Thinking about starting a backyard beehive?
First things first, why keep honey bees?
Honey, pollination, they are a wonderful way to learn about nature, and as an added bonus you become part of a community of beekeepers (a fun, smart, and really interesting bunch). Whatever the reason, more and more people want to learn to keep bees in their backyard.
For the past three decades, honey bees have been suffering a decline thanks to a combination of pesticides, Varroa mites, drought, nutrition, habitat modification, and poor beekeeping. Every beekeeper loses at least one colony, but the more you know, the better off your bees will be.
Things to Consider
Make sure you are not allergic (bee stings can be life-threatening). You will get stung at least once. Even if you purchase a full-body beekeeping suit there is no guarantee. According to the American Apitherapy Society, getting stung could be a good thing with bee venom helping to treat multiple schlerosis, arthritis, wounds, and tendonitis.
Beekeeping requires little time and space, but a sizeable initial investment of between $1000 – 1200.
Beginner beekeepers are advised to start with two hives. It is generally recommended backyard beekeepers keep two colonies on ¼ acre, two to four on ½ acre. If you don’t have the space at your home, put the word out to your gardening/bee curious friends to see if they will loan you some space in exchange for pollination.
Check with your local town office to make sure it is legal to keep hives in your area.
As I prepared to welcome pollinators to my backyard last spring, the more reading, attending open hives and speaking with experienced beekeepers I did the more I developed a fundamental understanding of beekeeping management. According to Ross Conrad a beekeeper’s lack of knowledge is probably the single greatest cause of colony demise. A novice beekeeper should make every effort to learn as much as possible from a variety of sources in an effort to reduce the margin of error.
This summer, attend as many open hives as you can. See first-hand how a smoker and hive tools are used, handling of a queen, identifying brood in various stages of development, and looking for signs of disease. Get information from your county’s bee club on when and where open hives are being held. There is usually one scheduled in each county once a month between May and October. Normally, they are free. If you cannot make an open hive in your county, check the schedules for other county chapters.
In the fall, sign up for bee school. Annual bee schools are sponsored by Local Chapters, Adult Education Programs, and sometimes in cooperation with the County Extension Service. These practical courses are a must for beginners and a great chance for intermediate-level beekeepers to update and refresh their skills. (from the Maine State Beekeepers Association website) Course topics include the life cycle of a honey bee, purchasing bees and equipment, seasonal hive management, safety precautions, handling smokers and hive tools, and bee diseases and pests.
Structure of a Honey Bee Colony
Understanding how a honey bee hive works is fascinating and essential to being a beekeeper.
Queen – There is one per hive, except when one is being replaced (a new one is being made i.e. when the existing one can no longer produce (A well-mated and well-fed queen of quality stock can lay about 2,000 eggs per day during the spring build-up). She is the longest bee, and therefore easier to spot than the others.
Workers – They make up the majority of the hive. Duties include cleaning cells (removing dead bees and debris), capping cells of brood, caring for brood, feeding the queen, receiving nectar from foragers, making honey, packing pollen, building comb, regulating the temperature of the hive, guarding and taking orientation and foraging flights. The average worker bee will have traveled 500 miles during her lifespan of four to six weeks.
Drone – The only males in the hive, and their only purpose – to mate with the queen. They are larger than worker bees and do not have stingers.
Installing a package of bees is a common way to start beekeeping. A package is a 3 lb. box containing one mated queen and 10,000 honey bees. The package does not contain brood. Packages arrive end of April, beginning of May from Georgia. It is best to pick up the package yourself from a “dealer” in Maine, versus having them shipped.
A “nuc” is comprised of a box of a few frames of bees in all stages of development. The frames should contain brood, baby bees, worker bees, food and laying queen. A nuc might be more expensive than a package, but the colony population will grow faster. Nucs are generally available in May and June.
More experienced beekeepers may acquire their bees via swarm. County bee clubs offer swarm workshops once or twice a season.
Popular Hybrids & Strains of Honey Bees in the U.S.
