You may be wondering why I’ve dedicated an entire guide to something as simple as a bee and how to become a beekeeper in your backyard. I’ve talked about my love of multitasking animals here before, and honey bees are some of the best around. Obviously, they’ll provide you with the liquid gold we know as honey, but they can offer your homestead (big or small) so much more.
Bees will pollinate your plants, provide beeswax for countless uses, and give you some unique and healthy bi-products like bee-pollen and propolis. Although beekeeping can have a steep initial investment, it tends to be a one-time cost and with proper maintenance can last you for years to come.
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Bees are wonderfully self-sufficient for the most part, and compared to other animals require very little space and attention which make them fitting for backyard beekeeping or urban farms and homesteads. Something I feel the need to mention before we really dive into things, is that local-beekeeping associations are all over and are an amazing resource.
Become familiar and get acquainted with your local apiculture community, take a look at this directory to find ones near you. This guide is meant to give you all the information you’ll need on how to become a beekeeper in your backyard and send you on your path to becoming an apiculture pro!
How To Become a Beekeeper
Backyard Beekeeping Potential Drawbacks
Anytime I start my planning and preparation for any animal, I like to look at my pros/cons right off the bat. Although there are few, honey bees do have some potential drawbacks to consider.
Bee traffic is a term used to describe the movement of bees around their hive. A typical colony contains anywhere from a few thousand to sixty thousand insects, so they’ll need some flying room. A good rule of thumb is to give each of your hives a 5-10 ft radius, but expect a high number of bees that will greatly exceed that.
If you have kids, pets, or fearful neighbors, this is definitely something you’ll need to be aware of.
Initial Investment for Beekeeping in Your Backyard
As I mentioned earlier, once you’ve established your hives and equipment, bees cost very little money to keep up, between $20-$200 a year. However, that initial investment can get pretty steep. Depending on what kind of bees, hives, and equipment you buy, you can expect your initial investment to cost anywhere from $200-$2000.
Honey Harvesting is an Ordeal!
Depending on the number of hives you keep, and how many harvests you’ll plan per year (one or two), honey harvesting is quite the project. You’ll need to set aside at least a few days per harvest to extract and jar everything up.
Starting Beekeeping Supplies
OK, we’ve gotten through our small list of potential downsides, and you’ve still decided bees are the way to go (I commend this decision). I highly recommend that you collect all your equipment before your bees arrive. So many times, I’ve seen eager beginner animal keepers acquire creatures before necessary preparations are made.
I’ve put together an in-depth look at everything you’ll need to get ready to set yourself up for the best backyard beekeeping experience! I’ve broken this list up into equipment you’ll need for the bees, yourself, and for your honey-harvesting. Much of this equipment can be purchased in the form of a beekeeping starter kit.
Equipment for Bees
- Bee Hives (I’ll go way more in depth on this in the following section).
- Hive Tool
- Beekeeping Brush
- Tarps or foam-siding, for winterizing hives (again, more on this later).
- Parasite treatments.
Equipment for You
Personal protective equipment (PPE) should never be ignored when dealing with your bees. Although honey bees are generally very docile, you will be invading their homes which can provoke some understandable stings. Take a look at the following beekeeper equipment you should get.
- Beekeeper hat and veil
- Beekeeping suit (some of these come with a hat and veil attached)
- Beekeeping gloves
- Long or lace-up boots (to tuck pant legs into)
Equipment for Honey Harvesting
Honey harvesting can be quite the undertaking, but it can be made easier by having the appropriate equipment. Don’t wait until you’ve pulled out your honey-filled frames to realize that you don’t have any way to extract the honey from them.
- Canning jars (to store honey in)
- Honey Extractor *
- Uncapping knife OR Uncapping fork
- Honey strainer
- Honey bottling bucket
*Note on honey extractors: These pieces of equipment can be pricey, $80-$200 range. Often, your local beekeeping association or other local beekeepers will let you rent or borrow extractors*
The wide-wide world of beehives… It can get technical, jargon-filled, and confusing for beginner beekeepers. I’ve done my best to put together a guide on the terminology, types of hives, and pros-cons for each to help guide you through your quest in how to become a beekeeper in your backyard!
