Beekeeping can be as difficult or easy as you want it to be. There is more than one way to be a beekeeper, but you will find varied and strong opinions in the beekeeping world as to what is the best way. For new beekeepers and experienced beekeepers alike, you get to decide what’s right for you.
Beekeeping is an exercise in continuing education, experimentation, and acceptance.
So what do I mean? You can do everything “right” in your beekeeping journey, and you could still lose some or all of your bees. On the other hand, you can do many things “wrong” and manage to have a thriving colony.
If you decide to try beekeeping, then you will begin a journey of learning. You will need to be open to experimenting and trying new things, and you also need to learn to accept the results.
Reasons You Want to Begin Beekeeping
So you’re thinking about becoming a beekeeper, but you’re wondering if it’s a good idea. There are many reasons people decide to begin beekeeping.
You want to get some of your own, delicious raw honey. While honey is a great perk of beekeeping, it can be a lot of work to extract honey! Having bees just for honey is like raising and feeding a cow just for the milk. It would be much easier to find a local beekeeper to buy local raw honey.
Save the Bees!
Some people want to do their part in saving the bees. This is great, but there are more ways to help the honey bee populations. You don’t have to be a beekeeper to be a bee ally!
You can help the bees by learning more about them and educating others. Do what you can to limit the pesticides in your area that could potentially harm the bees and other pollinators. Grow an organic garden and native flora.
Buy honey and bee products from local beekeepers. This will help your local beekeepers with continuing their great work with the bees!
There are simple things you can do to help your local bees. In the spring, let your dandelions grow! Dandelions are an important food source for bees coming out of winter!
Many local plants are helpful to the bees, but we might consider them weeds. For example, in our area, clover, sumac, and goldenrod are invaluable resources to the bees. Let these plants flower and provide resources for the bees before you mow them.
Pollinate Your Vegetable Garden
Perhaps you want some pollinators to help grow a booming vegetable garden! While this can help, remember that bees will forage within a radius of three to six miles. They will be looking for resources in addition to your garden. Consider your surrounding area. Is there enough vegetation to support the honey bees?
Or perhaps you’re like my family, and you are just obsessed with these fascinating creatures. While we wanted to help provide homes for some bee colonies, we also wanted the opportunity to observe them.
We enjoy being able to sit and watch the busy bees at work. I love to see their large pollen sacs as they return to the hive from foraging. My husband likens the pollen sacs to lugging a couple of sacks of groceries home. We enjoy finding the queen and all the challenges that come with beekeeping!
Whatever your reasoning may be, there is no right or wrong answer. If you feel the urge to try beekeeping, then be prepared to learn, and don’t be afraid to try something new!
Don’t let the fear of failure stop you. Beekeeping requires the spirit of dusting yourself off and getting back up again. There will be ups and downs, but it can be a very rewarding venture!
Before You Start Beekeeping
Are you curious about bees and beekeeping, but you’re not certain it’s right for you? Every year, I see people who are selling thousands of dollars of bee equipment because they jumped into beekeeping only to find it wasn’t right for them. Don’t let this be you in a year or two!
The best thing you can do is to find and join a local beekeeping club. You don’t have to be a beekeeper to join a group! A local beekeeping association or club may have an apiary where they will hold events. It is a great way to get some hands-on experience before you dive into beekeeping. You will get in-person practice with a more experienced beekeeper. To get started, you will only need to invest in some protective clothing and possibly some nominal membership fees.
Many beekeepers enjoy helping each other and will be happy to encourage and assist you as a beginner beekeeper. You may meet a beekeeper in the club who is willing to show you the ropes at their apiary. If you can try beekeeping before you jump in, then you can figure out if this is the hobby for you!
And bonus! If you discover that beekeeping is really for you, then you already have a great working knowledge and a potential network of people to help you get started with your own hives and equipment.
What is Beekeeping Really?
Bees have survived in the wild for millions of years before human intervention, and I believe they will continue to find a way to survive for a very long time.