Carniolan –Originated in southern Austrian Alps and North Balkans of former Yugoslavia. Adapted to a climate of long hard winters, short springs and hot summers. Known for calm gentle temperament, rapid spring buildup and efficiency.
Italian – Race originated on the Italian peninsula. Has difficulty surviving long winters with late springs. Low inclination to swarm, but prone to robbing and drifting between colonies.
Russian Hybrid Bees – Known for having a greater resistance to the dreaded Varroa mite. Hybrid bees have been produced by crossing several lines or races of honey bees.
My hives last summer: Each has a Deep and two Medium Supers. Each “box” has 8-frames.
Most beekeepers in industrialized countries, use Langstroth removable frame hives to house their honey bee colony. They come in two sizes, eight-frames and ten-frames. The Deep (also referred to as the “Hive Body” is placed on the bottom and is where the young bees are reared, this is the largest box in the hive). When the hive becomes full of honey you add stories called “Supers” (they are Medium or Shallow) for honey storage. Deeps and Supers each contain 8-10 brood frames. Each frame has comb foundation where the bees can build their combs. Once the frames begin to fill with honey, they get heavy. An 8-frame medium will weight approximately 10 pounds less than a 10-frame medium.
In warmer climates, Topbar beekeeping is considered a natural method, that offers bees freedom to build honeycombs organically. There is much debate as to whether this method works in colder climates. For information on Topbar beekeeping in Maine contact Gold Star Honeybees.
As to the question of assembled or unassembled, this depends on your time and carpentry skills.
Normally, you will have the option of purchasing a hive as part of a Hive Kit, which includes a hive tool (one broad thinned out end used for prying apart Supers and frames), helmet and veil (the veil is a must if you want to avoid the chance of getting stung on your nose or around your eyes), entrance reducer (to keep out predatory insects), smoker (the most important tool used in beekeeping, one should not open a beehive without a lit smoker. It subdues the bees with just use a few puffs). For a few dollars extra, get a screened bottom board, which provides ventilation at the lower level of the hive.
Question of buying used bee equipment. Best to buy everything new, a beginner’s kit should have all the necessary equipment to start and operate one hive, except for the book(s) and gloves. If you buy used equipment you risk it not having been assembled correctly and more importantly contaminated.
A Beekeeper’s Tool Kit (something you carry with you when inspecting your hives):
Notebook and pen for recordkeeping (take photos too!!)
Beginner book(s) on beekeeping (for quick reference)
Band-aids (hive tools are sharp)
Matches (for lighting smoker)
Container w/ extra dry pine needles (for smoker)
Water (so you don’t overheat)
Most important is a veil, which protects the face, the most sought-after target for bees. Veils can be free standing, or attached to a pith-type helmet, made of plastic or other material. Almost any hat that keeps the veil material off the face and neck will work. Veils usually have a mesh bottom that is snugged down over the collar onto the shoulders with a variety of ties and strings. This keeps bees out, providing there are no gaps or holes. Veils that attach to the bee suit with a zipper are popular, mostly because they are convenient, easily maintained, and virtually bee proof. They are also more expensive.
Seasoned beekeepers seldom wear gloves, because they feel they lose that delicate touch. However, it is a good idea for beginners to at least start with them.
Rather than spend a lot on a full body bee suit, consider wearing loose fitting top and pants of a neutral color you can tuck into knee high rubber boots (to prevent bees from going up your leg).
Cooper Charolais Farm & Apiary 207-892-9223
For more resources visit the Maine State Beekeepers Association website.
Location of the Hive
Windbreak (whether natural or man made, something that protects the hives from heavy winds), afternoon shade, access to water (pebble filled birdbath, puddle…), out of public view (low-key area i.e. not near recreation areas or schools, sidewalks…), southeast entrance should not be obstructed and accessibility. For additional information on picking a location, check out State Apiarist, Tony Jadczack’s article “Honey Bee Etiquette”.
Check out “Part Two” this Thursday for information on hive maintenance, bee pests and diseases, and resources.