The PerfectBee Introduction​ to Learning Beekeeping

Bees on frames

The PerfectBee Introduction​ to Learning Beekeeping

Have you ever considered beekeeping? Wondered about those brave souls who mingle with bees? Curious about co-existing with tens of thousands of busy little creatures, producing all that honey? Have you also wanted to know what marvels occur within the hive? Perhaps the science of beekeeping excites you. Or maybe it’s the promise of beautiful, natural honey!

Regardless of what interests you in beekeeping, perhaps it is your calling. If you have ever wondered how to start beekeeping, our introduction to beekeeping covers what it takes to become a beekeeper and why anyone truly can enjoy this wonderful hobby.

In this article we'll answer the following questions.

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Why Learn Beekeeping?

All beekeepers have their special reasons for doing what they do. Only you can decide what draws you into beekeeping, but here are some common reasons:

We should mention making a little money on the side. We include this for completeness and it’s true that beekeepers can enjoy a little pocket money from their honey (and perhaps even wax products). But fair warning – if this is your main reason, then we’d suggest other easier and less messy hobbies! Few beekeepers turn this into a full business that will pay the bills.

All told, learning beekeeping has the potential to reward you in many ways. And so, if you have ever wondered how to start beekeeping, let’s begin…

swarm 3Who Can Learn Beekeeping?

That’s easy. Anyone!

Beekeeping can be enjoyed by:

In short, beekeeping truly can be fun for just about anyone. Let’s drill down on what it takes to reach beekeeper status!

Note: The one qualifier is if you are one of the 2% of people who have an allergic reaction to bee stings. While that still doesn’t count you out, you should think carefully about whether this is the right hobby for you.

Is It Difficult to Learn Beekeeping?

Yes. Next question? OK, perhaps we should elaborate…

First, let’s dispel the myth that beekeeping involves throwing a few bees in a box and waiting for honey. Beekeeping is, in fact, rather challenging and requires you to learn fun and interesting things about the way bees live their lives. Those same bees will find their own way to surprise you and frustrate you. That’s just what they do!

…some aspects of beekeeping are about interpreting “forensics”.

But they will also delight the beekeeper who has the motivation to truly embrace beekeeping and learn. As one example, some aspects of beekeeping are about interpreting “forensics”. Finding the queen in your hive during an inspection is always satisfying. But if you can’t find her (and that’s not unusual) then you can infer her activity from the presence of eggs and larvae. If they exist, then you know she’s been there recently!

While just one small example, it’s this sort of interpretation that is the realm of the beekeeper. You will quickly understand how these clues fit together. It takes a while to build these skills, but they can be learned by anyone. Becoming a beekeeper does need a certain fascination and a dedication to learn, but it is well worth the effort.

What Do I Need to Know About Bees?

Over time you will learn a lot. In fact, as you gain experience as a beekeeper you will learn things about bees you didn’t even know were there to be learned! Beekeeping is fascinating precisely because there is so much to learn. Even the most experienced of beekeepers comes across some new scenario or fact every year.

Eggs And BroodBut don’t let this put you off! The new beekeeper does need a basic understanding of why bees do what they do, what they need, what threats exist to their survival and so on. But the basics are within grasp of anyone, even young (and curious) kids.

PerfectBee believes any introduction to beekeeping is incomplete without first taking the time to understand the extraordinary life of the honeybee. With that as an important first step, we present a three-step approach to learning beekeeping:

  1. Learn About Bees

  2. Your Beehive

  3. A Healthy Beehive

…a successful beekeeper is one with a firm grasp of the fundamental ways in which bees live their lives

It is our belief that a successful beekeeper is one with a firm grasp of the fundamental ways in which bees live their lives. This helps the beekeeper ensure we have a suitable environment for our bees and to understand the “signs” they send to us through the year. For this reason, we recommend that all potential beekeepers spend some time reading about bees, ask questions and get involved before they purchase their first beehive. More on that below.

Will I Be Stung To Death?

Um, no (we’re going to mention that qualifier about the 2% with allergies again here but, no, you won’t be stung to death!).

Despite the occasional bad PR, bees are incredibly docile. They have a specific set of goals in mind and, if left alone, they achieve them very well and without disturbing anyone. In short, bees don’t sting unless they feel threatened. There’s a good reason for that – when a honeybee stings a human the bee ends up dead!

Let’s boil it down to simple simple statements:

  • There are no assurances bees won’t sting but if they don’t feel threatened they won’t
  • Treat your bees gently and they will carry on with their business
  • Protective clothing can help enormously here
  • With a gentle disposition, sensible clothing and respect for your bees it’s quite common to get through the year without any stings

Stings are no fun but you can take actions to minimize the chances of them occurring. If they do, your body starts building a little “familiarity” and the next sting can sometimes be a little easier to tolerate.

