Beekeeping for Beginners

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Beekeeping for beginners is not just about having a box with bees inside. It is an intricate journey into the world of bees and learning how to help them reach their potential. As you journey into beekeeping 101, you will come to know the rhythm of the hives and find great joy in our opportunity to share the lives of the honey bees.

Beginner beekeeper inspecting beehives in apiary.

The idea of having your own hives is a dream shared by many people. But, this journey is not always an easy path. You must learn the basics of good beehive management. The key to success in keeping honey bees is education and patience.

How to Start Beekeeping with Confidence

When you first start beekeeping, you might feel overwhelmed by all of the unfamiliar beekeeping terms or terminology. That’s normal – you can learn some of it as you go but do your part to learn the most basic terms before your bees arrive.

Trying to learn everything as you go is not the best approach to beekeeping and is the reason for many folks leaving the hobby after one season. If you follow a “learning path” your chances of success are higher.

Steps to Beekeeping Success

  • learn the basics of bees
  • plan ahead – when to start beekeeping
  • do you have a good hive location
  • ordering bees
  • beekeeping tools and supplies
  • choosing a hive style
  • setting up & installing bees
  • new beehive management
  • continuing education

Honey Bee Basics

Are you a beekeeper once you have your first hive of bees in the backyard? Technically, the answer is yes.

However, if you have no idea of how to manage your hives – you are not truly keeping honey bees. You are still a bee-haver-not a beekeeper.

You need some learn some basics about bee life. Do you know the parts of a bee? If you can’t tell a stinger from a leg – you might need to hit the books.

Beginner beekeeper starting a new hive inspects honeycomb from hive.

One of the most overlooked aspects of beginner beekeeping is education. How can you be a good beekeeper if you don’t know what to do? How indeed. Yes, you need actual experience in the hive – but you need to know what you are looking for too!

Take a Beekeeping Class (or 2 or 3)

Beekeeping classes are very valuable because they give you a chance to get different points of view on hive management.

This is something to get used to because beekeeping involves a lot of opinions – you may as well embrace it right now.

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Local clubs offer classes during certain times of the year and you can find beekeeping classes online as well. I invite you to check out my Online Beekeeping Class. It teaches everything you need to know to get started in beekeeping.

online beekeeping class image

Best Time of Year to Start Beekeeping

Early Spring is the best time of year to begin beekeeping. This is the easiest time to get a new colony off to a good start. Trees and flowers are blooming to provide abundant food for hungry insects.

However, many people are surprised to learn that actual planning for your hives should begin in the prior Fall or Winter season. November or December is not too early to plan for next season.

Beekeeper beginning education on how to manage a hive.

Find the Best Place for Your Beehives

Deciding where to put your beehive is one of the most important decisions for beginning beekeepers. Before you invest a lot of money, make sure you have a spot that will be good for the bees and you.

Everyone has to work with the space they have. Having a couple of hives does not require a large tract of land. Even those in urban beekeeping settings work out ways to peacefully coexist with non-beekeeper neighbors.

Do your neighbors have a swimming pool that might attract bees? Let’s take steps to prevent that early on. Make a plan for providing drinking water for your hives before your bees find their pool.

Let me share one word of caution. Avoid placing your hives too close to your house or you may be forced to move them later.

Colony temperament changes throughout the season (for a multitude of reasons). Stinging becomes a bigger problem as the hives grow strong in population.

While it is certainly possible to move a beehive, it is much less work and stress to pick the best place for a beehive in the beginning.

Is it Legal to Keep Bees at Your Home?

Most areas in the United States do allow beekeeping though some municipalities may restrict the number of hives you can keep on a small lot.

Research any legal stumbling blocks to your dream of becoming a beekeeper before investing your money.

Ordering Honey Bees

The most popular method of obtaining bees is to buy honey bees from a bee supplier. The early beekeeper gets the worm..or um bees ! Don’t procrastinate ordering bees. Early delivery dates will sell out – sometimes by the end of January.

Plan to order bees in January or February to ensure availability. Waiting to order may result in you have to wait until next year. There are several different ways to get bees.

Most beginning beekeepers buy bees sold in packages. Packages are small bee families that are easier to manage and good for those just getting started keeping bees.

Of course this is not the only method to get some residents for your hives. A nuc colony (nucleus hive) may also be available. But, they may be harder to find and they cost a bit more.

Choosing Bees

There are several races and hybrids of honey bees available for sale. What is the best type of honey bee for beginners?

While there is some debate on this issue, Italians or Italian-Carniolan crosses are the most popular.

Most new beekeepers opt to buy bees to ensure they are able to start their hive this year. However, if you just don’t have the money – perhaps you can catch a honey bee swarm later in the season.

