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STARTING RIGHT

Keeping bees is an adventure, an avocation, and an investment, much like preparing for a garden. You must plan what you will raise, be aware of harvest dates, prepare for how to preserve the bounty, and plan what needs to be done in the off-season.

GETTING STARTED

Your first step is to order as many beekeeping catalogs as you can find. They’re free, and they contain a wealth of information. There are also magazines dedicated to beekeeping. Look particularly at those companies that offer preassembled products.

PROVIDING WATER

Providing fresh water for bees is mandatory. A summer colony needs at least a quart (liter) of water every day and as much as a gallon (4 L) when it’s very warm. Making sure that water is continuously available in your yard will make your bees’ lives easier, and it helps ensure that they do not wander where they are not welcome—such as the neighbor’s child’s swimming pool—in search of water.

Whatever watering technique you choose for your bees, the goal is to provide a continuous supply of fresh water. This means while you are on vacation for a couple of weeks, when you forget to check, and especially when it’s really hot—bees always need water. To make water accessible to bees, try the following:

Image Float pieces of cork or small pieces of wood in pails of fresh water for the bees to rest on while drinking.

Image Install a small pool or water garden or have birdbaths that fill automatically when the water runs low.

Image Set outside faucets to drip slowly (great for urban beekeepers) or hook up automatic pet or livestock waterers.

Be careful not to raise mosquitoes. Standing water, even for a week or so, can produce a whole brood of these often disease-carrying pests. A water source that is cycled by a pump or is changed on a regular basis is what’s needed. It’s a trade-off. The choice can’t be water for the bees and mosquitoes. It has to be water and no mosquitoes.

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A beehive should be visually screened from the public. The site should have some afternoon shade, lots of room to work, and a low-maintenance landscape. Notice that the white hive seen here is highly visible. Stark white beehives with little or no screening will draw attention and invite trouble. Out of sight and out of mind is the goal. This site doesn’t work.

FIND OUT ABOUT KEEPING BEES IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

Some areas have restrictions on beekeeping. You need to find out about the ordinances of your city or town, because local zoning may limit your ability to keep bees. There are seldom regulations that do not allow any beehives on a suburban lot, but there are often specific, restrictive guidelines for managing them. And some places do strictly forbid having bees.

It is also important to investigate your neighbors’ take on your new hobby. It may be completely legal to have bees on your property, but if your neighbors have an extremely negative opinion of insects that sting and swarm, you’ll have to make some compromises.

Often these neighbors are concerned because of someone in the family being allergic, or more often, thinking they are allergic to bee stings. Without being confrontational, find out if that person is really allergic to bees or if they just have the standard non-allergic reaction, which includes slight swelling at the site of the sting, itching, and redness.

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An automatic watering device is an ideal way to provide water and not have to worry about the effects of a drought. (In winter, watering devices need to be unhooked and drained.)

POSITIONING YOUR HIVES

Once you have considered everyone else’s comfort level, it is a good idea to consider the comfort and happiness of your bees. Every family pet, including bees, needs a place that’s protected from the afternoon sun and sudden showers and provides access to ample fresh water. Place colonies where they’ll have a little protection from the hot afternoon sun, but don’t place them in full shade. The more sun your hive is exposed to, the better it can handle some pests. All day sun is alright, but a bit of light afternoon shade also affords comfort for the beekeeper on a hot summer day.

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Your hive stand should be level end to end but just a tiny bit lower in the front than the back. Put the cinder blocks on cement paving stones to reduce the chance of them sinking into the soil. If all goes well this year, and certainly in the next few years, with two or three hives on a stand, the total weight could reach 600 pounds (273 kg) or more. Finally, leave room on the stand for additional equipment while examining your hives. Place the cover directly on the stand, then the inner cover slightly askew, then any supers on the inner cover. This is so any young bees or the queen won’t fall to the ground and be lost.

STILL IN THE BACKYARD

If having bees is legal where you live, but extenuating circumstances prevent them from being kept in the backyard, there are alternatives.

“Beeyards” can be on back porches, with the hives cleverly disguised as furniture; on front porches, painted the same colors as the house and porch; and in storage sheds with an open window or other entrance for the bees.

If you have a small yard, live on a corner, have a lot of foot traffic, or live near a school, check your roof. You may have a flat garage roof accessible from an upstairs window in your house. Problem solved.

Alternatively, place your beehives in a garage (with at least one window). You may work the hive from the inside, and your bees can easily come and go.

