Getting Started With Your First Hive
Beginning a beekeeping hobby can be a daunting task. There’s an expression if you ask 3 beekeepers a question, you’ll get 10 different answers. As a new beekeeper this can be overwhelming. There is a great temptation to jump on the wagon of the latest and greatest beekeeping fads and philosophies, and this often leads to failure. Many techniques have merit, but require some skill to follow through successfully. Beginners should start with the basics, find a local mentor, and network with other beekeepers whenever possible. You can do this through your area’s beekeeping club, state associations, online forums, and social media. One of the benefits, and drawbacks, of beekeeping in the internet age is the availability of so much information. It takes discernment to find reliable sources and having an experienced mentor working with you can help you weed out some of the wilder ideas you may come across. I am in my third year of beekeeping, so I am by no means an expert. The aim of this page is to have the clear, concise information to answer the questions I had and have heard from others on the basics of starting a hive.
Why do you want to keep bees? The very first step in beekeeping is deciding if you really want to become one. The entry cost of beekeeping is high compared to many other hobbies. What a disappointment it would be to spend so much, only to discover you don’t enjoy it. Common reasons people decide to be beekeepers are things like to help the bees, to make honey, or it’s just plain fun. Before you purchase the first piece of equipment, join your local bee club. Attend some meetings and ask around for someone to let you tag along during their work with the bees. Read, read, read! Join an online forum, like beesource, join Facebook beginner beekeeping groups, and hit the library.
Can you keep bees? Are you or a member of your family allergic to bees? There are bee allergic beekeepers out there, but that is a personal decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Is beekeeping allowed in your area? Municipalities and home owners associations may have rules regarding apiaries that may force you to find a home for your bees in a more distant location.
How many hives should you start with? A minimum of two, maximum of five. If you only start with one, you have no resources to fix problems, like needing to add a frame of eggs to a queenless hive. More than five and you are likely to get overwhelmed.
Where are you going to put your hives? Closer to home is better for your first hive. You’ll have a lot of learning to do, and the only way to gain experience is to get your hands in that hive. If you have located your hives at a distance that makes you reluctant to visit them then you’re going to be more likely to fail. Other considerations on hive placement:
- Food-Bees need forage. An area with a variety of plants will provide nectar and pollen for your bees to gather during a greater part of the year.
- Water-Fresh water is necessary. Try to locate the bees within 1/4 mile of fresh, always available water. If this isn’t possible then create your own water source for them. Too much water will float your hives away. Don’t place them in a flood prone area.
- Air-Try to find an area that gets air flow but has a windbreak. You’ll want to avoid the lowest areas of your land because that area will hold damp, cold air longer than a more elevated area. Protection from direct wind by a tree line, land formations, or buildings is preferable.
- Distance and Neighbors-As mentioned before, closer to home is better than far away. Be conscious of your neighbors who may be impacted by the bees. Some people may be more welcoming after receiving a jar of honey and learning a bit about your bees. Some either have health concerns or fear that no amount of compromise will be enough to please them. Point the entrances of your hives away from areas where people are present. Placing them facing a fence or other obstacle will cause them to fly higher as they are taking off and may reduce bee/human contact.
- How to arrange your hives-If you have more than 2 hives, do not arrange them in a straight line. Returning bees will tend to drift to the hives on the end of the row and those will end up stronger that the middle hives that are losing their foragers. A U shape with the openings facing to the middle of the U or an S shape work much better for preventing drifting and keeping the hive populations equalized.
- Apiary Maintenance-You will need to maintain your apiary by keeping the weeds down next to the hives, removing any dead branches that may fall on your hives, and possibly maintaining the road in and out of your apiary. Weeds can be kept under control by laying carpet scraps or cardboard in front of the hive, using a weed eater, or by judicious use of a spot treatment herbicide. If you use a weed eater around your hives remember to wear your gear!
What equipment do I need before I get bees? Every hobbyist beekeeper has a collection of equipment that sounded like a must have at the beginning, but which they have never used. As you get farther along in your beekeeping journey there is a variety of specialized equipment you may need, but everyone needs a place to start. Here is the bare minimum of what you’ll need for a Langstroth hive.
- Hive stand-of some kind. You can purchase one, or you can set your hive on a stand made out of scrap lumber, concrete blocks, etc. Basically anything to keep the wood hive off the ground and elevate the entrance away from skunks.
- Bottom Board-This is the bottom floor to the hive. You can have one made of solid wood or with a screened bottom. The choice is yours, there are beekeepers using both types successfully.
- Hive Body– this is the box part of the hive. They come in 3 standard sizes in the U.S. Deeps are 9 and 7/16 inches deep. Mediums are 6 and 9/16 inches deep. Shallows are 5 and 11/16 inches deep. They are available in 8 frame or 10 frame widths. First year hives will need either 2 deeps or 3 mediums to start with. Shallows are used for honey only.
- Frames and Foundation: The frames are the square wooden pieces inside the hive bodies that hold the foundation. The foundation is either wax or plastic and is what the bees use as a base for their honeycomb. Each hive body holds either 10 or 8 frames.
- Top-there are two main types. A telescoping top overhangs the edges of the hive boxes and is most often paired with an inner cover. A migratory top sits flush with the box edge. Again, the choice is yours.
- Entrance Reducer-a small piece of wood made to change the hive entrance size. It fits right into the entrance and has two separate size openings, depending on how you lay the wood in.
- Personal Protective Gear-a veil is highly recommended. There’s not much worse than a bee crawling into your ear canal. You can buy jackets or suits with the veil attached, or just the veil. You’ll need gloves, even if you don’t always use them.
- Hive Tool-used to separate boxes, remove frames, scrape propolis, kill small hive beetles, etc. Buy two and cover their middles with neon duct tape. They walk away when you aren’t looking
- Smoker-smoke is used in small amounts to calm the bees, mask the alarm scents, and move bees away from an area in the hive. Buy your smoker well in advance of actually getting bees and spend some time learning how to light it and keep it lit. It’s no help to you if your coals die halfway during your bee inspection.
Where do I get bees? There are two main ways to purchase bees: a package or a nuc. A package is a box of bees, usually 3 pounds, with a queen in a cage. A nuc is a nucleus hive, a kind of mini hive with the bees on frames of brood and honey. Packages come earlier, can be mailed, and are cheaper, but they have more problems with accepting the queen or absconding. It’s fairly depressing to watch over $100 worth of bees fly away. Nucs are more difficult to find in some areas, and it can be nearly impossible to locate a nuc for hives that use only medium boxes. Catching a swarm is free, but unreliable and shouldn’t be attempted by novices in Africanized areas. If you are sure you want hives this year, order packages or reserve nucs as early as possible. By early March many apiaries are sold out.
What kind of bees should I get? The kind that live in your area if possible. If you live in the north, northern bees will overwinter better in your climate. Don’t get too hung up on what race of bees to buy. It’s possible your queen will be replaced by the bees at some point during the year, so your genetics will change based on what drones are in the area for mating. The only way for a small beekeeper to ensure your genetics stay pure is to replace queens from a breeder as needed.
How do I get the bees from the package or nuc into my hive? If you purchased a nuc, simply set it on the hive stand you have prepared, make sure the entrance reducer is in place, and feed them a 1:1 water to sugar solution. If you purchased a package, check out the multitude of youtube videos on how to hive a package.