Beekeeping Tips from Experienced Apiarists

Photo © Paul Rollings

There’s something about bees: love them or hate them they are fascinating. I channeled my personal interest and jumped straight into apiculture, becoming an amateur beekeeper without a lot of experience. If you’ve contemplated the same, or are just curious about this community of practice, this article is for you. Read on to hear from experienced apiarists on simple tricks of the trade.

Egyptian bee

Photo © Chris Beckett

Human interest in bees dates back thousands of years. Early wall paintings depict humans harvesting honey from wild hives 8,000-10,000 years ago, while the first documentation of managed apiaries dates to Ancient Egypt (see the bee in the image above) about 5000 years agoopen_in_new. Our relationship to these buzzing, honey-producing Hymenoptera has shifted and changed over time and across continents.

Hives

Photo © Internet Archive Book Image, Katie68

Beekeeping is the sort of hobby that has the magical ability to take over your whole life. I commonly hear of beekeepers who started with one colony, which grew to four, which continued to grow until they had many more colonies than they originally planned. When picking out an apiary, keep this in mind, and if you must limit yourself to, say, four colonies, it’s best to know this from the get-go.

Michael Smith, Cornell University Graduate Student, Liddell Research Apiary

Borrowing wisdom from European, Middle Eastern, and African designs, the first hives brought to the Americas in the 1600s were straw skeps (depicted on the left) that looked like miniature straw igloos. These cavities were not easy to check or to harvest honey and wax from, and eventually new designs were developed using wooden boxes. By the early 1800s, L.L. Langstroth, a minister and hobby beekeeper from Pennsylvania who was often referred to as the “father of modern day beekeeping”, developed the moveable frame hives that we see today consisting of eight or ten framed stacked boxes (depicted on the right). This design allows beekeepers to manage, rotate, and tend colonies over consecutive years rather than having to kill colonies for the annual harvest, which was once a common practice with the the older skep style.open_in_new

See the bee hives

Photo © David Phillips

If you are an avid gardener or farmer bees may seem like a natural addition to your property. They can increase pollination services and will produce delicious, nutrient-rich honey, sweet-smelling beeswax, and vitamin-and-mineral-rich bee pollen. Yet, this ancient practice is a nuanced art-form that few modern-day, experienced beekeepers would describe as easy.

Jeny and Mike

Photo © Michael Gaige and Jeny Randall

The ideal location should be easily accessible by car, or at least have some way of transporting heavy boxes full of honey. Just because it would look nice to have a bee colony far down an isolated trail doesn’t mean it’s the best place. Your bees should be conveniently located, in a place that you can regularly access.

Michael Smith, Cornell University Graduate Student, Liddell Research Apiary

Beekeeping, depending on how you choose to manage your hives, has periods of laborious, hard work–specifically during honey and wax harvest. Consider this advice from Mellivora Honey (Michael Gaige (pictured left) and Jeny Randall (pictured right) in Saratoga Springs, New York); “If the thought of lifting heavy boxes and being stung by bees, all while making a huge, sticky mess doesn’t appeal to you, then beekeeping probably isn’t for you”. Instead, you might be more inclined to raise native, stingless, honey-free mason bees for your pollination services–see this article about creating or purchasing bee houses.

smoker

Photo © Tim Holmes

This delicious labor of, what some may refer to as love, has immense rewards. To successfully set-up a hive and tend the bees the following tools of the trade are recommended:

  • A hive system comprised of 8 or 10 frames that fit inside the hive boxes. These boxes are referred to as “deeps or supers” and have different dimensions to accommodate space for the queen to lay and the workers to create honey. Ten frames are standard but eight frames weigh less when they are filled with honey. Plan to spend between $300-$500 on NEW equipment. Most companies recommend purchasing new equipment to minimize inheriting problems such as disease or mites from other beekeepers.
  • Protective equipment including leather gloves, veiled hats, and partial or full body suits that bees’ stingers cannot penetrate.
  • Smoker to calm the bees when working with the hive. This tool will become your best friend in minimizing stings.
  • Use a smoker and good smoke fuel. When we go in without the smoker we always get stung. With the smoker it’s rare.

