If you’re interested in bee conservation and helping declining bee populations, the most impactful thing you can do is create a pesticide-free, wildflower-rich habitat. But if your main goal is to harvest your own honey, then consider becoming a backyard beekeeper. It requires hard work and serious attention to care for honeybees and create a space for them to live and thrive, but you might just have what it takes — and the rewards are sweet! Consider these factors when deciding if backyard beekeeping is right for you:
First things first, contact your local government to make sure they allow beekeeping where you live. Some municipalities require special permits or hive registrations, while others have no restrictions.
Beekeepers spend a lot of time with bees, so naturally they get stung every now and then. Just part of the deal. So if you’re severely allergic to insect bites and stings, you may want to rethink this decision. However, if you react mildly, you have much less to worry about — ask your doctor about an EpiPen or other precautions, and always keep a cell phone nearby for good measure. If you don’t know whether you’re allergic or not, consider getting tested by an allergist.
Common courtesy goes a long way. Before you start beekeeping, talk with your neighbors. If any of their family members are allergic to bee stings or if they have young children who play outside, you’ll want to make sure they don’t mind your plans. If avid gardeners live nearby, they’ll likely welcome your bees and their pollinating services.
You’ll need easy access to your beehive year-round. Beehives need a level location that receives some sun during parts of the day and is sheltered from strong winds. See below for more info on choosing the right backyard site.
When you add up all the tools and supplies, you can expect to spend more than $500 in your first year — and that’s just for 1 hive. (Most expert beekeepers suggest starting with 2 hives.) After that, you’ll still have ongoing costs, such as harvesting equipment or new queens.
Believe it or not, beekeeping requires some strength, especially when it comes to handling hives. Are your muscles up to it? Some hives can weigh up to 80 pounds during harvest time.
While several types of hives exist for backyard beekeepers, we recommend the Langstroth hive, especially for beginners. The Langstroth hive consists of boxes, with frames inside, set up in a stack. The bees build a brood nest at the bottom of the stack and fill the top boxes with honey. You can buy and research Langstroth hives many places online, but here are the basic components:
(which keeps the queen and her brood at the bottom of the hive)
The Italian bee is the most recommended species for beginning beekeepers. Aside from their calm behavior, Italian bees are also great producers of honey. There are several different ways to get your bees. Also, do an online search for local beekeepers in your area who can help you get started.
Purchasing a bee package from a breeder provides you with a queen bee and usually 2 to 4 pounds of bees. The bees come in a shoebox-sized wooden container with screens on both sides, and a smaller separated box contains the queen. Unrelated to the rest of the bees, the queen bee must slowly and carefully be introduced and accepted by the colony.
A great choice for beginning beekeepers, nucleus colonies (or “nucs”) are fully established mini-colonies containing frames, a queen and the naturally occurring number of drones and workers. You’ll move these frames into your own hive where they’ll have more space to grow into a full-sized colony.
Trapping a swarm can be an optimal way to obtain bees, as long as you enlist the help of an experienced beekeeper. As these bees come from your area, they’re already used to and likely to survive in your climate.
Not as difficult as it sounds, you can build simple bait hives to lure a bee colony to move in on its own. Like catching a swarm, baiting bees is a very beneficial option as you attract hearty, local bees perfectly adapted to your area.
We hope this gives a good overview of what you’ll need and what to expect as a backyard beekeeper. But educating yourself is key to keeping your bees safe and your hobby satisfying. We encourage reading and learning as much as you can before you start, and best of all, connect with a local beekeeping mentor to help you along the way.
Ideal for beginning beekeepers, a full bee suit and a veiled hat offers the most protection. A ventilated suit makes working in the heat much more comfortable. As you get more experience, you may choose to wear something else, but even veteran beekeepers opt for this level of protection for certain activities.
Made from a heavier canvas or leather, beekeeping gloves protect your hands, wrists and forearms from bee stings, while still letting you work easily. If the feel or fit isn’t quite right, rubber dish gloves work too.
Using a smoker helps keep you and the bees safe, providing a gentle way to calm the colony with no long-term side effects. Why does it work? The smoke causes bees to instinctively eat their honey (in case they’d need to pack up and move due to a fire), making them full and lethargic. Smoke also masks bees’ alarm pheromone, preventing them from feeling a need to defend their hive.
Essentially a thin crowbar, a hive tool wedges between frames and cuts through wax and propolis, a sticky substance bees produce to seal the hive.
When used correctly, a wide, soft-bristled bee brush gently and efficiently moves bees without harming them.
A honeybee feeder allows you to provide vital nutrients (in the form of liquid bee feed) to your bees when natural sources are scarce or not available.
Bees need an abundance of diverse, native flowers blooming nearby throughout each season. Planting your own Beesponsible garden ensures this constant food source for bees. Go here to learn bee gardening tips and to start planning yours.
Make sure you can get to the hives easily, have close vehicle access and plenty of room to maintain them.
The perfect beehive location will have sun in the morning, then dappled sunlight the rest of the day. Avoid full sun all day.
Protect your bees by placing the hive on level ground in an area that allows rainwater to drain. This location should also be sheltered from the elements and not in close proximity to predators like hornets, wasps or mice.
Provide bees with fresh water to drink in the form of “bee baths” around your yard or locate your hive near a natural water source.
Early spring is the ideal time to start a new hive. As the weather warms, the bees become more active, and the flowers blooming during this season provide bees with the nectar and pollen necessary to establish a healthy hive.
During the summer, bees basically take care of themselves. Just check up on them to make sure no obvious issues arise. By now, your hive should be well established, and you should have an abundance of honey when harvest time comes.
Now you can collect and enjoy honey produced by your healthy, hardworking bees. But don’t take too much. Leave enough for the bees to use as food for the winter, or wait to harvest until spring if you’re not sure how much they’ll need. Finally, prepare your hive for winter by reducing the entrance size, installing mouse guards, ensuring adequate ventilation and completing any necessary treatments for diseases and pests.
In winter, your bees cluster together in the hive to keep warm and survive the cold temperatures. You may want to consider protecting your hive with a breathable cover to help retain warmth, especially if you live in an area with harsh winters. And don’t worry — your bees won’t leave the hive if the temperature outside is colder than 50 degrees. Take advantage of this downtime to read up on beekeeping, expand your know-how and order any new supplies you’ll need for next season.