Bees have been pollinating flowers around the world since the beginning of time, and humans started beekeeping as early as 5000 BC. Over the past seven thousand plus years, beekeeping has only become easier and more efficient, meaning that even you can become a beekeeper. If you’ve found this post it means that you at least have an interest in how to start beekeeping—and you’re in the right place!
Read more to learn all you need to know about keeping these essential insects.
1. Understand the Commitment
The very first step in how to start beekeeping doesn’t actually involve any bees. First, you need to truly understand what kind of commitment is involved. Many discouraged beekeepers quit their bee endeavors quickly, usually because their hive does not survive the first winter, and their confidence plummets. The truth is that for those learning how to start beekeeping face a steep learning curve, but should keep in mind that the physical and emotional toll is worth the satisfaction of success!
You are encouraged to tag along with an experienced beekeeper in order to see firsthand exactly what is required, and remember that beekeepers report that after the first year (when everything is new and perhaps unnerving!) beekeeping becomes easier and more fulfilling.
But let’s take a look at some hard numbers.
The good news is that when it comes to how to start beekeeping, this hobby does not require a significant investment. With less than one thousand US dollars, you should be able to buy two hives, all the equipment needed (including protective clothing), as well as the bees. If this still seems like a stretch on your wallet, the good news is that with the proper care, both the hives and the protective gear will last you a long time.
You might be surprised to find out that on average, you should plan just about an hour of work a week per two beehives. The time commitment fluctuates depending on the season, however; you might work a little more during the spring and fall, and a little less during the summer, and very little during the winter. When figuring out how to start beekeeping, it’s very important to make sure you’re able to commit to the time required (even if it doesn’t seem like a lot) to keep the bees healthy and happy.
You’ll also be happy to hear that you don’t need much space for beekeeping, either! Exactly how much space you need is mostly determined by your own preferences and sensitivities—to avoid getting stung, you probably don’t want a beehive too close to regular human traffic or other animals, for example. If you’re just beginning to wonder how to start beekeeping, maybe take a stroll around your property to brainstorm locations.
After some trial and error, your beehives have the potential to become very profitable! New colonies are unlikely to produce enough honey to harvest in their first year, but you could be harvesting up to one hundred pounds of honey a year from a well established hive! The process for how to start beekeeping is suddenly looking a lot less intimidating, right?
Besides the monetary compensation you could yield by selling your honey, honeybees are pollinators, and thus are also very helpful for the growth and productivity of your garden.
Last but not least, the world itself profits from having one more busy bee colony. According to research, honeybees pollinate ninety percent of flowers around the world, and around thirty percent of the plants that humans consume as food! The more, the merrier.
2. What You Should Know About Bees
Next: just like a cattle-owner must understand his or her animals well in order to take care of them, so you should understand bees before becoming a beekeeper. The basics we cover below is a good starting point.
Whereas in the care of most large animals, keepers are concerned with the well-being of the individual animals, beekeepers care for the wellbeing of the bee colony rather than any individual bee, whose lifecycle is surprisingly fast. Depending on the size of the honeybee colony, a colony can be inhabited by up to fifty-thousand bees!
These tens of thousands of bees are categorized into three groups depending on their role within the bee community: queen, workers, and drones.
Within each bee colony, there is one queen. The queen is responsible for reproducing so that the colony may thrive and continue to expand. A new queen will leave the hive in order to mate with male bees from other colonies, and then return to her colony. At home, she will lay up to fifteen hundred eggs every day.
The fertile eggs she lays will hatch into female worker bees, and the unfertilized eggs will hatch into male bees (drones). The sperm collected from up to eighty male bees on her mating excursion will last her for up to five or six years—the rest of her life!
Worker bees are females bees who run the rest of the hive: including foraging, honey and wax production and storage, and defending the hive. They only live between four two six weeks.
Drones are male bees, whose sole purpose is to mate with new queens from other colonies in order to spread their genetics. After successfully mating, they die. If they don’t mate, they return to the hive and consume honey and pollen. For this reason, at the end of the season, unsuccessful drones are chased away from the hive by the worker bees.
If you’re getting ready to learn how to start beekeeping, you should know the interactions of these three categorizations of bee roles like the back of your hand!
3. When to Start Beekeeping
Like all tasks related to agriculture, timing is very important and should be kept at the forefront of your mind as you consider how to start beekeeping. The beekeeping season starts in the spring, with the arrival of your honeybees, but first-timers are encouraged to start preparing six months ahead of time, if not a year.
Depending on your geographic location, you should get your bees as soon as the winter weather wanes to spring. This will give your colony the longest stretch of time to establish itself before the following winter, and thus its greatest chance of survival.
4. Equipment You’ll Need for Beekeeping
For those of you seriously considering how to start beekeeping, we’ve shortlisted an important list of items you’ll need:
- Woodenware: this includes the beehive itself (bottom, body, and top cover). As mentioned earlier, we recommend that you start out with two hives. The Langstroth hive is the most common, which has vertical frames within stacked boxes called supers. Bees create their combs on the frames.
