Your first year keeping bees is one of great joys and great frustration, It is a time when everything is new and exciting and also a little confusing. There is a lot of new information to take in and it is tricky to know how to get off to the right start.
“What advice would you give someone starting out with bees?” is a common question for most beekeepers, and I’ve heard a lot of great answers. Below are a few great answers that I don’t hear as often as I’d like, which I think are essential.
1. Buy Good Bees
One of the most challenging aspects of beekeeping is breeding your bees that are better adapted to your local climate and beekeeping style. Starting out with inferior bees makes your job harder right from the get go. The most common way to buy bees is in a “package” – a shoe-box sized cage which contains a few thousand worker bees and a single queen. There are several reasons that mail-order packages are not the best way to go:
Firstly, these packages are usually mailed to you from warm places like Georgia and California. Because the season starts earlier in such warm climates and bee producers have extra time to get their bees ready and shipped off. This seems like an advantage until you consider that bees bred in warmer climates are better adapted to warmer climates. If you live somewhere with harsh winters, there’s a good chance that the bees you are getting won’t be well suited to your locale.
Secondly, the packages you receive are not preexisting colonies. You are basically getting a few scoops of worker bees (plus a bunch of drones) and a brand new queen. Because the new colony has no drawn comb or brood, they don’t have as much incentive to stick around. When you place them in your hive, it’s hard to know what will happen. Sometimes It goes perfectly smoothly, sometimes the new colony will reject the queen, and sometimes the colony will abscond. If you are spending $100 on a package of bees though, you definitely want them to stick around!
Thirdly, being thrown in a little box and shipped in the back of a truck all over the country is hard on the bees. The entire process stresses them and makes them more susceptible to disease.
finally, large-scale bee producers are concerned with, you guessed it, selling bees on a large-scale. They aren’t investing in breeding the healthiest, best adapted bees. While you may end up with a perfectly strong and healthy colony, you could also get a weak one – or an aggressive one. It’s basically a genetic grab-bag.
The preferable method would be to find a reputable local bee breeder and buy a “nuc” (Short for nucleus colony) which is a tiny but fully functional colony – complete with a queen, workers, drones, and four or five frames of comb with honey and brood. Because the colony is already assembled and rearing brood, they will be much less likely to abscond, and because they are locally bred, they are more likely to survive the winter in your area. More importantly, a good bee breeder will be dedicated to breeding the strongest, and healthiest bees they can, so you will know that you are purchasing superior stock.
Typically, a package of bees will cost around $100 and a local nuc can cost anywhere from $100-200. However, when you consider that healthy, local stock is an investment in your bees for generations, the price is worth it.
Remember, your new bees won’t just affect your beekeeping – your drones will mate with the queens of other beekeepers in your area. Importing inferior stock will adversely affect your local beekeeping community!
[Edit: Brucelovesbees recommends catching swarms as a great way to get healthy, local bees for absolutely free! While it’s definitely not too hard for an inexperienced beekeeper to do, it usually doesn’t fall into the category of “beginners” beekeeping. I have a post on this topic planned for some point in the future, but if you can’t wait to get started, I would highly recommend the book: Swarm Traps and Bait Hives]
2. Get Your Bees Early
There’s an old saying “A hive in May is worth a bale of hay, a hive in June is worth a silver spoon, but a hive in July ain’t worth a Fly” There have absolutely been some exceptions; one of my favorite hives was a trap out that I didn’t bring home until August.
However, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably going to make a lot of mistakes with your first hive, and it’s best to give them a long season to recover from your blundering. Here in Pennsylvania, nectar flow starts in late March or early April, and continues until around July, when it gets too hot for many flowers, and we experience the summer dearth. By late August we get a second flow that usually lasts into October (Recently, it’s gone on as late as November!).
These are the only times during the year when bees can gather nectar to make all the honey they will use that year. If you don’t install your package until late June, your bees have missed a critical window to build stores. If you are buying a nuc you can get away with setting them up a bit later – since they will have a head start on drawing comb and rearing brood, however, you still want to have them settled in as early as possible. Here in Philadelphia, April is a great time to set up a hive – as soon as the weather is warm enough and flowers are blooming.
3. Get All your Woodenware Ahead of Time
This one seems straight forward enough, but I’m always surprised by how often people don’t bother (including myself! The shame!). At the beginning of the season, a new package or nuc will only need a small hive – The Stand, Bottom Board, one or two Hive Bodies with enough Frames to fill them, and the Inner and Outer Covers.
However, as the season goes on and the bees fill up the frames with comb and the comb with honey and brood, you’re going to need to add a Super to give them more space – and then another and maybe more after that! If you have to buy a new super each time, chances are you won’t be prompt about it and you will slow down your bees’ progress.
It’s wise to start out with two deep hive bodies (or three medium hive bodies, if having two different sizes seems unnecessarily complex) as the “brood chamber” plus at least two medium hive bodies to use as supers. I usually also include an “attic” – another medium hive body placed between the inner and outer covers, which I use to insulate the hive from temperature fluctuations, (I can also place feeding jars there if necessary). That’s a total of either two deeps and three mediums or six mediums per colony.
4. Don’t Wear Gloves
There are a few occasions when a good pair of gloves is a beekeeping essential – performing cut-outs or removals, harvesting honey, or when you know your bees will be particularly curmudgeonly but you absolutely have to open the hive – such as when it’s getting dangerously close to dusk and you just have one more hive to inspect.
Other than that, it’s important to get used to handling the hive, frames, and the bees themselves without gloves. Sure, you’ll probably get stung from time to time, but it won’t outweigh the confidence you’ll get from being able to deftly maneuver through the hive bare handed when other people cower in fear of a bee buzzing near their picnic.
Besides, gloves make you clumsy, and being clumsy kills bees, and killing bees makes the other bees mad. You don’t want angry bees.
and last, but definitely not least…
5. Read Everything you Can (About Bees)
Ok, so everyone and their mother recommends this, but that’s because it’s that darn important. If you want to be a good beekeeper, you should soak up everything you can learn about bees. Most beginners beekeeping books cover the basics of what you need to know to keep bees alive and harvest honey.
If you’re planning to get bees soon, or already have some and haven’t yet learned what to do, a beginners’ book is a great place to start, but the real art of beekeeping goes beyond the basic techniques of what to do and how to do it. When you start to understand the biology of honey bees, how they behave in nature and how beekeeping techniques alter that behavior, then you can start to adapt your techniques to suit their nature.
Rather than feeding simple sugar-water, as many beginner’s books recommend, you might consider adding an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, which will alter the structure of the sugar and make it more digestible for bees. Or perhaps you will decide to create your own recipe for artificial nectar, or maybe you’ll decide that no variation on sugar-water is sufficient to replace nectar, and decide instead to plant clover, asters, and dandelions in your yard to help feed your bees throughout the bloom season.
More importantly, every beekeeper has their own (often very strong) opinion about what is correct beekeeping and what is not. If you only read one book or listen to one person’s advice, you won’t have enough perspective to make your own informed decision, and you might miss out on something really helpful.
To start out, I highly recommend that every beekeeper reads The Biology of the Honey Beeas well as one or two “Beginners’ beekeeping” type books. In my next post, I will talk about a few of my favorite beekeeping books and other resources.
I hope these tips are useful, not only for your first year of beekeeping, but for building a strong foundation to improve your beekeeping for years to come.