In your upcoming research on hives, the term “bee-space” is going to be widely used and little explained. This term is important for you to have at least an elementary understanding of, because it does affect the way your bees move and function within their hives.
At its most rudimentary, bee-space refers to how much room your bees need to move around within their living quarters. The term was coined by Lorenzo Langstroth in 1850, long considered the father or modern beekeeping, who discovered that bees need between ⅜-¼ of an inch of room to maneuver around their hives.
In hives without this range of room, the bees will either fill small spaces with propolis, or build excess comb in the larger spaces. As you’ll start to see, hives on the market today will each have their bee-space dimensions listed, and very few of them are the same as the last.
These boxes (also called “Supers”) can be purchased in three depths: deep, medium, and shallow; and connect to each other in a modular fashion. The ability to choose the number and depth of boxes make the Langstroth Hive extremely customizable.
These hives were named after their creator, the aforementioned Lorenzo Langstroth. You can build your own Langstroth beehive too!
Langstroth Hive Pros:
- Easily customized
- User friendly
- Standardized parts and sizing
Langstroth Hive Cons:
- Weight of boxes (makes it difficult to inspect lower frames)
- Honey harvest/inspection is very invasive and stressful to the bees
- Reassembly often results in crushing some bees between boxes
Like the Langstroth Hive, Warre hives were given the name of their inventor: a Frenchman named Abbé Émile Warré. Outwardly, these hives look pretty similar to the Langstroth, but there are some noted differences in the internal structure.
The Warre Hive aimed to create a more ‘natural’ space for bees to build their hives, and was designed to mimic the hollow spaces bees would fill in the wild. Rather than having the enclosed frames found in the Langstroth, the Warre uses slats that the bees build comb from the top-down on.
Boxes can be added on, but they are added at the bottom of the stack rather than the top. This is due to the top-box on the hive being non-removable. This top section, or the “quilt-box”, contains material which absorbs condensation generated as a result of the warmth of the hive.
Warre Hive Pros:
- Less winter maintenance due to the quilt box
- Can add or remove boxes
- More ‘natural’ space for bees to build their comb
Warre Hive Cons:
- Must add boxes at the bottom
- Less standardized than Langstroth Hives
- Reassembly and inspection is invasive/stressful and can result in crushing bees
Top Bar Hives
The Top Bar Hive (TBH) is one of the more recent hive designs, and is vastly different than the Warre and Langstroth. There are several features of the TBH that have made it hugely popular with hobbyist and natural beekeepers.
The design of the Top Bar Hive looks somewhat like a table, constructed of a single box with a lift off top containing up to 24 slats (the “Bars”) that bees will build their comb top-down on. Many Top Bar Hives have a lengthwise viewing window that offers a quick and less intrusive way to monitor bees.
Top Bar Hive Pros:
- Easy access design
- Less invasive to bees
- More ‘natural’ space for bees to build their comb
Top Bar Hive Cons:
- Not modular like Langstroth or Warre Hives
- Less standardized measurements
- Smaller bee-space results in more delicate combs and the need for precise work
Hive Maintenance and Winterizing
For the most part, your bees will be surprisingly self-sufficient. This doesn’t mean that good husbandry practices can be thrown out the window, however. Regularly inspecting your beehives is a necessity to ensure health and honey production are up to par, and keep a close eye on the state of your hive parts.
A good rule of thumb is to inspect your bee hives on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. Even in less intrusive hive designs, inspections can be stressful for your bees. Inspecting too often can result in colonies vacating to find less disturbed living quarters. You’ll want to keep this inspection schedule up during the warm months of the year.
During your inspections, you should be checking the following things:
- Honey production stays at a steady rate.
