Honeybees are a wonderfully low-maintenance and beneficial addition to any backyard or rooftop garden. Having one or two apiaries nearby can dramatically increase the rate of pollination in the surrounding flora, resulting in more abundant crops and ample seed for propagation. What’s more, you’ll get to harvest your own personal brand of raw local honey to be used as a sweetener, to give as gifts or sell locally to supplement your income.
photo by Laetitia Vellut
The steps to get from bee-less to beekeeper are fairly simple, but should be followed closely so you don’t end up in a pickle somewhere along the line.
1. Use the web to learn a little about honeybees, their behavior and needs: PBS has a beautiful documentary called “The Silence of the Bees” that you can watch for free on their website. This is a wonderful and fairly current documentary that touches on anatomy and function of honeybees, their role in modern agriculture and the dangers they face. If watching this doesn’t conjure in you the will to become a beekeeper, not much else will .
There are many tremendously useful resources and blogs floating around on the web that will help you get better acquainted with the way of the honeybee. One of my favorite sites belongs to Michael Bush, a beekeeper based in Southeastern Nebraska. He’s assembled what I believe to be the most helpful and expansive database of beekeeping information on the internet. There’s a library of historical bee documents, plans for building your own hives, a glossary and beekeeping tips...so much useful information. I’ve been to the site dozens of times and still come across something new and fascinating each time I visit.
2. Buy books on the subject: There are a few really wonderful manuals on beekeeping on the market right now. I would recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and and Laurie Herboldsheimer. A great primer for first and second-year beekeepers, this manual focuses on natural methods of honeybee management where many other books may offer suggestions to treat with chemicals when your bees fall prey to disease and pests. Between this title and Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston, you should have enough information to get you through your first season without breaking a sweat. With a little further investigation, well-respected beekeepers like Ed & Dee Lusby, Sam Comfort and Kirk Anderson will show up on your radar and will hopefully open you up to new opportunities to explore and better understand your bees.
3. Join a Beekeeping Club in your ‘Hood: Over the past 10 years, hobby beekeeping has seen a huge amount of growth and as a result beekeeping clubs and meet-ups have popped up in most cities and counties across the country. Use Bee Culture’s state-by-state listings to find the closest club to you. Once you find one, start attending meetings regularly. Talk to beekeepers, make friends. These are the people who will come to your aid when you’ve got a problem and are unsure of how to proceed. In my opinion, a beekeeper’s best defense against disaster is a more experienced beekeeper’s number on speed dial.
If there isn’t a club in your area, the next best thing is the Beesource Forums. Beekeepers of various experience levels from all over the world frequent this message board and give some of the best advice around. Post a question, come back in an hour or two to a dozen thoughtful responses. Great stuff!
4. Take a Class!: Almost every beekeeping club out there offers a short course on the subject. If you want to learn the ins-and-outs of first to second year beekeeping, classes are a the best way to go. You get the benefit of Q-and-A’s with your instructor and you can also buddy up with another new-bee if you feel that the commitment of keeping bees by yourself is more than you are ready for. I recommend classes for anyone who lacks the confidence to just dive in based on research alone.
photo by Laetitia Vellut
5. Order Your Gear and Bees: Depending on what sort of hive you plan on using (Warre? Top Bar? Langstroth?) you may want to make your own hive. Making a Warre or Top Bar Hive is fairly simple if you have basic woodworking tools. If you want to use a Langstroth hive for honey production, you will most likely want to buy the pre-made materials to assemble, as the parts are precision cut and there are many of them.
There are a few well-known and reputable beekeeping supply companies online where you can purchase everything you need, including bees in many cases. Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, Dadant, and Better Bee can provide all of the materials for hive-building and tools to get started, they even have kits that make purchasing everything less stressful. You can buy packaged bees for pick-up through Brushy Mountain and Better Bee, or you could simply order them through your local beekeeping club.
Another method of buying bees is in the form of a Nucleus hive or “nuc”. A nuc is a 5 frame version of a Langstroth hive. It contains built comb with brood (eggs, larvae, pupae) and will usually also come with a queen that has been laying for a couple of weeks. The benefit to purchasing a Nuc is that you get a bit of a head start in the brood rearing process and you don’t run into the issue of insufficient queens as often since they’ve been given time to prove they mated well. Replacing a failed queen can mean a lapse in brood production which, if it continues for too long, can result in a smaller work force during the nectar flow (fewer workers=less food coming in=higher chance of starvation over the winter) so the benefits of starting with a nuc can be pretty substantial.
You can also catch swarms to start your new hives. While it’s definitely not recommended for the novice, beekeeping clubs like the Backwards Beekeepers in Los Angeles generally eschew buying bees, but instead focus on rescuing swarms. The benefit to this is that (1) swarms are free, (2) you’d be likely rescuing them from being exterminated and (3) swarms build up faster than packaged bees. Ask around at your local beekeeping meetings. Make friends with a beekeeper who specializes in swarm removal and see if you can’t strike up a deal for a swarm in the Spring. Once you get some practice handling bees you can start capturing swarms on your own. (Tip: Regardless of what your method of acquiring bees is, try to get them in their new location before before mid-May so that the colony has time to take advantage of the bloom that occurs from April to late June.)
One thing to note in regards to new colonies: New colonies should be fed either sugar syrup or frames of stored honey from a healthy colony to get them through to the nectar flow. Purchase a hive top feeder so that you can supplement the bees easily. My favorite feeder is this inverted jar type that results in zero bee drownings.
