Key Considerations for Learning How to Bee
Nature beckons. You yearn for a hobby that will get you outside during spring and summer months, but one you can safely set aside during the winter. A relaxing pastime that is rewarding and helps rebalance the ecosystem. Is being a honeybee keeper the perfect choice for you?
“Beekeeping is wonderful, but it’s not for everyone,” says Sydney Barton, operations manager at the Chicago Honey Co-op, a multisite apiary and beekeeping training center. “Expectations are different than reality, which is why we always recommend beginners take a class where they work hands-on with bees.” Basically, Barton says, beekeeping is all about animal husbandry. “It’s not like you just buy an ant farm and watch the insects. You have to do some work.”
One more thing to know at the start: Every beekeeper gets stung − it goes with the territory. There is no such thing as a 100-percent-effective sting-avoidance strategy. So if bee stings send you into anaphylactic shock, well, this isn’t the hobby for you.
Find Your Swarm
Before you even take a class, familiarize yourself with the world of bees through a book. And if you can’t find a hands-on class, find a local beekeeping club or guild; they will have information geared to your climate and someone there may be willing to serve as your mentor. “Beekeeping is done by skill and experience,” says Don Shump, owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company, a multisite apiary and education resource. “If you try to do it all by the book, you’re going to run into problems.”
Location, Location, Location
Also, educating yourself will likely help you solve your first problem: where to site your hive. If you don’t site it correctly, it won’t survive. “There are more opportunities than you may think,” says Shump, who has one of his 50-plus hives on the top of a 14-story building. It’s imperative to have a mostly sunny site, although a little afternoon shade can help cool off the hive in the summer. A southeastern location is often ideal because the sun will hit the hive first thing in the morning.
Other considerations: You need a water source within a quarter mile of your hive, otherwise your bees may descend on your neighbor’s swimming pool or dripping faucet. And once bees have established a place for water, they can be reluctant to change. Solve the problem before it begins by providing a nearby birdbath with some rocks in the bottom. And don’t site your hive where the bees’ flight pattern will likely tear through the middle of your patio or your kids’ basketball court. “They will just be doing their jobs, but hundreds of bees flying through the middle of human activity can scare people,” says Barton.
Check out local ordinances to ensure that beekeeping is legal where you live. Your new friends at the local beekeeping association can help you. But always double-check whatever information you’re told. Regulations can vary widely from one suburb or municipality to the next. Some states require you to register your apiary or offer grants to beekeepers. To promote a local honeybee population, Virginia pays up to $200 a hive to bee hobbyists that meet their grant requirements.
If you’re ready to get your buzz on, the next step is selecting a hive. There are three styles: Langstroth, top-bar, or Warre. The Langstroth consists of boxes stacked upon each other. It’s a universal beekeeping system, so supplies and experienced users are easy to find. The frames or boxes come in medium and large sizes, with large sizes primarily used by commercial honey producers. Top-bar hives, which are horizontal hives sitting on sawhorse-like stands, are becoming popular with backyard enthusiasts. They have a viewing window on the side, so you can watch the bees at work. But top-bars bees may not be able to survive a cold-climate winter. Warre hives, with a foundationless bottom, allow for minimal inspection by the beekeeper.
Bee a Smart Shopper
“You need to decide how much weight you are able to lift,” says Jill McKenna Reed, writer and co-founder of Bee Thinking, a beekeeping supply and education store in Portland, Oregon. “You also have to consider how much time you want to spend with your bees. Langstroth hives can require lifting up to 40 pounds and top-bar hives require more maintenance, particularly in the spring. So your answers to those questions will guide you to the right hive.”
Next you’ll need the tools of the trade. “Purchase protective gear based on your comfort level,” says Reed. A minimum investment would include: a veil, which comes in different styles; a hat, if you don’t have a wide brim one; a smoker, which disrupts bee alarm signals that the hive is being opened; and a hive tool, which is a special pry bar with a hook on the end of it. “My first year I thought I could just use a regular pry bar instead of a hive tool,” says Susan Horton, a bee hobbyist in suburban Chicago. “What little I saved in money cost me excessively in time and energy.”
Beginners should buy a pair of ventilated gloves. Most experienced beekeepers feel that gloves restrict their movements, but if you’re not used to hundreds of bees crawling on your hands, get some. “The more courage you have, the better,” says Barton. She notes that while many first-time beekeepers invest in an entire suit, she doesn’t recommend it. “You may use it at first, but soon you’re going to feel too encumbered and hot. Plus it gets dirty from wax and plant resin.” Barton suggests beginners buy long-sleeved white shirts and pants from a thrift store instead. (Don’t wear bright or dark colors around your hives! You will agitate the bees.) A compromise between a full suit and a white shirt is to invest in a beekeeper jacket.
Now you need some honeybees, of course. There are all kinds: Carniolan, Italian, and Russian are three popular breeds, all with distinct personalities. “Carniolans tend to be docile, but not particularly hardy,” says Reed. “Italian bees are sweet. Russians are hard-working and aggressive but can withstand bad winters.” You can order online and have your bees shipped to you via USPS. However you order bees, Barton believes you should ask questions. “You want to know: are the bees mite resistant (mites are the biggest killer of honeybees), is there a caged queen that comes with them, and what are the practices of the bee producer?”
Alternately, you can try to catch a swarm of feral bees – the giant cluster of bees you may see clinging to a tree branch. “Feral bees, having been left to their own devices, are acclimated to your climate,” says Reed. “They don’t have a home of their own and they just want to get to work.” You can buy a swarm trap, which is usually baited with lemongrass oil, and hope the feral bees fly into it. Or you can engage a local beekeeper to help capture the swarm for you. Check your local laws; some urban cities, like New York, have ordinances against capturing swarms off rooftops or fire escapes.
To help your learning curve on beekeeping, here are some final words of wisdom from our experts:
“Don’t ever try to go into the hive on a cloudy day,” says Horton. “The bees will be furious.”
“When you get stung, get the stinger out,” says Shump. “Don’t squeeze or pinch it.”
“Check out what local predators you may have,” says Barton. Besides the dreaded varroa mites, bees can be attacked by bears, skunks, and toads. If you have a Langstroth or Warre, you probably want a mouse guard on your hive.
Bee a Good Steward
“The fun part of having bees is always there,” says Reed. “But we shouldn’t forget that our job is to be good stewards in a partnership with the bees.”