Did you know that honey doesn’t spoil? It is literally good forever. Honey was found in Egyptian tombs and after 3000 years, it’s still edible. Honey is Nature’s most amazing sweetener. Unlike sap used to make syrup, and cane used to make sugar, the honey of bees requires no processing before use; just take it straight from the comb. One bee hive can produce as much as 50 pounds of honey per year. This could be a significant financial impact for your homestead.
Honey isn’t the only reason to keep bees. Most people are aware of the honey bee colony collapse in the US over the past several years. It’s very hard to downplay the importance of bees in our environment. This is unnerving because bees are some of the most essential pollinators we have. So, after we had been on our homestead for about a year, we decided to research bees and see if we could manage keeping bees. What we found is that bees are probably the easiest “livestock” out there, but they do require some maintenance and there are some things you need to know in order to do it right.
Check regulations and laws: We live out in the country, so we didn’t need to worry about municipality requirements, but this varies so much in urban areas. New York City allows urban beehives, but some smaller cities don’t. Be sure to check so you won’t endanger your hive once it’s established. Grit.com has a great article about urban bee keeping.
Check with your neighbors: Even in rural areas, it’s good to check with your neighbors. Unlike many other kinds of livestock and farm animals, bees can be deadly to someone with an allergy. We have great neighbors and the 2 closest houses have family members with bee allergies, but they were very supportive and excited for our bees. I think because both have large gardens and are hoping for the increased pollination. And it may be the honey we promised to share.
Find a mentor: Many areas have beekeeping/apiary associations and clubs. Having a mentor to help establish your bees is invaluable. You’re going to have questions, especially in the beginning. I’ve found that beekeepers are very passionate about their bees and beekeeping and they are eager to share their knowledge. The apiary we chose to supply our bees offered new beekeeper workshops that got us through the first year. They also have quarterly get-togethers to discuss bee topics.
Location, location, location: Make sure that you have enough space for your bee yard even though bees don’t need much room between the hives. They’re very dedicated to their queen and won’t accidentally wander into one of the other hives. The first year, I only had 1 hive, but built the yard large enough that I could expand. I wanted to have a little room between my hives, so we made it a square with 12’ per side. This has provided plenty of room for my 4 hives leaving room around all of the hives to allow me to move about to tend them as necessary.
I was also told by my bee mentor that a mix of sun and shade, with a bit more shade if possible, is optimum for your yard. If you can’t quite manage this, do the best you can.
Honey bees will travel ~4 miles from the hive to forage so be sure they have adequate forage within that range.
Getting set up: Getting everything you need to set up a hive isn’t complicated and there are many apiaries that supply kits, like this selection from Amazon, that include the basic needs for a hive. But it requires some effort getting it ready and isn’t necessarily cheap so you may need to do some budgeting.
From the ground up, the minimum needs are:
- Bottom board – the hive boxes rest on these and can be either solid wood or screened.
- Brood box super with frames – these usually hold 8 or 10 frames on which the bees will build the comb to house the larvae for future generations. Most hives have two of these.
- Inner cover – this sits between the top hive box and the outer cover. It allows for ventilation and provides an exit/enterance.
- Outer Cover – this keeps weather out and offers some protection from predators. There are fancier ones but plain works just fine.
- Beekeeper bonnet – If you don’t get a whole suit, have a bonnet and be sure that the bees can’t get to your face through any openings.
- Gloves – these don’t need to be special beekeeper gloves, but need to be thick enough that the bees can’t sting through them. They also need to be closed at the cuff with elastic or a rubber band so the bees can’t get into your gloves or sleeves.
- Hive tool – you’re going to need this to pry open the hive as well as cleaning or scraping wax and propolis (the sticky yellow stuff in a beehive).
- Honey super – this will go on top of the brood boxes and under the inner cover. It’s where the honey you harvest will be located.
- Queen Excluder – this will go between the top brood box and the honey super. It’s not absolutely necessary, but ensures that you won’t lose the queen when you harvest the honey.
