Getting Started with Beekeeping
Guest Article: © The material on this page is copyright by Michael Rininger, February 2007.
Mike is Vice President of Beekeepers of Northern Shenandoah, an excellent source of information and contacts. (Please note: If you have trouble getting to the Beekeepers of Northern Shenandoah website using the link given here, check Loudoun Beekeepers Association instead.)
Many people who think of raising animals on the homestead begin their search thinking about chickens, goats, pigs, and maybe even a cow or two. Naturally that leads to research on the types of fencing available, feed requirements, vet bills, and, of course, the time commitment. Have you thought of becoming a beekeeper?
I refer to bees as the ‘overlooked livestock’. A colony of honeybees is relatively easy to get started, requires little day to day maintenance, and come harvest time provides the beekeeper with an assortment of products few other types of livestock can match. Everyone knows honeybees produce honey but did you know about the other hive products such as beeswax, pollen, propolis, and even royal jelly?
There are lots of ways to get started as a beekeeper. First you’ll want to do a little research to learn the answers to the obvious questions: What equipment do I need? Where do I buy it, and how much it will cost? Where do I get honeybees? Where do I keep them? Do I need 100 acres or can I keep them in a small yard?
Your first task is to do a little reading. Some excellent books to get you started include:
- Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, Dr. Dewey M. Caron
- The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Sammataro and Avitabile
- Beekeeping for Dummies, Howland Blackiston
There are also innumerable references to beekeeping on the Web. A very informative and free resource is BeeSource. Here you’ll find a forum on nearly every subject related to keeping bees. There’s even a section devoted to new beekeepers.
If at all possible try to find a local beekeeping organization and attend some of the meetings. Most clubs will host a beginning beekeeping class in the very late winter/early spring. The classes typically meet once a week for a few hours and last from 6-8 weeks. The end of the class coincides with the arrival of the bees and you’re off and running. The best part of joining your local club is the access you’ll have to active, experienced beekeepers in your area, and if you’re lucky, a mentor.
The winter months are an excellent time to begin. Before things begin gearing up in the spring you have time to do some reading and planning, order your equipment, and very important—get the equipment assembled and ready for the bees. The time to begin assembling your equipment is not the morning the bees arrive. Common sense you think but it happens often.
I won’t spend a lot of time on the dynamics of the colony or an in-depth discussion of the mechanics of pollination. These topics are covered heavily in most beekeeping texts and you can read them there.
What concerns most beginning beekeepers is the confusing array of equipment they find in a beekeeping catalog. What do I really need to get started and how much is it going to cost?
A modern beehive (the boxes you see that look like a stack of drawers) is composed of the following: From the bottom up you have:
- The hive stand (which can be constructed out of scrap 2x4’s or just a couple of cinder blocks)
- A bottom board (screened to allow for ventilation and mite control)
- Hive bodies (the boxes with 10 frames each where brood is raised)
- Inner cover
- Telescoping outer cover
Eventually you’ll add the supers (the boxes where your honey crop is collected).
Multiple boxes are stacked up to form the hive. The individual frames have foundation in them which the bees ‘draw out’ to form the comb. It is in this comb that the bees raise their young, store pollen or nectar, which eventually becomes honey when cured and ‘dried down’ by the bees. When looking through the catalogs you’ll see the ‘boxes’ referred to as woodenware, hive bodies, brood chambers, or supers. What it is depends on how it’s being used. This is to say that all boxes of a given size are interchangeable for different tasks. This interchangeability is important to consider.
There are 3 standard sizes of woodenware available.
- Deep sized boxes are 9-5/8 inches in depth and take 9-1/8 inch frames
- Medium (sometimes called Illinois) sized boxes are 6-5/8 inches and take 6-1/4 inch frames
- Shallow sized boxes are 5-1/2 inches in depth and take frames that are 5-3/8 inches in depth
When purchasing equipment you buy the boxes and then buy the frames to fit those boxes. The different sizes of frames are not interchangeable among different sized boxes obviously. So which size should you buy? That depends.
You can raise bees and crops of honey in any of the three sizes. You’re thinking it may be more economical to buy and maintain fewer larger boxes. Right? Well hold on. While the initial cost might be a few dollars less you need to consider something else. Weight! Remember that you’ll be lifting these boxes full of bees and hopefully, honey. A deep sized box that weighs 4 to 5 lbs empty will top the scales at close to 100 lbs full of honey. That’s a lot of weight for one person to safely lift and the reason that many beekeepers opt to keep their bees in all medium-sized equipment. Think about it. Your entire operation is made up of one type of box. Every frame fits in every box. That’s a valuable option when you need to move frames between hives. Incompatibility isn’t a consideration.
So how many hives should I start with? Well the general rule is to start with at least two. That way you have something as a basis for comparison and you can help out a slow starter with frames from its neighbor.
Your shopping list would look something like this:
- 2 - telescoping outer covers
- 2 - inner covers
- 6 - medium sized boxes (commercial grade is fine)
- 60 - medium sized frames
- 2 - screened bottom boards
- Other equipment
- 1 - smoker 4x10 inches
- 1 - 10 inch hive tool
- 1 - full body bee suit with veil
You may want gloves also. You can get by with yellow dish gloves with a long gauntlet. They are very inexpensive and virtually sting-proof. As you come along you’ll find you can often work the bees without gloves. Yes, you read correctly, without gloves. I rarely wear gloves when I work my colonies as I find I lose my sense of dexterity and touch.
There are many, many reputable vendors of beekeeping equipment out there. Is there someone local whose business you can patronize? One thing to keep in mind is that woodenware made by different manufacturers may differ slightly in their measurements. This won’t generally be a problem if you must purchase from different vendors but it’s best to try to stick with one manufacturer if you can. You get to know them and they you. Following is a short list of equipment manufacturers/suppliers:
Many more links can be found on the web. Order catalogs from multiple vendors and compare. Many of the catalogs have a lot of good how-to information in them that you can use even if you purchase nothing.