Beekeeping Tools & Equipment

Now that your bees are on the way and you have a good spot for your hive – you need a few supplies. Some tools for yourself and protective wear are the most important.

  • smoker
  • hive tool
  • protective wear

Every new beekeeper should have a hive tool and a good bee smoker. These 2 tools items along with some good bee smoker fuel should get you through your first months of beekeeping.

Of course, you may consider buying a beginners beekeeping kit with most of the items you need. If so, be sure to consider the included items and make sure they are the ones you need. Sometimes, they contain a lot of fluff that is not very useful.

Beekeeping Clothing – Protective Wear

You have many choices for beekeeping protective clothing – they come in many different styles. Having a beekeeping jacket , full bee suit or hat/veil combo makes beekeeping much safer.

In fact, I believe that a beekeeper’s veil is absolutely necessary. It is not just about preventing stings. Protective equipment helps you feel confident and soothes those beekeeping beginner’s nerves. 

Choosing a beekeeping suit that can be washed is a good investment as it prolongs the life of the garment.

Beekeepers learn how to be frugal. (ok, we can be cheap.)  I use disposable nitrile gloves for working my bees on a normal basis. They are inexpensive (if sweaty) and allow greater dexterity while working my my hives.

However, goatskin beekeeper gloves offer some protection and good flexibility so they are not a wasted expense.

Single box langstroth hive on a stand.

Choosing a Hive

When choosing among the many types of beehives, consider a hive style that is being using locally. Those using the same kind of hive will be your mentors.

A Langstroth hive consists of several stackable boxes with frames inside. On the frames our bees build their honeycomb.

I do recommend standard Langstroth hives for beginner beekeepers – but that is my opinion. I think it is easier for those first couple of years when you have so much other stuff to learn.

Later you may try another type of hive such as a Top Bar hive, a horizontal hive or even the flow hive. Each type of hive has fans and detractors (see its that opinion thing again).

Setting Up

At least a week before bees arrive, it is a good idea to have the hive together and set up. While assembling the required parts of the hive, use nails and glue – you will be glad you did!

Some folks like to attempt to build their own hive. This is great if you have the skill. But, you must follow building plans closely to avoid problems with the bees later on.

Most beekeepers choose to paint the beehives to protect the wood. Do this well ahead of installing bees to give the paint smell time to dissipate.

While not a requirement, it is highly recommended that you use some type of hive stand for your Langstroth hive to sit on.

Your back will thank you in years to come – less bending. And, this also helps protect the hive entrance from predators.

Do you live in an area where Small Hive Beetles are a pest? If so, consider what will be under your hives. Placing bee colonies in the shade – surrounded by tall wet grass is asking for trouble where beetles are concerned.

Experienced beekeeper showing a beginner the inside of a beehive image.

Installing Bees into Your First Hive

When your bees arrive, it is a good idea to install them in your hive as soon as possible. Being contained in a transport box is stressful for them.

The actual procedure for placing them in the new hive depends on how you purchased them. They are similar but have slight differences between packages and nucs.

Regardless, of the container they arrive in – keep the bees in a calm cool place until you are ready to get them into their new hive.

In most regions, feeding sugar water to bees will help them be successful. New beekeepers often underestimate the amount of food required by a new colony.

Feeding bees sugar water in the bee yard image.

New Hive Management

Once the bees are in the hive, it is time to feed them if you choose and let them settle in. Don’t look in the hive every day – though I know you will want to! This is one of the hardest challenges when you start beekeeping.

Give them a week or so to settle down and feel at home. Each worker bee will get to work on establishing their home and finding food.

Then, it will be time for a first hive inspection after installing your bees. Now, you can put into action those hive management tasks that you learned about during your beekeeper education phase.

Managing beehives involves periodic hive inspections. You can not really know what is happening without looking inside.

If the colony has a problem with the queen bee or is low of food stores, regular inspections will hopefully reveal the issue in time for correction.

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often but at times bees will leave their hive or abscond. This is especially upsetting for the new beekeeper who has just started a new hive. Don’t make your bees run away from home.

Control of Hive Pests & Predators

Routine inspections help the beginning beekeeper watch for a variety of hive pests. Some are only an inconvenience to the beekeeper but others can be deadly to the colony.

Learn how to deal with honey bee predators that are common in your area. Can you offer some protection to the hives?

Continuing Beekeeper Education

Beekeeping information is readily available on the internet. You-tube videos are great for general information-but please don’t believe everything you hear and read. Can you have too much beekeeping advice? Yes, you can.

Hive management techniques that work well in North Dakota, may not be a good idea in Florida. Don’t forget to learn about regional bee issues.

