The Ultimate Guide to Beekeeping

Beekeeping is nothing new. Before the initiation of commercially-produced sugars extracted from cane and beet, honey was widely used as natural sugar. People loved the natural sweetness of the liquid gold, that is, honey. An ancient human activity is to collect honey from the wild colonies of the bees, which is still carried out in various parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. This honey harvesting method has transformed into a commercial activity. 

In previous times, beekeepers used smoke to hush the bees out of the wild beehives, after which they broke the hives torn the honeycombs to extract honey. The only drawback of this method was the destruction of numerous bee eggs and larvae as harvesters threw the nest away after extracting the liquid honey. 

There were many flaws in this age-old honey harvesting process. Firstly, destroying the colony meant that a valuable resource of restarting a new colony was destroyed. Secondly, every time a bee colony was thrown away at the time of harvest, all the bees, including the queen bee, were scattered and destroyed – closing any opportunity of selective breeding in the future. 

How was the Queen Bee Discovered? 

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It was only during the middle ages that the beekeepers discovered a bee that was slightly different from the others. Tinted by religious perceptions, people always considered that the bees followed a king bee. However, people found out in 1586 that there was a “queen” bee that ruled the colony of the bees. 

Introduction to Beekeeping 

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For starting beekeeping and maintaining a healthy and productive colony of bees, it is vital to know the basic characteristics of the bees. This section introduces everything you need to know about honey bees and their properties. However, do not expect to become an expert on bees only by reading one article. Beekeeping is an extensive learning process that continues while you raise them

All about Honey Bees  

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Apis mellifera is the commonly raised and harvested species of honey bees. Of the many different variations of this breed of honey bees, the European dark bee is bred these days. These bees are typically dark brown. They are docile and can easily thrive during winters by producing and storing a lot of honey during summers. 

Nevertheless, if you try and hunt the pure Apis mellifera breed today, you would fail. The pure breed of this variation of bees is the thing of the past. Hybridization with Italian bees has made the pure breed of Apis mellifera obsolete.

All about Beehives 

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Beehives is the term generally reflecting the place where the honey bees live and raise their younger generation. Natural beehives can be found in tree hollows and several rock structures. Nowadays, beehives refer to the structure made by man to raise honey bees. These are mostly fixed or sometimes movable. 

Honey produced in these artificial structures is harvested for food or medical purposes, pollinates the crops, or preserves the honey bee population. A beehive comprises a complex structure of hexagonal cells called honeycombs. These are made of beeswax, which is further used to store honey, pollen, and house eggs and larvae.  

A typical beehive can house up to 5,000 bees during cold temperatures, including queen and worker bees. A beehive can house up to 50,000 bees during summers, including the queen, worker, and drone bees. 

The Hierarchy of Bees 

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If you think honeybees are free beings without any societal pressures, you could not be more wrong. A beehive colony is dominated by a strict hierarchal structure, comprising queen and worker bees. Every bee in the beehive has a task that it has to perform within the hive.

Queen Bee 

Queen Bee

It is up to the queen bee to lay eggs that continue the population of the beehive. Generally, only one sexually mature female is present in the hive, and all the female worker bees and male drones are her babies. A queen bee is raised by a royal creamy white jelly secreted in the glands of the worker or drone bees. 

It implies that the queen bee is raised from a normal worker bee egg but in a special elongated queen cell. This queen bee in the making is fed more royal jelly than the others, resulting in a different growth rate and quality compared to the other bees. 

However, this does not mean that the queen bee is the smartest of all. The essential role of the queen bee is to lay eggs for the continuity of the population. She has a tiny brain and is incapable of even feeding herself. Hence the queen bee comes with a few worker bees when you order her by post. 

The queen bee makes her first flight 3 to 7 days after being hatched to mark the position of their hive. These flights are made to mate with male drone bees. The queen saves and stores large amounts of sperm to fertilize her eggs. In case of bad weather during which the queen bee cannot fly outside, she becomes incapable of producing female worker bees. 

The worker queen bees often kill an incompetent queen bee. Queen bees do not make more flights once they are mated and ready to fertilize their eggs. The lifespan of a queen bee is about three to five years, during which she lays about half a million eggs. Most of the eggs are laid in April and May when the inside of the hive is dark. 

Fertilized eggs hatch to become worker bees, while the unfertilized ones become male drone bees. The temperament of the queen determines what kind of bees you raise. Therefore, you must get a placid and non-swarming strain of queen. 

Drone Bees 

Drone Bees

Drone bees are male bees that are bigger than worker bees. Their sole role is to mate with the virgin queen. Drones do not have a sting or can catch nectar from flowers. The lifespan of these drone bees is only up till they mate with the queen bee. They are removed from the hive by worker bees during winter and left to die outside. 

