How To Become A Beekeeper
How To Become A Beekeeper
Becoming a beekeeper is no more difficult than becoming a gardener. Like gardeners, beekeepers have a set of specialized tools and equipment that are essential to the craft. Here is a basic list of beekeeping supplies that are necessary to get started.
The first item you will need is a beehive. This item is first because it is necessary to setup a hive before the honeybees arrive. If you get your honeybees first and you don’t have a beehive ready to put them in you and your bees may be in big trouble.
The minimum beehive consists of a bottom board, a brood chamber, an inner cover, and a top cover. This is all that is needed for the most basic beehive. While this is a complete beehive it is not enough to produce any extra honey and in the long term it will not be enough room for the colony once it is established and begins to grow. Usually a colony of bees will need two deep brood chambers (also called hive bodies) to serve as a space to live, raise baby bees (brood), and store the minimum amount of honey needed to sustain itself.
It is possible to start with a one brood chamber beehive however your honeybees will hopefully outgrow it relatively quickly. Having two brood chambers and at least one honey super ready to use is a good way to make sure you are prepared. Not providing enough room for the bees to expand will encourage swarming. Swarming is the process that honeybees use to produce a new hive. When a hive is congested and runs out of room the natural response is for a large portion of the honeybees to leave the hive and take the queen and as much honey as they can carry with them when they do. Then this swarm will find a new place to live and the remaining hive will raise a new queen and continue on. The problem with this process is that it takes a lot of resources out of the hive and causes a lull in productivity so from the beekeepers perspective swarming is something to avoid if possible.
Honey supers are another way to reduce congestion in a beehive. Some beehives will need a honey super during the first year but most will not. If your hive does need a honey super you will need to put it on without delay. Waiting could result in a swarm and if your queen is that productive you will not want to lose her.
Before adding a honey super, be sure to add a queen excluder. The foundations and comb used for storing honey, laying eggs, and raising brood are the same. Queens are just as happy laying eggs in your honey supers as they are laying eggs in the brood chambers. In addition queens have a tendency to slowly move the brood nest up vertically in the hive so even though the brood is in the bottom brood chambers it will not be long before it is in the honey supers.
The queen is larger than the other bees in the hive. The queen excluder has precisely spaced gaps that will allow the smaller bees to pass through and prevent the larger queen from passing through. It is inserted on top of the brood chambers and below the honey supers. The queen will be trapped below the excluder thus preventing any eggs from being laid in the honey supers. This is important because no one likes eggs in there honey.
Honeybees are available in packages, NUCs, swarms, splits, and from feral hives. If you plan to purchase bees do so as early as possible. It is usually best to start calling around in January or February however honeybees can be found late into the season if you look hard enough.
Package bees are the most common method for stating a new hive. Package bees are available through professional honeybee breeders. A package of bees is an artificially produced swarm of honeybees. To make a package of honeybees the supplier will shake a few pounds of honeybees from an existing hive and funnel them into a small cage with a newly bread queen and a can of sugar syrup. This cage is then sealed and shipped to you through the mail. Yes they send it through the mail.
Package bee suppliers usually book up in advance so call early. It is also a good idea to contact some beekeepers associations close to you as they may purchase packages in bulk for distribution to local members.
A professional breeder should be inspected by the state and possess an inspection certificate, seal, or license. Honeybee inspections are different in each state and therefor the proof of inspection will be different. Many honeybee breeders include documentation with each order that will provide proof of inspection.
NUCs are perhaps the most successful and easiest way to start a new beehive. A NUC stands for a nucleus colony. To make one a beekeeper will remove four to five frames of honeybees from existing beehives and place them in a smaller beehive and add a new queen. Once the queen is laying and producing brood the NUC is ready to be sold.
The reason NUCs are so easy to work with is because it is already a hive of honeybees it’s just small. The only thing the new beekeeper needs to do is move the frames into a full sized hive and take care of them and allow the beehive to expand. NUCs are available through other more experienced beekeepers. Before buying a NUC always inspect it first. A healthy NUC should be very full of honeybees and brood. If there is any doubt about the health of the NUC look elsewhere.
Swarms are a good way to get free honeybees. If you decide to hunt for or wait for a swarm you will need to have a beehive and some collection equipment ready to go because when you find an available swarm you will have a limited amount of time until the swarm finds a new home or is weakened by exposure.
The best way to find a swarm is to call your local beekeeping club or association and ask to be put on the swarm list and if they don’t have one try to start one. When someone encounters a ball of bees in their yard and make the time and effort to look for someone interested in taking them they will usually contact a local beekeeping organization. You can also call the local extension of the department of agriculture and let them know you are interested in collecting swarms of honeybees.
A split is a lot like a NUC only instead of placing the frames of bees into a small beehive you place them into a full sized beehive. This is a good way to go if you already have a few healthy beehives or if you know someone who has a few healthy beehives.
A feral beehive is any hive that is not being kept by a beekeeper. For example beehives located inside walls, trees, attics, barns, sheds, your chimney, under a grill cover, and any of the other thousands of random places where honeybees have decided to live.