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There are a multitude of ways to safely supply water to your bees, which they need. On a hot day, a full-size colony will consume as much as a gallon (4L) of water. Some of this is provided by nectar, but for drinking and cooling the hive, a great quantity of water is needed. A bird bath works, but in warm weather you will need to fill it almost daily, and if you miss a day, or worse three or four, the bees will find it—somewhere.

HIVE STANDS

A hive sitting on damp ground will always be damp inside, creating an unhealthy environment for bees. To keep your hives dry on the inside, set them on an above-ground platform, called a hive stand.

Before you choose a hive stand, consider that the closer your hive is to the ground, the more you’ll have to bend and lift, and the more time you’ll spend stooped over or on your knees as you work. A 2' to 3' (0.6 to 0.9 m)-high stand strong enough to support at least 500 pounds (227 kg) is ideal. You can build a simple stand using cement blocks and stout lumber. Another option is to make a stand completely from heavy lumber or railroad ties.

Build your hive stands large enough to set equipment and gear on while you work with the hives. If your hive stand is small, you will be forced to set the equipment on the ground. Then you will have to bend over and lift parts all the way to the top of the hive to replace them. You will be better off creating an additional stand or additional room on one stand on which to set equipment. There is an old saying that is absolutely true: All beekeepers have or will have bad backs. It is worth the extra planning to avoid the pain. A common technique is to build a stand long enough to hold three colonies comfortably, with about 2' (0.6 m) or so between them. Then, put only two colonies on the stand with an empty spot between them. This space is where hive parts go when examining a colony, and retrieving them does not require bending all the way to the ground.

MAKING SPACE

While putting everything together in your backyard—installing the visibility screens and your hive stands all at the right distance from your property line, and perhaps next to a building—you want to be careful not to box yourself in. Plan to have enough elbow room to allow you to move around the circumference of your colonies. This is especially true for the back of your colonies, where you will spend most of your time when working with the bees. Allow enough room on all sides of your hives to let you comfortably pass while carrying a hive box or other item without having to do some sort of gymnastic maneuver. And allow enough room to get a cart or wagon close enough to carry equipment between your beeyard and storage location.

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The hive stand offers lots of room to work these colonies. There are no restrictions in back or sides, and they allow lots of room for extra equipment.

Grass and/or weeds are landscape elements that, if left to grow, can block the hive entrance, reducing ventilation and increasing the work of forager bees. It is a good idea to cover a generous area around your hive stand with patio pavers, bark mulch, or another kind of weed barrier. Gravel or larger stones will work if you place a layer of plastic on the ground before installation.

BEEYARDS OTHER THAN BACKYARDS

Sometimes keeping bees in the backyard and garden, the front lawn, or the roof is just not possible. There are a few essential rules to prioritize when deciding whether to set up your bees away from home.

First, your bees need to be nearby. If you spend most of your time getting there and getting home, then a trip back to retrieve that forgotten tool will too often end the day.

Also, it must be easy, safe, and legal to drive up beside your beeyard. If you have to carry your gear down a ditch, over a fence, or across a creek to your bees, getting stuck, ripping clothes, or getting wet will happen only a few times before it won’t happen again.

Beekeepers too often put bees where they can rather than where they should. This is because, ultimately, we fail to do our homework. When you choose your location, you need to consider the well-being of you, your bees, and the surrounding community/environment.

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This beeyard meets most of the requirements of a good location. It is screened; shaded and in the sun; easily accessed and surrounded by room for driving; on level ground; away from seasonal water; and near ample nectar sources.

SOME CONSIDERATIONS FOR FINDING A GOOD SPOT:

Image You should be able to keep some tools at the site: smoker fuel, an old smoker, a few hive tools, a few supers, covers, bottoms, inner covers, and so on. Store the tools in a lidded container or a stack of bee boxes (with a lid) so they stay dry.

Image There should be space for your vehicle to park close to where the bees will be and room to turn around.

Image Your beeyard should have safe, easy, anytime access, all year long, not just during the summer. Think “high and dry,” especially in the spring.

Image It is crucial that your bees be near a safe source of water, year-round.

Image Every beeyard should be surrounded by more than ample season-long sources of nectar and pollen.

Image The beeyard should come complete with winter and summer wind breaks and great summer sun exposure, with the hives facing southeast. It should not be in a cold-air drainage spot at the bottom of a hill.

