How to Start a Beehive
Preserving the bees should be one of our priorities. Bee colonies are often being destroyed by pesticides, and the loss of their natural habitats and foraging places. One way that we can help prevent their extinction is by starting a beehive.
Today we’ve put together a comprehensive beginners guide on how to start a beehive of your very own.
Is Starting a Beehive Hard?
Starting a beehive isn’t as hard as you may have imagined. You don’t need a college degree in apiculture, or even a big garden. All you need is some courage and spare time.
The initial setup of starting your beehive may be a challenge for some, since it requires you to get close to the buzzing bees. After you receive your colony, you’ll have to release them into the beehive. Don’t worry though, there aren’t many reports of bee stings while releasing the colony.
The difficulties you may face also depend on which season you decide to begin your beehive. Most experts recommend that you start during the spring. This is the naturally busy season for most bees as they emerge from winter and will look for flowers to forage from.
If you choose to start earlier, when it’s still cold outside, be ready to supply the bees with extra food. Before the winter, foragers stocked up on nectar to produce a large supply of honey.
Toward the end of the winter, however, the bees will begin to run out, so it’s crucial that you’re ready to provide them with some additional resources.
As soon as the first spring flowers begin to bloom, your bees can start to forage and thus provide their own food supply.
Some experts also recommend that you give your colony preventative medications. This is to help counter deadly diseases inside your beehive.
Considerations When Starting a Beehive
So, starting a beehive is relatively easy, but there are still some things to consider. The first consideration I’d like to begin with is their stings.
Although there aren’t many reports of people being stung while starting up their beehive, stings are inevitable. Keeping bees is a hobby that does require some work close to the bees. Even if you wear a suit, there’s always a chance that a bee can sneak inside unnoticed.
You should also keep in mind that a single beehive with honeybees can grow to as many as 60,000 bees. A starter pack usually consists of 11,000 to 15,000 bees, so even at the very beginning, you’ll have a large number of bees buzzing around your garden.
You and your family will have to share your perimeter with these busy workers. It’s always a good idea to educate everyone as well on how to behave around bees.
Bee stings do hurt. Fortunately though, for most people, it’s only a mere discomfort for a few hours. There are, however, risks of allergic reactions, which can become medical emergencies. Anaphylactic shock can occur from a single bee sting.
If anyone living on your property suffers from allergies, make sure you take some precautions to avoid a medical emergency. Learn to recognize the signs of a severe reaction, such as hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and nausea. Keep an EpiPen handy for immediate treatment.
Having your own beehive isn’t as expensive as buying a fishing boat, for example, but it does come at a price. If you don’t have any experience or any of the required equipment, most will recommend that you buy a starter kit. With this, you’ll typically get a beehive, smoker, gloves, hive tool, and perhaps a hat with a bee veil.
Additionally to this, you’ll have to buy the bees (or just catch a swarm). But if we sum it all up, it may cost you from around $400 to $800.
It is possible to start a beehive without purchasing much, but you would need to have some carpenter skills to build a beehive, and some luck finding and catching a honeybee swarm.
This being said, experts also recommend that you buy more than one colony. This adds a bit to the cost. More on the reasons behind this later.
If you look at it from another perspective, more colonies will also mean more pollinated fruit trees and plants for you. Although your bees’ honey production may not be that large in the beginning, in the second year it will likely be plentiful.
Keeping your own beehive isn’t very time-consuming. The start will likely require some extra time, but that’s only a good thing, so you can get accustomed to the bees. Over time, however, it won’t take up a large window in your schedule.
The more colonies you have, the more time you’ll spend, of course. It also depends on the season. During winter, the work slows down, but by spring, you’ll be by the hive a lot more.
What will take up much of your time is research. It’s essential that you get to know all the basics of beekeeping and continue to expand your knowledge as you go on. Understanding how to prevent diseases, swarming, and other events is crucial.
What Equipment Is Required?
The equipment required for a beehive differs, depending on how many colonies you have, their size, and what you want from it. The basics that you’ll likely need are the hive, smoker, hive tool, equipment for honey crop, and protective gear. Let’s take a closer look.
The beehive is probably the first and most important piece of equipment since it’s where your bees will stay. There are plenty of options out on the market today, but most seem to draw to the Langstroth. It’s very easy to harvest from and move stacks around to different hives and locations.
What you’ll see in a typical beehive is the stand and a couple of boxes, or bodies. Then you’ll have a bottom board with the entrance and suspended frames for comb or foundation. Be aware that you should paint the beehive before the bees arrive so it’s protected from the outdoor elements.
The next type of equipment you’ll need is ancillary. This includes a smoker, hive tool, and protective gear.
The smoker is essential when working around the bees. It’s basically a portable, metal pot where you can light a fire inside to create smoke. These come in different sizes; it’s up to you which size to choose. Most tend to use one that’s 4 inches by 7 inches.
Look for one with a heat shield to avoid any burns. There are also types with a hook, so you can hang it by the hive as you’re working.