- The queen bee is still laying.
- Make additions if necessary for your colony to expand.
- Signs of disease or parasites (more on this in the ‘Bee Health’ section later on).
- No broken hive parts.
- Installing a shade structure if heat spikes occur (ideal internal hive temp is 90-95 ℉).
Outside of the warmer months, you’ll need to consider what kind of winter your bees will need to get through. If you live in mild climates, winterizing your hive won’t be much of an issue.
If you live in an area with harsh winters, however, you’ll need to beef up your hive a bit. The biggest areas of concern as far as winterizing a hive goes, is keeping your bees warm enough while ensuring excess condensation doesn’t build up. Your bees will cluster to keep the brood temperature no lower than 90℉, which means that any moisture within the hive will collect and condense.
This is where the quilt box in the Warre Hives help immensely, as they’ll absorb any excess moisture. Material can be placed in excess top space of a top bar hive, and Langstroth Hives can be slightly ventilated at the top to allow moisture to escape. Excess moisture in a hive during winter can result in issues with disease, parasites, or temperature control.
In areas of extreme cold, wrapping hives with foam siding or tarps can help bees out in maintaining their necessary internal temps. For a super detailed look at winterizing different styles of hives, take a look at this article about winterizing your bee hive.
Understanding Your Bees
A vital piece of ethical animal husbandry is having a detailed understanding of the behavior of the animals you raise. As such, I think it’s important to take a brief moment to explain the social structure of a bee colony and the behaviors you’ll see from them. Having this understanding will make you a better beekeeper: you’ll be able to identify the queen and if she is laying, or if the colony’s behavior is normal for that time of year.
One constant for every single bee is their life-cycle. They all go from egg→ larvae→ pupae→ adult. You will commonly see the collective term of “brood” used to describe all bees in the egg/larvae/pupae stages of life.
One of the most fascinating aspects of honey bees that set them apart from other insects is their advanced social structure. Colonies contain different types of bees with unique and specific jobs throughout the year. Without all members of the colony fully functioning, the hive will fail and collapse.
Below are descriptions of the different kinds of bees within a colony, and their assigned functions.
I’ll start with the most well known of the bees, the Queen. The queen is easily identified by her greatly elongated abdomen. She has two major functions within the colony, the most obvious being the single egg-laying member. She ultimately decides the destiny of each egg she lays, worker or drone, by controlling the amount of spermatozoa she releases with each egg.
Her second function is that she emits several pheromones that act as influence to hold the entire social structure of the colony together. In the absence of these queen pheromones, wildly radical social structures arise and in the event that a new queen is not produced, this will result in hive collapse.
Because she is in a near constant state of egg-laying, the queen is looked after and fed a substance called ‘royal jelly’ by the workers of the colony.
Workers are the most numerous members of the colony, and true to their name, undertake the day-to-day operations that keep things running. They collect food, care for the brood, attend to the queen, build comb, and protect their hive. Workers are all female, and in situations where their colony becomes queenless will actually develop ovaries and begin to lay eggs in her absence.
Workers are also responsible for selecting and raising new queens. They will modify the cell of a worker larvae and begin to feed her royal jelly, which results in her developing into a queen.
Another extremely important function of workers is to keep the internal temperature a steady 90-95℉. They do this in the summer by spreading water along the comb and beating their wings along the surface which results in evaporative cooling, and in winter they’ll cluster and vibrate to produce heat through friction.
Drones are the only male bees within the colony, and serve the sole purpose of fertilizing the virgin queen once she emerges from her cell. Drones will die once they have mated with a queen.
They are identified easily as they’re the largest bees in the colony, and should only be present in early summer. As winter approaches, colonies will generally banish any remaining drones as a way to conserve honey resources.
All honey bee colonies will have different behaviors and functions depending on the time of year. This is easily simplified into warm and cool months.