If possible, take a whole season to evaluate a location before you decide to put your bees there. You may find that come spring, a creek rises, and you can’t get there. Learn what the area farming practices are (crop rotations, pasture, plowing schedule, etc.). During the season, look for available forage: which plants are blooming and in what quantity, and whether they are reliable. Use caution when looking at meadows and fields and blooming crops; they tend not to be permanent sources of food for your bees. Rather, look at fence rows, low, wet spots, steep hills, shrubs, and forest trees. These tend to be more permanent and dependable in the long run. (Reminder: Your local beekeeping association contacts are invaluable for this information.)

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One of the greatest challenges to suburban or urban beekeeping is having bees near a neighbor’s swimming pool. Fences may minimize contact, but the attraction of all that chlorinated water can be an irresistible force. Make sure your water source never dries up and install screens to get the bees’ flight path well above any swimmers.

GROUND-LEVEL BEEKEEPING

If you’re locating bees in a city, there are many safe locations where bees can be kept besides the roof—backyards, empty lots, alleys, decks, balconies, and porches. Any of these locations can attract attention if you don’t take precautions. Commonsense rules apply.

Watch flight patterns. When bees leave home, there’s little incentive for them to fly higher than about 6' (1.8 m) unless there’s a barrier in the way. If nothing is in the way, they may run into people. Install a barrier or screen close enough that the bees are required to fly higher than 8' (2.4 m) almost immediately. This will minimize unwanted human contact with your bees.

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When working your colonies, consider your neighbors and your bees. Midday is always good when most neighbors and most bees aren’t home. Avoid weekends, when the neighbors may be gardening or relaxing on the deck.

Stay out of sight. Even though the city says, “Yes, you can have bees in this city as long as you follow these rules,” safety and common sense should rule the day. The population density of a city increases the likelihood that people may interfere, accidentally, mischievously, or maliciously.

Anywhere the colonies are should be out of sight. Neutral-colored hives work well, certainly better than white boxes, and living screens are effective for ground- or near-ground-level colonies. But remember, honey bee colonies do better in the sun. It keeps the bees warmer and drier, and makes it easier to dehydrate honey, plus neither Varroa mites nor small hive beetles do as well in a less humid environment. It’s a trade-off. If the screens, fences, and gates are high enough to keep busy eyes away, they are probably high enough to keep sunlight off the bees for some part of the day. Try to locate your ground-resting colonies such that you need only two or three sides screened and some sun gets to the bees in the morning and early afternoon. They’ll be happier, and so will you.

EQUIPMENT: TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Here are some important considerations to make while choosing your hives and personal gear.

HIVES

We’ve already looked at the basics of the beehives you’ll have. Seriously consider using preassembled, medium-depth, eight-frame boxes and appropriate frames. Amazingly, there are no standardized dimensions in the beekeeping industry. The dimensions of hives are not quite the same from one manufacturer to another. As a result, the parts of your hive may not quite fit together if you mix parts from different manufacturers.

If your boxes don’t quite match, your bees will adjust. But their best efforts to hold the hive together in ill-fitting boxes work against your best efforts to take it all apart when checking on your bees. Sticky, runny, dripping honey from a broken burr comb (a free-form honeycomb built to bridge a gap between hive parts) makes a mess and will cause a great deal of excitement for your bees. Bees will weld ill-fitting boxes together (with a substance called propolis, which they make from plant resins) so that boxes become inseparable from adjacent boxes. The lesson: In the beginning, choose a supply company carefully and stick with it. Your first consideration should not be cost but ease and comfort for you and your bees.

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An eight-frame hive, right out of the box. It has three medium supers, an inner cover beneath a telescoping cover, a screened bottom board, and a mouse guard.

To get a start in beekeeping with a typical 3-pound (1.4 kg) package of bees, you’ll need at least three eight-frame, medium-depth boxes for each colony. You’ll soon need a couple more, but we’ll explore those options later. Frames hang inside each box on a specially cut ledge, called a rabbet. Frames keep the combs organized inside your hive and allow you to easily and safely inspect your bees.

Frames

Beehive frames are wooden or plastic rectangles that surround the comb. The outside provides support and maintains the rectangular shape of the frame. Bees build their honeycombs within the frame.

Brand-new frames start with the outside support that holds a sheet of what is called foundation within the frame. Foundation is a thin sheet that is embossed with the outline of the six-sided beeswax cells that make up the comb. One kind of foundation is made of beeswax, complete with the embossed cell outlines. These sheets are fragile and usually have vertical wires embedded in them for support. When assembling traditional frames with beeswax foundation, you frequently need to add horizontal wires for additional support. An alternative foundation is a sheet of plastic that is embossed like the beeswax sheets. These do not need supporting wires. There are also frames made completely of plastic. The outside support and the foundation inside are a single piece of molded plastic.

