nucs” will likely run one hundred twenty to one hundred fifty dollars. Adding the cost of the bees to the start up costs for equipment and we have now reached a total of approximately six hundred dollars.
Installation - The day has finally arrived when you get to bring your “girls” home. You are so excited you can hardly stand yourself. Installation is relatively simple, so take a breath, relax and enjoy the experience. You won’t get to install a brand new package of bees very often.
If possible, watch an experienced beekeeper install bees into a hive. It is a relatively simple process and you can learn the basics from a book, but observing another beekeeper is preferable. Some bee suppliers conduct demonstrations for “NewBees” and you may want to ask about this when placing your order.
Make sure you know how to start your smoker and keep it burning. This is something you can practice long before your bees arrive. Start with three or four small pieces of crumpled paper. Drop the pieces into the bottom of your smoker and light them. As the paper burns, add dry match stick sized kindling. Be sure to puff your smoker. Long puffs work better than quick short ones. After the wood is burning I like to add pellets used in a wood stove because they burn for a long time, but you can also continue to add increasingly larger pieces of kindling. Puff some more to get them going. Some people use other materials, such as pine needles, burlap and wood shavings. After it’s burned for ten minutes or so, close the lid and head to the bee yard. Be sure to puff your smoker occasionally to help keep it going.
The best time for installation is in the late afternoon/ early evening. With a nuc, you will simply remove the frames and place them in the middle of the new hive. I like to place them in the same order as they were in the nuc. Use your smoker if needed, but don’t overdo it. As you install them look for the queen. It’s not necessary that you find her, but be careful when installing the frames so you don’t mash her. Place the frames in the hive and slowly slide them together. Surround the frames you just installed with five empty frames for the bees to fill and you are done. There will be a number of bees left in the nuc they came in. Set the nuc on the ground in front of the hive and the bees will find their way home.
If you purchased a package of bees, installation is slightly different. Again, late afternoon or early evening is the best time for installation. Your bees will be less likely to abscond and abandon your hive late in the day.
You should remove four or five frames from your hive, leaving two in the middle from which to hang the queen cage.
The first step is to lightly spray the package with a one to one sugar mixture. Emphasis on light. Spray them heavy and you will have dead bees. The spray calms them and gives them a nice treat after shipping. In most packages the sugar can holds the queen cage in place. So the next step is to remove the can and set it aside. Then remove the queen cage and inspect the queen to make sure she is healthy.
Carefully remove the cork from the queen cage. DO NOT push the cork into the cage or your queen may not be able to get out once the cage is hanging in your hive. After removing the cork, immediately place a finger over the hole. Chew a gummy bear to soften it, or use a marshmallow and stuff it in the hole where the cork was. Hang the cage in your hive between the two frames you have set up in the middle.
Now you simply pour the bees, like thick oil, from the package into the hive. This is the ONE time it is ok to bang the box on the ground to shake them loose so you can pour the last few in. Set the box on the ground near the entrance so the few that remain can find their way home.
Your last step is to put the frames that you removed earlier, back into the hive. Do not force them in. As the bees move and get out of the way the frames will settle in on their own. Now close up the hive and you are done. Do not disturb them for three days and then return to make sure the queen has been released. At that time you should remove the queen cage.
Feeding – Your bees will need to be fed a one to one mixture of sugar water. They need this resource to draw out comb. There are many options for feeding and you can choose the one that seems best to you when you purchase your equipment. My only suggestion here is to avoid the Boardman feeders. They can lead to robbing and a package does not contain a sufficient number of bees to fend off robbers from other hives.
Inspections - At the leading edge of the learning curve a “NewBee” would be wise to inspect more than necessary and learn to develop a “big picture” view of the inside of the hive. Take your time and move slow and easy. Remember, you are developing the habits you will use each time you open a hive.
I remember getting an anxious feeling when preparing for an adventure into the hive. It is a bit like entering another world. Making numerous trips inside the hive is how you ascend the steep slope of the learning curve.
Taking it nice and slow during an inspection is important. It’s not necessary to look at every frame, front and back, nor is it necessary to find the queen. Try to form a 3-D image in your mind of what the hive looked like inside. Size of the “ball” the bees are clustered in, location of brood, stores of pollen and honey. Queen cells? Swarm cells? Brood pattern? Is it time for a super? You do not have to find the queen to know how things are going in the hive. Look for eggs. Finding eggs means she was laying within the last three days.
