How to Start Beekeeping

Before you begin keeping bees, read about the tools and scheduling it might require, as well as the benefits of becoming a backyard apiarist.

| Spring 2017

  • These Langstroth hives are tended by a beekeeper in a full, hooden suit. The smoker is used to suppress defensive behavior in bees.
    Illustration by Liz Pepperell
  • From left to right: Female worker bees make up the majority of a hive. Male drones’ sole purpose is to mate with a queen, after which they die. Each hive has one queen, and she can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.
    Illustration by Liz Pepperell
  • A basic Langstroth hive will include a lid, cover, two supers and one hive body — each filled with removable frames — a bottom board, and a concrete or wooden stand to elevate the hive off the ground.
    Illustration by Liz Pepperell
  • Top-bar hives allow bees to build their own U-shaped combs that will hang from the wooden bars laid across the hive’s interior.
    Illustration by Liz Pepperell

No wonder more and more folks are making a beeline for beekeeping — a single hive of these tiny, social pollinators can provide 40 to 60 pounds of golden honey per year, as well as a few pounds of ever-useful beeswax. Plus, many crops need honey bees (Apis mellifera) to achieve good fruit set and high yields. This pollination benefit is becoming increasingly important because of industrial agriculture’s dependency on toxic pesticides, which poison bees’ food supplies and result in lower pollinator populations. For the willing homesteader or backyard gardening enthusiast, dedicating a small amount of time every couple of weeks to maintaining a beehive will render sweet returns indeed.

Like any livestock, bees need care and attention, though the time commitment can be far less than for dairy goats or even chickens. To help you decide whether beekeeping would be a good fit, we asked Kim Flottum, longtime editor of Bee Culture magazine, to help us outline beekeeping essentials, including what to expect in terms of initial start-up needs and costs, along with a basic apiary to-do calendar.

Tools of the Trade

Start with a new hive body and frames. Looking for a bargain on used beekeeping equipment may be tempting, but bees are susceptible to several diseases that can persist in old equipment. You may also come across suggestions to foster a wild swarm that someone has captured. The concern here is that a wild swarm (particularly one found in the western or southern United States) may have crossbred with aggressive Africanized honey bees. Buy either a package or a nucleus colony (called a “nuc”) of gentle bees with a queen.

You’ll need to choose one of two hive designs. The more common Langstroth hive, named after its inventor, consists of stacked, rectangular boxes that contain removable wooden frames with pre-formed foundations upon which the bees will build their wax comb. The removable frames in the Langstroth system make monitoring the health of the hive easy, and its popularity means that tracking down replacement parts is convenient. Expect to pay about $250 for an unassembled cedar Langstroth hive that includes one hive body and two additional boxes called “supers” for honey storage, as well as 30 frames (10 frames per box) and a lid, cover, bottom board, and screws.

The simpler top-bar hive design consists of a trough-shaped, lidded box with wooden bars laid across the top of the interior. The bees establish their own U-shaped combs suspended from the bars. Expect to pay about $180 for an unassembled top-bar kit with plans, or $50 in materials to build your own. Top-bar hives will typically produce about 20 percent less honey than a Langstroth, but the beeswax is easier to harvest. Despite yielding less honey, proponents say the top-bar design results in a gentler, happier hive that’s a viable option for beekeepers more concerned with conservation and plant pollination than with maximum honey production.

In addition to one or two initial hives, you’ll need a few specialized beekeeping tools. A smoker ($20) is used to suppress defensive behavior in bees. A hive tool ($10) looks similar to a crowbar and is used to remove frames from the hive. A feeder ($15) should be filled with sugar water and placed inside your hive to provide food when you first introduce the bees to their new home and during periods when nectar is scarce. Most beekeepers start with a hooded beekeeping suit ($70), which should include gloves. All in all, you’ll probably spend between $200 and $400 for your first hive and the basic beekeeping equipment (not including bees).

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