    Mellivora Honey
  • Hive tool for lifting and moving frames.
  • Bee colony, preferably a nuc (nucleus) that includes a healthy population of workers and drones in addition to a queen. If you just get worker bees/drones it will take several weeks for a female to emerge from the worker bees, OR, you can purchase a separate queen and introduce her to the colony.
  • bee keeping garb

    Photo © Katie68

    There are other tools that some beekeepers would recommend (reference books, hook-end hive tool, spacing-tool, bee brush, frame grip, queen-excluder, uncapping fork, frame holder, honey extractor kit, etc.) but the bulleted list above is enough to get a new beekeeper started. Companies that sell beekeeping equipment usually recommend a “starter kit” that has several of the tools listed. As your skills grow and you work with other beekeepers, additional tools will eventually be added to your personal tool kit.

    honeybee

    Photo © quisnovus

    Read and learn as much as you can, but there’s no replacement for looking in your hive and talking with experienced people. Find a mentor or someone you can ask questions of and get advice. We’ve said to people many times: “The bees are doing this ___ what do we do now?”

    Mellivora Honey

    Honeybees are not all created equal. There are different strains, or varieties, of bees, that originate from various countries or regions that are known to have different dispositions, resistance to diseases, variable efficiency with honey production, and other qualities. The most common strain of bee currently used in the United States is from Italy, referred to as the Italian bee. The Italian bee is known to be a strong variety with a gentle disposition.

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    Photo ©

    Sun sun sun! Bees do best when the hive’s entrance faces south, and so receives heat from the sun. A shady location is not ideal.

    Michael Smith, Cornell University Graduate Student, Liddell Research Apiary

    At Habitat Network we recommend that you source your population of bees from a local or regional company. If the bees are raised locally they are more likely to be acclimated to your regional weather conditions, increasing the likelihood of survival. There are several beekeeping clubs or associations in the United States. To become connected to other beekeepers, use this link which organizes beekeepers by States, locations in Canada are also provided.

    flowering plants

    Photo © plant4wildlife

    In preparation for your entry into apiculture, make sure you can provide honeybees with sufficient pollen (see our Planting Palette article for an easy way to plan for seasonal blooms) or place hives in an area where the bees can forage for food year round. Raising bees in the city is even possible as long as food is readily available. Honeybees can travel several miles round trip to find food, but like most organisms, they’d rather conserve their energy and resources. Having reliable sources of food within a mile will make for happy bees.

    IMG_7552 - Version 2

    Photo © Jodi Carling

    Anaphylaxis, which is the technical name for a severe allergic reaction, can happen to those who experience bee stings. What is less commonly known is that DOGS can have an anaphylactic reaction. I made the mistake of quickly checking my hive (without a smoker) in the middle of summer with my dogs in tow. As soon as I opened the box, they attacked both my dogs, stinging them multiple times. One dog was fine, the other (pictured here) immediately started to show severe symptoms–pale-gummed, threw up multiple times, became lethargic, couldn’t move, etc. We rushed her to the veterinarian and after a steroid injection she recovered. Take caution and never work with your bees around dogs, small children, or other beloved creatures near by.

    varroa mite

    Photo © US Department of Agriculture

    Common challenges faced by beekeepers include, but are not limited to:

  • Learning to use the equipment. The first time you open a hive and try to “work with” the bees, it is not uncommon to drop a frame or squash bees. Go slowly, be patient, and trust you will get the hang of it with practice.
  • Being stung. You will get stung if you manage bees. Wear protective gear, use a smoker, and move slowly with confidence. Like dogs, some say bees can sense your fear making you more likely to get stung. Once you get use to each other, stings become less likely.
  • Disease! Bees will accidentally “drift” into neighboring colonies. Therefore, if you have all your colonies lined up in a row, all painted the same color, and all facing the same direction, it’s easy for bees to make orientation errors and end up in the wrong colony. Therefore, a sick bee can easily end up in the neighboring colony, and spread disease within the apiary. For many beekeepers, keeping colonies further apart (like 30 meters) is not practical, but if you’re able to, giving the colonies a bit more space is helpful. Painting the hive boxes different colors will also help.