You can purchase unassembled wooden frames that come with beeswax or plastic foundation sheets. Assembled wooden frames are also available and come with plastic foundation. If the frames you purchase have plastic foundation, you will have to add beeswax coating.

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This frame fits medium supers. It has a wooden exterior support that frames an embossed beeswax-covered sheet of plastic foundation in the center.

The suppliers who sell preassembled boxes also sell preassembled frames that fit in the boxes so that proper bee space is preserved. It is important that you use the correct frame in a box. It should fit top to bottom, with bee space between the bottom of the frame and the top of the frames below it, or bee space above the top of the frame between it and the frame above. You will find that manufacturers differ in where the bee space is between frames and you must choose the right frame for the boxes you have. It cannot be stressed enough that sticking to the same manufacturer for all of your equipment is important until you learn how each makes their equipment.

Bottom Boards

You’ll need a floor for your hive. Although several styles are available, consider using ventilated bottom boards. Instead of having a solid wood bottom, these have a screen on the bottom, open to the space below the hive. Screened bottom boards are good for several reasons: The open bottom provides ample ventilation inside the hive, removing excess moist air and aiding the colony in temperature regulation, and an open floor allows the colony’s debris to fall out rather than accumulate on the floor inside. You should, however, make sure there is some solid slide-in temporary floor so you can close off the opening, at least partially, during the cold season.

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Make certain you have a screened bottom board. The one seen here has a removable tray beneath the screen to allow monitoring for Varroa mites. The tray can be either front or rear loading. Rear is best.

GUIDE TO BEEHIVE ASSEMBLY

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This illustration shows the parts and pieces of a modern beehive. There are three styles of covers: peaked, usually covered with a copper sheet (A), a flat migratory cover so colonies fit tightly together when being hauled on a truck (B), and the telescoping cover, which fits over the top of the hive (C). Colonies with migratory covers do not use inner covers (D), which sit directly beneath a telescoping cover and on top of the top super. Top feeders (E) allow bees to come up through the center slot and feed on sugar syrup you add to the trays on either side of the slot. A feeding shim (F) is for fondant, protein supplement patties, or as a spacer when treating your colony with formic acid pads. A queen excluder (G) is placed on top of the brood supers (H) and below the honey supers (I) to keep the queen from laying eggs in your honey supers. Frames (J) hang inside each super suspended by the extended ends on top of each frame. These ends are held in the groove, called a rabbet, on the inside of two ends of each super. Two joints are used to construct supers: rabbet joints (as on the honey supers) and box joints (as on the brood supers). An escape board is shown upside down to illustrate the bees’ one-way exit (K). A pollen trap (L) captures pollen that is either used to feed to the bees later or sold by the beekeeper. At the very bottom is a screened bottom board (M) that has a solid insert for inclement winter weather (N) with the insert partially exposed. Solid bottom boards are available.

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An inner cover sits on top of the uppermost super but beneath the outer cover. It has an oblong hole that allows ventilation, feeding, and access to the outside when the bottom entrance is blocked. Most have a flat side and a recessed side, though some are identical on both sides. The notch on the narrow side provides an upper entrance when needed.

Inner Covers

Set on top of the uppermost box is an inner cover. If the outer cover is the roof, the inner cover is the ceiling of your hive. It provides a buffer from the hot hive top in the summer and helps regulate air flow. There is an oblong hole in the center of the inner cover to provide air flow, bees access to the upper entrance on the inner cover, and to accommodate a type of bee escape when harvesting honey from the hive. Almost all inner covers are sold preassembled. They are often made from a sheet of masonite or a patterned paneling. These work but not well enough. They tend to sag as they age, destroying the beespace between the bottom side of the inner cover and the tops of the frames below it. However, some inner covers are made of several thin boards in a frame, which won’t sag as they age. And some are simply a sheet of thin plywood. Find a source for either of the latter two, as they are worth the search.

Additional items you’ll need include a pail-type feeder, an entrance reducer, a bee brush, and a fume board.

TOP BAR HIVES

There has been a growth in keeping bees in boxes other than the traditional five-, eight-, or ten-frame boxes.

