Beekeeping Start-Up, Jump Into the World of Keeping Bees

Swarm in my yard that formed on a tree

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. Contact your local beekeeping association; they are all over the U.S. My local one, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association conducts a comprehensive course which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. Starting in February each year, the evening classes are well attended by prospective beekeepers. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations and you can order your starter hive from them. 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 continue to go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others. The association is kind of like your cheer leading 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 real 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.

My honey is my reward for beekeeping

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 is considerable.  Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.

To save money on beekeeping equipment, I use a painters outfit that costs about $12

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.

I rent my extractor from my bee club for $10

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 $100.

A queen bee comes in a small cage along with a package of bees
A package of bees with a queen sitting in my car ready to be installed

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 supplies that I use also.

I bought my smoker from a local source, but they can be bought on line

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….. a lot! The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy, installing new bees, feeding them, and monitoring them. 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 ‘honeyflow’, 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. Check out my post of Honeybee HoneyFlow.

I ordered a package to be delivered by U.S. mail several times

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  Spinning Honey.

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 Swarming of the Bees to see how I deal with that.

Knocking a swarm into a hive body

Will they sting?

With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honeybees 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.

 The Good

I have 2 hives 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.

My honey harvest is all jarred up

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. See my recipe for Honey Scented 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. Observing and managing your own hives is endlessly fascinating!

 

Beeswax-Honeybee Gift

Beeswax pillar candle from  https://www.etsy.com/shop/PeaceBlossomCandles
Beeswax pillar candle from
https://www.etsy.com/shop/PeaceBlossomCandles

A beekeeper for over 15 years, I have accumulated pounds of beeswax as a welcome byproduct of my honeybees.  A substance formed by insects, it is simply amazing that it has been in use for millennia, even found in tombs of the pharaohs, and caulking the ships of Vikings. Think of it as the duct tape of ancients! Here are some interesting beeswax facts.

Beehives and giant birdhouse at Ladew Topiary Gardens
Beehives and giant birdhouse at Ladew Topiary Gardens

 Beeswax Facts

  • By consuming honey, honeybees produce beeswax. It takes about 8.5 pounds of honey to produce one pound of beeswax. When the bees make one pound of beeswax into comb, it will hold 22 pounds of honey.
  • Honeybees collect nectar from approximately two million flowers to make one pound of honey. If you do the math, nectar is collected from 17 million flowers to make one pound of beeswax!
  • Secreted in the form of a scale about the size of a pinhead by worker bees, there are eight wax secreting glands located under its abdomen. It takes 800,000 of these scales to make one pound of beeswax.
Beeswax scale pictured on the bottom row as clear flakes -from Wikipedia
Beeswax scale pictured on the bottom row as clear flakes -from Wikipedia
  • The beeswax scale when first secreted is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, nothing like the golden brown aromatic final product.
Beeswax cakes from my hives which has been melted down and cleaned
Beeswax cakes from my hives which has been melted down and cleaned
  • Beeswax obtains its natural color of golden-yellow due to propolis, which is basically tree sap that bees collect to seal up their hive, and from pollen brought into the hive.
  • Beeswax obtains its distinctive aroma from the storage of honey and pollen in the honeycomb. The proximity of the honey gives the beeswax the strong smell of honey.
  • Over time, beeswax will develop a whitish coating called bloom. This is the result of softer oils rising to the surface and can be removed with a soft cloth or hair dryer. The appearance of bloom is  proof that you have 100% beeswax.
  • Some various uses of beeswax are: candle making, batik art, leather products conditioning, waxing wooden windows and drawers, quilting(thread strengthener), cosmetics, furniture polish, soap, and fly tying.
  • Beeswax is very stable; samples of thousands of years old beeswax is identical to new wax.
  • The oldest known notebooks used sheets of beeswax  for pages. Recovered from ancient Mediterranean  shipwrecks, stylus marks pressed in the wax pages can still be read after centuries on the sea floor.
  • Of 100 volatile constituents in beeswax, only 41 have been identified.
  •  Beeswax forms the oldest known dental filling.  A fragment of beeswax was found in a 6500 year old jawbone, being used to plug a gap in a tooth, predating the first recorded amalgam filling by around 5,200 years.
  • It is a wonderful furniture polisher and is what the professional antiques industry uses to beautify its furniture.
  • In the 11th century there are records of huge quantities of beeswax being used by the Church, usually in the form of candles. Every monastery and abbey had an apiary to meet this need.
  • Beeswax candles burn brighter, longer, and cleaner than any other candle. In the process of burning, the candle gives off negative ions that are known to clean the air and invigorate the body.
A perfect frame of honeycomb that is capped with wax, ready to be sliced off to remove honey filled cells
A perfect frame of honeycomb that is capped with wax, ready to be sliced off to remove honey filled cells
Removing beeswax cappings with a heated knife. The darker area is an older honeycomb that was formed earlier. The comb darkens with age.
Removing beeswax cappings with a heated knife. The darker area is an older honeycomb that was formed earlier. The comb darkens with age.

