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Backyard Beekeeping for Beginners

Mar 25, 2024Mar 25, 2024

It’s early spring! Smell the sweet aroma corning from those fruit blooms and that other quickening vegetation? Then you should seriously consider getting yourself a colony or three of honeybees! You can succeed with these creatures even in the arid Southwest and north into Canada, almost everywhere in the world except the polar regions, where it’s hard to raise anything successfully.

Don’t let fear of the little critters put you off this easy, interesting and profitable project. Yup, the modern bees that beekeepers keep sure do sting, but very rarely, and only when you have made a wrong move (never because they’re nasty and don’t like you).

Generally, the bees don’t even know you’re there, because this is one creature man has never succeeded in domesticating. That colony back in the garden is just as untamed as the swarm in a rotten log lying deep in the Alaskan forests. The difference comes from your attitude (and a few necessary pieces of equipment). With only a bee veil, smoker and, if you want, bee gloves, you can turn that seemingly unruly mass of pulsating life into submissive little people who are easily handled.

In return for your care, the little golden folk will yield many pounds of nature’s purest sweet for sale, gifts or use at home. The excess beeswax, too, will come in mighty handy when you want some really fine candles with a dazzling flame and a sweet, natural perfume. After a while, if you end up with enough colonies, you can even sell the wax (which will then be recycled back to the little honey-makers in the form of foundation for comb-building).

Yes, you can still get your adventure with bees together this spring and end up with more honey than you can use by summer’s end, but you have to get started now. Why? Because come the first honey flow around June, you want a really healthy colony, one that has many babies (brood) and still more adult bees (about 45,000) ready to begin foraging for nectar and pollen. A community that starts out weak in early summer will be able to store only a little excess honey, and you’ll probably have to save all of it to feed the little creatures during the coming winter. Act fast, then, if you want any of the harvest for yourself.

The American Golden Italian Honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) is probably your wisest investment for a homestead apiary. They’re great honey producers with gentle dispositions, have a strong resistance to disease and natural enemies and are well able to withstand wintering-over in colder climates. They also seem less inclined to swarm than other strains.

Most packaged bee houses now sell only pure, tested Italian queens and swarms in two and three pound lots. Such a parcel, aptly called a “nuc”, short for “nucleus,” cost from $10.00 to $12.00 in 1974. Firms engaged in this booming business are located in areas where the climate is warm most of the year, and they do their shipping between April 1 and June 1 (the weather is too cold before that period, and honeybees mailed later, in the heat of summer, would arrive roasted).

When you do receive your bees (parcel post, and I’m sure your mail carrier will love you dearly for it) you must have your hive ready for them. As soon as you’ve placed your order for that first colony, in other words, you should start getting your beekeeping equipment together.

The modern beehive is very simple and easy-to-use. To save those scarce dollars you can build one, but factory-made equipment is so inexpensive and well made that you’ll probably find it worth the slight extra expense. (A few major suppliers of apiarists’ gear are listed below in my note on “The Cost of Beekeeping”.) Even if you do want to make your own hives, I’d advise you to buy the first one (you put it together) and get its measurements so you can duplicate it exactly. This is necessary because you’ll be interchanging components all the time and you’ll want them to fit.

The first section of your colony’s home, starting from the bottom, is a cypress-wood hive stand (this is optional, but protects the main part of the structure from the deteriorating effects of moisture and vegetation). This base is set on cinders or ashes to help the pollen- and nectar-laden honeybee make it home without fighting sharp blades of grass and weeds (which may kill or injure her if she crash-lands into them). A further aid to such an overloaded worker is an inclined board on the front of the hive stand, so if the returning bee misses her mark she can still struggle up the ramp to the safety of the hive’s entrance.

Next comes the reversible bottom board which supports the section above. This partition also protects the hive from any nastiness below and affords a space for the bees to enter the brood chamber.

The brood chamber (commonly called the “Langstroth movable frame hive”) is third up from the ground. It looks like an oversized milk crate without top or bottom, and contains 10 foundation frames on which the bees build comb to raise brood or store honey. The ten frames hang side by side in the chamber. They must be spaced just far enough apart to allow the bees to pass around and between them, but not so far that the insects will be tempted to build connecting links of comb (which is a nuisance to the beekeeper) between them.