Top bar hives were developed as a compromise. Because of the climate and available forage, honey bees in Africa migrate seasonally. To take advantage of this behavior, beekeepers would prepare hollow logs 2' to 3' (0.6 to 1 m) long and about 1' to 1.5' (0.3 to 0.5 m) in diameter to accommodate the bees when they arrived in their region. They closed one end of this hollow log with a removable door and closed the other end but left an entrance hole. The logs were hung from trees on a rope used to raise and lower the log 15' to 20' (4.5 to 6 m) off the ground. Then the beekeeper simply waited.

Location is similar for any hive as far as screening, color, and flight paths. However, with top bar hives, being level takes on a whole new meaning. Strive to be nearly perfectly level side to side and end to end. Use a level to make sure.

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A typical top bar hive, this one has attached legs.

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Another style top bar hive sitting on a small table, but without legs and easily transported.

Top bar hives have a personality of their own, but there are a few books available on building and managing them that are reliable. Ask local beekeepers for advice on where to get good information. As with boxes, get one that is manufactured by a reliable supplier who will have replacement or additional parts when needed later. Then follow the simple procedures outlined here to get started and keep going. Once you have a colony established, the guiding principles of basic biology and care are essentially the same, no matter the box. The overall rule for any hive that isn’t traditional is investigate it, but don’t start there—go there after you’re familiar with basic honey bee biology and seasonal management.

Winter in a Top Bar Hive

Wintering a top bar hive where winter is warm is fairly simple, just as it is with any hive. It is in the cold regions that wintering becomes a challenge. You can figure you’ll need somewhere between 40 and 80 pounds (18 and 36 kg) of honey to get all those bees through the winter. A top bar comb plumb full of honey is, depending on size of the cavity, somewhere between 5 and 8 pounds (2.3 and 3.6 kg) of honey.

One task to consider doing during the winter is to make or obtain either another hive with the same dimensions so combs and top bars fit or to make a nuc, simply a shorter version of the original with the same dimensions. This so you can divide a healthy population and prevent swarming, while increasing your bee stock. Eventually, you will have all same-size top bar hives similar to same-size boxes.

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A quick and easy way to feed a slice of fondant or protein supplement between the last frame of bees and the follower board, adding one more top bar to close the opening.

PERSONAL GEAR

Now that you’ve outfitted the bees, it’s time to outfit yourself.

Bee Suits

A bee suit is your uniform, your work clothes, what keeps you and your bees at a comfortable distance, and what keeps your clothes clean. To meet the needs of the individual beekeeper, the sophistication and variety of bee suits is first rate. You’ll find that white is the most common color, but any light-colored or decorated suit is acceptable. A recent introduction has been the ventilated suit, made with layers of mesh that, when combined, are thick enough to prevent a bee from reaching you, but are extremely cool on even the hottest day. Some have patches on knees, elbows, thighs, and other spots where the most wear occurs; some come with hoods; and there are jackets available. The only caution is their ability to get caught on branches and such on occasion, and while most are tear resistant, simply getting snagged can be an issue. If you live where it’s hot all summer long, consider one of these.

If your location is more temperate, full suits made of very thin or very thick cotton fabric are available. These cover you from head to foot but can be quite warm in summer weather. An alternative is a bee jacket made of similar materials. These are cooler, but they don’t keep your pants clean. The important thing to keep in mind when working with honey bees is that they are very protective of their home. When anything resembling a natural enemy approaches, such as a skunk, bear, or raccoon, they will feel threatened. These enemies have one thing in common—they are dark and fuzzy—so, wearing dark and fuzzy clothes near the hive is not a good idea. Whichever bee suit style you pick, keep it simple to start, and get one with a zipper-attached hood and veil. These offer good visibility, durability, and no opportunity for an errant bee to get inside. And because the veil is removable, you can try other head gear later without having to invest in a whole new suit. The best advice I can give here is to get the best suit you can afford. Simply, if you don’t feel safe when working your bees, you will begin to find all manner of reasons to avoid working your bees—and that will be the end of your beekeeping.

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There are as many styles of bee suits as you can imagine. A good rule of thumb is the more they cost, the more protection they offer. Obtain the suit you are comfortable in, because if you are not at ease when working bees, you won’t work them.

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When buying sized gloves, measure the distance around the heel of your hand. The circumference in inches is the size of the glove you need. 9" (23 cm) is a size 9 glove.

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All manner of gloves are available. From left to right: heavy-duty leather, thin and pliable leather, canvas coated with plastic, cloth coated with plastic, thin dishwashing gloves.