“One example : We have Small Hive Beetles in our area.  This pest can destroy a weak colony of bees.  Small hive beetles are not present in all states.  Management plans have to take local conditions into consideration.  

Ways to further your beginning beekeeper education

  • beekeeping books
  • local beekeeping associations

Beekeeping Books

Educate yourself by reading beekeeping books (those written by real beekeepers). Videos are great but good books will never lose their place in training beginners.

My library consists of over 30 titles and counting. I have carefully chosen what I believe to be the top beekeeping books for beginners. And, I still look through them periodically.

Several books in my library offer advice on how to start your first hive and managing bees through the first few years. Others are more advanced and were put to good use during my journey toward Master Beekeeper.

And yes, I have to recommend my own book that was published recently. It is a compilation of my notes from years of teaching local beekeepers.

Local Connections and Mentors

Don’t miss an opportunity to connect with local beekeepers. Try to join a local beekeeping association. If you are really lucky, you may find an experiences beekeeper that is willing to serve as a mentor.

Beekeeper inspecting new hive for health image.

Tips for Beginning Beekeepers

As you research how to start beekeeping, you will notice that all beekeepers experience failures. In general, colonies are not as robust as they were in years past. Not every hive will thrive and become productive.

And, not every season will mean a big honey harvest. There will be some failures and some beehives will die.

Mistakes? Have I made beekeeping mistakes? You bet your sweet…. hinny I have. And you will too. This is common for those new to the craft.

Keep Colony Numbers Reasonable

Having more than 4 hives is quite a commitment for a new beekeeper. This is especially true if you do not have a helper. The risk of having more hives than you can manage usually does not wend well for the bees or the beekeeper.

Beekeeping Records

Keep notes of when colonies were installed, timing of routine inspections, any mite treatments used, etc. A beekeeping diary, of colony conditions, weather or noticed blooming plants is valuable information for next year.

In the field I use my voice recorder and then transcribe my notes to the notebook. My beekeeping journal has hive inspection sheets and monthly “things to do” sheets to keep me on track.

Is Beekeeping Right for You?

Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby that is enjoyed by many people – including some famous beekeepers you may have heard about. But, it is not right for everyone.

Do you fully understand – what a beehive is? Perhaps you harbor some misconceptions about what a honey bee nest truly is.

Keeping a hive of honey bees is much different than having a bird house. We must do more than just provide housing.

Expenses, Time, Hard Work

What is a beekeeper? Do you understand the tasks you will need to do? Becoming a beekeeper is a fascinating adventure but you need to know that it requires some commitment.

Expect to spend a bit of money. Most of the beekeeping costs occur in the first year – when you need to buy everything. Equipment, tools, supplies etc – all add up when you are first beginning.

Managing honey bee colonies also requires an investment time. Expect to devote a couple of hours per week to your bees.

If you desire a larger apiary, the time and expenses will be more. In general, monthly hive inspections are the norm.

Are you up to the heavy lifting? Moving heavy boxes full of honey or bees is a common part of beekeeping.

However, don’t let that scare you off – there are ways to get around some of the heavy lifting by choosing various types of beehives. Or, maybe you will have a helper for the heavy work.

Smoker and hive tools both basic tools to get started beekeeping.

Beekeeping Goals

Why do you want to be a beekeeper? Even if you are not going to harvest honey, your colonies will require attention. The old days of just sitting a hive out in the backyard and forgetting it – are over.

If you have the dream to start a beekeeping business, start small and learn the basics. Then, develop a good business plan, before investing thousands of dollars.

However, even small scale beekeepers can make a little salary or profit from their backyard hives. You must balance your investment, time and expenses.

FAQs

How many hives should a new beekeeper start with?

The most common recommendation for how many hives a new beekeeper should start with is 2 or 3. This give the beekeeper an opportunity to share resources between the two colonies and compare growth.

How much time does beekeeping require?

Routine inspections are necessary-often on a monthly or bi-monthly schedule. You must monitor your colonies for various parasites and pests especially during the warm season.

How many hives is a hobby?

This depends on who you ask. Most beekeepers considered hobbyist have less than 10 hives. In the industry, a hobby beekeeper may have up to 25 hives. Those with more than 25 and less than 300 are considers side-liners. Commercial beekeepers have more than 300 hives.

Do you need a full beekeeping suit for a few hives?

No, there are several times of protective clothing that beekeepers can use. A full bee suit is a benefit for new beekeepers – even if you only have a couple of hives. A hat and veil is the minimum to protect your face.

Final Thoughts

It is very important for beginning beekeepers to surround yourself with like-minded positive bee loving people. You can learn a lot from other beekeepers. Don’t beat yourself up when you lose a colony – we all do. Expect some failures in the first years but that only makes the rewards that much sweeter.