The beeswax foundation, which fits snugly inside the individual frame, is a sheet of pure beeswax stamped with the same base pattern (for worker cells) found in a natural comb. The bees, finding this material laid out in such a convenient form, proceed to draw out the foundation into full, operational worker cells capable of supporting brood or storing excess honey. This is a tremendous advantage to the beekeeper because a colony ordinarily spends much time, and burns up 10 to 15 pounds of honey, to make and form a pound of beeswax.

Directly above the brood chamber is one or more supers, or storage sections. Each is a duplicate of the brood chamber (although often only half as deep) and contains 10 comb frames where surplus honey may be stashed. You can stack as many as five of these supers on a hive and reap the sweet liquid as it comes in, or you can wait until the honey flow ends and do all your collecting at once.

The storage supers are topped with a honey board, or inside cover. This is a plain piece of wood with reinforced sides and ends to keep the bees from gluing the top of the hive to the uppermost story. The board also has provision for a small device called a bee escape. This gadget is fitted into the center of the panel, which is then slipped below a super that’s full of honey and ready to be taken away the next day. During the night the bees in the upper level descend into the lower parts of the hive and, due to the action of the one-way bee escape, can’t return. Come morning, the storage chamber is empty of workers (or nearly so) and unloading is easier all the way around.

Last of all, on top of the hive is the telescoping cover, so called because it slides down about three inches all around the uppermost super. Its metal upper surface, generally made of galvanized steel, protects the whole hive from rain, snow and nasty weather in general. And that’s it!

A hive’s queen spends most of her time (all of it, if you can so arrange) in the brood chamber, being fed and gently groomed by young worker bees and laying upwards of 3,000 eggs a day. Apart from this reproductive function, her presence is essential for another reason: The latest discoveries seem to indicate that she secretes an unidentified “queen substance” which keeps the colony in good, productive spirits and inhibits the workers from laying. In the absence of a fully developed female some of them may do so, but their eggs produce only non-working males, or drones, and the community soon becomes weak and demoralized. Without the hive mother’s secretion, the bees know within minutes that they’re queenless and become loud, nasty and generally uptight. You needn’t worry about that, though, because you’ll be buying a healthy young queen with your nucleus and she’s good for at least two years and up to five, in exceptional cases.

Since it’s undesirable to have the queen laying her eggs in the upper storage sections of a hive, some beekeepers top the brood chamber with an optional device called a queen excluder: a flat frame the same width and length as the hive’s other sections, covered with a heavy inset wire screen. The openings in the mesh allow the worker bees to pass through and deposit surplus honey in the upper stories, but keep back the larger queen. The passages are also too small for the drones, which exist only to furnish a mate for any virgin queen the colony may produce. Meanwhile they have an easy life hanging around the hive and gorging themselves on honey, and the screen prevents them from eating up your potential harvest. Most pros, however, frown on the use of the queen excluder because it may lead to swarming and the subsequent loss of half or more of the colony. An alternative is to keep presenting Her Majesty with empty comb in the brood chamber. Then she’ll usually be happy to stay and lay her eggs there.

You must not take honey from the brood chamber where the queen is raising her young. That part of the hive you leave strictly alone except for an examination once or twice a week to see how the laying progresses and to check for signs of bee disease. You can also look in to inspect the queen (if you can find her!) and/or artificially divide the colony before swarming time, but honey is harvested only from a hive’s supers.

Your order of packaged bees will be delivered parcel post, in a small container that weighs about seven pounds. Three pounds will be the bee nucleus and their queen (caged by herself with a few workers), the rest will be the shipping box of wire screening and wood and a perforated container of sugar syrup to feed the colony en route. The procedure for getting that humming mass of insects safely into their new home is simple: Just follow to the letter the directions on the shipping container and there’ll be no trouble. Two hints to make the transfer easier: [ 1 ] Feed the bees well before unpacking them so that they’ll be gentle and quiet. (Make a syrup by dissolving two parts sugar in one part water and smear this liquid generously over the wire screening.) [ 2 ] Install your colony in the late evening to reduce the chance that some of the exploring workers will be lost. With night coming on, they won’t go far and will naturally return to the nearby hive. The next morning, before they leave, they’ll hover a while near the entrance to get their bearings from the surrounding landmarks and appearance of their home base. After that they’ll never forget where they live, unless you move them to a new location.