If you’re particularly keen on learning as much as you can about colony structure and seasonal activity, check out this detailed article on seasonal cycles in colonies by the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium. I’ll keep things pretty basic and beginner-friendly here, though!
Towards the end of summer your bees will begin to struggle with finding the quantities of pollen and nectar they were collecting in spring. The reduction in food will cue the queen to reduce and eventually cease brood rearing. As the cold progresses, the bees will cluster around the brood and queen and rely on their honey stores to get them through winter.
Older members of the colony will die off throughout winter. In mid-winter, healthy colonies will begin to feed the queen more to stimulate egg laying again. This will ultimately determine the population size and colony strength as the warmer months approach.
With increased day length and food collection in early spring, the winter brood will begin to emerge and the queen will increase laying. As temperatures rise and colony size grows, the winter cluster will disperse and the queen will produce drones.
In an extremely vigorous colony, a new queen will also be produced in anticipation of a colony split, or “swarming”, which is the natural growth cycle of healthy colonies. Throughout mid spring and summer the workers will resume their nectar, pollen, and sap collection to produce honey and strengthen the hive for the inevitable return of winter.
Honey Bee Health
Bee colonies face their own health issues as does every living thing. Outside of environmental factors like weather exposure or lack of food, honey bees face threat from three different types of health issues. I’ve categorized these into the following sections: parasites, pests, and disease.
Honey Bee Parasites
I’ll start with parasites, as they’re going to be the most common health issue you’ll encounter with your bees. Luckily a wide variety of prevention and treatments are available.
Varroa mites are an external parasite of the honey bee. These mites feed on the blood of adult bees (workers, drones, or queens) and are extremely contagious to any surrounding hives as well. Luckily, these mites are easy to spot with the naked eye, which makes monitoring them a relatively pain-free process.
If you identify varroa mites within your colony, invest in the use of a miticide treatment to rid your bees of these bothersome parasites. The best time to treat your colony is during periods when the bees aren’t brood rearing (refer back to the ‘Seasonal Activity’ section), as the mites be more vulnerable to treatments.
This article on planning for varroa article by Michigan State University is a great resource on varroa mite control.
Unlike Varroa, Tracheal Mites are an internal parasite of the honey bee and invisible to the naked eye. This makes them much more difficult to identify, but when poor colony health is noticed they should be suspected. Tracheal Mites are much less common than Varroa, and because they are also a mite many of the same treatments used for Varroa will be effective against them.
The security and abundance of food within a beehive make them highly desirable homes for invasive pests. Proper husbandry and hive maintenance are the best protection against these pesky intruders.
Small Hive Beetles (SHB)
The SHB is an invasive species to the US and Canada, and is particularly prevalent in the southeastern US.
The main threat they pose to bee colonies is the rapid destruction of comb, as they will puncture comb to lay eggs within larvae and pupae cells. SHB are easily observed as small black beetles during hive inspections. Honey in a hive with a large SHB infestation is deemed unfit for human consumption.
The most common occurrence of a wax moth infestation is due to frames or boxes being added to a colony that haven’t been stored or cleaned appropriately. They can be identified by a spider-web like substance on the surface of the comb, along with small while larvae within this web.
If you identify wax moths in your hive, remove the affected combs and freeze them or simply let the moths finish their work of cleaning it out before returning it to your hive.
Honey Bee Disease
There are several diseases that affect bee colonies, and often there is no known treatment for these. They can be extremely destructive, and many times fatal to a colony. Maintaining a healthy, strong, and stress free colony is your best defense again disease.
Parasites like Varroa or Tracheal Mites can also carry diseases between colonies. American Foulbrood is an extremely lethal disease of honey bees caused by an antibiotic resistant bacteria. Hives affected must be burned in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
Nosema is another disease that tends to target and collapse hives during the winter months, and the Varroa Mite is a very common vector for this disease.
Acquiring your Bees!
Once you’re all set up and you’ve completed your research, you’ll need to get yourself some bees! You have several options for going about this.