Worker Bees  

Worker Bees

Almost all the bees you see in the hive are worker bees. They are all the daughters of the single queen bee that rules the colony and cannot reproduce. They have quite a sting but die after defending their hive. It implies that soon after seeing an intruder trying to disturb the hive, the worker bees would fight and then die. Worker bees do all the hard work of the bees in the hive. They have different tasks assigned depending on their age. 

The worker bees collect pollen, nectar, water, and propolis from the flowers. These bees leave the hive often in summers while remaining mostly inside during winters. 

What is Beekeeping, and Why Should You Do It?   

Beekeeping, also called apiculture, includes caring for the bees alongside manufacturing honey and beeswax. Beekeeping is an ancient practice that has evolved significantly over the years. The numerous reasons why people like to opt for apiculture includes: 

  • It is for all – there is no age limit to start beekeeping. 
  • For saving the bees – it is an open secret that the bee population is gradually becoming extinct. It is high time that we start caring for the bees to decrease the chances of endangerment of their species. 
  • It is highly rewarding – the biggest reward of beekeeping is the liquid gold called honey! Raw honey is a popular commodity. Also, beeswax obtained from beekeeping is another hot commodity used in the food, candle, and cosmetic industry.
  • It is a relaxing hobby – researchers have highlighted the effects of having a productive hobby on mental health and well-being. 

How to Select a Hive?

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A beehive is an essential item you need for starting beekeeping. It would help if you bought a beehive that stays above the ground to protect the bees. You should also ensure that the hive you purchase comes with a stand. You can even build it on your own by using 2x4s or cinder blocks. 

A proper beehive should be about 18 inches; else, you can get hurt while caring for the bees. Commonly recommended beehives are as follows: 

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
Langstroth Hive
Top-Bar Hive
Warré Hive


1. Langstroth Hive


It is an excellently designed beehive for beginners that comprises several stacked boxes, which can also be removed when needed. This design has been used for a long time as it maximizes honey production. The only drawback with this design is that the bees get disturbed while you inspect the colony. Often, large Langstroth hive designs are quite heavy and can weigh up to 80 pounds

2. Top-Bar Hive


It is the oldest design but is increasingly becoming popular with beginners in beekeeping. The top-bar hive has a hive cavity instead of the frames. Beekeepers find this hive design very useful as there is no heavy lifting involved. 

Moreover, with this hive design, you do not have to buy a honey extractor separately. This design causes minimal disturbance to the bees when inspecting the hive. Moreover, this type of beehive can be used by people of all ages with a passion for beekeeping.

3. Warré Hive


It is the best hive design that is low-cost and low-maintenance. Its foundation-less structure gives the bees a perception of more natural habitat. If you get this hive design, then there will be minimal inspection required. However, Warré hive’s design has immovable comb hives, which is illegal in some states. So, be sure to check with your local regulations about the approved hive designs. 

Purchasing Used Beehives 


It is not advised to get a used beehive for starting a new colony of bees. Without knowing the beehive history, you might put the whole colony of bees in danger.

Appropriate Installation for Controlling Flight of the Bees 

It is important to put shrubs or fences to keep all the bees in their proper places. You have to ensure that the bees do not fly away to neighboring areas and establish a colony in their natural habitat nearby. Shrubs also serve as a wind barrier to keep away the strong wind.

Gathering Supplies 

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Following the choice of your hive, it is time to order everything. For beginners, it is important to start from smaller supplies to bigger ones over time. All these supplies are an investment for the future; therefore, investing in high-quality, durable items is recommended. 

As this hobby is gaining hype, you will be amazed at how many things you would find. Following is the recommended list of equipment or supplies you need to start beekeeping: 

Protective Gear 

Of the things that are imperative for beekeeping is protective gear. Beekeeping is a process in which you have many interactions with the bees. If you are scared and not confident about your safety, you would be unable to carry out the procedure with diligence. Right protective gear will help you be comfortable and undistracted around the bees. 

Bees have a sense of picking up fear in humans. Therefore, if your protective gear is not up to the mark and you feel scared, the bees will pick up on it and not let you work in peace. You must have the following protective gear:

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
Beekeeping Suit
Ventilated Jackets
Hat and Veil


1. Beekeeping Suit


The full suit or protective gear is important for beekeeping. It is the best buy for beginners as it covers them from head to toe when working closely with the bees

2. Ventilated Jackets


A standard choice of experienced beekeepers is a ventilated jacket with a veil. It is an excellent alternative to the prior one mentioned; however, it only protects the upper half of the body. 

3. Hat and Veil


This protective gear helps protect your hair from bees. You can use this set during summers when beekeeping does not involve a lot of work.

Equipment

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
Gloves
Smoke Cylinder
Honey Extractor
Bee Brush
Hive Tool
Uncapping Scratcher


1. Gloves


You should get gloves for ultimate safety and protection. Beekeeping gloves are made of soft leather that protects from stings while being extremely flexible so that you can move your fingers around easily

2. Smoke Cylinder


This cylindrical tool is called a smoker and is used to build a fire in the cylinder with the help of woods or commercially available smoker fuel. The goal of this device is to propel smoke from the nozzle into the beehive so that the bees become drowsy and calm. It helps provide a safe window for the beekeepers to inspect the hive with less interference from the bees.

