Whether you’re looking for ways to help the environment or just a new hobby, starting a hive is much easier than you may think. You can jump right in knowing only the basics; observing your hive will teach more than any book or class ever could. I’ve kept bees in several capacities, including assisting in the management of an apiary on public land under an experience beekeeper, in addition my own to several hives my dad and I started several years back on my parent’s property. I’ve taken and taught beekeeping courses and I can tell you first hand that no amount of information can replace the experience of starting and observing your very own hive. This article provides a snapshot of what that entails.
Full disclosure, if you buy new equipment you’ll need a couple hundred bucks to get started. That said, you might get lucky and find something on craigslist or by getting on contact with a local beekeeper or beekeeping organization. You’ll need a hive and bees, of course, and may want to purchase a handful of tools including protective clothing, a hive tool, and a smoker.
If you get your bees before flowers start blooming in your area, it’s best to supplement your hive with sugar water and protein patties. If you want to avoid this, you should plan on getting your bees later in the spring. This of course depends on where you are; as long as there are flowers available, your bees will be able to begin to forage for the resources they need to be able to grow their population. Keep an eye out for flowering trees as they often before herbaceous plants and make great nectar and pollen sources for honeybees. Honeybees can travel up to six miles to forage; while it’s advantageous for them to be able to forage closer to the hive, don’t worry if you’re in an urban area where flowers are scarce.
There are a few different types of hives available commercially, but the most common type is called a Langstroth hive. This is a good place to start. Typically, you have the option to buy hives either pre-built or assemble-at-home style, which are no more difficult than putting together Ikea furniture and can be much cheaper than the pre-built style. You can think of your hive as a file cabinet; each box that makes up your hive body is basically a drawer of files. A hive is made up of two or more of these ‘drawers’ or hive boxes, and each box has 9 or 10 ‘files’ which is a frame with waxed template on which your bees will build their own comb.
Once you’ve got your hive assembled, it’s time to install your bees. What sounds like it could be a complex, difficult process is actually as easy as dumping them into your hive. When you purchase bees, you buy them by the pound. Three pounds, which equates to about 10,000 bees, is a good place to start. When you are ready to put your bees in the hive, you can smoke them or spray them to calm them calm, but depending on where you live, there’s a good chance they’ve been traveling and confined to their package for days or even weeks. Odds are they’re tired, and they usually fall out of the package and into your hive in a clump. Take out a few frames to make room to pour them in, give your package a light tap, and voila you’ve successfully installed your bees. Your queen will come in another small container, which you can set in your hive intact to give your bees a few days to acclimate to her. When you order a package of bees, the worker bees you get are generally not offspring of the queen you get, so it’s best to give them a few days to warm up to each other. Once you set you queen’s container into the hive, you can go ahead and slowly put your frames back in (the bees will move out of the way so no need to worry about squishing them) and then put the cover of your hive on.
In a few days you’ll need to take the queen out of the small container if the worker’s have not freed her already; some queen containers have a small piece of candy instead of a plastic or cork plug so over the course of a few days a few workers can help her escape the container by chewing through the candy. In about 21 days after the queen is freed, new worker bees will begin to emerge. A queen can lay up to 2000 eggs per day and your hive will quickly grow to 20,000 to 50,000 which is the range that a healthy hive operates at during the growing season.
Once you’ve got your hive set up, your main responsibility as a beekeeper is to observe. The more you observe, the better your idea of what ‘normal’ looks like and the earlier you’ll be able to detect a problem in your hive. The information presented in this article is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully has sparked your interest enough to delve a little deeper. Our global agricultural system relies on honeybees for pollination and starting a hive is a step worth taking combat the decline of this important species.