The beginning of winter may not seem like the time to start thinking about becoming a beekeeper. However, if you are considering starting beekeeping this spring, now is the time to begin planning.
First, it is a good idea to get as much background information as you can. There are several ways to do this. Check out your local bee club – if you haven’t been attending meetings, this is a good time to start. See if they offer any sort of mentoring program or classes for beginning beekeepers. There are probably lots of people in the club who would love to talk to you about getting started in beekeeping. We were lucky enough to join a very active bee club when we first started beekeeping. We got great advice, had people to call when we had questions, and even got to attend a “beeyard visit”, where experienced beekeepers showed the “newbees” how to do a hive inspection.
Some colleges, universities, and beekeeping supply companies offer beekeeping classes. My husband took a beginner’s beekeeping class through Betterbee, a beekeeping supply company that is local to us, and I took a two day beekeeping class offered by Cornell University. If you are lucky enough to live close to one, this is another way to learn more about beekeeping.
Start reading! There are many great books on beekeeping for beginners out there. Two of our favorites when we were getting started are Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston, and The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. These books are both full of great information on getting started in beekeeping, and are still a valuable reference for us.
Also consider subscribing to a beekeeping magazine such as Bee Culture and/or American Bee Journal. These are great resources as they have articles with current information for beekeepers on many different aspects of beekeeping and products of the hive. They also have question and answer sections, and calendars of events to keep you up to date on workshops, seminars, and other events that are taking place. You may also want to contact some beekeeping supply companies and request copies of their catalogs, this can help you to get a feel for what kind of equipment you may need, and how much you will need to spend.
While you are doing all of this background research, take some time to make sure that you have the right location to keep bees. Check into local ordinances to make sure beekeeping is allowed in your area. When deciding where to position hives, some factors you will need to consider are amount of sunlight, how windy or wet the location is, and how easily accessible it is for you. It’s also a good idea to keep the neighbors happy – make sure you can position your hives so the bees flight path isn’t right across your neighbors front yard. The books mentioned above have a lot of information on selecting a good location for an apiary, and keeping the neighbors happy.
Now is also the time to begin ordering and assembling your beekeeping equipment. You will need to decide what kind of safety clothing you would like to have. Some beekeepers use only a veil, while others prefer a jacket with an attached veil, or even a one piece beekeeping “suit”. Depending on your comfort level, you may want to consider ordering some sort of gloves, although many beekeepers prefer working without them. I also recommend Velcro straps to seal off the bottom of your pant legs. When I first started beekeeping, I had more than one bee make its way up my pants or into my boots! You will probably also want to order hive tools, and a smoker. The hive tool allows you to pry apart the boxes on the beehive, and to remove the frames when the bees glue them together with propolis. They are also handy for removing a stinger if you happen to get stung. A smoker helps to keep the bees nice and calm while you are working in the hive, which makes everyone happier! You may also want to consider purchasing entrance reducers to help the new bees defend the hive entrance, and a sugar syrup feeder to provide them with food while they get established.
You will also need to purchase the hive bodies, stands, and frames. You will have a choice of wooden or polystyrene hives. We have some of each in our apiary, and find that each has pros and cons. The polystyrene provides more insulation, but in our area the wooden hives are cheaper. You will also need to decide if you are going to use deep hive bodies for the brood, or use all medium hive bodies. We started out using a deep on each hive, but quickly realized that the deep hive bodies can also become extremely heavy. We now use all medium hive bodies, as they are much easier for us to lift. Again, a lot of this is personal preference. Talk to people, check out their hives, and get an idea of what you would like to try. Remember that these hives will need to be assembled and the outside painted or finished to protect them from the elements before you can install bees in them.
And finally, don’t forget the bees! Again, you have many different options for purchasing bees. Bees can be ordered as packages or as “nucs” – short for nucleus colonies. Packages of bees arrive in a small, screened box with a queen, several thousand workers, and a can of sugar syrup. Packages tend to be cheaper than nucleus colonies. Nucleus colonies, or “nucs”, are a small hive. When you buy a nucleus colony, you get a queen, several thousand workers, and around 5 frames of honey, pollen, and brood. Nucleus colonies are more expensive, but they build up very quickly, as they already have a head start on building comb and raising brood. Our experience is that our nucleus colonies tend to build up much faster, and have a much better survival rate, than the packaged bees we have purchased. We also buy our nucleus colonies from local beekeepers whenever possible. The bees have been raised in this area and are adapted to local conditions tend to have a better survival rate for us. However, in our area, nucleus hives tend to sell out by January or February, so we really need to plan ahead.
Getting started in beekeeping does take a lot of planning and preparation. Waiting until the last minute to get ready can lead to a lot of frustration and unnecessary mistakes. By getting started now, you will be better prepared and confident for a successful start to beekeeping!