Sunday, November 8, 2020

Getting Started Beekeeping

What do you really need to get started?

Over the last year I was introduced to the world of beekeeping. Actually I was kind of thrust into it with very little warning or preparation since I found out that I was going to be keeping bees on Christmas morning. During this time I have spent a lot of time learning all about keeping bees in many different ways. What do you really need to get started beekeeping? That is a question I am going to try and answer in this post.  Essentially it comes down to: A Book, A Hive, some tools, and bees.

Beekeeping Books 

I received two books that I found useful starting places. 

I would suggest purchasing the Beekeeping for Dummies book at a minimum . It has everything needed to get started and probabaly enough to make for a successful first year. It is also written to make it easy to read and still contains the most important and up to date information available. 

The Beekeeper's Handbook has much more detail and technical information for people (like me) who really need to know every little detail on the what's and why's of beekeeping.  This book is a little drier and harder to read, but is also contains a lot more information for when you want to understand more.




 Beekeeping For Dummies            


  The Beekeeper's Handbook

You will also want some information that is localized for the area where you will be keeping the bees. In my case there are local clubs that have booklets and classes that go over the specific requirement for keeping bees in Western Washington State.  The largest differences will be about inspection timing, pest treatment, and how to deal with the different seasons.








I have identified essentially three classifications of equipment that are needed to begin, and nearly all of them may be altered to suit the beekeeper. The classifications are Protective Gear, Hive Bodies/Boxes, and Hive Tools. It is important to note that many beekeepers start off buying everything that they are told to buy only to find out that they don't use most of it.  A great example is that many beekeepers stop using leather gloves because they make it hard to manipulate the hive delicately enough.

Protective Gear

Protective gear is highly personal, and as mentioned above many beekeepers use very little. Bees in general don't want to attack and sting people unless they perceive a threat, and most of the year just opening the hive is not really a threat, but squishing bees is.


  Goatskin gloves are often used while working with the hive.  Some people say that bees don't like bovine leather but seems to not mind Goatskin leather. The gloves start off white, but quickly get coated with propolis from the hive which is very very hard to remove. Important features of the gloves are 1) Light color. 2) Smooth texture. 3) Tight fitting (they stretch a lot) 4) Enough length to cover coat.

It is still possible for bees to sting through these, but normally the won't and if they do chances are it won't reach the skin.

Many beekeepers use Nitrile glove instead of leather so they have more dexterity and can feel bees under their fingers to prevent squishing.  Some even use no gloves at all, I guess they are okay with propolis coated skin. 


This is a half bee suit which I use.  The important part is the face covering because when bees get defensive they tend to gravitate to places they know they can sting on all animals. So they go for the eyes, lips, ears, and yes the nose.  Even with this suit occasionally they will find their way into the suit and surprise the beekeeper.



Hive Bodies/Boxes

There are several types of hives used through out the world to keep honey bees.  The most common is called a Langstroth hive which was patented in 1852 and has gone largely unchanged since then.  The Langstroth is modular which aids in inspections and expansion of the hive. Other types of hives are gaining popularity in the world for instance the Kenyan Top bar hive is becoming popular for two reasons as the beekeeper population ages, they are cheap to build, and once set up the beekeeper never needs to lift a very heavy honey filled box.  For this discussion I am only going to discuss the Langstroth since that is the type I am using.

The parts of the hive are relatively easy to make if you are on a budget but they can be found reasonably cheap if you look. To get started you will need the following: 


Bottom Board (1 per hive)
This is an example of a screened bottom board. Some people use solid bottom boards.


Hive Body (1 to start a new hive)
As the colony grows you will need additional body parts.  This one is called a Deep. Generally the first two bodies on a hive are Deep, and later ones are smaller to make carrying them for extraction easier. 

  Hive Frame (10 per Hive Body)
This example has a black plastic foundation to help the bees get started. The plastic has a light coat of Bees' wax. While the wooden frame is required, the plastic part is optional as the bees will build comb even without a foundation.

Hive Inner Cover (1 per hive)
This inner cover allows some ventilation and insolated the hive from direct exposed to the heat on the outer cover.


Outer Cover (1 per hive) 
The outer cover protects the hive from the sun, wind, rain. It normally has metal on the top, and some are entirely made of metal.

Hive Stand (kind of optional)
This stand was built by a friend from some scrap lumber. Many people use cinder blocks. The goal is to get the hive off the ground about 18 inches to reduce animals from disturbing the hive.

Hive Tools
There are lots of tools available to make beekeeping easier.  Of these tools you will definitely need a smoker and a Hive Tool.


Hive Tool (J Hook Style)
There are many different styles of Hive tools. The key is to find one that works for you. It must be strong enough to pry boxes apart since bees like to glue them shut. 

 Hive Smoker

The smoker is probably the most necessary tool you will need. People say it calms the bees, but essentially it makes the bees more concerned with the potential fire getting to the hive than other threats. It also masks the threat pheromones' used to alert bees of danger.  Learning to make a fire that produces a cool billowy smoke is required before you any bees. 

  Ok, not really a tool but starting a new colony requires a lot of energy so we feed the bees lots of sugar to help them get started each spring.  While feeding them sugar beekeepers should never have "Supers" on the hive (which are bodies used to collect honey). Once the hive is able to collect nectar and pollen the feeding should be stopped (in most cases the bees will stop taking sugar when nectar is available. Note Never feed bees "RAW" or Organic Sugar.  Those contain too much "ash" which is harmful to their digestive system.



This I have covered this in another post, but I will give the "Getting started" part here. Once you have the Tools, and Hive body ready to go the last element of a bee hive is your first set of bees.  Bees can be obtained in a number of ways such as purchasing them from a store, capturing a swarm, buying them on craigslist.  

However you decide to get bees there are a couple of important things to know. First you must have a queen in order for the hive to grow. Generally each of the methods above will come with a queen. Second you need enough bees for the colony to grow.  I started with 3lbs of bees, and would highly recommend that beginning beekeepers start with at least 4lbs in the Northwest to give them a head start and build a strong colony. If you are buying a Nuc, then there should be several (4+) frames full of bees in the Nuc. If capturing a Swarm it is important to make sure the swarm is large enough to start a full hive. If not beekeeper occasionally combine a small swarm but with a weaker colony to improve its strength (one of the queens will need to be killed when doing this).


3lbs Package of bees (and a queen)


Nuc(leous) colony of bees. Most of the time "Nucs" are sold in cardboard boxes to keep cost down. The frames can be transferred directly into the new hive body.


Capturing a swarm of bees


Example of a Queen Bee.


Starting beekeeping may seem like a complex process and require a lot of equipment, and that is true, but you can start small and grow.  You really need a Head cover, a Smoker, a Hive tool, a hive body (which can be pretty simple with the Top Bar hive), some bees, and a place to put the hive. I think it is a good idea to take a class or read a few books and watch a lot of videos.  There is still more equipment you will need once the hive is started to deal with pests and disease to keep the colony healthy.

I now have 2 full hives and one hybrid hive of my own design which houses 2 queens. Entering into winter with the temperatures dropping I am a little worried about there ability to make it through their first year.  I have done every thing I know of to help them make it. 

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