5 Tips for Starting Beekeeping
A Beekeeping 101 Primer for the New Beekeeper
By Josh Vaisman, Colorado – A few years back my wife, Greta, announced we’d be taking on a new adventure; starting beekeeping. Truth be told, I was terrified my wife had flipped her gourd. As the over-analytical planner (that is, the big Chicken) of the household, I simply asked, “So we’re going to intentionally put 60,000 stinging insects in our backyard?” She smiled, and we signed up for a beginning beekeeping class with the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association. Only one hour into our first Saturday class I was completely “stung”. Five years later, we’ve got our own little honey bee farm operation and I’ve been overcome with the “buzz” of the hobby.
In the five years since starting beekeeping, I’ve realized the hobby is rife with an odd mix of terror and fulfillment. At first, I was terrified of being stung – ouch! In short order, I began to fall in love with these fascinating little insects and my fear began to shift. Do I know enough to properly care for them? As our knowledge and abilities increased and our bees began to thrive, the fear shifted again. Are we doing enough for the bees and the environment they require to survive? Despite – perhaps because of — the fear, my adventures in raising honey bees have been the most fulfilling adventures of my life. The hobby has become a lifestyle filled with growth, learning, community, and some delicious honey. A little fear can go a long way.
So you’re starting beekeeping, that’s great! Here are a few things to help you get started on the right path:
1) Learn About the Birds and the Bees
Actually, just learn all you can about bees. While deeply fulfilling and even therapeutic, caring for bees is a challenge best met with knowledge. Understanding the castes in the hive (the Queen honey bee, workers, and drones), the purposes they serve, the impacts of the environment, the pests and diseases they can and will encounter, all play into how successful you’ll be. Take a beginning beekeeping class. Read some books. Find a beekeeping mentor (or two or three!). Subscribe to the bee journals. As an ever-evolving hobby with quickly changing challenges, educating yourself is a habit you should embrace from the start.
2) Choose Your Equipment and Location
Will you utilize the most commonly used hive style, the Langstroth beehive or do you fancy yourself a top bar or Warre beekeeper? For protective equipment, you could use a veil, a jacket with vail, or a full body bee suit – which works for you? Location of your hive can impact your bees based on sun exposure (summer v. winter), wind exposure, accessibility, proximity to neighbors, and so on. Once established, moving the hive is a major undertaking. Where will you locate your hive(s)? What other beekeeping supplies will you need?
3) How Many Hives?
As someone starting beekeeping, year one with your beehive will be a new experience at every point in the year. A colony looks and acts differently in the spring, summer, fall, and winter and you’ll be seeing it all for the first time. You’ll have a head start on most since you’ll have learned all about the bees (see #1 above) but we all know, books don’t replace experience. If you can afford it (both in money and time) I recommend starting your beekeeping adventure with two hives. This way you’ll have something to compare and contrast throughout the beekeeping season. You may not yet have the experience to notice when something is off, but with two hives you’ll definitely notice when something is different between them. That’s the perfect time to call up your mentor and ask for help! Also consider, last year over 40% of all beekeeper-kept beehives didn’t survive through the year. If you only have one hive and it ends up one of the 40% you’ll be sadly starting over next year.
4) Where Will You Get Your Bees?
Know the ins and outs of buying bees and decide if you will you buy a package of bees or a nucleus beehive? Will you purchase a split from another beekeeper or perhaps an already existing full hive? Will you catch your own swarm to seed your new hive equipment? Where will you buy your package or nuc or split? How will you find a swarm to catch? What time of year will any of these sources be available where you live? Will you know the steps involved in winterizing beehive gear?
5) Beekeeping Isn’t a Recipe
There’s a common saying among beekeepers, “Ask five beekeepers a question and you’ll get six different answers.” As with most clichés it’s only funny because it’s essentially true. While there are some things in the beekeeping “dos” and “don’ts” departments that aren’t really up for negotiation much of the hobby is still evolving. This reality of the hobby is both exciting and terrifying; exciting in that there are always new things to learn and try, terrifying in that there will always be the question in your mind, “Am I doing right by my bees?” With this in mind, it’s important you learn everything you need to know raising honey bees by finding quality resources for information such as reputable periodicals and websites, and successful and respected mentors. Finally, it’s important you mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for the inevitable loss. You will fall in love with your bees and, despite all your best efforts, you will lose some of them. It will be heartbreaking. I hope you take solace in knowing your love and best efforts are, overall, helping eliminate the plight all honeybees and pollinators must now contend with. Bees, as a species, will be saved by people like you!
At this point, you might be rethinking starting beekeeping. Please don’t! With a little preparation and dedication, I promise you the joys of the hobby will by far outweigh the challenges. I know this from experience. Our first year we started with two hives and lost one before winter was over. Our second year we lost all our hives to varroa mites. This past year all three of our hives made it through winter and all three swarmed. We even made a split out of one of them which means our three 2016 colonies became seven thriving beehives in 2017! And let’s not forget the golden bounty – as summer came to a close we filled our pantry with almost two hundred pounds of delicious, raw honey! Starting beekeeping is scary, but it can be deeply rewarding as well.
Are you ready to drink the honey and start the adventure?
Josh Vaisman is an avid beekeeper and instructor in northern Colorado. An active member of the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association, Vaisman has been involved in the education of new beekeepers. Like most people who study apiculture, he started into beekeeping as a hobby, and offers valuable experience to those wanting to start beekeeping about the learning curve involved, what to do, and what not to do when getting started. Vaisman is a hospital administrator and partner at Avenues Pet Clinic in Cheyenne, Wyo. He lives in Firestone. You can reach Josh at email@example.com.