That probably sounds like a lot of questions, so let’s break it down to help a “NewBee” picture their purpose when going inside the hive.
Some basics -
Looking for potential problems –
Assisting a healthy hive –
It won’t be long and you will develop a personalized system of inspection that works just for you. Until then the above list will be a useful guide. I also suggest keeping a notebook to record the dates you looked at your hive(s) and what you observed. Each hive will be different and you won’t always remember what you saw. Keeping a notebook will also help you remember the things you should be looking for.
Below are a few more things to consider when making a hive inspection.
Honey Collection – Sometimes “NewBee’s” get caught up in the excitement of their new hobby and can’t resist buying that shiny new honey extractor. RESIST! It will probably add another fifty percent to your start up costs. You may or may not have honey the first season and there are alternatives to the extractor that work just as well. One method used with great success is crush and strain. For this you will need two five gallon buckets. Drill a number of half inch holes in the center of the first bucket. Cut a hole out of the lid on the second bucket, leaving enough room around the rim for the first bucket to rest on. Place a 600 micron filter (or other similar material) in this bucket.
Cut the honey comb from the frame and crush it with a potato masher in a container of your choice. Pour this mixture into the bucket you have drilled the half inch holes in, which is now sitting atop the bucket you put the screen in. Most the wax will stay in the upper bucket and what goes thru will be screened out in the bottom bucket.
Place it all outside in the sun and go have a cold drink while celebrating your success! Be sure to cover the upper bucket or you may return to find a large number of bees looking to get their honey back!
Finally, if you are dead set on acquiring a honey extractor, look for a used one and share the cost with another beekeeper.
Treatments – The beekeeper is faced with many issues when it comes to hive health. Varroa mites, small hive beetles and disease must be monitored and managed. An entire paper could be written about this aspect of beekeeping alone. These tend to be more advanced issues and since this is a beginning beekeepers paper I will not go into them here. Often it is where you live that determines the issues you will face and beekeepers must educate themselves on how to deal with the issues that are common to their area. My lone suggestion for treatments is this: Monitor for mites with a sticky board underneath your screened bottom board and use chemicals only as a last resort.
Education – It is incumbent upon beginning beekeepers to educate themselves. Read, read, read. The issues affecting honeybees are complex and evolving. For example, we are learning Colony Collapse Disorder is not related to one issue but many.
As I mentioned at the beginning, interest in beekeeping is at an all time high. It would seem this is a good thing when considering the loss of thousands of hives to Colony Collapse Disorder and might be just what the doctor ordered. However, there is a potential downside if this is just another passing fad. If a backyard enthusiast loses interest and abandon’s their hives, they could unwittingly contribute to the loss of even more honeybees. Abandoned hives left sitting forgotten in backyards would soon be raided by other bees, both wild and domestic. If the hive was lost due to disease then the disease would quickly be spread to other hives.
Years ago the U.S.D.A. inspected hives and condemned them if they were found to house disease. Today that responsibility rests fully upon the beekeepers themselves. Experienced beekeepers have expressed concern that the large number of novice beekeepers may ultimately end up contributing to the massive loses already decimating our pollinating friends.
The point is this: taking up the hobby of beekeeping is a serious consideration. It is my goal in writing this piece to assist those interested in beginning beekeeping to make well informed decision about equipment, costs and expectations, so the downside of the above scenario can be avoided.
In summary, this is a fascinating hobby that can provide the beekeeper with hours of enjoyment and a little honey to boot. The issues concerning bees are complex and evolving as more is learned about Colony Collapse Disorder. “NewBee’s” should be prepared to read and educate themselves. Consider the time required. Find a mentor. Get into some hives with someone. In this way, when the day comes that you bring the girls home, you can both reap the rewards of a well prepared Beekeeper.
Pictures are provided by Gary Wing. I highly recommend visiting his website for some of the most outstanding photos available on the web. www.curlewphoto.com/gallery/
- 2nd edition of Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston
- The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum
- The Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz
- The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush
- Hive Management by Richard E Bonney
- How-to-Do-It Book of Beekeeping, by Richard Taylor (If you can get your hands on a copy, read it. It’s out of print)
- The Hive and the Honeybee – Dadant publications.
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