Beekeeping can be a great hobby and can even provide some extra income if you sell your honey. There are potential customers at farmers’ markets or online. However, it takes serious skill and equipment to succeed as a beekeeper. If you’re already gardening and composting, you might be itching to dive into beekeeping. Here are our tips for getting started.
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1. Do your research.
There’s a lot of written material that can help you get started as a beekeeper. Check with your local library to see what’s available for free. It’s a good idea to read reviews of books before you buy any. If possible, read material that relates to how you’ll keep your bees. For example, if you’re planning to be an urban beekeeper with a rooftop hive, it’s important to look for books and articles that explain urban beekeeping rather than books that cater to a country audience.
2. Check the rules.
Before you go too far down the path of beekeeping, it’s wise to check the rules governing beekeeping in your town, homeowners association or apartment building. You wouldn’t want to lay out a lot of cash on equipment, supplies and hives only to have one of your neighbors rat you out for violating local zoning regulations. It’s also a good idea to check in with your neighbors about your plans. If you’re living next door to a child with a life-threatening bee allergy you might have to put your plans on hold. But hey, it’s better to know that before you buy bees.
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3. Join beekeeping communities.
Once you’ve established that beekeeping is allowed in your area you can start looking for other beekeepers. Maybe there are meet-ups you can attend where you can pick the brains of established beekeepers. Maybe there are online forums you can browse for popular questions and answers. You’ll waste less time (and probably less money, too) if you get advice from experienced beekeepers before you get started.
Once you find your people, it’s a good idea to solicit advice on what kind of bees you should get (Russian, Italian, etc.) given the local climate and your skill level and see if local beekeepers have any tips for keeping bees fed, happy and protected in your area.
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4. Make a plan.
Before you buy equipment and bees it’s best to make a plan. You can determine the best season for buying your hive based on the climate where you live. You can also work out what you’ll feed them if there’s not enough food for them to forage on their own, without any help from you.
Aside from making a beekeeping plan, you can make a financial plan, too. This means setting out a budget for how much you’ll spend on materials and bees and maybe working out a timeline for when you’ll buy what so you don’t dip too far into your savings or come up short on bills. Ideally, your beekeeping money would come out of your “fun money” for discretionary spending, not your emergency savings.
5. Suit up, gear up.
For many people, this is one of the most fun steps on the way to beekeeping – getting the gear. If you’re an optimizer who likes to do a ton of research before making purchases you’ll be in your element. Again, consult local experts and those you find online to find out what materials and equipment fellow beekeepers are loving and which brands are worth skipping.
Depending on your comfort level and skill with the bees, you may not need the full beekeeping suit, but at the least you’ll probably want to get a hat with a veil to protect your head, neck and face. Another essential is a smoker you can use to calm the bees while you’re extracting their honey.
Then there are the boxes and frames for the bees. Opinions differ as to the best width and height for these, so do your research. One thing to keep in mind is that the upper -most boxes and frames are where the bees store their honey (pollen and breeding take place elsewhere). You want to make sure you’re able to lift those upper boxes when they’re full of beeswax and honey, so remember that fact when you’re deciding what size of frames and boxes to buy.
You’ll be doing a lot of lifting and moving and it would be a shame to end up with a beekeeping set-up that’s too heavy for you. Keeping your bees on a raised platform will help keep them safe from ground-level predators and minimize the bending and lifting you do, but there will still be upper-body strength involved.
6. Source your bees.
This is another opportunity for extensive research. There are different kinds of bees, which vary in their color, temperament, resistance to mites and ability to survive cold winters. Keep those factors in mind when you’re making your selection. Some beekeepers choose to collect bees from the wild, but this approach has pros and cons. It’s free, but the bees might be carrying diseases or the hive’s queen might be injured.
If you go the packaged bee route you’ll have a choice between buying a “nucleus” (an established hive with a queen) or buying worker bees and introducing a new, young queen to their midst. You can introduce a queen directly, or let the worker bees eat their way through their food to the queen. In some cases, drones will reject and attack a new queen.
7. Keep your bees happy.
One way to keep your bees happy is to leave them plenty of honey. You may tempted to take all the honey you can, particularly if you’re selling the honey and using beekeeping as a side hustle. But if you leave bees a generous honey store they’ll be more resistant to disease. It’s also a good idea to scrape old beeswax and let your bees refresh the honeycomb regularly so the comb doesn’t become diseased. Many beekeepers recommend against the use of chemicals (other than the natural smoke in your smoker) in managing and treating your bees.
8. Reap the rewards.
When it’s time to take honey from your hives you’ll want to suit up and use your smoker. It’s a good idea to open the hives on sunny days that aren’t too windy so your bees will be in a good mood and, ideally, out getting pollen. Open the hive, take off the inner cover and brush off any stray bees. If you stay calm your bees are more likely to stay calm during this process, too. Lift the honeyed frames out of the box and extract the honey, using a knife or a hand-crank or mechanical extractor machine. Once your honey is off the frame it will need to be strained before it can be bottled for consumption or sale. Happy beekeeping!
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