So you read my last post about what you should consider before you get bees, and you’re more excited than ever to start. That’s great! There are just a few things you’ll need to do before your bees arrive. First, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to get your bees, then you’ll need to get the essential equipment you’ll need, and then you’ll need to get your hive.
There are several different ways to get bees. Depending on your area, you may be able to buy a “nuc” or even a full colony from a local beekeeper. If possible, I would recommend this method, (though if you are purchasing a fully colony, try to bring an experienced beekeeper to inspect the hive first and make sure it’s healthy). If you are up for a challenge, you may enjoy trying to catch a free swarm (the best guide for this I have come across is the book Swarm Traps and Bait Hives by McCartney Taylor). If neither of these options are possible for whatever reason, you can order a package through the mail. This is the easiest by far is to order a package, though it’s not without its downside.
Regardless of how you plan to get your bees, it’s best to start planning a few months before the Spring when you plan to start keeping bees. This means placing your orders for Nucs or Packages in December. If you want to try catching swarms, the winter is a great time to read up and make your bait hives. If you didn’t plan ahead, it is often still possible to get bees later in the season, just be aware that your bees will have less time to prepare for the winter and may need help from you in the form of feeding and extra considerations when winterizing. I wouldn’t recommend that a new beekeeper start a colony later than the beginning of June.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I would recommend that you start with two hives, which means you’ll need two packages, nucs or swarms (or go ahead and mix and match).
It’s pretty easy to spend a fortune on all the gadgets they make for beekeeping these days. The big company catalogs are filled with enticing gizmos that promise to make your life so much easier for the low low price of $29.99. While some of these gadgets are really worth the investment, few are really necessary, and if you are just starting out, I’d recommend sticking to the essentials until you get the hang of it, so you have a better idea of what else you might actually use. Here are the things I think every beekeeper absolutely needs:
I don’t wear a bee suit, because I’d rather get stung than sweat to death, but I almost always wear a veil, because facial stings result in facial swelling, which is extremely unflattering – and because bees get really, really upset when they get tangled in your hair, and it almost always results in a sting to the head.
Veils come in many different styles, and which one you choose is just a matter of personal taste. I use a vintage straw helmet with a square veil, while my husband prefers a french style hood. They all have pros and cons, but the only way to know which you prefer is to try them, so my advice is to just pick one and get started.
If you find you are very nervous about getting stung, it might be worthwhile for you to invest in a bee jacket or suit as well. It is important to feel comfortable working your bees, and if that means you need to suit up every time or just until you get used to being so close to the bees, buying a suit will be money well spent.
Gloves are extremely useful for certain occasions when the bees are going to be extremely mad and there’s nothing you can do about it (like when cutting a bee colony out of a wall, or emergency treatments when it is dark or raining). That being said, Gloves tend to make you clumsy, and more likely to crush bees. Over time your bees will start to associate you with the mass murders and react more aggressively to your visits. Working bees with bare hands is often intimidating at first, but getting comfortable handling bees is essential if you want to be a beekeeper.
The smoker is your first line of defense against bee stings. When a honey bee is upset – or when she stings someone or gets crushed, she emits something called alarm pheromone. This substance, which you can actually smell if you’re paying attention (it smells a bit like bananas) lets other bees in the area know that there is trouble. Those bees, in turn, emit their own alarm pheromone. In this way the alarm can travel through the entire colony very quickly, and soon, they’ll be chasing you out of the beeyard. The smoker works by covering up that scent, so that even if you accidentally upset or squish one bee, the entire colony doesn’t get up in arms. It can also work as a preventative measure – the smell of the smoke triggers something of a “fire drill” causing the bees to eat lots of honey in anticipation of having to flee a burning hive. Bees who are full of honey tend to be lazy (sort of like people after a big meal!) and will be less aggressive. A smoker can be the difference between zero stings and a really bad day, so do yourself a favor, and have a lit smoker on hand when you open a hive. You may not need it every time, but when you do, you will be very, very glad to have it.
Hive tools come in lots of shapes and sizes, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter which type you get (the only exception is that there’s a special hive tool for top bar hives, which you don’t want if you have a different style of hive!). Some people swear by the j-hook style, while I have always been happy with my “standard” hive tools. Regardless of which style you choose, the hive-tool will become your best friend when it comes to prying apart sticky hive bodies, lifting propolized frames, scraping away burr comb, squishing hive beetles, and all sorts of other handy uses.
Many beekeepers don’t put a bee brush on their list of “essentials”, but if I had a nickel for every time I checked my bees without one and ended up kicking myself for it, I could afford a lot more bees. Seriously though, bee brushes are handy! They are commonly used for removing bees from frames of honey that you want to harvest, but they can also be used to sweep bees from hive bodies to keep them from being crushed, guide swarms into a box for transportation, or to brush yourself off to make sure you aren’t bringing bees into your house or car!
Obviously, you’re going to need a place to put your bees! Hives come in lots of shapes and styles. In the U.S. you are required to keep your bees in a movable frame hive, meaning that old-fashioned skeps and log hives are not allowed (unless you give them a movable frame upgrade somehow). There are lots of styles of hives, but I recommend that you start with a Langstroth hive (or better yet, two) until you learn the basics.
The “Langstroth Hive” is the industry standard, which makes it convenient for purchasing (or selling) nucs, extracting honey, and replacing old equipment. Not to mention that the Langstroth hive is probably what your teachers or mentors will be using, and it helps to keep things consistent while you’re learning. You’re probably going to catch “bee fever” and end up with several hives anyway, so if you’re interested in top bar or Warre hives or something else, you can always get them later.
The standard Langstroth hive is 10-frame, meaning that each box (called a “hive body”) contains 10 frames of comb. Langstroth hives are now also available in an 8-frame version, which some people prefer because they weigh less when full of honey. Having tried both, I prefer the 10-frame hives because I’ve had way more problems with burr-comb in my 8-frame hives. That being said, the 10-frame hives do get really heavy, and when I am not working out regularly, it’s a real challenge to lift them. For many people, the 8-frame is a great option.
Where to get this stuff:
Many areas have local suppliers, your local beekeeping association may be able to help you find them. If there are no beekeeping suppliers in your area, beekeeping conventions and other special events can be a great chance to shop for bee supplies, since retailers often set up tables with their wares.
You can also order almost all the items on this list from any major bee supplier – such as Dadant, Mann Lake, or Brushy Mountain. Even Amazon carries beekeeping equipment these days – though I tend to prefer buying from companies I know.
Once you’ve got your gear, I’m sure you’re itching to start using it. Stay tuned for my next posts. I’ll dive into a bit more detail on how to set up your hive, and then I’ll show you how to light your smoker.