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10 Tips for First-Time Beekeepers

Honey money is slow to arrive, but beekeeping can be a great hobby

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If you want to make yourself known to the folks at the local post office, try ordering a package of 10,000 bees.

That’s what I did. I got three increasingly urgent text messages from the post office, telling me that my bees had arrived. “You’re the guy with the bees!” the postal worker said, visibly relieved. He returned quickly with my box of bees, which had been in the back, buzzing angrily after a long and probably unpleasant journey from Kentucky. I picked up the box — gingerly, put it in the back of my car and drove them to their new home.  

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And that's how I joined the 125,000 or so beekeepers in the United States. This is my first hive. Being an amateur, I’ve learned a great deal, sometimes painfully. Here are my top 10 tips for first-time beekeepers.

1. You can buy bees by mail. 

I chose to get package bees, the cheapest way to buy bees. Order them in January or February for delivery in April or May. The bees come in a wood-and-screen package, along with a can of sugar water, punctured at the bottom, to feed them on their journey. They also come with a queen bee, who is shipped in her own little container, plugged at one end with candy. The bees in the container have been scooped out of other hives, and they need a few days to get acquainted with their new queen. The queen (and the workers) eats the candy, and once it's gone after a day or two she's free to leave her container and start ruling the hive.

You can also buy small hives with their own queen, called nuclear hives, or "nucs." These are slightly more expensive, but they are already a small established hive with honeycomb and honey. You have to transport them yourself, however, which means buying them from a local beekeeper. This is by no means a bad thing — just a bigger investment of time and money.

2. You can buy different varieties of bees.

Honeybees are not native to North America, and the bees that early settlers brought were Black German bees, which have a reputation for crankiness. Italian bees are the most popular type of honey bee, because they are relatively laid-back and easy to handle. (These are the breed I bought.) People who live in colder areas might consider Russian bees, which are highly resistant to mites and do well in lower temperatures. They are a bit more aggressive than Italian bees.

3. You can get lots of good information for free. 

Most state agricultural extensions will offer free information about raising bees, and some will even offer free beekeeping equipment. There are thousands of beekeeping videos on YouTube too. And many communities have beekeeper associations , where you can meet experienced beekeepers and get their advice.

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4. You need some equipment.

You’ll see lots of videos of beekeepers casually pouring handfuls of bees into a hive with no glove or veil, or popping the top off a beehive with no protection. They’re just showing off. I tried peeking into my hive with no gloves and was promptly chased across the yard by guard bees, the bouncers of the bee world. You’ll need a veil to cover your face, because bees tend to attack areas with lots of carbon dioxide — like your nose, for example. Wear long sleeves and protective gloves when opening your hives. (Bees can sting through fabric.) A smoker is also essential: Smoke calms bees and keeps them from chasing you across the yard when you open the hive.

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5. You need to inspect the hive periodically.

The queen bee is the number 1 consideration of the hive, and it should be for you too. Although bees will raise a new queen when the old one dies, a hive that’s not “queenright” will be more aggressive and could be weakened enough not to survive the winter. You don’t need to inspect often (once or twice a month in good weather is fine), and never when the temperature is below 40 degrees.

The queen is hard to spot: She’s larger than the average bee, but so are drones, the generally indolent males in the hive. (All the other bees are female.) You can, however, spot the eggs she lays and the larvae that the worker bees raise. Plenty of eggs and larvae means there’s probably a healthy queen. This is where YouTube videos are particularly helpful. Just don’t try it without a veil and gloves.

Be particularly careful when you’re inspecting the hive: Go slowly, be calm, and don’t make any loud noises. And don’t squash them. Bees have a pheromone they emit when they are hurt or alarmed, which brings other bees buzzing to their rescue. You don’t want that.

6. They have their moods and pet peeves. 

Just like humans, bees get cranky during long stretches of hot, humid and rainy weather. They are sluggish in cold weather, and during hot, sunny days they sometimes congregate on the outside of the hive, which can be an alarming sight. They’re just cooling off.

Bees are particularly sensitive to smell. They know where their hive is — and who their friends are — because they recognize the scent of the queen’s pheromone, which is basically a molecule with a scent. They don’t like other things with strong smells — such as bears, or your T-shirt after mowing the lawn on a hot day. The scent of almonds repels them. They hate the smell of bananas, so lay off the banana bread before you visit the hive. And they love the smell of lemons, which can be problematic if you’re fond of sipping lemonade on the patio.

7. You have to feed them. 

You don’t have to put out 10,000 tiny honey dishes in the morning. But when you first get your hive, you’ll need to feed them. They will need time to scout out their new territory — bees can range three miles or so — and, if you buy package bees, to start building new honeycomb. You also need to fatten them up in the fall, so they can survive through the winter.

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Bees are happy with sugar water — one pound water to one pound honey — in the spring, when they’re building up their hive. A mix of two pounds of sugar to one pound of water is best for the fall. Your bee feeder can be as simple as a plastic bag with holes in it. You can also buy artificial pollen patties for them to snack on in the winter.

8. Don’t expect to be rolling in honey soon. 

Most beekeepers recommend letting your bees keep their honey for the first year: They need it to get through the winter. After that, you can start to harvest excess honey for sale or consumption.

The typical hive box, called a Langstroth hive, is 16 inches wide by 19⅞ inches long. They’re stackable. The bottom box, called the brood box, is where most of the bees live. As the hive grows, you can put on more boxes, called supers, where the bees will store their honey. A full super weighs about 60 pounds, which is why smaller supers are popular. You can even buy supers equipped with a faucet, so you can simply tap your hive when you want honey, although that seems like cheating, somehow.

9. You have to help guard the hive.

All hives have guard bees: They are the ones that will fly up and down in front of you to make sure you’re not a bear or wearing too much aftershave. If you live in bear territory, however, you may have to build an electric fence or bear-proof platform for your hive. Skunks and raccoons are also fond of honey, so you may have to develop tactics to keep them away from the hive too. A heavy rock on a beehive, for example, keeps the raccoons from popping the top.

Other bees are also fond of honey, and stealing some from a weaker hive is easier than making it. I was suspicious that I was losing honey to robber bees the last time I opened the hive; later on I saw the robber bees fighting with the guard bees outside. The easiest way to get rid of robbers is an entrance reducer for the hive, which only lets one bee in or out at a time, making it harder for the robber bees to rush the hive’s defenses.

10. They’re fascinating.

It’s surprising how fond I've become of my bees. When I take a walk and see a bee, I wonder if it’s one of my bees. I love standing or sitting next to the hive, watching them make a beeline for the local flowers or returning with a full load of pollen, which they store and eat later. I’ve seen them do the little bee dances that show other bees where the best flowers are. I don’t have to walk them or put them in a kennel when I go on vacation. And even though they won’t do tricks or come when called, I’m glad I got them.

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