Too often, phrases like “save the bees!” inspire warm fuzzy thoughts not entirely based in reality.
I’m totally on board with efforts to help pollinators–by all means, rip out that grass and put in plants that offer pollen and nectar sources!–but keeping bees is not the easiest way to accomplish that goal.
Bees are rewarding on their own merits, and I am–usually, on most days–glad that we chose to keep hives in our backyard. Here’s my advice to anyone considering hobby beekeeping, what I wish I’d known when we started.
To state the obvious, keeping bees requires that you interact regularly with large numbers of live insects.
To be honest, I’m not sure I fully grasped this until two packages of bees showed up at our house. To be completely honest, there are still times when this is not my favorite part of beekeeping. Nevertheless this is also one of the most rewarding parts of beekeeping. I’ve seen bees as eggs, as larvae, as adults. I’ve watched bees in the process of hatching, observing them as they chew their way into the world. I’ve watched them carry out their dead and I’ve watched them feed each other. Phrases like “busy bees” have taken on a whole new level of meaning. Beekeeping offers entry into a fascinating world and fully immerses the beekeeper in local ecology.
These kinds of close interactions with a species so dissimilar from our own are a gift, although I’m not sure the bees always see it that way.
Despite the mystical mumbo-jumbo that sometimes accompanies discussions of honeybees, these insects are livestock producing a food crop. You as a beekeeper have an obligation to do everything you can to keep them healthy and well housed. What you do with your hives affects hive health for everyone keeping bees in your area; how you manage your bees affects how hobby beekeepers are perceived in the general community. So please, make every effort to do it well!
Invest in education.
There are certainly more expensive hobbies than beekeeping, but keeping bees does require specialized equipment and knowledge. One of your first investments as a beekeeper should be some kind of class, preferably one that provides access to long-term mentorship.
Bees are complex living creatures, and beekeeping is a complex activity. The more you know about honeybee biology and behavior, along with the cycles of weather, season, and blooms, the better you’ll be able to understand what your bees are doing and to respond effectively.
We took an introductory class that was worth every penny. The class was offered in February, so we had enough time to buy equipment, prep our site, and generally wrap our minds around what we were doing. There’s a fairly steep learning curve with beekeeping, and you’ll learn by doing–and by making mistakes–but the more you know going in, the better prepared you’ll be.
A note on disease: The prevalence of Varroa mites, along with associated honeybee diseases, has only increased the need for education among hobby beekeepers. Although there’s plenty of debate about treatment options to control mites and disease, you’ll have the best chance for success (healthy hives, honey production, successful overwintering, and the like) if those decisions are guided by science and the sound experience of beekeepers in your area.
Invest in equipment.
At times, it has felt like every problem we’ve encountered this summer has necessitated the buying of new equipment.
Want to avoid stepping on your frames during an inspection? There’s a tool for that! Need to count mites? There’s a tool for that! Can’t get your bees out of the honey super? There’s a tool for that! Want to store your capped honey frames before extracting them? There’s a tool for that! Having trouble with wasps and robbing bees? There’s a tool for that! What the hell am I going to do with the honey once it’s extracted? There’s a tool for that, too.
Yes, you will need equipment. No, you don’t need to buy everything at once. You will probably buy some things you don’t need–and you’ll regret not buying other things that you do need.
Here’s what we started with for our two hives; most of the equipment we purchased new, but some of it came from my father-in-law, a former beekeeper.
- Six deep boxes, Langstroth-style*, enough for two hives: two brood boxes per colony, with one deep honey super; we chose all deeps for the ability to interchange them more readily.
- Sixty wooden frames with bare black plastic foundation (Initially, we bought unassembled frames. All future purchases will be pre-assembled.)
