How to Get Started in Beekeeping

For many people, hearing the subtle “buzz” from a bee is enough to make them run. Yet bees can be gentle creatures, and they are often used in the homesteading lifestyle because of their ability to produce high-quality honey. They are also low maintenance, and they don’t require a huge amount of time, money or space. Our country could use more beekeepers, so if you’re someone who enjoys the sweet taste of honey, making your own could offer huge rewards.

Interestingly, there were approximately 200,000 beekeepers in the U.S. back in the 1970s, but this number has had a sharp decline and is now at 100,000. Some of the factors for why beekeeping has decreased include the spread of parasites, added labor and the risk of being stung. While beekeeping may not be for everyone, small-scale beekeeping is a great hobby that is safe and effective. And, beekeeping can take place just about anywhere as long as there are flowers nearby.

What are the benefits to beekeeping?

By keeping bees, you’ll be rewarded with pounds of honey each year, which you can use in your own kitchen or sell to others. In fact, some homesteaders use beekeeping as a source of additional income. They sell jars at local farmers markets or give the honey as gifts to family, friends and neighbors. Considering that a few healthy hives can be quite productive, beekeeping is a hobby that yields fast and abundant results. Also, you save on the cost of having to buy your own honey from the supermarket.

Like other forms of growing food, you know exactly what you’re getting when you produce your own honey. A few years ago, a study done by Food Safety News found that more than three-fourths of honey sold in the U.S. are not exactly what the bees produce. These honey products have their pollen filtered out, and without pollen, we can’t determine where the honey came from. By producing your own safe, legitimate honey, you’ll not only be doing yourself a favor but also your honey products will be appreciated and in demand by others.

Another benefit to beekeeping is that the cycle of pollination continues. Bees perform the job of pollination, so having them in your garden means that you will see bigger and better flowers, fruits and vegetables. For homesteaders who are working on the perfect garden, more pollination will help you accomplish your goals. Finally, honey bees are becoming scarcer as many colonies have been wiped out by urbanization, pesticides and parasites. Beekeeping helps establish some of these lost colonies.

Is beekeeping right for me?

Some homesteading hobbies are easy to adapt to, such as gardening or growing herbs. Beekeeping, on the other hand, requires unique skills, and because it’s a far less common hobby, more people are reluctant to try it. It’s true that beekeeping may not be the right for everyone, but it may be the right fit for you.

First thing is first: safety. If you or anyone in your family is allergic to bee stings, then you should cross beekeeping off your list. Even though you can minimize human contact with the hives and wear a protective suit, bee stings can still happen. The next factor to consider is the time that is involved. Although beekeeping doesn’t involve as much time as taking care of a dog, it still deserves some time throughout the week. We recommend factoring in about 30 minutes each week for each hive, and two hours to extract honey (which will be done about twice a year).

Finally, you’ll want to factor in the cost of the materials to get started. You’ll read that beekeeping is fairly minimal to start, but it still costs money. Therefore, if you’re starting a garden, building a chicken coop and planting herbs, you may want to rethink the added cost of a new hobby. On average, expect to spend about $500 with two hives in the first year. The good news is that once you’re able to sell the honey, you can make a profit.

What types of equipment will I need for beekeeping?

Below is a breakdown of the various tools you will need to get started as a beekeeper:

Hive Tool – This tool is used for separating the hive bodies and supers. You may also scrape off propolis to prevent buildup and keep a clean hive.

Smoker – A smoker is used to blow smoke in the hive so that it calms the bees and makes them less likely to sting.

Hat and Veil – The one place where you don’t want to get stung is on your face. A hat and veil will protect these delicate parts.

Hive Setup – It’s best to start with two hives, which you can purchase as an all-in-one starter kit with everything included except for the bees and honey supers. Expect to spend about $200 for a decent kit with wooden bottom boards and frames.

Bees – Most beekeepers start off by ordering their bees, which include a queen and three pounds of bees.

Other supplies include medication, feed and extraction tools.

Where do I get my bees from?

Thankfully, you don’t have to set foot into the wild to find bees. The most common way to establish a colony is to order a package of bees, which includes a healthy, mated queen, two to three pounds of worker bees and syrup for the bees to eat. Instructions will be included as well, and you can place your order with a local bee farmer or an online bee supplier. This method is the most cost effective since it costs less than starting off with a full working hive, and you know what you’re getting.

A second option is to purchase a working hive, and although this will cost more, you can start making surplus honey right away. Working hives are harder to purchase since a local beekeeper needs to be willing to sell an established hive. Expect to spend about $100 for a hive, but with this cost you’ll get 50,000 bees, a healthy hive and honey that is ready to harvest within the first season.

You may also catch your own bees; although this is not recommended for those who haven’t had experience. In the future, if you want to catch your own bees, you’ll want to look for tight clusters of bees that can be seen hanging from tree limbs, posts or shrubs. These bees are generally not aggressive and can establish a hive relatively quickly. Unfortunately, you don’t know what you’re getting when you use this method as they may carry certain diseases.

How do I install package bees?

If you go the conventional route and purchase a package of bees, your next step will be to install them when they arrive in the mail. Give the bees a few hours of rest time before you place them in the hive so that they can acclimate to the new environment. Use this time to get the equipment together and dress yourself in a veil and protective clothing.

As you work with the bees, give them honey syrup by spraying it onto the screen. The bees are tired from traveling and this will help them replenish their energy. Begin opening the package by removing the top panel, where you will see the tin can and a strap. Remove the strap, tip over the package and slowly pull out the tin can. As you pull the can out, the bees will have access to the outdoors, and they will be attracted to the beeswax and sugar-coated hive that you have waiting for them. The queen then needs to be added in a slow release fashion so that she and the bees can get used to each other.

How do I harvest honey?

Once or twice a year, you can expect to harvest honey. When you see that the frames have been 80 percent or more sealed, you are welcome to remove this frame and harvest the honey. While patience is a virtue, you don’t want to wait too long to harvest since the bees will then start consuming the honey. The end of the summer/early fall is a good time to do the harvesting. Use a smoker to calm the bees and extracting tools to extract the honey. These tools will strain the honey so that it’s safe and ready to be bottled. Like most things, quality is better than quantity. Aim for high-quality honey that is rich in color and flavor. Colors range from water-white to dark amber.

Is there anything else I should know about?

Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby, but you need to be prepared for how involved this work can be. Read up on the subject and ask your community if there are restrictions on beekeeping. Some areas expect that all hives be registered. You must monitor the hive and ensure that there is always a queen available, otherwise the colony will fail. Hives must be treated in the late summer in order to protect them from mites.

Also, consider the temperature outside. It’s best to work with bees on clear sunny days, as cloudy days produce less nectar, making the bees more irritable. Bees are sensitive to cold temperatures, so don’t keep the lid open for an extended period of time on cool days. Hot temperatures do not affect bees as much, but you must ensure that there is clean water nearby and that the bees are kept out of direct sunlight. Finally, it’s best to start with two hives since beekeepers lose an average of 20 to 30 percent of their colonies each year. Two hives will provide you with what you need to create surplus honey and prevent the colony from being wiped out.