Last February, I excitedly decided to give beekeeping a try. Two months later, I was bringing home my first package of bees! You can read more about that fun day here.
If you’re interested in giving beekeeping a try, this time of year is a perfect time to do your research, and if you decide to go for it, to get your supplies. You can read about how much my first year supplies cost here. It’s easy to find packages of bees for sale via a web search, or contact a local bee guild for bees from your local area.
Speaking of bee guilds, I highly recommend finding out if you have a local beekeeping guild. This website has a comprehensive list, however I didn’t see my local guild. If you don’t see your area listed, do a web search for your city or counties name with “beekeepers guild” after it. Another important thing is to check your city ordinances. Many cities and counties allow beekeeping but may require a permit.
I’ve learned a lot my first year! I hope you find this post helpful and it encourages you to give beekeeping a try!
Before bees arrive
- Attend a bee guild meeting and/or read books. Attending my local guild meeting was very helpful and gave me the confidence to give beekeeping a try. Many guilds have mentors who will guide you during your first year. The books I found helpful were The Backyard Beekeeper, Beekeeping for Dummies, and Hive Management.
- Let your neighbors know. Most people are happy to learn a neighbor is keeping bees but it’s always nice to let them know of your plans. This is especially important in case your neighbor is one of those rare people who is deathly allergic to bee venom. Only 3% of the adult population is deathly allergic, so it’s unlikely your neighbor is one of them!
- Decide what size boxes to use. I originally started out with 8 frame, deep boxes. This was recommended by many guild members. I had an extremely difficult time lifting the top box off of the bottom one, it was WAY to heavy for me to lift alone. Since this is my “hobby” I didn’t want to bug my husband to periodically help me with hive checks. He would say I already bug him for help with lots of other things 🙂 I had no idea a deep box full of honey weighed close to 90 pounds! Apparently, the guild members forgot to mention that! I recommend using 8 frame medium, or small (short) boxes. A full medium weighs about 60 pounds, and a small about 40 pounds. It’s best to use the same size boxes for each colony, so you can easily “right size” the colony.
- Have a water source ready. It’s very important your bees have access to water. Otherwise, your neighbors pool could become their preferred source! It should be placed at least 20 feet from their hive. If it’s to close, they won’t use it. The water source can be as simple as a spigot that slowly drips water onto a piece of wood, a bucket of water with wine corks floating in it, or as fancy as this one made by Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.
- Paint the exterior of the hive boxes. It’s best to use one coat of primer, and two coats of latex paint, be sure to only paint the outside. I used left over paint from our previous house. You can often find free paint on Craigslist and Freecycle.
- If you want to track your colonies weight, attach a hook to your bottom box. This is definitely not necessary, but keeping track of their weight can be helpful to determine if they have enough honey stored for winter. Many beekeepers just check the weight by lifting their colonies each time they check their hives. They know if they can barely lift it, there’s probably enough honey! I think I will try this with my next colony. I plan on attaching a hook and using a luggage scale to weigh the colony.
- Decide on what type of feeder to use. I tried four types of feeders. Entrance feeder, top feeder, a homemade mason jar feeder, and gallon pail feeder.
- The gallon feeder is my preferred feeding method. They are easy to use, it feeds the bees for at least a week, and you don’t need to disturb the hive to feed them.
- The entrance feeder only held a quart of food, it easily attracts ants, and needs to be removed every night to keep other critters from getting it.
- The top feeder fits about 1 1/2 gallons, which is great except when you need to lift it onto the top of the hive box when its full! The last thing you want is to spill sugar syrup all over yourself while you’re around hungry bees! My homemade quart size, mason jar feeder worked ok, but needed to be refilled daily. Trying to poke the perfect “mini” size holes into the cover was very annoying, and I wasted a lot of tops trying to get the “perfect” size.
- Have plenty of extra supplies available. Once nectar flow starts, the bees build comb and store honey super fast! Make sure to have extra hive boxes, frames, and foundation on hand so they don’t run out of room; that almost happened to me! Oh, and make sure to have lots of sugar, a new colony goes through a gallon on sugar syrup a week!
- Get separate hive tools for each colony. This helps keep the risk of sharing diseases between the colonies. You can buy different color tools, or label them using a sharpie.
- If you’re not sure if you have a bee allergy, get an EpiPen. I’d never been stung by a bee before I started beekeeping. As a precaution, my doctor was happy to prescribe me an EpiPen.
Once the bees arrive
- Make sure they don’t run out of food or the bees get very mad! Not much explanation is needed for this one. Hungry bees equal angry bees!
- Don’t use synthetic fire starters for your smoker. I did this, and I mistakenly probably poisoned some of my bees! The smoker fuel they sell for beekeeping is worth the cost. It keeps the smoker going without killing bees.
- Use the same foundation your colony. My first colony, Verbena, started out using wax, and Cosmo, started using plastic. I preferred the wax but when I bought supplies for Cosmo, wax foundation was sold out. It’s not recommended to mix foundations. I prefer to use wax, because it more natural, and helps the bees build comb faster. This is truly personal preference, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both, so do your research and use what sounds best to you!
- Start with two colonies. This was some of the BEST advice I received from the guild members. Originally, I planned to start with one colony. Several member discouraged that because keeping a first year colony alive all winter is difficult. I was determined to keep both my colonies alive, and did everything I could, but still lost a colony.
- Feed them until they stop eating. This was something many of the guild members opposed. I think they may have forgotten how much help a new colony needs. Against my gut instinct, I stopped feeding both colonies in November. This was a huge mistake! I’m certain starvation contributed to me losing 75% of my Verbena colony. I don’t believe feeding an established but weak colony is the right thing to do either. Ultimately I want strong colonies, not ones that need to be babied year after year; but first year colonies are different! They are extremely fragile, like premature babies, and they need all the help they can get to survive. I truly believe if I’d kept feeding Verbena they wouldn’t have left!
I’m thankful I’ve been able to share the tiny bit of knowledge about beekeeping. I hope some of you decide to try beekeeping this coming spring. It’s truly a unique, and fun experience. If you get bees, let me know, and send me pictures 🙂
So did I convince you to keep bees? Contact me if you have any questions!