How to get started with Honeybees
by Linda Tillman
The smell of the beehive is delicious and alluring. That alone is worth it. The buzz of the bees as they go about their daily work is entrancing. Watching them can occupy hours of my time. The taste of honey is delectable, whether off the tip of my finger as I go through a hive, or out of the honey jar after harvest.
I am a beekeeper and I love it.
Beekeeping is both an art and a science. The draw of keeping bees has been part of the history of man and honey was found, thick and still tasty, in the Egyptian tombs. Honey never goes bad, never spoils, but that is part of the science of beekeeping and I am getting ahead of myself.
Requirements to get started
1. Curiosity about bees (passion develops over time and experience)
2. A place to put your beehive (this is simpler than it might seem)
3. A budget for equipment (and bees)
Natural Beekeeping Books
Years before I started keeping bees, I read books about bees. Mostly those books were poetic and romantic such as The Queen Must Die by William Longgood and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I loved it that Sherlock Holmes was a beekeeper. And then there are Mary Oliver’s many lovely poems about bees, particularly “Hum.”
As I prepared to keep bees, I read books about the science of beekeeping. The more I read both books and on Internet forum posts, I realized that I wanted to keep bees as naturally as possible. My father was a doctor and he never took any medicine himself because he said there are always side effects. I couldn’t see any reason to think any differently about bees and the beehive. So the books I then chose to read were more about keeping bees without the use of pesticides or treatment in the hives.
Here is where the fuzzy line between beekeeping as an art and beekeeping as a science begins. Every beekeeper has to take a philosophical stand about the use of treatment in the beehive. I prefer a treatment free approach, so my favorite books are The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping by Stiglitz and Herboldsheimer and Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad. If you want to keep bees, read for yourself and make informed decisions about how to manage the inevitable pests in the hive.
The next focus in getting ready to keep bees is deciding where to put them. People today keep beehives everywhere and anywhere. Hives are on the tops of buildings in New York City. My first hives were on the deck of my house just a few feet from my back door. The main things to keep in mind in locating hives are:
1. Will you have easy access to them?
If they are hard to get to, you will learn less from them because you will go there less frequently. And your bees will get less attention from you.
2. Can they face east or southeast?
The sun hitting the hive entry first thing in the morning gets the bees out and working.
3. Will they get at least a half day of sun and are they in a dry location?
The sun helps keep the small hive beetle at bay and generally helps the hive thrive.
4. Is there a water source?
If there isn’t, you can provide one such as a pan with pebbles in it filled with water. The bees can’t swim so they need the pebbles for landing. If you do not provide a water source, the bees will use your neighbors’ swimming pools and you will be a target for complaint.
5. Will you be able to manage your neighbors’ concerns?
My hives on my deck were masked by a hedge so that the neighbors were not reminded every day that I had bees on my deck. Hives that I manage at an inn face a fence so that they fly out and up and are high in the air before they reach the neighbors’ yards.
An exact bee space of 5/16” is required for bees to move about and function in their hive. This informs the way man made beehives are built and how the frames for the bees to live on are constructed. Luckily there are bee equipment companies that make equipment for beekeepers. They build the hive boxes according to the specifications needed by the bees.
I make my hive box decisions by thinking about weight. I want to keep bees until I am old and feeble, so I use all medium Langstroth boxes. Their weight, even full of honey, is manageable for me. Also I can move frames around in the hive, if I need to, because all of the frames I am using fit all of my boxes. You’ll have to decide what type of hive equipment configuration will work for you.
Hives & Colonies
In the United States, a basic hive includes a couple of boxes for brood and then boxes for honey. A beginning hive here would need at least a total of four boxes to make it through a season. Other countries use different configurations. In Lithuania where I traveled last year to look at beehives and meet beekeepers, the bees were kept in chest configurations. Instead of stacking up boxes to make the hive taller and taller as we do in the United States, they continuously removed honeycomb and added empty frames for the bees to continue storage and growth.
Once you’ve set up your hives, you are ready for your bees. Bees can be ordered and actually arrive through the postal service. I prefer to order nucleus hives and pick them up from the supplier. A nucleus hive is a mini-beehive, with a laying queen, bees, honey, pollen. You install this mini hive into a bigger hive box and the bees take it from there.
An exciting way to collect bees is to capture a swarm. Every year the hive is inclined to split in two in a Darwinian way of increasing the species. The queen leaves with half of the bees, mostly the young ones. She and her retinue then begin a new hive. If the beekeeper can find and capture a swarm, it’s a gift from nature. Often they are hanging from a tree or shrub and are easy to get.
Now you’re a Beekeeper
Once your bees are installed in your hive, your beekeeping responsibilities begin. It is now your job to take care of your thousands of little charges. Your main responsibilities include inspecting your hive to make sure the queen is alive and functioning and giving the bees enough space and resources to live. I always try to think respectfully about the beehive and recognize that I am entering uninvited. I move slowly and carefully to honor their tiny lives.
Along the way you’ll get to harvest honey, if you are lucky, and the bees make enough to get themselves through the winter. The beekeeper only takes what’s extra after the bees are prepared to survive the cold months. And the beekeeper only takes fully capped honey that is below 18.6 percent moisture, which is why honey can be completely fine after being in the Egyptian tombs. Real honey (below 18.6% moisture) can’t mold.
Beekeeping has taught me so much and introduced me to so many interests. I now check the weather every day; know a lot about construction; pay attention to the botany of my area and what is in bloom; am informed and care about sex and the honeybee; and have learned to use the products of the hive. I make lip balm, lotion, candles and soap. I melt wax in the sun almost every day in the summer.
My house smells deliciously of honey and wax when any bee action has taken place that day. I love the bees and hope you will join the great beekeeping adventure with your own hives.
Linda Tillman lives in the middle of urban Atlanta and keeps her bees in her postage-stamp backyard. She has been keeping bees for nine years and is passionate about her tiny charges. She manages about eighteen hives in various parts of the city and tries to maintain her beekeeping in a treatment free manner. When not talking about her bees or working in her hives, Linda is a clinical psychologist, a grandmother, a bread baker (every week) and a blogger. Linda started her blog, Linda’s Bees, so her family would know about her beekeeping activities, but it has grown to be a source of experience and information for beekeepers all over the world.