    Michael Smith, Cornell University Graduate Student, Liddell Research Apiary
  • Dealing with mites. The varroa mite (pictured above on a honeybee) is here to stay and can weaken and kill hives. Mellivora Honey says, “Managing for mites is the most necessary, regular, maintenance required in raising bees. Monitor, watch, and count mites to know the condition of the hive and whether treatment is necessary.” Most starter kits include materials for routine mite checking.
  • Setbacks in the health of the colony. Bees can get sick. Whether from mites, molds, disease, exposure to pesticides, starvation, or other hazards–it is hard to watch your bees suffer and it is hard to know how to treat bees when issues arise. This is where having a community of other beekeepers is very helpful.
  • bee hives on chicago rooftop

    Photo © David B. Gleason
  • Resistance in urban or suburban areas. Some beekeepers have neighbors who are allergic to bee stings or scared of bees. The best course of action in these cases may be to reach out and help them know how to respond to bees (stay calm, don’t swat, wait for them to fly away) to keep themselves and their families safe. Honeybees do not want to sting because they die afterwards, except for the queen. Another option is to try to find a rural location, or a city rooftop garden, such as the one shown here in Chicago, which will take your bees further from the paths of people. **Keep in mind that some cities require you to have a permit to raise bees, consult with your local cooperative extension for more information.
  • Swarming. Bees swarm, it’s apart of their biology. In a swarm bees are calm and very unlikely to sting. You can sometimes split hives before swarms, but it is likely you won’t anticipate every instance when bees prepare to swarm. Learn to catch swarms, if possible. Having a network of other beekeepers will help swarms find new homes quickly and expands the number of hives you are managing.
  • How do I capture a swarm?

    catching a swarm

    Photo © OakleyOriginals

    The Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, David Bonter (not pictured here), is an apiculturist and is very effective at catching swarms. Here’s his best advice. “Capturing a swarm of honeybees is 99% luck, and if you’ve come across a cluster of bees in a tight ball on a low, accessible branch, then you should head to the casino. It’s your lucky day. When you find a cluster, you must act quickly because the bees could peel off and find their own home at any moment. The goal is to convince the cluster that the provided hive box is their perfect choice for their new home, so you’ll want to start with two boxes containing frames with comb.

    Set-up the hive as close to the swarm as possible so that you don’t have to carry the ball of bees too far. Remove the frames and set them nearby—you’ll need those later. Next, and most importantly, grab a spray bottle full of sugar water. Lightly misting the bees with the sugar solution will keep them busy, calm, and happy licking the sweet solution off of their neighbors. If the bees are on a small branch that can be cut, securely hold the branch near the bees and cut the branch with your other hand. Beware that the cluster can be quite heavy and awkward. Then take the branch to your open hive boxes and shake! Most of the bees in the cluster will fall right into the box. Some will start to fly, but they will be remarkably calm through this process.

    Next, quickly grab your frames of combs and gently slide them into the box. The bees will immediately start to colonize the frames and organize themselves in their new home. Lots of bees will be flying around at this point, but they are highly motivated to get back to the cluster around the queen. I generally leave the hive lid ajar with an at least an inch gap so that the flying bees can find their way into the hive. After an hour or so, when the bees have settled, you can slide the lid closed.

    honeycomb

    Photo © toholio

    Don’t work with bees on a stormy day, or if a storm is coming. Bees are sensitive to changes in air pressure. Also, they are more likely to sting if you smell like bananas. Don’t eat them before working with bees.

    Cooperative Extension Beekeeper in New York, Oneida County

    I’d be lying if I said I was successful raising honeybees the first time. I wasn’t. After a cold winter and two uncaught swarms, the honeybees abandoned their hive. I am heartened by the fact that my bees are not too far off. They have found sanctuary in the forest as I regularly see them in my gardens. I plan to try again, and with the help of professionals, amateurs, and personal lessons learned, I intend to not only help my bees thrive, but also harvest my first mouth-watering-home-raised honey.

    bee leaving flower

    Photo © plant4wildlife

    If you love honey, enjoy the challenge of learning a new skill, are not afraid of bees, and capable of lifting 50 lb boxes of honey, you are on your way to being a potentially successful beekeeper. If you love bees, but don’t find appeal in raising your own, consider creating a home for wild native bees. There is evidence that many bee populations are in decline. The number one thing you can do for these enchanting animals is to create pollen-rich, pesticide-free habitat for all bees. Bees reward us a billion times over with their company, their honey, their wax, and most of all, their pollination services. BEEst of luck in your apiculture adventures!

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