How to Get Started Keeping Bees (Simple and “Instant” Beekeeping)
*EDIT 1/15/2013* – This post was written when bees were far less expensive than they are now. Unless you are planning to catch a free swarm or have some other cheap bee source, it would be a good idea to learn all you can prior to obtaining bees.
Yeah, that’s right. I did a Valentine’s post on undies followed by one on birds and now I’m talking about bees. What of it?! 😉
So, let’s learn about bees. There is a lot of beginner beekeeping information out there and this post points to a lot of it. However, my goal is to tell you the most simple way to get started. The “just add water” approach to becoming a beekeeper, as it were.
As a beekeeper, you will learn a lot and any preliminary research you do is definitely going to help. But you can own bees, right now, and learn as you go. Here’s how:
- A common “rule of thumb” I’ve heard regarding beekeeping is that it takes more time than a pet cat but less time than a pet dog. This beekeeping calendar estimates how much time you will spend per month with your hive. Check it out and decide if beekeeping really is for you.
- If there is a beekeepers association near you, become a member ASAP! The science of beekeeping can be like drinking from a fire hose. Talking to actual beekeepers and asking questions on a need-to-know basis helps break things down. (But remember that beekeepers are like gardeners — everyone has their own method so you’ll probably hear conflicting points of view). Go to meetings to network and hear the speaking topics, which are usually timed to the seasons. You won’t have to worry as much about when to do certain maintenance steps because your association will clue you in. You may even win free equipment from raffles or door prizes!
- Order some print beekeeping catalogs and thumb through the merchandise to familiarize yourself with it. Don’t worry, you won’t need everything in the catalog. I love Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. They are local to the Appalachians and have excellent quality wooden hive parts. Dadant & Sons and Mann Lake Ltd. are some other good options.
- Consider a subscription to Bee Culture Magazine or read the archives online. The high quality articles will educate you and remind you when to do bee chores.
- Order two or more books on beekeeping. You’ll need them as references (see book list below).
- Take a class! You can often find these through bee clubs or your local Cooperative Extension Service. You don’t have to have bees yet to join.
- Buy a fully functional hive from a local beekeeper and transport it (3 or more miles away) to your house. Sometimes you can get good deals if the hive equipment is older or circumstances demand a quick sale (I got my first hive with a healthy colony of bees in it for only $60 because the sellers were moving out of state). Check Craigslist and ask at the beekeepers association for any leads. Beware of buying a hive with problems, though.
- If you can’t find an established hive you’ll need to start one yourself. Many beekeepers are purists who insist on building and painting their own hives and frames from scratch. You may very well become one of these purists later, but don’t worry about it right now (unless you’re already a whiz at carpentry). Order assembled, painted hive parts — then all you have to do is take them out of the box and stack them on a level surface in your yard! Consider a “beginner’s package” from one of the above catalogs, they are often economical. Here’s all you need as a beginner:
- -Hive (Deep hive body + medium super (or replace the medium super with 2 shallow supers which are lighter weight), bottom board (an IPM bottom board is recommended), inner cover, telescoping cover, queen excluder, and frames with wax foundation — you will need additional supers and frames for honey but you can choose to buy them now or later
- –Bees (order ASAP for spring delivery or learn to catch a free swarm in the spring)
- –Smoker (go ahead and buy the biggest one — beginner beekeepers move slow and the large smokers don’t run out of fuel as fast)
- –Hive tool (looks like a paint scraper but stronger)
- –Veil (you can just wear pants & long sleeves and skip the suit — gloves are up to you, most veterans don’t use them)
You’ll probably accumulate optional gadgets and tools for your beekeeping efforts. Personally, I’d add a bee brush which I find essential when I’m closing up the hive or trying to view frames. I also like having a hive stand with a landing board so I can watch my bees walk into the hive. Fall/winter feeding supplies are seasonally important and long bee gloves are good at least until you get less nervous about handling your bees.
In all, with the deals I found, I think I’ve spent more on a single grocery run than I did on my hive, tools, & suit. Bee equipment is steadily rising in price so you may be looking at several hundred dollars or more depending on where you buy bees and supplies. Check at your beekeepers association, on Ebay, or on Craigslist to see if you can get these items secondhand.
Finally, getting started is important, but learning as much as you can will make you a success. Many of the following books and websites offer differing opinions on beekeeping methods. Research and experience will help you develop a plan that works for you.
At least two books on beekeeping is a good idea. Here are some options:
- The Practical Beekeeper Volumes I – III by Michael Bush uses natural beekeeping methods
- The Backyard Beekeeper: Revised and Updated by Kim Flottum is perfect for urban beekeepers who want to stay on good terms with city and neighbors
- Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad
- The Beekeepers Handbook by Alphonse Avitabile is one of the most popular beekeeping manuals
- Beekeeping: A Practical Guide by Richard E. Bonney is an easy read
- The Complete Book of Beekeeping by John Drake gives what the title promises
- Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston has great info, though I’ve never loved the implication that this series attracts stupid readers
Magazines (Beekeeping is a constantly evolving science and magazines will keep you up to date on the latest research and methods):
Free video tutorials can be found online for the aspiring or growing apiarist. These can help familiarize you with equipment and techniques, but shouldn’t be used to replace other references. Try any of these:
- Essex County Beekeeping Association: Installing a Bee Package in a Hive
- Principals of Beekeeping Series by Jorge Gomez
- Survivalreport: Starting a Hive
- FatBeeMan Series
- Beginner Beekeeping.com
Some of the best info can be found on websites:
- American Beekeeping Federation
- Beekeeping Basics from Mid-Atlantic Apiculture
- Beekeeping Forum on GardenWeb (ask questions!)
- Beekeeping Links by State from Texas A & M
- The Practical Beekeeper Website (tons of free info on natural beekeeping)
- Organic Beekeeping Group (Yahoo email list)
- The Barefoot Beekeeper (sustainable beekeeping, offers an affordable ebook, too)
If you are a beekeeper with advice to “new-bees” I’d love to hear from you.