Other Uses of Beeswax

Food Storage

I found a new product called Bee’s Wrap, which is a beeswax/cloth food storage solution and is found at www.beeswrap.com. This is an innovative product which claims to be the new “old fashioned” alternative to plastic wrap. Environmentally friendly, beeswrap is a reusable cloth impregnated in beeswax that with the warmth of your hands, can be formed around pieces of cheese, bread, or cut pieces of fruit, keeping the moisture in. Once in the fridge, the cold keeps the wrap stiff and in place. Ingenious! Fully washable, the cloth can be reused over and over. I am using this for all my cheese and fruit from now on.

Beeswrap around a chunk of cheese
Beeswrap around a chunk of cheese

I wanted to see if I could make something similar with my store of beeswax. It is a ton of work to grate beeswax, but if you want the DIY method, here it is:

DIY Beeswax cloth
DIY Beeswax cloth

Basically, I cut a piece of unbleached muslin and placed it onto an aluminum foil covered cookie sheet. After evenly grating a chunk of beeswax over the fabric, I placed the cookie sheet into a preheated 170 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Making sure that the beeswax melted completely to fully saturate the fabric, I pulled the sheet out, removing the fabric from the foil immediately. When cool, I used pinking sheers to cut around the entire piece so it doesn’t fray.

I loved doing this but since this was so much work, I think that this was a good case of buying it rather than making it! Buy at Beeswrap.com.

Arts and Crafts

Beeswax can be dyed different colors and used in different applications, like modeling or sculpting. For tips on dying beeswax with natural spices, like turmeric and cinnamon, go to http://www.wikihow.com/Add-Color-to-Beeswax.

Dyed beeswax for modeling purposes
Dyed beeswax for modeling purposes

Beeswax ornaments for Christmas will literally last forever and add a faint scent of honey to the room along with pine scents from the tree.  To make an ornament, beeswax is easily melted and poured into molds and inserted with a hanger to make a beautiful Christmas ornament.

Beeswax bunny ornament
Beeswax bunny ornament
Dyed beeswax ornament rolled in cinnamon
Dyed beeswax ornament rolled in cinnamon

Candles

Beeswax candles from my hives
Beeswax candles from my hives

Candles are the most common use of beeswax for crafters, as it is easy to pour the wax into molds or roll sheets into tapers. Beeswax candles are environmentally friendly with no chemicals discharged such as benzene, styrene, toluene, acetone, and particulate matter, which paraffin candles emit polluting your indoor air.

Beeswax Candles
Beeswax Candles, on the right natural colored, on the left, bleached

Soap/Cosmetics

I love making soap using beeswax. For posts of soap making with beeswax, go to Orange Citrus Soap with Beeswax, and DIY Soap. Beeswax adds a welcome honey scent to the bars.

DIY Soap with Beeswax
DIY Soap with Beeswax

Body Butter

Body Butter is expensive to buy and I have found a very simple recipe, that prepared with just five ingredients, an immersion blender, and about 45 minutes of your time, you can make enough butter for the dry winter months ahead. Go to Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter to see the step by step process. If you need beeswax, I found a source at http://www.beeswaxco.com/catalog/12/Bulk-Beeswax where you can buy a one ounce bar for just $2.00. For any of these projects, a small amount of beeswax goes a long way.

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Finished body butter ready to use
Finished body butter ready to use