Beekeeping Start-Up, How to jump into the world of beekeeping

Bumble bee on flower

Beekeeping has moved from the pastime of fusty middle-aged men to young urban couples and singles. It is trendy now to become a beekeeper! Who could have predicted that? When I worked at the bee booth at the Fairgrounds recently, I was amazed at the young (under 25!) people, both male and female who were into beekeeping!  I was also surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions about beekeeping, who were seriously considering jumping in, but just weren’t sure if it was for them. And yes, it does change your life.  I categorize my life as BB (before beekeeping) and AB (after).  It is kind of like having children.  You are changed from the experience whether you like it or not.

Prize Winning Honey at the State Fair in Timonium, MD

So, I thought I would do a post on what to expect as a newbie beekeeper, because by now I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!

New type of hive that combines top bar with traditional langstroth- The influx of new beekeepers is shaking up the traditional way of doing things

Don’t Try To Do this By Yourself!

If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics.  Oregon Ridge Nature Center conducts a local course by the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. It starts in early March every year. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology and  management of  your colonies for the first year. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and personal encouragement from experienced beekeepers.

Cross section of a standard hive

Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating.  There are local beekeeping associations everywhere.  Just do a google search and you are sure to find one close by. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper. I have found that the most successful beekeepers are ones who have taken the course and go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others.  The association is kind of like your cheerleading section- when you become discouraged and frustrated, you have someone to bounce ideas off of and give you support. The internet is a resource that I use a lot but there is nothing like talking to hands-on beekeepers. Don’t get me wrong,  experienced beekeepers have vastly differing opinions and practices that vary greatly but the advice is invaluable. There are no right or wrong solutions, so you need to listen, check your references, and then do what you think is best.

Cost

When I contemplated starting a hive, I had no idea of how much it would cost and if I had known, I might not have taken the plunge. The expense of starting up a hive are considerable.  Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.  The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as an extractor, which you won’t need right away.  Or you can rent an extractor like I do from the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association for a nominal fee.

Smoke gun
Smoke gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but it is important to make sure that the equipment is free of disease. The cost of your initial package of a couple of thousand bees with a queen will run around $75. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started. I mostly order my new equipment on-line for convenience.  There are a few local providers of esupplies that I use also.

Work Involved

Hiving a package of bees the first time

Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies. The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy. I spend at least a couple of hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing eggs, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.

Checking on a frame of capped honey

Later when there is a ‘honey flow‘, which is when the particular flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies on your brood boxes to handle the extra honey.  Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out, but will produce extra  for harvesting in subsequent years.

Brood boxes on the bottom with supers and an extra entrance on top

In the late summer and fall, I spend time taking off the supers, extracting the honey and feeding and medicating them to get through the winter.  I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Check out my extracting post at http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/robbing-the-bees-a-honey-of-a-day/

Extracting honey by spinning it out
Putting feeders on the hive in October when there isn’t much nectar for foraging

Swarms

Will they swarm?  Yes, of course and you have to deal with it! I have had many swarms from my hives, some that I could catch and some that just were too difficult to hive safely. I have also caught wild swarms to increase my hives.  Swarming is a natural mechanism for honeybees to find a new home when their present home gets too crowded. Sounds like a benefit for the beekeeper as he increases his hives but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to  http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/swarming-of-the-bees-it-is-that-time-of-year-again/ to see some swarms that I have had.

Knocking a swarm into a hive body

Will they sting?

With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. They use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house.  I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response.  But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either.  Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business.

Honeybee on Butterfly Weed

 The Good

I have 1 hive now on 2 acres of property, but have had as many as 4.  I normally will harvest about 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each hive every season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a  hobby that you can practice on much smaller pieces of property, even in urban locations.

Bottled honey from my hives- This is unpasteurized, raw honey that has been filtered to remove bee parts

By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources only, and that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes, like soap and body butter.

Honey soap
Beeswax candles from my hives

Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it improves the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden.

The Science

Science and Biology were my favorite subjects in school and with Beekeeping, you become your very own practicing naturalist. You make observations and hypotheses about the bee’s behavior and act on it.  I keep a journal of my activities with my beehives so that I can refer and compare my observations from year to year. Not only can you manage your hives and get honey but you are also helping the environment. Some people pursue beekeeping sidelines and raise and sell new queens, which is an activity that I would like to try eventually.

A larvae queen cell

The Bad

Most people are surprised to learn that honeybees are not native to North America.  They were brought over by the colonists from Europe. It is possible because of this that they are prone to lots of diseases and maladies that you don’t have much control over.  To battle these diseases, beekeepers have used an arsenal of toxic chemical pesticides on bees over the years. I have never used these as I don’t want to handle them, and I don’t want to contaminate my hives with residues of these chemicals. There are organic solutions to some of these problems and I make use of the ones that make sense.

Varroa on larvae, it is like a tick feeding on the larvae

I can’t tell you how many new beekeepers give up after a few years because their bees die over the winter, get diseases, and just disappear.  It can be very discouraging but I have hung in there for about 10 years and have gotten a lot of enjoyment and have learned so much from the experience. Going to the beekeeping meetings, honey festivals, and the State Fair, has really impressed on me that beekeeping is not a dying art, but enjoying a resurgence of popularity. And I have been very encouraged by the new wave of beekeepers who are making innovations and really shaking up the beekeeping world. It is a great sign for the future of beekeeping!

Beekeeping
Beekeeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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