6. Where to place your hive? This eHow article does a pretty straight forward job of articulating what to consider when choosing a location. If you are considering a rooftop as a location for your bees, make sure that it's safely accessible and will be easy for you to carry equipment and wooded wear up and down from.
You also want to make sure (especially with urban bees) to give them a clean accessible water source. I love galvanized chicken waterers like these because evaporation is slow and few bees that drown in them.
7. Keep Your Eye on the Queen: During the first couple months after you first get your bees, you want to perform routine inspections to ensure that your queen is laying plenty of eggs (She can lay up to 2,000 a day!). Look for eggs, larvae and capped brood in a tight centralized pattern on the frame. There should be one egg per cell. If you can’t find any eggs or larvae at all, you could be dealing with an issue of queenlessness and should order a mated queen as soon as possible. You can purchase queens from breeders like Jennifer Berry or Walter T. Kelly over the phone. Requeening requires that you find and remove the old queen or establish hat there is either no queen present by thoroughly inspecting each frame and placing it in an empty super next to the hive until you’ve searched the entire colony. Once the this is done, wait one day before putting the purchased queen (in her candy-capped cage)into the hive. This will help to ensure that the workers accept her as their new mother.
If you are resistant to buying a queen and you have more than one hive, take a frame or two of new eggs and larvae from a strong colony. Make sure the queen isn’t on the frames and then gently, but firmly shake all of the bees off of the frame into the hive. Place this beeless frame of brood in your queenless hive’s brood chamber and close it back up. The worker bees in the queenless hive with adopt the new brood. They will raise a new queen by building some emergency queen cells onto some of the worker cells and they’ll begin feeding them royal jelly to speed up their development. The problem with this solution is that it takes time, and the more time a colony is queenless, the fewer worker bees are out there foraging for nectar and pollen for the winter. In the first year, this build up is crucial. For this reason, I suggest purchasing a queen for first year colonies if needed.
8. Give Them Their Space: As the bees begin to build out each frame with comb, you must be ready to give them more space to grow into. If you are using a Langstroth, make sure that you are adding a new super as 7-8 of the 10 frames inside have been built out with comb. This ensures that the queen will have all the space she needs to lay eggs and the house bees will have plenty of busy work to do. Idle hands do the devils work. This saying can be applied to bees too.
Once the brood chamber is expanded to the appropriate size, you can start adding honey supers which you will be able to harvest in the late summer or take frames of capped honey from sporadically through the season.
9. Show Me the Honey!: Once you’ve got fully filled and capped frames of honey above the brood nest, you can start harvesting them, though many beekeepers will wait until July or August when the entire honey super is full to remove the whole thing entirely and extract their liquid gold using a centrifuge. For a backyard beekeeper, it is perfectly acceptable to harvest by the frame, replacing the frames taken from the hive with empty ones for the bees to build out. You can cut the comb out of the harvested frames and crush it with a mortar and pestle before straining and bottling your final product. (Tip: Honey has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties so it never spoils! No special precautions need to be made to prevent spoilage and it does not need refrigeration. If crystallization occurs, simply submerge the sealed jar of honey in a pot of hot (not boiling) water and it will dissolve the crystals). (Tip: Honey has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties so it never spoils! No special precautions need to be made to prevent spoilage and it does not need refrigeration. If crystallization occurs, simply submerge the sealed jar of honey in a pot of hot (not boiling) water and it will dissolve the crystals)
10. Prepping for Winter: Bees don’t hibernate in the winter, they cluster tightly inside of the hive and use their wing muscles to generate friction and heat to keep the inside of the hive warm. They migrate over frames of stored pollen and nectar, eating as they go. They will not break cluster or leave the hive unless the temperature outside exceeds mid 40’s with sun and minimal wind. For this reason, it is important that the hive is fully stocked for the bees to make it through the winter. Once you remove the honey supers at the end of the summer, inspect the brood chamber. You should have at about 80-100 lbs in the hive body for the bees to eat through the winter. If they do not have that, supplement their stores with frames of honey from the honey supers, from stronger colonies with ample stores or begin feeding sugar syrup to them in early Fall.
Securing the hive against weather and pests is also important this time of year. Weigh down the outer cover of each hive with a heavy rock or cinder block to ensure strong gusts won’t blow it off, exposing the bees to the elements and killing them.
Also, you want to keep freeloading rodents out of the hive by attaching a mouse guard or hardware cloth to the entrance. Bees can come and go, but mice can’t get in to build nests, destroy comb and disrupt the cluster during the winter.
In colder climates some beekeepers will wrap their hives in black roofing paper or insulation to help keep the internal temperature of the chamber constant. For rooftop bees or bees in milder climates, this is not necessary.
Some beekeepers also recommend treating bees in the fall for Varroa and tracheal mites. I personally do not treat my bees and instead rely on Integrated Pest Management (pdf) to help keep my bees healthy.
11. The Waiting Game and Emergency Feeding: Once your hives are winterized, it’s all about waiting. The bees are on their own until February when you will check in on them on a mild day to make sure they are not running out of food. Ideally, the bees will have had enough honey and pollen to ensure their survival. Sometimes this is not the case and you will have to feed them to help them make it to the first bloom.
Once your nectar flow starts, your bees will begin to quickly build up their work force to gather all of the available pollen and nectar and transform them into the magical substance beekeepers prize so dearly.
photo by Alex Brown
Meg is now offering an online Urban Beekeeping 101 - Recordings of the three-session workshop presented in January 2012. Donate what you wish and what you feel they are worth.
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