What Equipment Do I Need And At What Cost?

See that piece of string….?

Warre BoxesSeriously, there’s no clear cut answer to this since there are a number of variables. But we know you’d be a little frustrated if we didn’t even offer a general idea! So, let’s do just that.

Like most hobbies, beekeeping offers the opportunity to save money – and also the chance to spend more than is necessary! Finding that balance is important. We look at this in terms of a “traditional” buying process (purchasing the equipment you need from a store), but with the opportunity to reduce costs at various steps.

For example, most people start by buying their first hive, but for the more handy among us, it’s perfectly reasonable to build our own hive from a set of hove plans. Opportunities like this exist throughout your beekeeping experience but, as a high-level guide, we’ll assume you purchase new equipment. Let’s look more closely at what you need.

You don’t need a great deal of equipment to be a beekeeper. To some extent this will depend on what you are looking to achieve with your beekeeping, your location and some other factors. Let’s look first at your choice of hive.

The beehive is one of the more exciting purchases, of course. Though there are many types of beehive in use today, the majority of beekeepers use one of the following types:

  • The Langstroth: The iconic hive we’ve all seen in rustic settings, featuring one or more boxes stacked on top of each other. This hive has been around for well over 150 years and with good reason. It’s based on a standardized of set of dimensions, so can be expanded in various ways, including with products from different manufacturers. A great choice for those looking to maximize the yield of lovely honey!
  • The Warre: A design based on the locations and structures that bees choose in nature, the Warre mimics the inside of a tree trunk. It is a smaller design than the Langstroth and requires a little less maintenance.
  • The Top Bar. The very convenient “arms length” design is a boon to those looking to minimize the heavy lifting. Rather than lift boxes of honey weighing 60 lbs or more, the Top Bar beekeeper handles individual bars of just a few pounds. Inspections are also less invasive, compared to the Langstroth and the Warre.

To get you up and running, the rest of your basic shopping list might include:

…and, actually, that’s about it!

Stepping back to our shopping list and to offer a little guidance, let’s make a few assumptions.

  • You will buy new equipment and clothing
  • You will buy good quality products from an established, reputable dealer
  • Some of the equipment you order may come unassembled, but there’s nothing more involved than hammering in a few nails

…you can probably look at around $200 or so, for good quality but entry-level equipment

As a rough estimate you can probably look at around $200 or so, for good quality but entry-level equipment. In fact, there are options to lower that still further, with kits or homemade components.

Of course. there are also ways to pay much more! Quality costs money and if you are looking for a beautiful Top Bar hive with all the bells-and-whistles, high-quality ventilated clothing and so on, then your cost for the basic list above could easily run to $600+.

To be fair, the list above is about the minimum you will need. But it’s probably something of a false economy to limit yourself to that list and there are other options that can make your beekeeping life a little easier. These include a smoker, maybe a bee brush and more. As you start extending your toolkit and/or go for better quality products your costs can start approaching $1,000 – or more.

…With a little research and the intention to purchase entry-level products (“get the job done” level!), beekeeping really doesn’t need to be an expensive hobby.

But fear not – these are all merely options. Just like any other mature hobby, there are price points every step of the way. With a little research and the intention to purchase entry-level products (“get the job done” level!), beekeeping really doesn’t need to be an expensive hobby.

…It’s often a good choice to install two beehives from the outset.

By the way, a quick note about a second hive. It’s often a good choice to install two beehives from the outset. The good news is that a good chunk of your “basic list” components, such as the hive tool and the protective clothing, only need be purchased once. So, the “incremental costs” for the second (and third and fourth…) hives can be quite reasonable.

If you wish to harvest honey, as most beekeepers enjoy, then you will benefit from the appropriate honey harvesting equipment to help with this. Exactly what equipment you will need is somewhat dependent on your type of beehive. Again, there are many options here and, as a general rule, the more elbow grease and patience you have, the lower the cost. Then again, if you want highly convenient, technical solutions the beekeeping industry is more than willing to offer a product – at an associated cost.

When Is The Best Time To Get Started?

The short answer is in the spring.

In terms of seasons, the biggest challenge for bees is the winter, when they will generally spend the months on end in what is called the winter cluster, keeping themselves warm and consuming honey resources. It’s a miracle of nature that they can survive incredibly frigid temperature. But they do need considerable amounts of honey to get through this period, because they don’t have the option to create their own.