- Feeder – you’ll need this right after you install your bees and in the spring. They’re going to need this help for the first few weeks until they get some honey reserves established and in the spring before there’s enough pollen to forage. There are so many kinds of feeders out there; use the one that works best for your hive.
- Soft paint brush – get this anywhere; just a ~2” soft bristle paint brush with light colored bristles. Use this to gently brush bees away from edges when you close your hive.
Nice to haves:
- Smoker – I have one, but have never used it. I expect that I will when I harvest honey this year.
- Beekeeper suit – not necessary, but it does make things easier. If you don’t have one, wear light colored long sleeved shirt and long legged pants with collars and cuffs closed with rubber bands or elastic.
- Electric fence – depending on where you live, there may be large predators that will raid your bee yard. We have black bears. These predators are more of a danger to the larvae than to the honey, honey is just a bonus. Solar fences makes it that much easier.
- Tool tote – when you’re all geared up, carrying all of your stuff isn’t easy so a handled tote is essential. In my tote I have my hive tool, a soft paint brush, a thumbtack, pruners (lots of ferns and berry bushes near my bee yard), a knife and scissors.
- Hive stand – ideally, you don’t want your hive on the ground due to other insects and small mammals and reptiles getting into the hive. You could build your own or use cinder blocks, bricks, rocks, etc.
- Epi-pen – even if you’ve never had a reaction to bee stings before, it could still happen. People can “grow into” an allergy just like they can “grow out of” them. Get a prescription from your doctor and keep one of these on hand in your tote with some back-up Benadryl in your medicine cabinet.
All of these items (except the Epi-pen) can be purchased from my favorite online vendor, Amazon.
Set up the bee yard: Before you get your bees, you need to get the bee yard layout planed and set up. First set up the fence, if you’re using one. Next you’ll need to assemble (if necessary) and paint the boxes since they’ll be outside exposed to weather. Select a quality exterior paint in a light pastel color or white. One quart of paint will be enough for about 3 brood boxes and honey super, so get good paint to protect your girls. You’ll also need to have a good supply of simple syrup to feed your bees until they get established. Simple Syrup is equal parts water and sugar, heated to not quite boiling. Cool it before you give it to your hive. I make ½ gallon at a time and try to keep at least that much on hand during the spring.
Now for the bees! Bees can be ordered pretty much any time except winter. The climate where you live is going to impact when you should start your hive. Your bees will be delivered is a “nuc” (nucleus colony) which is a box with about 10,000 worker bees and 1 queen. Your Bee Mentor or bee supplier can give you instructions on installing your bees. Be mindful of the queen when installing your bees. Make sure she doesn’t fall onto the ground of the bottom of the hive.
Maintenance: Early in the establishment of your hive, you’ll need to feed your girls. Fill your feeder with simple syrup and check daily until you notice that the colony has some honey stores established.
As the bees fill the frames with comb, they’ll move outward from the frame where the queen is. To ensure that all frames are filled, very gently move fuller frames to the edge and put empty frames toward the middle. When about 70% of the frames are filled, add the 2nd brood box. Manage this box in the same way. When it’s about 70% filled add the honey super. This is where you’ll get the honey to harvest.
Depending on your environment, you’ll need to weed and clear pants from your bee yard, especially from around the hives. You’ll want to use hand tools instead of power tools to do this since power tools and motors will upset your bees and could cause them to attack.
Bee stings: If you get stung, use your finger nail and slide across to pull the stinger out. Don’t pinch the stinger from the top because that could cause the venom gland to continue to pump venom into your system. I didn’t get my first bee sting until I’d had my 1st hive for about a month. This was pretty amazing because I didn’t wear any protective gear – not even my bonnet. I was playing with fire and don’t recommend this. Remember, stinging a human kills the bee – stings are lose/lose for everyone.
This is just the beginning. Unlike other homestead livestock and animals, I had no prior exposure to bees and they weren’t particularly intuitive for me. I suggest you start small – say one colony – then expand later. They are amazing creatures and so much fun to watch. Every bee keeper I know is thoroughly attached to their bees. I love my bees.
See the following article by TopSurvivalPreps.com about an exciting natural approach to beekeeping using Top Bar hives.