Another necessary instrument is the hive tool, which is essentially a metal bar. You can use this to separate the frames, for inspecting the honey or brood. You may also use it to scrape the wax and propolis away.
However, remember to clean it afterward. This is not only to remove the sticky wax and honey, but also to prevent spreading diseases inside the beehive. You can do this by burning it in the fire pot of your smoker, or by sticking it in the ground.
The last type of equipment I’ll mention is the protective gear. This is the suit that will protect you from most stings. Now, you can easily wear pretty much anything, but experts recommend that you use white or off-white colors, and avoid black or red.
Black or red may agitate the bees, whereas white or tan colors are more calming. Get yourself a wide hat with a fabric or wire veil that sits a few inches away from your face. Wear gloves and boots and use tape to close off any potential entries for the bees.
Avoid purchasing the most expensive suit. These aren’t necessarily the best or easiest to use. You should also think about the weather and if you can wear it in the summer. Recommended suits are those made from nylon ripstop fabric.
Which Bees Should I Keep?
When it comes to keeping bees, you really only have the option of honeybees. Of course, you can always purchase a bundle of bumblebees, but they’ll die after a few months. Honeybees will eventually serve you a great deal of good if you take good care of them.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of types of honeybees that you can keep in the US. Here are just three examples for you.
You could try your hand at keeping solitary bees, such as the mason bee—these are great pollinators but won’t produce honey.
The Caucasian honeybee, also known as Apis mellifera Caucasica, originates from the Caucasus mountains. These honeybees are known to be gentle and fairly easy to keep in their beehive, seeing that they rarely swarm.
They’re grayish in color, almost lead-like. Caucasian honeybees typically forage on wildflowers and trees. They build their hives using beeswax and tree resins.
This also means that they produce a lot of propolis. Although it holds many medicinal benefits, it has a very distinct smell to it, which may not be pleasant for everyone.
These bees are, however, not good for beginners. They’re prone to dying during the winter and are vulnerable to diseases, such as Nosema infection. If you choose these bees, be ready to consult the bee doctor more often.
As the name subtly gives away, this species of honeybees hail from Italy. These are some of the most popular bees to keep, especially because of their relatively gentle nature.
They have a good chance of survival, even in colder weather, where they come back strong and hard in the spring. They’re very good bees to keep if you’re living in North America.
These bees are also beautiful to look at—they have that perfect bee shape and colors. They’re yellow with brown stripes, furry bodies, and almost golden-like wings. There are also several subspecies of the Italian bee—some are all beige without stripes while others look quite similar to the original Italian bee.
The issue with this bee is that it may rob another beehive of its honey stores. They’re highly prone to doing this, especially before winter. They do produce large amounts of honey for themselves, so it’s not exactly certain why they need to steal.
The Carniolan bee is a close relative to our Italian beauty above. This species is native to the Austrian Alps, Danube Valley, and northern regions of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. They do best in temperate climates where the summers are mild.
They’re masters at building up a strong colony in early spring, but they’re slow comb producers. These bees are brownish gray and are very gentle. They’re great at surviving the winter and will store enough provisions to last the cold months.
One of the negative points about this species is that they tend to swarm often. You could prevent this by keeping an eye on the queen and nurses. You could also provide the swarm with a new beehive and then watch two colonies thrive in your garden.
How Many Bees Should I Keep?
Although it may sound most logical to start with one colony if you’re new to beekeeping, experts recommend that you buy more. The reason behind this is that when you buy more than one, you can compare them to each other.
It’s common for colonies to get sick, not producing enough eggs or honey. If you have other colonies in other beehives, you can compare them and see what’s going wrong.
It’s not uncommon for hobby beekeepers to keep over 10 colonies. Some may even have as many as 50.
Another reason for this recommendation is that entire colonies can die sometimes, even if you did everything according to the book. This may be due to the queen who failed to produce enough eggs at the beginning of spring. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your colony suffered from disease or other ailments.
The location of the beehives is also important for your bees. Don’t worry, even if you have several beehives you can still place them close to each other. Foraging bees fly long distances from the hive to gather supplies, so they won’t bother each other.
Where Can I Buy Bees From?
There are different places where you can get your bees from. It depends on where you live and how much experience you have. Like I said earlier, you can catch a swarm and release them into your beehive, but this does require some knowledge.
Other places where you can buy bees would be from a local beekeeper or bee breeder. Just be sure that you get them from a reputable source. There are beekeepers who may be selling their sick or unproductive colonies.
Bee breeders are everywhere within the US. Most experts recommend that you buy your bees from a local source. That way, you know the bees are accustomed to the local climate and environment, and there’s less risk of damage during transport.
There is one more decision you need to make before purchasing—do you want a package of bees or a nuc?
If you decide on a package, what you’ll get is a bundle of bees with a newly-mated queen. You can easily order these where they’re sent through the mail. The whole package is no larger than a big shoebox, with an extra compartment for the queen.
