Honey bees are an integral part of the ecosystem, easy to raise, and a satisfying hobby for the urban or rural farmer. Here’s your step-by-step guide to getting started if you’ve decided to establish a hive on your property.
Why is it Important?
Bees need plants, and plants need bees. Bees pollinate over 30% of the world's crops, and over 90% of wild plants. In the last few decades, though, Colony Collapse Disorder and other challenges have caused a devastating decrease in honey bees. Installing your own beehives can help rebuild this important population.
And doing your part to add to a healthy landscape is far from the only benefit of keeping bees. Of course, they make delicious, homegrown honey. This syrupy sweetener and its health benefits are motivation enough for many. But you can harvest many other things from your hive, too.
Beeswax can be used to make slow burning, drip-free candles, as well as lip gloss, mustache wax, and other products. Propolis, a sticky gel with a variety of medical uses, can be sourced from hives. Some people take bee pollen itself as a nutritional supplement. And if you choose to take your hobby to the next level, successful bee propagation can net you a profit when you sell honey, wax, or even the pollination services of your bees.
It's not much compared with purchasing livestock or farm equipment, but between hive supplies, protection gear, and the bees themselves, you’ll be looking at around $500 to start a successful apiary.
Step 1 - Check City Codes
Beehives can thrive in just about any space, from sprawling farms to small apartment buildings. Some municipalities have restrictions on the location and quantity of hives, though. Be sure to check with your local authorities for this information. If you live in a close community, you might want to have a chat with your neighbors about the idea. Some people are allergic to bees, and can have dangerous reactions to getting stung.
Step 2 - Plan Ahead
Hives should generally be started in the spring—April is a good month in most areas, depending on the weather. You want it warm enough for the colony to go outside, and you want nearby plants creating pollen and nectar for them to harvest.
Step 3 - Collect or Buy Your Bees
Find a reliable source and order your bees in January or February for an April delivery. You can also harvest your own colony if you find one naturally developing. Sometimes larger colonies will split, with a significant group of bees following a new queen to a nearby branch or post.
Step 4 - Build or Buy a Hive
If you’re just starting out, you can either purchase a pre-made hive or build your own. A standard 10-frame "super" is a good place to start. If you live in a warmer area, a glass viewing section can make a nice addition, as it will let you check on your friends throughout the year without disturbing them.
Step 5 - Choose a Location
Hives can be located just about anywhere, so for safety and efficiency, pick an area with low foot traffic. Ideally, the opening of the hive should face southeast, so the bees can capitalize on early morning sun each day. If that's not convenient, don't worry too much, bees are flexible enough to adjust.
At least try to protect the hive from any serious regular winds, and place it on the sunny side of any large trees or buildings, so it can enjoy afternoon warmth, too. Set up a platform to lift the hive off the ground, and set it at a very slight angle, so rain will run off the top.
Step 6 - Assemble Beeswax Frames
A sheet of starter wax in each frame will keep your bees focused on the areas you want them to fill with honey, so you can separate the pieces and harvest easily later.
Step 7 - Collect Your Gear
Many longtime beekeepers eschew protective gear, relying on good technique to keep their bees happy and prevent them from stinging. Since you're just getting going, you might want to start with some thick items of clothing to protect as much of your skin as possible. If you have some gloves and boots, get them involved. Duct tape works well to seal off wrist and ankle openings.
Eventually you may want to purchase a bee suit, bee helmet, veil, and protective gloves. A hive tool can help separate frames and remove combs, but you can also use a screwdriver. A bee brush is also nice when directing bees around the hive, and a smoker is a must-have item for keeping bees calm while you work on their home.
Step 8 - Prepare the Hive
Once you've mounted and assembled your new honey factory, give it a spray-down with some sugar water. This will create a welcoming environment for the incoming hive members.
Step 9 - Put Bees in the Hive
If you’ve ordered your bees, they will come with a queen bee in a separate, smaller cage attached to the main container. Place the queen cage toward the center of your box, about six to eight inches in from the hive entrance. The seal of her cage is made of sugar, so she and her worker bees will eat through the door in a few days, incorporating her into the community.
Remove a few frames from the center, then gently pour and shake the bees into the hive. They will probably swarm around for a bit as a message to all nearby bees that they’ve found a home. This active buzzing is completely normal, although it can be a little intimidating the first time you see it.
Place the frames back into the hive and put the inside lid on top. Let your new tenants settle in for an hour or so, then put the outer lid on top. You may want to weigh the roof down with a rock to prevent damage from wind, or intrusion from hungry predators.
Check on your busy friends within the first week to make sure the queen has been released and the colony is healthy. To keep them humming happily, attach a sugar water feeder to their entrance, and replenish it periodically. Other than that, you won't have to do much to keep them happy over the summer. Your honey should be ready to harvest in late summer or early fall.