- Hive tool: with a similar look to a snow scraper, you use this tool to move the frames within the boxes.
- Smoker: this calms and distracts bees, giving you easier access to the hive and perhaps greater peace of mind while you work.
- Uncapping comb: you use this tool to remove the cover bees create to seal honey within the combs. With this tool, you can extract the honey without harming the comb.
- Honey extraction equipment: this extracts honey from the honeycomb through centrifugal force, also without destroying the comb.
- Entrance feeder: a device with a tray and an upside-down syrup container used to feed bees during cold seasons in the absence of nectar and honey.
- Protective Clothing: including a full bee suit or jacket, gloves, and a veil to protect your eyes and face.
5. Find a Beehive Location
One of the first parts of learning how to start beekeeping is finding a good place for the colony to live. As mentioned previously, you don’t need a huge amount of land to host a bee colony. You should, however, make sure the location you choose isn’t exposed to either dramatic sunlight or constant shade, and relatively close to nectar and pollen. You’re encouraged to choose a place that is near to water, which helps the survival of the colony during particularly sweltering hot seasons.
In the northern hemisphere, beehives should face east or south east. This directs morning light towards the hive, which wakes the bees up and activates their day’s work, and cools the hive down at the end of the day.
They should be level, and easily accessible with room to maneuver around them. You should also consult your local regulations in case there are specific rules for beekeeping in your region—especially if you live in a suburban or urban setting.
6. How to Get Bees
The most common honey bee used in beekeeping is the Apris Mellifera, and you have two different purchasing options when it comes to how to start beekeeping. You can buy what’s called a package, or a nucleus group (often nicknamed “nuc”). These can be purchased online, or through your community’s local apiary, and will be shipped to your address.
- A package is a small screen box with bees, which comes with a separately contained queen that is unrelated to the bees in the box.
- A nucleus group is an already-started colony. It comes with a queen who is actively laying eggs, and a series of honey combs. Think of it as a mini colony. As you may have already concluded on your own, this method is advantageous, because the queen has already been accepted into the colony and the production of honey as already started.
A third option doesn’t involve any purchase. If you happen to find a swarm in the wild, you might also attempt to capture it and transfer it into your beehive. This, however, is not recommended for beginners just learning how to start beekeeping!
7. Manage Your Bee Colony
What do you do once you’ve successfully purchased your beekeeping equipment, bees, and put together your buzzing colony? Next comes the maintenance.
During your first year of beekeeping, your greatest challenge and responsibility is to help your colony survive its first winter. This can be achieved through its careful management. You should regularly inspect the health of the queen bee, the density of the bee colony (to determine if they need more room), their food, any signs of pests or diseases, and the physical conditions of the hive. Any problems noted should be addresses quickly!
8. More Useful Information About How to Start Beekeeping
Some states in the US require beekeepers to hold a beekeeping license with a registration and inspection process. Make sure to inform yourself on your local policies, which you can usually do through your state’s Department of Agriculture website.
Believe it or not, there’s a whole world of people out there who are as interested in beekeeping as you are, if not more! In fact, there are entire beekeeping organizations and associations, some of which even provide actual beekeeping classes. Other beekeepers in your local communities are your greatest resources, and can even become close mentors.
A mentor is someone who would be available to come check on the state of your beehive, provide suggestions, and help you problem solve. Because of varying weather and nature type, beekeeping looks a little different depending on where you live, so you want to make sure you’re following examples that have previously succeeded in your same geographic location.
A local mentor would be able to answer specific questions on how to start beekeeping such us: When do you start feeding the bees? How much food do the bees need to survive the winter? What kind of nectar do the bees collect in your area? How do you differentiate the queen bee from the worker bees?
They are also great resources to help you narrow down which type and brand of equipment will serve you best in your specific circumstance. Sometimes beekeepers even coordinate their purchases together so that they can put in a bulk order and take advantage of the discount.
Why People Quit
Earlier in this post we mentioned that a lot of discouraged beekeepers give up early in their beekeeping endeavor, especially if their colony doesn’t survive the first winter.
Why does this happen? The greatest cause seems to be not just inexperience, but a lack of preparation, which results in poor management. This can also be the result of mistaken expectations, and not having spent enough time doing research and connecting with the local beekeeping community.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, this is actually great news, because it means that if you spend enough time preparing and seeking guidance, chances are you and your future hive will do just fine!
You’ve Learned How to Start Beekeeping!
Beekeeping is not just a feel-good hobby, but a potentially profit business venture, a step forward in the universally relevant mission to protect bees, and an easy way to stay connected with nature! The learning curve in how to start beekeeping is steep, and if you don’t plan well enough you might run into difficulties, but there are a lot of experienced beekeepers out there more than willing to share their wisdom.
So do your homework, ask for help when you need it, and prepare to harvest your honey!
If you’d like to try your hand at another natural sweet, how about making your own maple syrup?