By comparison, a new colony in the spring can start forging the local environment for nectar and pollen, start increasing the size of the colony and building their reserves. As summer approaches they will hopefully find riches nearby, in the form of flowering plants.

…spring as the best time to start a new hive.

but…

…if it’s fall or winter, consider taking advantage of the time to educate yourself and be ready for the spring, well before you install your first hive.

As with any aspect of beekeeping, there are exceptions but generally you can consider spring as the best time to start a new hive. Often a beekeeper starts a new hive with a package of bees and gives the colony a helping hand with some sugar syrup in a feeder. The consumption of the syrup is checked occasionally and, all being well, it can be removed in a few weeks when the bees have located suitable resources nearby.

But wait….there’s more!

Don’t make the mistake of many a potential beekeeper in assuming you can just swing by a store in April, buy a hive, throw some bees in it and become a beekeeper. Big mistake! There are a number of reasons, but the following are the important ones:

  • Learning beekeeping takes time. Before you install your first hive, learn. Read. Listen. Ask. Just wallow in beekeeping and you will be amazed at how much you learn. But it does take a while. In fact, for many, the winter is the PERFECT time to do this learning. That’s whywe have the PerfectBee (totally free) 3-step plan to learning beekeeping, to prepare you well for your first beehive. With phased, daily Facebook posts and great new content, we will walk hand-in-hand with you as you learn more about bees and beekeeping. Want to know more? Just sign up for our free beekeeping newsletter, PerfectBee Buzz. We’ll walk you through the winter – and get you ready!
  • Your bees may need some lead time! A common rookie mistake is to assume you can just locate bees easily in the spring, as soon as your beehive is installed. It’s not always that simple. Many new beekeepers order a “package of bees” (see below). And guess what – they sell out! Depending on your location and demand, if you order your package in the spring you may well be out of luck. PerfectBee recommends considering placing an order for a package of bees around January or February, to avoid disappointment. By the way, another great option for the new beekeeper is the nuc.

All these factors mean that, if it’s fall or winter, consider taking advantage of the time to educate yourself and be ready for the spring, well before you install your first hive.

Where Should I Place My Hive?

The answer to this question comes from the basic requirements for your bees. Consider those first then start thinking about whether the location works for you, as the beekeeper. Because if it works for you but not for your bees, you are wasting your time!

Beehives in fieldIn short, bees need the following:

Most of these are well within the control of the beekeeper. For example, making sure there is a good water source for bees is generally straightforward – just make sure the neighbors swimming pool isn’t the nearest!

Again, this is something of a simplification in an introductory article but you can read more in Where to place your beehive.

Where Do I Get My First Bees?

Oh yeah – we will need some bees too!

Beekeepers obtain their bees in a number of ways. For the new beekeeper, we’d recommend one of the following:

  • A package of bees. This is what you see in the movies (well, YouTube video’s at least!).
  • A nuc. This is essentially a “slimline” colony, just with a few less frames than a traditional hive. It’s already established, the workers and drones know the queen (she’s their mother!) and they all all in full production mode from the outset.

Other options exist, such as catching a swarm of bees. But PerfectBee generally recommends one of the two options above as a nice, less-stressful way to start learning about beekeeping.

How Much Time Do I Need?

Again, it depends. You will find beekeepers that will tell you “it takes every waking hour, constantly worrying about your bees and making sure they have all they need”. We’ve heard those beekeepers – and we disagree strongly! Frankly – and within reason – you can spend as little or as much time as you like. But what does “within reason” mean?

We look at it this way. There are a number of phases you will go through as a beekeeper.

  1. Initial curiosity, research and education.
  2. Deciding to go ahead, purchasing your equipment and bees and setting up your first hive
  3. The first year
  4. The rest

The time you will spend on the first of these is entirely up to you and your “risk” is low (you haven’t purchased anything yet). If you are like most beekeepers you won’t worry about the time you spend on this phase, simply because you are curious and interested.

Once you have decided to go ahead and learn beekeeping – and we’re here to help with that – then you will need to research and make good decisions. As a very rough guideline, we’d suggest 5-10 hours deciding on your hive and equipment of choice is time well spent. A little more time to plan your hive location and then you will be purchasing your stuff! From the time you receive all your equipment to the time it’s all set up can be maybe 2-3 hours. So, for phase 2, let’s round up and say 15 hours or so, including “shopping time”.

Then the fun begins. After you have set up your hive, you will want to know all there is to know about what’s happening inside! In actual fact, you will probably want to check inside the hive more often than is good for your bees. As (another) rough estimate, we’d propose that in the first few weeks you should look inside your hive no more than once a week and be “in and out” in 20 minutes or so. That’s not a huge time commitment! As things settle down and depending on the time of year, you may need to address an  issue in your hive such as mites or may have no problem and only need to check every few weeks.