Beekeeping is essentially providing a space for bees, hoping they will find it suitable for raising their brood. And the honey bees are allowing you, as a beekeeper, to manage and help them.
Bees, if left to their own devices, will find homes in hollow trees, buildings, or abandoned furniture or cars. They don’t have strict requirements for their home. You can simply provide the bee hives and learn how to best take care of your bees.
It is a privilege to be able to provide a space for honey bees.
Is Beekeeping a Hard Hobby?
Again, it is as hard or easy as you make it. Can you have a minimalist approach? I know beekeepers who want to let the bees be as natural as possible without too much intervention. This could work for some people. In some cases, your bees might swarm or abscond without your knowledge. Or they could succumb to pests. If you choose a hands-off approach, this comes with its own challenges that you will need to accept.
Since we are bee obsessed, we do enjoy weekly inspections. It does take time and commitment to perform routine hive inspections. However, it isn’t hard work for us because we look forward to our visits.
In the spring, it is a good idea to check the hives about every seven to ten days. The bees are building up fast during this time in preparation for the busy summer season. Consistent inspections will let you see if they need anything before a problem arises.
Some genetics of bees want to swarm no matter what you do. In these instances, you may want to split them before they swarm. I recommend learning about the various swarm prevention methods.
Some beekeepers choose to let them swarm because they do not have the space, time, or desire to expand their apiary.
Things to Consider Before You Start Beekeeping
Local and State Regulations
Each state and local municipality may have different requirements for beekeeping. You will need to research this before you start.
Beekeeping isn’t like it was for our grandparents who may have simply put out a hive and collected lots of honey. There is a decrease in natural habitats and an increase in threats to the bees.
For example, the varroa mites that can weaken and kill an entire colony were not a problem just 40 years ago. The common use of pesticides and various chemicals is causing problems for the bees.
Beekeeping now must try to address these problems, and we are all experimenting and trying to find the best management practices possible for raising honey bees.
Before you buy bees, look at the area where you live. There are different considerations for urban areas vs residential areas. Is there enough for the bees to forage? The number of colonies you can have will depend on the area and how much flora is available. You don’t want to oversaturate an area with bees as they could potentially starve.
Do your neighbors mind?
If you are in an urban area, you need to perform routine inspections to prevent your bees from swarming. You don’t want them to swarm and move into a neighbor’s eaves or fireplace, which now means they will need to spend money on bee removal.
Are you afraid of or allergic to bee stings? If you are beekeeping, you will be stung. It may not be often, but it can and does happen. So if this is a fear for you, then you may want to reconsider.
Is Beekeeping an Expensive Hobby?
Beekeeping can be an expensive hobby. However, it can be done on a budget. The bees don’t care if they have the penthouse beehive. I had old hive equipment stacked in the driveway that became unintended swarm traps. Three or four separate swarms moved into these hives during the course of a summer. None of these bees were from our apiary. What we deem old and worn was perfect for the bees.
Nobody told the bees that it has to be a certain brand!
Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries successfully makes hives out of just about anything like a five-gallon bucket. He uses barbecue skewer sticks for bees to draw their comb.
Another way to try to begin on a budget is by trying to catch swarms instead of buying packages or nucs (nucleus colonies). Again, your local clubs can be a great resource. Some beekeepers may not want to grow their apiary, and they would rather give away a split if their hive is preparing to swarm. You can join local online forums where people may be looking for someone to remove a swarm from their property. Of course, you will want to make sure it is a honey bee cluster. People often mistake yellow jackets for honey bees.
As for bee equipment, I do not recommend buying starter kits, because they often contain more items than you’ll ever need. You’re better off putting together your own custom kit of tools that you’ll actually use.
The main tools that I use are:
- Hive Tool
- Protective Gear
- Queen Clip/Catcher
These items are enough to get you started. As for gloves, I do not recommend leather gloves. They impede your dexterity and make it more difficult to manage the frames without accidentally dropping a frame or squishing bees and upsetting them. Angry bees sting.