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Try picking up a quarter with a pair of heavy-duty leather gloves. If you can’t pick up a quarter with your gloves, they have no place in a bee hive. But with thin or no gloves, you can feel a bee and not squash her. With heavy gloves you will squash bees, releasing alarm pheromone in the process.

Gloves

You can buy leather gloves made from thick, durable, and almost unmovable cowhide leather that are nearly bulletproof, or goatskin gloves that are much more flexible and are thick enough to ensure no stings, but both of these pretty much remove all feeling when working in a colony. This is okay when you are working hard, fast, or with upset bees. For most of us, this isn’t a common practice, but rather we strive for careful, delicate work, so we don’t disturb the bees and the hive. Generally, you will begin with gloves you feel safe in. Bees walking on your hands can be unnerving, and if you don’t feel safe you won’t work your bees. Begin safe and work toward no gloves at all.

Some suppliers sell gloves in exact sizes (not the traditional S, M, L, XL) and these, usually made of thin, soft leather, will fit best. This is especially important for the fingertips. Glove fingers that are too long make you clumsy, and it’s difficult enough to be careful when moving frames. Regular rubber dishwashing gloves work well, too, offering excellent dexterity when handling frames.

Ankle Protection

Something not often thought about until it’s too late is the gap between the tops of your shoes and the bottom of your pants. We seldom think of bees as being on the ground, but when you open a hive to lift out a frame or move boxes, they will fall out. Bees that land on the ground naturally crawl up something, such as your legs. Beekeeping suppliers sell simple elastic straps with hook-and-loop attachments that seal your pant legs tight.

Smokers and Fuel

A smoker is a beekeeper’s best friend. It’s basically a metal can (called a fire chamber) with a hinged, removable, directional nozzle on the top; a grate is located on the inside near the bottom to keep ashes from blocking the air intake from the bellows, and the bellows. Only large- and small-size smokers are available, and the large model, no matter who makes it, is the better choice. Stainless steel models last longer than galvanized metal ones, but not by much, and a protective shield on the outside of a smoker is there for a good reason. Buy a large, stainless steel model with a shield and a hook for hanging it on the side of your hive when it’s open.

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Your smoker is indispensable when working with bees. Shown here is a good-size smoker. The beekeeper is wearing an attached-hood jacket and thin leather gloves for protection.

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If you use any resinous smoker material, such as pine needles or shavings, creosote and ash and soot will build up inside the spout.

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Periodically clean the inside of the spout on your smoker to remove buildup using your hive tool or other scraper.

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Don’t forget to clean out the opening so you get all the smoke you need.

Many types of fuel are plentiful and free: sawdust, uncolored chipped wood mulch, and pine needles, for example. Dry, rotten wood—called punk wood—which is soft enough to crumble in your hands and can be collected during walks in the woods, is ideal. Small pieces of dry wood left over from a building project work well, too, if they fit into the fire chamber. Untreated jute burlap is good fuel, but be careful not to use synthetic burlap. Untreated twine from baled hay or straw also can be used, but beware—both burlap and twine are often treated with fungicides or other antirot chemicals. Make sure you are burning untreated materials. Don’t use petroleum-based fire starters or gasoline. Bees are sensitive to chemicals, and the fumes from treated materials would kill your bees and probably cause flareups and other fire-safety problems in your smoker.

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Plan ahead. If you are using natural, organic (plant-based) smoker fuel, always have plenty on hand. I rake pine needles in the fall when they are plentiful on the ground and the weather is dry and store them all winter, ready for that first inspection in the spring. Mulch and punk wood are the same—gather in the fall and dry all winter.

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Above is a variety of hive tools. Some are simply variations while others have a specific purpose. Choose a tool that fits your hand well, because you will spend most of the time you are working bees with a hive tool in your hand. (Note: The tool on the left with the padded area has a solid grip, but it is weighty. The second tool from the left is for cleaning between top bars. The third from the left is the Maxant-style hive tool.)

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If you hold your hive tool like this, you can easily manipulate frames and supers.

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Two views of how to handle a frame and your hive tool. This keeps the tool always handy, but not in your way.

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In-hive feeders fit in your brood boxes in place of a frame, and they are filled with sugar syrup. Choose a style with roughened sides or wire “ladders” so when bees go in to get syrup, they can climb back out and not drown.

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If collecting propolis, a propolis trap is invaluable.

