Bee Keeping 101
This post is for anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of having a hive of bees. Billy and I are fairly new bee keepers, so we cannot be considered to be experts, but we have made enough mistakes and had enough success that we can give some basic guidelines.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is: what do I want to get from keeping bees? If you just want pollinators your set up will be quite different than if you want to get honey. Although Billy and I initially got our bees to pollinate and to help the local bee population, we are now interested in getting some honey. We have also used our bees as an educational tool and have involved local kids in a positive way. If you don’t have the time or inclination to “do” bees, you can get a hive set up and then just leave it as an environment for pollinators. If you use a top bar hive, there is a good chance that the bees will live comfortably there and keep your garden pollinated without any work on your part. If you want honey or if you want additional hives from the swarms that a hive produces every year, you are looking at about 30min-1 hr/hive every two weeks during the warm season and about 20 minutes/month during the winter. Harvesting honey is additional time, depending of many variables.
You also have to consider the costs involved. Most people should get a bee suit, or at least a veil. We did look into getting some second hand, but never found one. So the cost of a suit is $60. Veils are about $25, but for a beginner who is likely to handle bees a little clumsily, a suit is a good investment. We didn’t start out using a smoker, but have since found that it is good for the bees sometimes if they get riled to give them a puff of smoke. A smoker is about $20. You will also need a bee brush and hive tool–just a few dollars each. If you are a good woodworker, you can make a hive using scrap wood for almost nothing. Plans for the traditional Langstroth hives, the Kenya top bar or the Warri hive are available on the internet. Usually it isn’t a good idea to purchase an empty used hive because of the possibility that they harbor disease. Our Self Reliant Community group was given dozens of hive bodies and frames which were stored in a dry shed for about 20 years. These are probably disease free and will be given to interested bee keepers or potential bee keepers. But the catch is that they need to be cleaned. A full purchased hive runs about $100 for two deeps, a top and a bottom. You can save about half that amount by making the top and bottom if you have any basic wood working skills.
From experience we don’t recommend purchasing bees. The bee packages usually come from California and are adapted to the warmer climate. If you let the word out that you will capture a swarm, or put out a trap, or are willing to remove bees from where they are unwelcome, you will get started with much more appropriate bees. Our first bees, the Wellbees came from a friend’s well house. We had to remove a wall and it was a time consuming, messy job, but we got bees that have survived through three hard winters and have made us many more hives.
Regarding actually getting started with handling bees–such as catching a swarm, the best advice that I can give is to offer your assistance to an experienced bee keeper and get some hands-on training. There is so much to learn that even life long bee keepers discover new things about bees each season. You can easily make costly mistakes that kill your hive through ignorance, so the most important thing is to learn as much as possible, both through reading and through a qualified mentor. Most areas offer classes in the winter so that you’ll be primed when the spring bee season starts. Here the University of Washington offers affordable classes with hands on training. There is also an active bee association, again a place to really learn. The internet has lots of videos showing many of the tasks that are necessary for a bee keeper.