What Are The Steps To Install My First Hive?

With your beehive, equipment and bees at hand, the process is pretty straightforward. Like many aspects of beekeeping, there are nuances that depend on the choices you have made but, using a package of bees as an example, here’s the basic process.

  1. Assemble your beehive and frames, if necessary
  2. Place in the location you researched as the best option
  3. Take the queen from the package while in her cage, take out the cork from one end and place the cage in the hive, attached to one of the frames
  4. Pour – yes, pour – 10,000 eager bees into the hive
  5. Place the inner cover and telescoping top cover on the beehive

There you go. You are a beekeeper!

Except… you are not.

You will make your own judgement about when you truly feel comfortable calling yourself a beekeeper but rest assured that on this first day you have so much to learn that it’s probably better to just call yourself a “bee watcher”!

But first day is one you will never forget. It’s truly a spectacle to watch your bees start establishing their new home. To put an interesting context on this, know that in a few short weeks everyone of those bees you just installed will be an “ex bee” i.e. will have met his or her maker, with the exception of the queen. But your beehive will hopefully be thriving with the furious activity of many bees that have been born since that first day.

What Are The Regular Tasks For a Beekeeper?

As a general rule, you will want to leave your bees to do their own thing as much as possible. Bees are remarkably resilient and find ways to resolve many of the challenges thrown at them, as a matter of course. Then again, it is you, as the beekeeper, who has given them their home, chosen the location, the surroundings and so on. It’s also a proven fact that new beekeepers want to peek all the time! Finding a balance, especially in those early weeks, is important.

Your role as a beekeeper is essentially to observe, assess and – where possible – leave alone. Occasionally, you will need to take action and you will learn these over time. But even with a very hands-off attitude, the first part – to observe – takes a little time and disrupts your bees somewhat.

Your inspection should be brief and to the point. As a general guideline, try to get “in and out” in 15 minutes or less. You will typically be looking for a number of key clues, indicating the health or otherwise of your colony. The exact details will vary, depending on factors such as the time of year, the maturity of the colony, location and more. But you will generally be looking to answer the following questions.

  • Is the queen productive? It’s always good to actually see the queen but, as we mentioned already, it is by no means a requirement at every inspection. Checking for eggs, larvae and pupa is an excellent indicator that she’s been doing her thing just fine.
  • Are the workers, well, working? As the queen lays eggs, workers do a huge number of things. As well as supporting the queen, it’s also essential that the furious activity from workers results in an ever-growing volume of honey. While you may enjoy some of this in due course, keep in mind that they are doing this hard work to provide resources to get through the winter. Workers do many other things too and, as a beekeeper, you will learn how to interpret these.
  • Are there any threats? The inspection is also the time you will check for mites and other threats (see below).
  • Do your bees have enough space? The best way to get your bees to swarm is to not give them enough space! A beekeeper will know how to look for signs that they need another box and foundation to expand the hive still further.

These are, of course, high-level descriptions of what you will do as a beekeeper. Rest assured, you will find your inspections enlightening, fun and ever-educational.

How Do I Keep My Bees Healthy?

One of the joys of beekeeping is seeing your bees thrive across many seasons. This isn’t easy takes time, patience and an ability to identify problems and help your bees, when necessary.

Bees face many threats. Some are global – such as Colony Collapse Disorder – while some are more local, such mites or storms. In fact, the uninformed or overly disruptive beekeeper can be one of the more serious threats. Don’t be that beekeeper!

The most common threats to the survival of a hive include mites, pests/animals – and winter.

  • Mites are always on the beekeeper’s mind. As a beekeeper you will come to know the word Varroa (a type of mite) very well. The Varroa mite is essentially a “vampire” to bees, attaching to the body of a bee and sucking it’s blood. They can only reproduce in a bee hive but when they do they can cause havoc and sometimes the complete destruction of the colony. As a beekeeper, you will learn how to recognize Varroa, measure the extent of their presence and take action, as necessary.
  • Various pests and animals can cause problems for bees. The might of a bear leaves a rather obvious calling card, after it has attacked a hive for it’s honey. At the other end of the spectrum, many tiny ants can invade the hive. Once again, as beekeeper you can take steps to avoid such issues.
  • And there are the elements. Once winter sets in, bees will stay in the hive protecting the queen and keeping her “balmy”, even when there is three feet of snow around around the hive. The colony will consume honey resources they prepared in fall and, all being well, will have enough to last till spring.