Many beekeepers use nitrile or latex gloves. I prefer 14mil Thickster latex gloves. These are as thick as you can get without losing the dexterity you need to maneuver through your hives. They are not completely sting proof, but I find I cannot even tell a bee is trying to sting through them unless I see it. If you are worried, you can double up on the gloves.
You can decide what is best for you as far as a full bee suit, bee jacket, or bee veil. I’d recommend, at minimum, having protection for your face. Bee stings are not pleasant on your face or near your eyes.
How Much Time Does Beekeeping Take?
The amount of time you spend on beekeeping can vary greatly. Ideally, you should perform hive inspections every seven to ten days beginning in the early spring and through the first half of the summer. After the summer solstice, you can go a little longer between inspections.
You can plan on approximately 30 minutes per hive. In your first year of beekeeping, you may spend a little more time as you learn and gain experience with looking at your hives. The number of hives you have will affect how much time you need. I would recommend having at least two hives to begin because you sometimes need to borrow from a strong hive to help with a weaker hive.
Sometimes your inspections will be quick, and sometimes they will take a little more time. You are also subject to the weather. You don’t want to disturb the bees on a rainy, windy, or cold day. Your local climate will play a part in your beekeeping schedule.
Tips for Learning Beekeeping
There are many excellent online beekeeping courses available to help you get started. My husband took an excellent beekeeping course from Penn State Extension. The course has a wealth of information that you can work through at your own pace.
Find a bee mentor. I was lucky to have an excellent bee mentor who didn’t discourage me from experimenting and doing things my way. He never said if I was right or wrong, and he answered my questions and offered great advice.
Keep in mind that commercial beekeeping has an entirely different approach. Commercial beekeepers have different objectives and goals than hobby beekeepers. Their methods may not be in line with yours.
If you join online beekeeping groups, do not be intimidated by other beekeepers. You will receive a lot of mixed information, and it can be overwhelming to sift through it all. You may be told this is the “only way” to do it, but there are many ways available to you! Don’t be afraid to experiment and find your own way that works best for you.
You will have so many choices and potential decisions to make with beekeeping! First, you need to decide what style of hive is best for you. Do you want a Langstroth, Warre or a five frame nucleus colony?
Do you want to have a single deep or double deep brood chamber? This means do you want one box of brood, or do you want to stack a second brood chamber box on top of the first? There are pros and cons to both methods.
Are you interested in a Flow Hive? (Warning, this is not a popular question among public bee groups).
There are many different species of bees to choose from. Each species has different genetics and different behaviors. As you interact with your bees, you will find each hive has a personality of its own. Some really love to swarm. Others use a lot more propolis, or glue, and make it difficult to pry the hive open. Some colonies are out and about earlier than others, or they stay out later. One hive will eat twice as much honey as another one that is the same size!
You will need to make decisions on how you will treat mites. Which treatment will be best for you, and how often and when will you treat?
Are you interested in queen rearing?
How and when will you feed your bees? When you bring home your first package of bees, they may need some sugar syrup to get started. You also may need to feed your honey bees to help them store up enough honey for the winter.
There is no right or wrong answer to all of these. This is where you must be willing to experiment.
Learning Acceptance and Perseverance in Beekeeping
The first time you lose a hive, you may feel devastated. You can do everything right, and Mother Nature could have other ideas. If you have a long, dry season, there may not be enough for the bees to forage. Or, if you are in a low-lying area, a flood may kill your bees. You may lose some of your bees over a long winter season. It is a sad occasion, but it will happen to you at some point during your beekeeping journey.
I once caught a swarm of bees and moved them into a hive just to find they decided to leave two days later. It was frustrating, but sometimes you just cannot predict what will happen. They do have minds of their own!
Whatever you decide to do, beekeeping is a practice of learning acceptance. All beekeepers will experience losses at some point. It’s unavoidable. But you must be willing to accept, to learn, and to try again. Never give up! Keep learning and experimenting, and celebrate your small and big victories. They will happen!
It’s time to get started. Jump in and enjoy the journey of beekeeping! The rewards are amazing!