- Two screened bottom boards with removable inserts
- Two inner covers
- Two outer covers
- Two queen excluders
- Two sets of entrance reducers
- Two mouse guards
- Two bee suits, with full veil and leather gloves
- One bee brush
- Three hive tools, including one J-hook tool
- One smoker
- One frame perch
- One pen for marking the queen
- One cover cloth (for covering boxes during inspections)
- One water bottle for spraying
- Two gallon frame feeders
- Two packages of Carniolan bees, delivered in mid-April
- Pollen and pollen patties
Here’s what we purchased over the course of the season:
- Many, many pounds of granulated white sugar for feeding and powdered sugar for mite counts and dusting
- Centrifuge honey extractor, manual
- Five-gallon honey bucket
- Hot knife for uncapping
- Apivar miticide strips
- Two robbing screens
- 20 additional (pre-assembled) frames with black plastic foundation
- Epi pen
- Wasp trap
- Two-part sieve with frame to fit over honey bucket
- Mason jars to store honey
- Labels for our honey
- Domain registration for our honey-focused website: Bear’s Backyard Honey
Here’s what we plan to purchase before next season:
- Additional hive bodies and related equipment to split hives, create nucs (foundation, bottom boards, queen excluders, etc.) with an eye toward population control and–maybe–moderate increase of our apiary size (fingers crossed!)
- Oxalic acid treatments to control mites
- Winterizing equipment (insulation, etc.)
- Bee maze to keep them out of the honey super prior to harvest
As you acquire equipment, it’s helpful if the components are interchangeable, so that you can mix and match across all of the colonies you manage. Looking back, it would have been helpful to have an extra set of boxes on hand, just in case. It wasn’t absolutely necessary this year but will most likely be required next year to mitigate swarming and manage populations. Assuming, of course, that we manage to overwinter these two colonies successfully.
*Yes, I know there are sexier hive options out there, such as top bar hives, flow hives, and the like. We went with Langstroth hives because they’re common. Lots of beekeepers use them, which makes them easier to learn on. If you have access to a mentor with a different style, great, but we’ve found it helpful to go with the, um, flow.
Connect with beekeepers in your area.
Although beekeeping has general principles, when it comes down to it, all beekeeping is local.
Connecting with people who can help you apply those general principles to your local situation is crucial. Everything from the kind of bees to keep, how often to harvest honey, where to site your hives, how to prepare for winter, how to control pests and treat disease, all of these factors vary by region. Very often, beekeepers in your region will be working to breed bees that are particularly suited to that area; these beekeepers can be a good source of information and potentially of bees and beekeeping equipment.
For example, we chose to keep Carniolian bees because they’re more willing to fly in the cloudy, cool weather for which the PNW is known. Because we didn’t yet have local contacts, we purchased package bees (a specified quantity of worker bees and a caged queen) from a supplier who brought them up from McMinnville, Oregon, a distance of 370 miles. We shook them into their brand-new hives, with bare plastic foundation, in the middle of a cold, dreary spring. At this point, the bees have to do everything from scratch: find food, build themselves a home by making wax and creating comb, and begin to build up brood. It’s an incredibly stressful time in the colony’s existence, and it would have been much easier on the bees–and the beekeepers–had we found local bees already adapted to our local conditions. (Just to compare, though, many of our beekeeping peers in British Columbia must import their package bees by air from New Zealand, so McMinnville is close by those standards!)
Stay curious, practice patience, and trust your instincts.
Bees are fascinating creatures, and the time I’ve spent observing and interacting with them has deepened my understanding of natural rhythms in my garden.
Before things get too pastoral, I should point out that there have been moments of chaos and–just once–terror. Beekeeping forces you to slow down and practice patience, to observe and reflect, and to keep learning. These are all positives in my book, although the lessons taught by bees can sometimes be painful.
As important as it is to learn from people who know more than you, it’s also necessary to develop your own sense of what’s normal for your bees and your hives.
We followed a regular schedule for hive inspections, opening up the hives every 7-10 days throughout the course of the season to check on brood development and general hive health, but we’re also out there observing them multiple times throughout the day as part of our daily routine. You need to know what’s going on inside your hives, but external checks can give you a good sense for how their rhythms shift throughout the day and over the season.
All of this is information that you need to assess their health and decide on a course of action. While there might be details about honeybee behavior that you don’t know yet, a sense of the gestalt of your hives is something that only you have.
Trust this, check it against what your mentors say, and build on it over time.
Michael Jaross and the Outback Apiary, part of the Outback Farm on the WWU campus: Highly, highly recommended. Michael runs Outback Bees, which has meetings twice a week during the beekeeping season, and he offers consulting on the side. (Thanks, Michael, for all your help this season!)
Urban Bee Supplies: Highly, highly recommended, particularly as an educational resource.
Randy Oliver of Scientific Beekeeping
Further reading: guidebooks, references, and things I found generally interesting
Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy
Lori Weidenhammer, Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees
Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees
Mark Winston, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive