Beehives require management and good stewardship, which take both time and knowledge.
General maintenance requires periodic inspections during the warm months to make sure your queen is laying eggs, your workers are building up honey stores, and your colony has enough space to expand.
In the cold months, the colony clusters and eats through their honey stores, only emerging when the temperature is above freezing to eliminate waste. Inspections are discouraged during this time to keep from releasing precious heat from the hive.
Management time and style will depend on your climate, your hive style, and your particular bees. All colonies are unique, and each beekeeper will have a different experience.
All beekeepers get stung at some point. For example, a bee might end up in the fold of your clothing, go unnoticed, and be unable to get out. Honeybees are mostly very docile, and stinging is a last resort, since once they sting, they die.
Below are some subjects we consider important to understand as you begin as a beekeeper.
Bees are directly influenced by their environment, therefore, their behavior and success varies greatly across climates. For instance, the busy foraging season for bees will be much longer in the warmer south than it will be in the north.
Familiarize yourself with what beekeeping looks like in your neck of the woods. We recommend joining your local beekeepers club or association, and finding an experienced mentor in your area.
The first step to becoming a successful beekeeper is to learn as much as you can about the bees themselves. Considering all the variables that may affect your honeybees, you may see something different every time you get into your hive. In order to make appropriate management decisions, beekeepers must be flexible in their ability to figure out why bees are behaving a certain way, and how certain actions may impact their well being.
We carry dozens of books that cover the basics. Pick one (or three) up to begin building a solid foundation of beekeeping knowledge.
Apis mellifera, or the European honeybee is the most commonly kept species, and the only species kept in America. They are just 1 species out of 20,000 known bee species worldwide. North America alone is home to 4,400 bee species including social bumblebee colonies, solitary tunnel nesting bees, and solitary ground nesting bees.
Honeybees are the only insect that store food in excess. Their part in high-value commodity production (honey and wax) encouraged their introduction to America in the late 1600’s by Europeans. In America today, the value of honeybees has only increased, as they have become the linchpin in the current agricultural system as pollinators. 30% of the world’s most common food crops require honeybee pollination-services.
Honeybees have three social castes, each with a specific role or set of roles that divide all of the labor inside a colony. The colony is made up of thousands of individuals functioning as a whole.
Each hive will have 1 queen bee who is the only reproductive individual in the colony. She leaves the hive under two circumstances: as a virgin queen to mate, and in some cases, as an experienced queen with a swarm. On mating flights the queen locates a “drone congregation area” to mate with up to 80 drones before returning to the hive. She will store all this sperm touse for the rest of her life, which can last up to 5 or 6 years.
The queen will lay all of the eggs for the colony, “deciding” when to lay drones (unfertilized eggs), or workers (fertilized eggs).
Worker bees are sterile females who do all of the foraging, feeding of young, honey production and storage, wax production, cleaning, and defending the hive against intruders. Each worker bee will do a variety of jobs in her lifetime, which can last about 4-6 weeks during the active season. As they age, their duties will become riskier, and require venturing further from the hive.
The only male bees in the colony are drones. Their sole purpose is to spread the genetics of the colony by mating with virgin queens from other colonies. Once they mate, they die successful bees. Unsuccessful drones return to the hive to eat honey and pollen. Once swarm season is over, drones become a drain on resources inside the hive, and are evicted by workers.
Honeybees and native bees are an integral part of the pollination system, responsible for successful seeding of more than 90% of all flowering plants, and for fruiting of 30% of our food. Bees become covered in pollen when foraging, and then groom the pollen into specialized structures on their legs called pollen baskets to bring back to the hive. Any pollen caught in “safe zones” on hairs on their backs that they cannot reach to groom is transferred from flower to flower.
On their foraging flights, bees collect nectar and pollen to take back to the hive. The nectar provides carbohydrates, which, when mixed with the enzymes in their honey gut, can be stored and dehydrated into honey. Pollen, containing proteins and amino acids, is mixed into “bee bread” used to feed growing larvae and the queen.
Bees make a local impact with a global importance. Most animals, including humans, directly or indirectly rely on the pollination efforts of honeybees for their food.
Honeybees are entirely behavior-dependent on the climate in which they live. Timing for beginning a hive will vary depending on your local climate and geography. Read widely and connect with local beekeepers and beekeeping groups specific to your area to learn how others have found success.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the right time to start a hive is early spring between late March and early May. As the chance of frost lessens or stops, early flowers will appear, giving your bees the ability to collect nectar and pollen. We suggest using autumn and winter to do all of your research and planning.
Demand for beehives and bees is on the rise, and often it will be too late to get started if you haven’t secured a source for bees by January or February. Once spring arrives, you will want to be completely prepared for your bees to arrive with all of your equipment ready and your hive in place on your property. You will want to feel confident and versed about the task at hand!
As a beginning beekeeper you will always be learning. If you stop learning you're doing it wrong! As a natural beekeeper you are joining an ever-growing and changing beekeeping subculture that is still not understood by the larger beekeeping community. You may be scoffed at or ridiculed for your choice of hive designs or methods, but take comfort in the fact that a shift toward treatment-free, bee-friendly beekeeping is beginning, even among long-time traditional beekeepers.
Join a local beekeeping organization, even if they don't prefer your methods or beekeeping philosophy. Work to educate them on your methods and you may win a convert. There is also a lot to learn from long-time beekeepers despite some of their disinterest in top bar or Warre beekeeping.