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An escape board is an easy way to remove bees from a honey super. The bees enter through the wide end of the cone and are unable to find their way back through the narrow end. (The illustration shown here shows another type of escape board with a large hole leading out and three tiny escape holes below into the super or brood chamber below.)

THE BEES

Now that you have your equipment, it’s time to choose your bees.

PACKAGES AND NUCS

Beekeeping equipment is famously specialized, but it is, fortunately, becoming easier to find. Here’s where being part of a local beekeeping club or having taken a beginner’s beekeeping class is to your advantage. Knowing somebody who knows somebody is the key to successful beekeeping.

There are several ways to obtain bees for your hives. You can buy what is called a package of bees, which is simply a wood-and-screen, or plastic mesh box containing honey bees, a queen, and a can of sugar syrup or fondant for food during travel, which will be shipped from a beekeeper who grows bees especially for this purpose. You will transfer these bees into your own hives, get them started, and keep them going as a colony. Or you can buy a small starter colony, referred to as a nuc (short for nucleus) colony, that you install in your own hive.

Another option is to purchase a full-size, ready-to-go colony of bees from another beekeeper. The advantage to this is that you minimize the risks of starting a small, somewhat vulnerable package or even a nuc, but the potential disadvantage is that you start out at full speed, without the breaking-in period that most beginning beekeepers need to establish their own comfort level with the craft.

BUYING PACKAGED BEES

Early spring arrives two or three months earlier in warmer regions than in more moderate and cooler regions, no matter where you live on the globe. People who live in warm regions and produce bees to sell start raising bees very early in the year, so they have them ready to sell when spring arrives later in cooler areas.

In order to do this, they remove some bees from their colonies every three weeks. They open a colony, find and remove the queen, and shake excess bees into a package (a screened or plastic cage) made especially for shipping live bees. The most commonly sold amount is a 3-pound (1.5 kg) package of bees, but 2- and 4-pound (1 and 2 kg) packages are also available. A 3-pound (1.5 kg) package is about the right amount for one eight- or ten-frame hive. There are about 3,500 live bees to a pound (455 g), so your 3-pound (1.5 kg) package will contain about 10,000 bees.

A can of sugar syrup or fondant supplies the bees with food for several days. This complete package is shipped directly to a customer or a local supplier.

If you’re lucky, somebody in your local club will have truckloads of packaged bees shipped directly to his or her place of business to sell in the spring. Check local suppliers before ordering, because it is best to buy locally. Find out what they are selling (the size of the package or nuc), the cost, the day the packages will be available (generally there is only a small window of opportunity—a weekend is common), and what choices for types of bees or queens you will have. Find out, too, where the suppliers are getting their bees and the queens and how long it will take for bees to be shipped. When it comes to price, the saying “you get what you pay for” is mostly true. If you live within a few hundred miles (kilometers) of primary suppliers, you may be able to buy directly or have bees shipped to you through the mail. However, bees can be shipped only limited distances before the stresses of travel take their toll.

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There are two kinds of packages, or containers. On the left is the traditional package, made of wood and window screens, allowing excellent ventilation and safety. The new package, made of plastic, is essentially crush proof. These are still a work in progress, as some models allow you to simply open one end and release the bees, while others require you to dump them out of the feeder can hole on top, like traditional models. Both have a feeder can inside, alongside which the queen will be hung.

BUYING NUCS: A BETTER CHOICE

A nuc (short for nucleus, meaning “small”) is essentially a miniature starter colony. Most nucs have five frames, but others may have three to six. They are produced in cardboard, plastic, or wood boxes that are not meant to be permanent. A nuc contains a laying queen, workers of all ages, open and sealed brood, drones of all ages and drone brood, stored honey and pollen, and all or most of the frames have drawn comb.

The nuc producer has taken much of the gamble out of starting a colony. When you purchase a nuc, its queen has been in that colony laying eggs for a minimum of a month and as long as several months, perhaps since last summer. This amount of time lets the nuc producer evaluate the queen’s production and behavior and replace her if necessary before you get the nuc.

Your sources of nucs should have queens that have been producing for at least a month or, even better, several months. It is becoming increasingly popular to produce nucs by splitting large summer colonies in the previous season and furnishing each with a new queen going into winter. This produces a strong overwintered colony, a young vigorous queen, and very few Varroa mites. It’s a great way to get into beekeeping. If possible, look for local nuc producers who produce their own local queens.

The one word of caution is equipment compatibility. Many, but not all, nuc producers use deep boxes rather than mediums for raising their nucs. You can get a deep box to accommodate a deep nuc and move them into mediums during the season.