If you are planning to start beekeeping, consider a smoker as an indispensable tool. It slows the chemical communication process between the bees and alerts them of a fire nearby, which prompts the bees to eat as much honey in the hive as possible. Bees with a full stomach are mostly docile, giving a safe window for collecting honey from the beehive.

3. Honey Extractor


This tool is required to extract honey without damaging the wax combs. You can find them in various sizes and variations, such as electric or manual. It is important to consider the size of your hives and how frequently you plan to harvest before buying a honey extractor.

4. Bee Brush


While harvesting honey, you might find some bees coming in your way. So, it would be best if you moved the bees off from the combs or other places. You cannot ignore this tool when starting with beekeeping as it is essential to harvesting honey or looking after the hives

5. Hive Tool


This tool resembles a crowbar and is used to pull the beehives apart. It helps in detaching the honeycombs from the hives.

6. Uncapping Scratcher


This tool aids in releasing your comb so that you can collect honey from it. 

Purchasing Bees 

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It is the next big step after you order all your beekeeping tools and accessories. Of the many different races of bees, only some are recommended for novice beekeepers. A list of different suitable bee races is outlined below. However, there are several considerations you need to keep in mind before choosing a bee race to buy, such as: 

  • Production 
  • Temperament 
  • Geography 
  • Honey quality 
  • Reproduction rates 
  • Swarm rates 
  • Winter resilience 

Bee Races for Novice Beekeepers 

1. Italian Bees

Italian Bees

If you live around North America, then these bees are the popular ones there. They are mostly gentle and have high rates of honey production. These bees thrive more in summers and have difficulty surviving the harsh winters. They are light-colored with stripes on their abdomen. 

2. Russian Bees

Russian Bees

These bees are dark brown or black with a yellow-colored abdomen. Russian bees have an innate tolerance for Varroa and Tracheal mites. They are accustomed to cold climates but require extra space as they are erratic and love swarming around. 

3. Carniolan Bees

Carniolan Bees

This race of bees is identified by brown spots on the bodies. Carniolan bees are relatively easy to work with, can easily survive harsh winters, and are less prone to parasites and diseases. 

Buying the Bees 

It is best to order a package of bees through the local bee club as the shipping costs are high elsewhere, and shipping also puts the bees in danger. Remember to order the bees during early fall as quality ones readily become unavailable by spring. 

If you are concerned about how the bees are delivered, know that bees are always sent with the queen. A young and newly egg-laying queen is called a Nuc (aka nucleus). 

Setting up the Bees 

Firstly, set up your hive on solid ground so that it does not shake or fall off. Following this, start by spraying sugar water on the bees while they are still in the package to make the bees easier to move about.  

Invert the bees’ package in the hive and put the queen in her cage. Let the queen remain in her cage for the first few days so that the worker bees get accustomed to the hive and queen in the new setting. Let this setup be for about seven days, and then release the queen from the cage. Often, worker bees release the queen themselves from the cage. 

Caring for and Tending to the Bees 

Beekeeping requires you to be highly vigilant about the little bees. Depending on your climatic conditions, if the flowers bloom late, you have to feed the bees yourself. If the colony is increasingly becoming bigger, then you need another hive to separate them into two. 

How to Feed the Bees 

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You might have to work a little harder while the colony is new and still being established. To make their settling process easier, you might have to feed them a sugar-water mix. Once your bees stop drinking this water mix, it is time to let them eat on their own from the flower nectar.

Inspecting the Beehive 

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Initially, you would need to check on the hive once every week. Later, when you know the pattern and behavior of the bees, you can start checking once every fortnight. It is essential to check that the outside of the hive is clean of bee poop, ants, or other parasites. 

Secondly, you have to keep checking the frames and find new larvae at various stages to know that the queen bee is healthy and thriving. Spring and summer are the busiest times for beekeepers. Keep checking for health problems such as Varroa mite – which sucks bees’ blood and might transfer infection. 

Finally, Harvesting Honey 

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After a long and arduous journey of beekeeping, it is finally time for reaping the rewards. Typically, the bees work upon their hives during the summers, and you can harvest honey later during the second year. Following the first harvest, you can take out honey any time of the year after the fall season. 

The easiest way to harvest honey is to pull out the honeycombs and cut them. Use a honey extractor to take out honey from the wax. The resulting reward is the natural liquid gold (read: honey). 

Conclusion

Beekeeping is an interesting hobby/profession that requires effort, hard work, and patience. If you are afraid of a single honey bee flying around you, don’t even think of getting started with beekeeping. On the other hand, if you have what it takes to be around the honey bees, you can become a good beekeeper and reap several benefits (especially the honey).

To become one, you will need to follow this guide thoroughly, have a place to keep the beehive, have the right equipment and gear, and that’s pretty much it.