For beginners, I’d highly recommend getting packaged bees or a nucleus hive. Once you have a little experience under your belt, you can look into capturing wild swarms (I’ll cover this in a different article)! You can buy nucleus hives or packaged bees from your local beekeeping association. Always buy bees locally as transporting insects long distances and through different climates often results in undue stress and death.
Commonly referred to as a ‘nuc’, the nucleus hive is a small-sized complete colony contained within a modular structure you can fit onto a Langstroth or Warre type hive. If you have chosen to go the route of a TBH, I’d recommend getting packaged bees.
Packaged bees are, once again, a tiny sized colony like the nuc but they do not come with the already attached hive. The queen will come within her own container in the package, and will be surrounded by the equivalent of about 3lbs of workers. You’ll need to open up this package, dump them into your hive, and free the queen as well. You can buy packaged bees from Tractorsupply.com
I’ve saved the best and most exciting for last… it’s finally time to harvest your honey!! You may be wondering a few things at this point. How to harvest, when to harvest, and what to do with all that honey may be on your mind. Keep on reading to answer all those questions you may be fretting over!
When to Harvest
There are several factors that go into determining the answer to this. The most common that you’ll see is that in the later summer months you should start monitoring the “percent of capped cells”. This refers to the number of sealed honey containing cells. You’ll calculate this based on the number of total cells in a comb vs. the number of capped/uncapped cells.
The most important reason for waiting until you get to this percentage of capped cells is to ensure the honey that you extract has a low moisture content. If you harvest too early (before 80% capped) you run the risk of the honey having too much moisture, and thus more susceptible to fermentation after bottling.
So, in summary, the things to keep in mind on when to harvest honey are:
- Late summer months (July – September)
- 80% capped
- Low moisture content
How to Harvest
I’ve put together a step by step process on harvesting your honey. Depending on your number of hives, sizes of your colonies, and the overall production of your bees this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days of work! Each hive, on average, can produce between 20-60 pounds of honey.
- Open your hives. Use a smoker to placate your bees, then a hive tool to pry open your hives.
- Remove the frames and clear them of bees. You’ll need to clear any bees from the tops of the frames using your bee brush, then slowly remove the frames and again clear off any bees by using your bee brush.
- Uncap the comb. Bring your frames into your harvesting workspace, and using an uncapping knife or fork, scrape off or slice off the caps on the cells.
- Extract the honey. This is where having a honey extractor will be a huge help. They function like a big centrifuge, you’ll slide in the uncapped frames and it’ll spin the honey out of them. Set your honey collecting bucket up at the spigot in the bottom of the extractor and wait for the bucket to fill.
- Jar it up. You’ll want to make sure you strain your honey before you jar it up. Use a honey strainer to do this. Some honey collecting buckets, and even a few high end extractors have strains built in. Make sure your jars are sanitized and sealed properly.
One of the great things about beekeeping is that each batch of honey you get is going to be absolutely unique. There are endless variables that go into honey production: climate, colony size/strength, geographic location, plants foraged, and time of year honey is collected. All of these factors will play a role in the taste and quality of your honey.
Honey is generally classified by its color, with lighter colored honeys tasting very mild and darker honeys having a much stronger taste. Honey can also be described by varietal, which refers to the main plant your bees collected from. This is why you’ll find things like “Dark Clover Honey” in your local supermarkets.
Alongside your honey production, bees will also provide you with some pretty cool by- products. These include beeswax, propolis, and bee-pollen! There are several other lesser known bee products that can be a great benefit for your health and offer some income for your farm. Take a look at this awesome article by the Word Bee Day on honey bee products!
Hopefully you’ve come to my side after all of this in realizing how amazing these little creatures can really be. Becoming a beekeeper may seem like a daunting task, but then again, so is starting any new project! The benefits a few beehives can bring to your homestead or small-scale farm absolutely make them worth your while.