I recently read an interesting article about the concept of inversion thinking. That’s when you not only think about how to make a project succeed, but also take time to think about how it could possibly fail. Most of us don’t like starting a new, exciting project like beekeeping with thoughts about how failure can strike, but there is some wisdom in taking that approach. When it comes to beginner beekeeping, sometimes the best advice is what not to do!
There are many viewpoints on this topic, and with easy access to the internet, a variety of opinions many people want to share. I found information about what not to do from experienced beekeepers, experts from the state extension service, scientists, amateurs and friends. These are 5 things that every beginner beekeeper should take into account when they start.
1. Know the facts
While beekeeping is described as a hobby for many people, you have to remember that you’re working with living creatures. You might think because bees get by just fine in the wild, there won’t be much involved with keeping them in a hive. That, unfortunately, is no longer true. With the spread of varroa, many wild bees have succumbed to colony collapse due to mite infestation. While some small colonies seem to survive in the wild, the idea that bees can easily survive and prosper isn’t necessarily true on most continents. So, if you are likely to lose interest quickly, or just don’t have the time to inspect and do what is needed for the health of your colonies, then beekeeping might not be for you. Most of the beekeeping demonstrations I have been to plainly indicate that you will need a varroa mite action plan that involves monitoring, recording, and treating only when necessary. Some of your bees might have a resistance to the mite, but once the ratio hits 10-12 mites per 100 bees then you need to consider some sort of treatment. The University of Minnesota Extension Service has some great information on recognizing and treating disease and parasites in your colony.
2. Plan ahead
My brother has what I call “innate foresight” and will have what I need for a project before I even know I need it! For those of us without that magical skill, planning things out and taking a moment to think before acting is helpful. Placing your hive up against a fence might seem to meet all the requirements of a safe and comfortable spot for your bees until you realize you can’t move around the hive to inspect the colony or change supers. If you are a backyard beekeeper living in a town or city, check for regulations and ordinances before you purchase bees and equipment. While bee colonies can be moved and it probably won’t be hard to find a suitable place to relocate your apiary, the process can be upsetting to both you and your bees. And trust me on this one, the best time to examine the hive, start up your smoker and handle the equipment for the first time is before you get the bees!
3. Aquire appropriate equipment
This is a tough one, because beekeeping start-up can be a big investment. Other than the bees, at the very least you need: beehives, a smoker, and protective gear. The type of hives you buy and how many is an personal decision. The key to beehives is to do some research and pick the style that best suits you. Some people build their own hives to save money, but it is best to shy away from used hives unless you have them inspected to ensure they are disease free. Most hives have frames, or at least top bars, that are removable and make it easier to inspect your colony. Make sure you have the right number of frames for your hive type. Setting a super (the box that holds the frames) without frames or too few frames will result in a massive hunk of comb that is not easy to inspect or remove. A smoker is also important, and I have seen a few homemade ones, as well. But if you are not into tinkering, buy a new smoker and some fuel all ready to use.
Of all the items you need, don’t skimp on protection! You’ve probably seen videos of peaceful bees buzzing around an experienced beekeeper with only head protection. But if you’re just starting out, you might regret following their lead. Spend some money on a full protective bee suit. Nothing will turn you off to tending bees more than a trip to the hospital with 50 bee stings. Most of the time it’s not life threatening, but it is still painful. Depending on the number of stings and your body’s reaction, it can be uncomfortable for a few days, and time-consuming too. If you decide you don’t need so much protection as you get more experience, then use the parts that work best for you. Keep your full suit though, it is still good to have around for visitors curious about your apiary.
4. Be in it for the long haul
Simply put, beekeeping is a commitment. One thing you should come to terms with is that you likely won’t be extracting any honey the first year. Beekeeping is a little like building a business: your first profits should be funnelled back into the company to help it grow. If you get a package of bees in the spring it will take time for your hive to hit full capacity and start making honey. The bulk of the bees’ energy will go into building comb, raising brood, and storing food for the winter. Much of that food they store for the winter is honey. A healthy new colony of bees will consume 30 pounds (13.6 kg) or more of honey during the average winter. You may also need to feed them if it doesn’t look like they have enough stored away. Helping your bees store honey for the winter and taking only the surplus honey is a part of what keeps your colonies strong and productive from year to year. Thinking of bees as an investment helps you realize that you won’t be honey rich in just one season.
5. Ask for help!
Beekeeping is not ordinarily considered a social activity, so it stands to reason that some people won’t think to join larger groups or ask for help. But if you want to raise healthy bees, then look to the them as a fine example of cooperative work and growth. The colony does not exist by the activities of only one bee! For beginning beekeepers, a strong community and knowledge base is important. Unless you want to learn by trial and error—which can be costly!—take advantage of the wealth of experience and information you will find at local, regional, and national beekeeping clubs and associations. Reading an article or watching a video on beekeeping is a good first step in your education, but it isn’t the same as having someone right beside you showing you how to handle your smoker, look for your queen or inspect for mites. You might prefer to learn on your own, but it often comes at the expense of your bees and your wallet. If you’re not fond of group activity, try to locate a local beekeeper willing to mentor you. A beginning beekeeper often brings new energy and interest to a veteran beekeeper, which can be beneficial to both of you. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Mistakes happen with anything you try for the first time. Facts, help, planning, equipment and commitment are some of the basic elements for success in any project. It’s no different for a successful hobby or venture in beekeeping, and many mistakes can be avoided if you keep those elements in mind. The first year is always the most difficult, but what you learn is rewarding and invigorating. Stick with it!
Loftus JC, Smith ML, Seeley TD (2016) How Honey Bee Colonies Survive in the Wild: Testing the Importance of Small Nests and Frequent Swarming. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150362. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150362
Moeller, F. E., University of Wisconsin., & United States. (1977). Overwintering of honey bee colonies. Washington, D.C: Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
University of Minnesota Instructional Poster #155, Gary S. Reuter and Marla Spivak, Department of Entomology.