Beehives require management and good stewardship, which both take time and knowledge. That said, we like to say: bees are more work than a goldfish, but less work than a dog.
You will need to open your hives and inspect them regularly during the warm months, as well as make sure your bees are thriving, have good honey stores, and enough room to expand their population as needed.
During the winter, bees rarely need to be interacted with, as the colony clusters and eats through its honey stores, only emerging when the temperature is above freezing to eliminate.
During the rest of the year hives require management and the type and how much will depend on the climate you are keeping them in, and your hive style, as well as your bees themselves. For instance, in the warmer, southern states of the U.S., the busy, foraging season for bees will be much longer than in the northern states. You will want to familiarize yourself with what beekeeping looks like in your part of the country or world, what a season in beekeeping requires, and local laws.
And yes, you will get stung. An example: at some point a bee might end up in the fold of your clothes, go unnoticed, and be unable to get out. These things happen. Generally honeybees are not aggressive, as once they sting, they die (and no creature wants to rush that).
Once you've decided that you want to begin beekeeping, it is important that you learn about Honey bees. There are dozens of useful books that cover the basics of bees, so choose one that you like and devour every page until you grasp the basic elements of bees, including: Their lifecycle, needs, predators, seasonal changes, etc.
Once you have an understanding of what honey bees are, it is time to delve into the more biased topic: How to keep bees. Just about every beekeeping book you encounter will have its own take on the proper methods to use, but you will likely find some similarities: The vast majority of the beekeeping literature supports the use of wax foundation, frames, top supering, medicating and micromanaging the honey bee colony. Besides a few articles, web pages and the rare book, you won't find much support for foundationless, frame-free, medication-free beekeeping. That's why we're here.
There are several options. Spring is the time to populate your hive (April-Late May in Portland, Oregon). Any later than that and generally (in Northern climates especially) the bees won’t have enough forage time to build up food (honey and pollen) stores to sustain them through the winter.
1. Swarms/Feral Bees - We recommend having a local beekeeper catch a swarm of feral bees for you or catching them yourself (much easier than it sounds!). The reason why is that we’ve found feral bees tend to be heartier and more apt to thrive, having not been intervened with by the treatments and chemicals often utilized by commercial beekeepers. Additionally, a swarm will have issued from a colony that is obviously strong enough to have cast off a swarm, and originates from your local area. Thus, the bees will be better-adapted to your local climate. This is the method of obtaining bees we most strongly recommend. What’s a swarm, you ask? Swarming is a natural way for bee colonies to propagate, producing new colonies for the world. It is a totally natural process that occurs in all colonies. Think of it as a means of reproduction, but on a colony-wide scale! There are scores of videos on our youtube channel at http://www.youtube.com/beethinking showing what bee swarms look like and how to catch them. For more on swarming, please refer to: How to Catch a Swarm of Bees. For further questions please contact us directly.
2. Bait & Trap – Swarm traps and bait hives. This can sound intimidating, but we know many brand new beekeepers that tried to lure a swarm and found that no sooner had they built a lure, then they had a colony move in all on their own! Swarm traps and bait hives can be built following simple plans found on the internet. There is also a book called: Swarm Traps and Bait Hives, by McCartney Taylor that we sell. A benefit is that again you would likely be attracting hearty, local bees from your area.
3. Packages - Alternately, you can obtain bees by purchasing a package from a breeder. Generally, packages will be coming from a warm climate such as California or Texas and will be shipped to you via the USPS, who will call you quickly once they arrive! Packages generally contain one queen that has been open mated or artificially inseminated, along with 10,000 bees from a few different colonies. The bees are put together in a box containing sugar water syrup in a can (their food supply during travel), and the queen which hangs in a small cage at the center of the box, while the bees around her get used to her scent. We provide quality package bees to our customers in the Portland Metro Area in April and May. If you're outside of that area, a simple internet search for “package bees” will yield many results and providers.