These are just examples of the threats our bees face. The good news is that, depending on your philosophy about beekeeping, you have many options. For many beekeepers, these challenges represent some of the most interesting aspects of beekeeping.

Should I Find a Mentor?

Yes. That’s the short answer.

You don’t actually NEED a mentor and many a successful beekeeper has been “self-driven”. That can work just great, especially in this day of huge volumes of information on the Internet. So, having a mentor is by no means an absolute requirement.

However, PerfectBee does highly recommend you find someone who can work with you, to guide you one-on-one. That sort of direct, personalized feedback and help is hard to beat. A local mentor is particularly valuable. Beekeeping has many common factors, regardless of location. But there is also local knowledge that can be a decisive factor and a mentor who knows your area well is a valuable resource.

Another important aspect of a local mentor is the value in physically inspecting a hive with you. This can uncover issues with how you go about the inspection but also illustrate factors in your beehive that would be difficult to identify without the help of a mentor.

What Resources Will Help Me Learn More?

PerfectBee is here to help every step of the way as you are learning beekeeping! We will help you towards your first beehive… and beyond.

  1. Subscribe to our beekeeper’s newsletter, PerfectBee Buzz. It’s free, of course, and we will keep you informed of all that’s happening in beekeeping, including new articles and subscriber discounts to our store
  2. Like us on Facebook. We like you (because you are interested in beekeeping, why why not like us back! We post awesome and regular information for beekeepers
  3. Browse our web site at PerfectBee.com. Organized by our 3-step plan, you will find tremendously helpful articles and content here, including out blog.
  4. Follow us on Pinterest. A great way to learn about new beekeeping information and web sites, via a more visual medium.
  5. Browse the PerfectBee Store. All your beekeeping needs, from high-quality beehives, tools, protective clothing and more.

But, of course, there’s more. There are many options available for you to continue to learn, both online and in your area. Regardless of your learning preferences or your desire to be a part of a beekeeping community, a lack of resources won’t be your issue. Here are just a few ways you can build your beekeeping knowledge.

What’s Next?

We hope you have enjoyed this introduction to learning beekeeping. This truly is just a start. The question of how to start beekeeping doesn’t have a neat little answer. There are so many aspects to beekeeping that, as we have said, the learning never stops.

Why not sign up for our free, online beekeeping course? Over the course of two weeks we’ll delivery our entire course to your inbox – three parts, each with three sections. We don’t claim anyone can become an experienced beekeeping in such a short period of time. Indeed, the learning never stops. But our course is a great way to kick start your interest in beekeeping. And did we mention it’s free (there are no catches at all – just sign up, enjoy the course, unsubscribe at any time and so on).

Over time, your bees will surprise you. They will be productive in a way you never imagined. They will face their challenges – and take care of things just fine on their own. They may face a challenge that threatens their existence at which point you, as a beekeeper, may choose to step in and give them a helping hand.

You interest and curiosity about your bees will only grow over time. PerfectBee is here to help you along that path.

Questions? Just drop us a line through our Contact Form – we’d love to hear from you.

We wish you every success as a beekeeper.

 

About Mark Williams

2 thoughts on “The PerfectBee Introduction​ to Learning Beekeeping

  1. I have a couple hives and they seemed to be doing well but now that the cold has showed up I seem to have alot of dead bees on the entrance platform . Am I having a problem or is that normal?

  2. Steve, what you are describing is perfectly normal unless it is a huge pile of bees indicating the colony has died. Not sure what part of the country you are in but if you get snow that stays for a few days and then a warming period, enough so the bees can get out for cleansing flights, you will find a number of dead bees in the snow. Again, its normal. A colony continues to lose bees throughout the winter, due to age, disease and or mites. Its another reason you want your colony to be as healthy as possible heading into winter and that generally means mites were controlled prior to the colony raising “winter bees”. Winter bees have “fat bodies” (structures within the bee) that help see the bee through the winter. There is an article here on the website entitled “Fall Inside the Hive” that describes what takes place.

    At this time of year the colony is likely broodless. The queen takes a break for a month or so but will soon begin to lay again. Though the time varies, mentally I always figure sometime after the winter solstice (shortest day). When she does begin to lay again it will only be a small patch of brood and then she will likely stop again. She wont begin laying to significantly raise colony numbers until the weather is warmer and pollen and nectar become available.

    If you have an entrance reducer on the hive that is set to the smallest entrance, you will want the entrance to look like an upside down “U”. That way dead bees don’t block the entrance.

    I hope that answers your question and best of luck with your bees.

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