Collecting feral bees can be a lot of fun and a lot of work. The trouble with feral honeybees is that they are often located in very awkward places such as inside a wall or a tree. To collect a feral beehive you have to get inside the beehive and cut the comb out. It is best to cut it out in large usable chunks which can be used to help get the new beehive established. In order to get the comb out you usually have to do quite a bit of damage to the structure where the beehive is located. Trees often get cut down and walls get torn apart. Be very careful collecting honeybees from a structure such as a house because you rarely ever know how much damage will be necessary until the process has begun and the homeowner may get upset and regret calling you. If you do find a beehive located in a place that is easy to get to you will have a reason to celebrate as you collect your free bees.
The hive tool is the handiest item that a beekeeper has. And it is nearly impossible to work a beehive without one. It is simple, small, and downright elegant in its function and necessity. The main purpose of a hive tool is to pry the various parts of the beehive apart. Honeybees use wax and propolis to seal almost every crack and gap in a beehive. When inspecting a beehive it is necessary to separate the parts with force and a hive tool is perfect for the job. It also serves as an excellent scrape for removing excess wax, propolis, and bur comb.
The smoker is a tool but it can really be thought of as a safety device or piece of protective equipment. Smoke covers the scent of the alarm pheromone given off by honeybees in order to alert the hive to a possible threat. When a honeybee becomes alarmed or defensive she will give off the alarm pheromone. Then other honeybees sense this pheromone and they become alarmed. Smoke slows this process down by covering up the scent of the pheromone. Many beekeepers will gladly inspect a beehive without any protective equipment but few will do so without a smoker.
Protective clothing should be at the top of the list for any new beekeeper. It is also at the top of the list for many experienced beekeepers. However if you attend just about any meeting or workshop at a beekeepers club or association you will always encounter a beekeeper or two that will brag about not using any protective clothing. While not using any protective clothing is fine for some people it always has the potential for a bad outcome. The main lesson here is that it is better to be safe than sorry.
The purpose of protective clothing is to reduce stings not prevent them. No protective clothing is completely impervious to bees. If ten bees try to sting you one or two may get through if you are protected but if you are not protected all ten will get through. In addition the best way to prevent being stung is to work your beehive gently and with plenty of smoke. If you are rough with a hive and agitate the honeybees then you will provoke them.
Protective equipment is available in many forms. The coverall bee suit is the item that comes to mind most often when thinking about protective clothing. The coverall bee suit protects the entire body except for the feet and hands. Add shoes and gloves to the mix and it will be difficult for the bees to get to you. Another benefit is that your cloths will be protected from dirt, wax, propolis, and honey.
The hat and veil covers the face, head, and neck which are the most important part of the body to protect. Stings to the face, head, or neck are generally more painful. In addition if you are not protecting your face you will run the risk of being stung in the eye which could have some serious consequences.
The hands are the most vulnerable and will sustain the most attempted stings. Therefore a good pair of protective bee gloves with a gauntlet that covers the wrists and forearms is strongly recommended.
Wrists and arm protectors are for beekeepers that like to have bare hands but protected arms when working with a hive.
Velcro leg straps will help prevent honeybees from crawling up your pants leg.
The most important thing to remember is to wear all white or light colors when working a beehive. When honeybees decide to sting they will usually go for the darkest part they can find. Light colors are almost as effective at preventing stings as smoke or protective clothing. Choosing light colors is like adding another layer of protection.
A feeder is necessary at certain times of the year and under certain conditions. You will need a feeder when starting a new beehive, in the fall after harvesting honey, in the spring a few weeks before the first honey flow, and any time the hive is running low on honey. The purpose of feeding is to sustain or boost the hive when nectar is not available or its availability is very limited.
With a new beehive you will feed until the hive is well established and stable enough to make it on its own.
In the fall you will feed sugar syrup after harvesting honey in order to replace some of the food you take from the hive during the harvest. This is necessary in the fall because nectar will not be available during the winter and without the extra honey in reserve the hive could run out of food and die.
In the spring you will feed to boost the beehives population before the first nectar becomes available. Having a strong colony will help the beehive to be more productive when nectar is available thus producing more honey.
There are a variety of different feeders available. In the end they all serve the same purpose so choose one based on your personal preferences.
Sugar syrup is what you will put in your feeder. White granulated sugar should be mixed at a ratio of 1:1 for starting a new hive and 2:1 for feeding in the fall. See our section on how to feed honeybees for detailed information.
Pollen substitute is exactly what the name implies. It is a substitute for natural pollen. Honeybees get carbohydrates from nectar, honey, or sugar syrup and they get protein from pollen or pollen substitute. A new beehive will need a protein source until it finds enough natural pollen. This is important because pollen is consumed during brood production and the most important thing for a new beehive is to increase brood production.
There are many other tools used in beekeeping which are nice to have and very helpful however the tools mentioned here are only the tools that are necessary for getting started. As you gain experience in the craft of beekeeping you will inevitably add a few more tools to your collection along the way.
You will need to educate yourself concerning the basics of each task. It is best to read through everything at least once while you are doing your initial research and planning so that you have an idea of what is to come. You may want to read through certain things a second time before you perform each task in order to refresh your memory. Below is a list of subjects you will want to learn about.
How to become a beekeeper (this article)
How to inspect a beehive