This article is about the birds and the bees. Well actually, just the bees, to be honest… and really only about apis mellifera (or honey bees), to be even more specific. There’s been a growing interest in honey bees, as of late. As a consequence of a number of environmental organizations, attention has been brought to the sharp global decline in overall honey bee health and stability, as well as their crucial role in the environment and our agricultural economy. Even with this increase in attention, a person who finds themselves interested in beekeeping might still feel a bit overwhelmed at the prospect. This article, the first in a new beekeeping series, will give a step by step look into the world of backyard beekeeping – a fulfilling and attainable hobby that just about anyone can take part in.
1 – Get More Educated on Beekeeping
If you feel compelled to become a backyard beekeeper, it is best to first get some extra education, just to make sure you’re ready for the job. Future beekeeping articles will provide more information on this, but here are two helpful books that give nice overviews of the activity (I also suggest looking into whether there is a local bee guild near you and whether you are allergic to bees): The Beekeeper’s Bible and The Backyard Beekeeper.
But again, don’t let the overwhelming amount of information be a dissuasion. There are plenty of good reasons to be a beekeeper. For one, there is obviously the non-selfish reason, which is that honey bees need some good support and the environment will benefit – something we discuss in our article about live bee removal. But there are also a number of selfish reasons, which include free (and far more delicious) honey, an improved garden (both in yield and beauty), and a stealthy weapon to keep away any annoying neighbors.
2 – Consider Your “Backyard” Space
If you’re still on board, you’ll now have to consider your space. If, for example, you live in an apartment, you may face an obvious and immediate barrier to backyard beekeeping… You don’t have a backyard. Even still, check with your landlord because the roof may have available space. If you live on a plot of land, then you already have one of the key ingredients for backyard beekeeping.
This article is mostly intended for those in a more standard suburban environment. You have a backyard, but it closely borders your neighbors. If you have checked with your neighbors, and they are cool with you having bees (they don’t have allergies, etc…), then you should be good to go. Just remember, once everyone knows that you have a beehive, every bee that comes into their yard is now all of a sudden one of your bees, whether they can prove it or not.
I also recommend double checking your city or county ordinances on whether (and how many) hives are allowed.
Here is my own backyard beekeeping setup:
3 – Timing Matters, In Backyard Beekeeping Too
It’s time to start considering when to get that hive of yours. Fall and Winter months are often considered the worst times to get a hive — those months don’t work well with a hive’s reproductive schedule. Every Spring, if a hive has healthfully survived the winter and begins to grow again with the increase in flowers, a hive will “swarm.” When it swarms, half of the hive leaves with the existing queen to start a new hive at a new location. The already existing hive works on raising a new queen (there’s an overlap in this process, though), and, ideally, there are now two functioning hives. Given that Spring and early-Summer are the prime times for swarming to take place, it is often the time that beekeepers will force a split in their hive, and create a new hive. This is the best time to look into purchasing your own hive, since commercial beekeepers may sell off their newly split hive(s). I’d begin looking around in early-Spring.
4 – Essential Beekeeping Equipment
Backyard beekeeping does have some upfront costs in equipment. You’ll want to invest in a good suit, gloves, and boots (all for ~$80), as well as hive boxes, frames, and foundation (all for ~$200). On top of that, you should have some hive tools, a bee brush, and a smoker (all for ~$45). I estimate that, excluding the purchase of the bees, you’ll need to spend about ~$325 to get started in beekeeping. Once the upfront costs are met, there aren’t many costs after that. So don’t let it be too big of a dissuasion.
5 – Site Your Beehive – Location, Location, Location
Once you’ve got your equipment and bees, you’ll need to figure out where to place your hive. Here are a few considerations, but it isn’t an exhaustive list. You’ll want the hive to get strong morning sunlight. This will get your bees going early on — otherwise, they’ll miss out on a perfectly good morning of foraging. The hive should also get some shade in the afternoon. This will help keep them cool after hot summer days. I also recommend having the entrance of the hive protected and not so exposed. This can help keep out drafts that cool the hive too much; it also prevents animals (like skunks) from messing with your hive. Lastly, you’ll also want to think about accessibility. When you go into the hive to check on the bees or harvest some honey, you’ll need a spacious, workable space.
Check out how I placed my hive – you’ll notice that it has some good morning sun (I took the picture around 8-9am) and has a protected entrance against the fence:
Once you have your hive established, enjoy! Remember that bees can be dangerous, but are, by and large, peaceful little things. You’ll never get bored of observing their habits and tendencies. Keep your eyes open for future articles that will get a bit more detailed on beekeeping specifics.