4. Nucleus Colonies - If you're using a Langstroth hive, nucleus colonies are a great option for populating your hive. A nucleus is basically a fully-established colony in a 5-frame box. They are ready to be transferred into your 8 or 10-frame boxes, and often build up faster than packages due to the fact that they already have combs, eggs, larvae, and honey stores.
Getting connected with local beekeepers, especially local foundationless beekeepers, will help you tremendously. A simple internet search for “foundationless beekeeping” and the name of your town, closest major city or even state, will no doubt yield good results and resources. Other search terms that will help are using the name of the hive type you have, and the name of your community or town, such as: “Top Bar Hive, Houston, Texas.” This will lead you to meeting some great folks of all different experience levels. It’s great to have someone to ask questions of, observe, and commiserate with if your bees don’t want to cooperate!
This is largely up to personal preference and lifestyle, and more information can be found at:
Once you are convinced that beekeeping is for you, you're going to need some equipment. For convenience sake, we sell all of the essential beekeeping equipment at our store.
We recommend the following equipment for all new beekeepers:
Hive tool: Your hive tool is one of your most critical pieces of equipment. Without it you will find it nearly impossible to inspect your colonies or add new boxes if you are using a Warre hive. Bees glue everything in the hive together with their resin-like propolis.
Smoker: While we rarely use a smoker in our own apiary, we do believe that it is a critical piece of a equipment for all beekeepers. The smoker is used to subdue the bees by both making it difficult for them to communicate, and also causing them to gorge on honey in preparation for a fire. Honey bees are temperamental creatures, and otherwise docile hives may have days where they are overly agitated. In most cases you will just avoid the hive on those days, but there are some times when you must get into or move the hive and a smoker will be your best friend!
Jacket with Veil and Gloves: As a new beekeeper it isn't likely that you will be overly comfortable with your unprotected hands and face near 40,000+ stinging insects at first. We recommend that all beekeepers start off using protective equipment at first so that they can become comfortable around their bees - bees seem to sense nervousness or confidence, and a nervous beekeeper often makes mistakes and gets stung, which is an easy way to get turned off of your new-found hobby. Once you get used to working with bees, if you want you can slowly wean yourself off of gloves and then off of a jacket entirely. You will begin to sense your bees' mood before you open the hive - they'll tell you if you need protective gear or a smoker or not!
Bee Brush: More useful than you would imagine, the bee brush can be used to gently move the bees off of comb or other places you don't want them to be. Keep in mind that the bees HATE the brush and you will find them stinging it mercilessly as you use it, so use it sparingly.
We've conveniently packaged all of these items in our beekeeping starter kit.
Naturally, as honeybees are entirely behavior-dependent on the climate in which they live, when you begin a hive will fluctuate based on your geography. Since we live in the Pacific Northwest, I will use that as an example, but you will want to read widely and connect with local beekeepers and beekeeping groups specific to your area.
Here in Portland, Oregon, the right time to start a hive is early spring between late March and early May, with the idea that as the chance of frost lessens or stops, early flowers and forage will appear, giving your bees the ability to collect nectar and pollen. Thus, we tell our friends and customers to use autumn and winter to do all of their research and planning. Once spring arrives, you want to be ready with your hives, your source for bees, your equipment, and it’s place on your property. You will want to feel confident and versed about the task at hand!
As a beginning beekeeper you will always be learning. If you stop learning you're doing it wrong! As a natural beekeeper you are joining an ever-growing and changing beekeeping subculture that is still not understood by the larger beekeeping community. You may be scoffed at or ridiculed for your choice of hive designs or methods, but take comfort in the fact that a shift toward treatment-free, bee-friendly beekeeping is beginning, even among long-time traditional beekeepers.
Join a local beekeeping organization, even if they don't prefer your methods or beekeeping philosophy. Work to educate them on your methods and you may win a convert. There is also a lot to learn from long-time beekeepers despite some of their disinterest in top bar or Warre beekeeping.
If you have any other questions, feel free to send us an e-mail or give us a call! We're here to help!