How to Start with a Nuc Colony

You will need to transport your nuc home from the supplier. Generally, it is secure and bees will not be leaking, but be prepared for a few stray bees in your car. If you are concerned, drive it home in a truck or wear your veil.

Have your equipment ready before you leave. Review the detailed information on package installation before you bring your package or nuc home. You will need your bottom board with boxes and frames ready on a hive stand, feeders and feed, entrance reducer, smoker and hive tool, and inner and outer cover. No matter the weather, bring your nuc to your hive as soon as you are home. You cannot leave the bees confined in this small box. They will overheat without ventilation and perish. Do not hesitate or delay installing your nuc. If it is pouring rain, place your nuc in the exact spot the colony will eventually sit, open the front door so they can get some fresh air and fly, and leave them be until the weather improves. They will be fine and, when transferred, will feel perfectly at home. Put on your bee suit and veil, light your smoker, and remove the closures of your new nuc.

To get the bees from the nuc to your box, remove the middle six frames in your box and set them alongside the box. Set the nuc alongside the colony that is to be home. From one side of the nuc, puff a few puffs of smoke into the entrance or raise the lid a tiny bit and puff smoke in the crack. Drop the lid, wait a minute, and repeat. Then, slowly remove the lid (and inner cover if it has one). Loosen the frame in the nuc that is closest to you with your hive tool. Slowly (with more smoke if necessary) lift it straight up, taking care not to bump it into the adjacent frame or side of the box. Keep the frame over the nuc. Slowly move it to the colony and place it in the box in the space you made next to the frame that is farthest from you. Repeat with the next frame, and then the next, and so on.

The frames in the box should be in the exact position they were in the nuc, but now are in the center of the hive. If you have a ten-frame box, replace five of the frames so there are nine in the box, and none of them are jammed tightly together. If you have eight, replace one on each side of the five you just put in.

Then, feed, feed, feed the nuc (now colony) sugar syrup and protein supplement until the bees do not take it anymore. Let them adjust to their new home and new location for a few days before examining them. Afterward, the routine resembles that of a regular package examination.

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Commercial package producers produce enormous quantities of bees as well as their own queens. When a colony is large enough, they “shake” out several frames of bees into a funnel directly into a package, add a queen and feeder can, close the package, and ship it. Another way to gather the bees is to place a box containing bees and brood, and sometimes the queen, and smoke them down through the excluder into a screened box. When the screened box is nearly full after smoking or bouncing several boxes, the bees in the lower box are poured out into packages, weighed, and are ready to ship. This technique is far, far more efficient than shaking one frame at a time.

BUYING A FULL-SIZE COLONY

Another way to get started with bees is to buy a full-size colony from another beekeeper. This approach makes you an instant beekeeper, but it also gives you all of the responsibilities that go along with being a beekeeper. You should consider a few things before taking this step. First, in the spring, full-size colonies will need to be managed for swarm control and monitored for pests and diseases, and they will have a large population to deal with. There’s no break-in period when you go down this road.

One other factor to consider when buying a full-size colony is that it belonged to someone else. Like buying anything used, you should have another, more experienced beekeeper or your local apiary inspector evaluate the colony for health and equipment quality before buying. If possible, get a detailed accounting of the history of the colony’s pest and disease issues, feeding schedule, and any IPM or soft or hard chemical treatments. Also, if possible, get the age of the combs in the colony, which may be obvious by the color or condition. It’s critical that you know if the colony has previously been treated with an antibiotic for American or European foulbrood. If that is the case, walk away, fast.

TIME LINE FOR BEGINNING

The honey bee season follows the growing season, no matter where you live. In temperate areas, once the weather warms in spring and the days are long enough, plants grow and begin to bloom, and the honey bees will begin flying, foraging, and collecting nectar and pollen. A classic rule of thumb is to plan to have new bee packages arrive a week or so before the dandelions bloom where you live. If you didn’t really notice when dandelions actually bloom, ask a local, experienced beekeeper (or gardener) when the bees ship, and start your plans with that date in mind. You’ll need your equipment prepared before that date and your hive stand and landscape screening set up.

In most years, ordering bees at the end of the season is a good idea since you will have an idea of what you want for next season and it gives honey bee producers enough information to begin plans. It’s pretty much a given, because of Varroa, that every bee package and nuc producers make will get sold, so ordering early rather than later has become the rule of the day.

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