There should also be a can with sugar syrup that will provide food for the bees while in transit. This is the ideal option if you’re living in the north and ordering your bees from the south, for example.
You can order a package by the pound. For a single beehive, the ideal package is around 3 pounds, which contains roughly 11,000 bees. If you have more beehives, then order one package for each hive.
Nucleus or “Nuc”
If you have a bee breeder close by, then a good option is to buy a nucleus, or nuc. This is a full colony of bees, where you’ll get four or five frames with offspring and worker bees. The queen is also actively laying eggs when you receive them.
These are fairly easy to transfer into your beehive. You simply place the frames where they fit.
However, avoid ordering a nuc from a source across the country. The bees don’t have a large food supply, so the travel could stress them.
Starting a Beehive — The Steps Required
Starting a beehive might seem like a huge task, but with the right knowledge and tools, your colony will thrive. Here are some steps you can follow.
1. Build or Purchase a Beehive
The first step you should take is either build or purchase one or more beehives. You can find fully assembled beehives, where all you need to do is place it in a suitable location. Most, however, will require you to carry out some assembly.
There are three main types of beehives—Langstroth, Warré, and Top-Bar. If you’re up for the task of building your own, I’d choose the Warré hive. It consists of small square boxes with vertical bars, that allow bees to build their combs in a natural position.
2. Order Your Bees (Or Catch a Swarm)
After you’ve got your beehive, it’s time to find your bees. The best time to order your bees is in January or February. This may sound early, but bees are in high demand. So if you want a good colony, you should place your order early.
This is, of course, not necessary if you can buy your bees from a local beekeeper. Then you may be able to get them on demand.
If you ordered your bees, then they’ll likely arrive around spring; March or April is the usual period for this. The weather must be warm enough and there should be enough blooming flowers for the bees.
3. Setup Your Beehive
As spring approaches, it’s time to find a location for your beehive. The ideal place is a spot away from other homes and roads or public areas. This way, your bees won’t become an annoyance for neighbors.
You should also install the beehive in a place where the wind doesn’t blow too strong. This is especially important in the winter when the weather gets colder. The best location is under a tree, which provides shade in the summer, or on the east side of your house.
Place a couple of cinder blocks underneath, to elevate it a bit. This will help when you work, so you won’t have to bend over excessively.
The last step is to coat the top bar in your beehive with melted beeswax. This is to encourage your arriving colony to build combs on the bars. Don’t use paraffin wax—it’s not natural, so the bees won’t be attracted to it.
4. Buy Your Gear
If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to purchase your gear. This should include protective clothing, as mentioned above. Buy the hive tool and smoker as well—perhaps try the smoker out to familiarize yourself with it before the bees arrive.
5. Install Your Bees
You’ve got your beehive, gear, and your bees, now it’s time to install them. Do this as fast as possible after you receive the bees.
Before anything else, you should remove several top frames from the hive, so you can add the bees.
Step 1: Grab a clean spray bottle and make a solution of sugar syrup. Do this by mixing warm water and sugar. Let it cool down to room temperature.
30 minutes prior to releasing your bees into the beehive, spray them with the mixture, through the screen. This will make the bees sticky without harming them, and they’ll feed on it; you’ll now find it easier to pour them into the hive.
Step 2: Take your hive tool to open the lid on the package of bees. Firmly jar the package on its bottom, allowing the bees to fall to the base — this won’t hurt them.
You can now remove the queen cage and place the lid back on the package quickly, so the other bees don’t escape.
Step 3: Examine the queen to ensure she’s okay—can she walk, is she missing any legs? If she’s unwell, contact your seller for a replacement.
The queen cage will have a metal disc and cork with some white “candy” at the end. You need to remove the cork and disc—if the candy is missing, replace it with a marshmallow. Then suspend the queen cage between the top frames on the hive (there are usually nails you can fashion into a hook).
Step 4: When your queen is in, the workers are next. Remove the lid and shake the package of bees so they drop to the bottom of the hive.
Don’t worry about opening the queen cage. The worker bees will eat through the candy until they release her.
Step 5: Replace the top frames, but do so carefully, so you’re not crushing any bees. You can use your hand to move the bees out of the way but wear a glove. Replace the covers on the hive and your bees should be installed.
Step 6: Continue to use the sugar syrup to feed the bees until they begin producing their own nectar. The queen should begin laying eggs after a week. This will be evident by the presence of cells containing syrup, eggs or larvae. If there’s no sign of this, the queen may be sick or dead; in which case she needs to be replaced immediately.
Step 7: Take notes if required. Record keeping is a great habit to get into when it comes to beekeeping. Not just for keeping track of bee numbers, but also for ticking off tasks you’ve performed so you can see what comes next without missing or repeating steps.
Starting a beehive is a great way to help preserve the species and secure some of our essential food sources. Beekeeping has become a popular hobby for many across the United States. We hope that now you’ll have some of the knowledge and confidence needed to start your own.