Twelve Things Every Novice Beekeeper Should Know

Twelve Things Every Novice Beekeeper Should Know

You have your equipment. You have your bee suit. You’re ready to get your first bees. Excited? You should be. The art of beekeeping is endlessly fascinating. 

But as a novice, you’ll have a steep learning curve. Don’t be discouraged; everyone has to start somewhere. To help smooth your path, here are some things every novice beekeeper should know. 

1. Learn learn learn, then learn some more.

Attend classes. Read articles. Read books. Watch videos. Talk to experts. Find a mentor. Learn as much as you can before getting your bees. 

2. Read the bees.

To some extent, your bees are a mirror. They mirror your mood, your attitude, your scent, your clothing, and your movements. Learn when and how to handle them. Environmental conditions greatly influence bees’ defensive behavior. Rain or thundery conditions leave a lot of irritable bees in the hive with nothing to do but sting whoever is disturbing them. Your best bet is to wait for sunny, warm conditions to work a hive. Keep your mood positive and your movements slow and deliberate. 

3. Don’t focus on harvesting honey.

Bees don’t make honey for you; they make it for themselves to tide them over the winter. Many novice beekeepers get carried away by this apian miracle and harvest too much, leaving the bees deprived of their winter food source. At this stage, your goal is to learn to raise bees, not honey. Be patient. Once you understand the science of raising bees, the time will come when your ladies will produce plenty of surplus honey for you to harvest. 

Don’t assume everything is fine just because the bees are active.

4. Consider increasing your number of hives.

Most novice beekeepers understandably want to start with a single hive, but the chance of a single hive failing within two years is over 50%. Once novices face hive loss, they must either buy bees year after year or think they’ve failed and lose interest. Instead, start with at least 2 hives. Even better, consider keeping between 6 and 10 hives. This gives some wiggle room and allows you to split healthy colonies to rebuild the stock and replace losses. 

5. Don’t hesitate to feed.

Depending on your climate, weather, and season — as well as the availability of flowering plants — your bees may need an extra boost of sugar water. Don’t assume everything is fine just because the bees are active. Most new colonies will need feeding to help them get established and provide the energy necessary to build honeycomb. If your hives have comb in place and stored honey — and, crucially, they stop taking the sugar water — pause in feeding for two or three weeks, then offer the sugar water again. 

6. Keep an eye on the queen.

This is one good reason to inspect your hive: to make sure the queen is still healthy and active. You don’t necessarily have to see her in person. Instead, look for a good pattern of hive health — capped brood, eggs, larvae, etc. 

7. Don’t ignore varroa mites hoping they will go away.

They won’t. Some enterprising (and experienced) beekeepers are experimenting with leaving their hives untreated (selecting for hives that can survive untreated for mites, then splitting those healthy hives to increase the natural resistance of their populations). But this takes time and experience. For novice beekeepers, keep those mites in check through treatment, or you may lose your hives. 

8. Leave your bees alone.

Having just said you should feed, check the queen, and inspect for mites, try not to open the hives too often — perhaps once a week. When you first get your hives, leave them alone for at least two weeks to settle in and reconnoiter the area. The more you open the hive, the more the hive’s health and progress are disrupted. Too many interruptions and bees may even decide to leave the hive. Nothing prevents you from taking a seat a short distance away and quietly watching their activity, however. “Bee traffic” is a helpful indicator. 

Urban beekeeping is the practice of keeping bee colonies in urban areas.

9. Place your hives carefully.

While sunny locations are best, they may need some shade in hot climates. Hives are usually oriented to face south (for maximum sunlight), but keep in mind this means they will be very active for about five to 10 feet from their entrance. The hives will need protection against high winds and predators such as bears. You’ll need clearance and space to work — many experts recommend a 10-foot radius around the hives. The spot should be flat and stable so that hives won’t tip. 

10. Learn beekeeper responsibilities — to your bees, to yourself, and your neighbors.

For yourself, make sure you’re appropriately attired and use a smoker. Keep unattired family members away (especially children). Some municipalities require urban beekeepers to take classes, pass a test, and register their hives to keep bees within city limits. It’s also the courteous thing to alert your neighbors to the presence of hives. You should provide your bees with water (so they don’t drink from the neighbor’s birdbaths or swimming pools) and build solid fences so the bees will fly higher and not smack into the neighbors as they unknowingly intercept beelines while moving about their yard. 

11. Prepare your hives properly for winter.

Don’t overwrap your hives — they need ventilation, and wrapping the hives so moisture can’t escape will kill the bees through freezing condensation. Unless you live in a climate with bitterly cold winters, often the best thing you can do is protect the hives from wind and leave the rest up to the bees. 

12. Failure is part of learning.

Don’t give up, even if you lose your hives. Learn from your mistakes and start again. 

Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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