An easy way to free caged bees is to put an empty super (one without frames) on the bottom board of the hive. Then remove the cover board of the shipping cage and tilt the container to allow the feeding can to slide into your hand. Also lift out the queen’s traveling box, which will be hanging among the workers. Insert the package of bees into the super (it will fit lengthwise perfectly) and top the empty storage unit with another filled with foundation frames.

On the wooden end of the queen’s cage you’ll find a tab of paper which peels off to reveal a hole plugged with bee-candy (the hive mother’s traveling ration). Punch a few holes in this stopper with an awl or nail. Then hang the container between or above the frames in the second super and place a honey board on the hive. The workers will leave their container, fly up to the queen and release her by chewing away the candy plug.

Fill the shipping feeder with sugar syrup and invert the perforated can over the opening in the hive’s honey board to supply the bees with food. Leave the creatures alone, except to replenish the syrup, for the next four days so that they can get down to business undisturbed. After that time you can remove the empty shipping cage and take away the bottom super to lower the loaded super (now a brood chamber) to its proper position. There you are: A growing colony of bees!

Another method of hiving requires only one super instead of two: Set up a chamber filled with frames of foundation, suspend the queen as I’ve described and remove five of the ten panels. In their place insert the shipping cage (open side up), provide food and close the hive. Again, you can inspect the colony after four days.

By the time you get your mail-order nucleus settled in their new home it will probably be around the middle of April, still a lean time for bees in most areas, with little pollen and nectar to gather. If your colony is to build its strength quickly, a watchword in beekeeping, you must continue to feed them artificially for the first few weeks. This stimulates early egg laying.

One way to nourish your bees is with syrup fed from a Boardman bottle feeder. This gadget costs about 50 cents and is simply a wooden insert for the hive’s entrance, perforated with flow channels to carry the food to the interior. Inside the block, upside down, is a cap from an ordinary Mason jar (pierced to let the contents escape slowly). You supply the jar and fill it with warm syrup made by mixing granulated sugar with an equal amount of water and heating the two until all the crystals are dissolved. Don’t scorch the mixture or you’ll surely harm the bees. If you think that refined sugar can’t be an ideal diet for your colony, I’ll agree, but it does ward off starvation and is recommended by just about every beekeeper.

A much better food, and one that’s needed for normal brood rearing even if you also give the bees sugar syrup, is pollen. Most of the bigger beekeeping supply firms sell it at very reasonable prices (averaging about $2.00 less per pound than the same item costs in most health food stores). The USDA recommends the following supplement for spring feeding:

Sugar/water: Two parts sugar to one part water by weight.Pollen/soy: One part fresh dry pollen to three parts soybean flour by weight.Pour this mixture over and through a cloth and drape the fabric on top of the frames in the brood chamber. This is really the best way to feed your babies for the first few weeks in spring.

The following pollen substitute is less satisfactory than the one above, but is sometimes recommended:

Soybean flour: 20 percentCasein: 30 percentBrewer’s Yeast: 20 percentDry Skim Milk: 20 percentDried Egg Yolk: 10 percent

I urge you, however, to feed the formula containing pollen if you can. The point is to get the bees on their feet and laying as quickly as possible so that plenty of workers will be ready to handle the spring honey flow. Pollen fed early in the season will almost always assure this result.

Note, though, that bees must not be fed pollen in the fall, when anything but the purest of honey or syrup will kill them. Since these fastidious housekeepers never excrete inside the hive, they may go the whole winter without releasing their waste. Impure foods will give wintering bees diarrhea, and if it’s too cold for them to fly outside and relieve themselves, they’ll die in the hive by the thousands. (In his exhaustive work The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root states that the cause of winter dysentery is not pollen, but unripe honey, or the fact that the colony is too weak to withstand the cold without constant fanning, which causes the insects to eat too much. -MOTHER.)

The best cold weather food for a hive of bees, of course, is some of the same honey the workers stored earlier in the year. A normal colony needs about 30 to 45 pounds of good honey (sugar syrup in a pinch) to make it through the winter successfully. One deep super, which holds about 40 pounds when filled, should do the job, but many beekeepers feel that two is a safer number. The other, empty chambers can be painted if they need it and put away in readiness for the next spring’s honey flow.

With your bees housed and getting into production, you’ll need to check on them now and then, and you’ll soon be wanting to remove some of their surplus store for your own use. Both these jobs are much easier if you have the proper equipment, which is relatively inexpensive and worth buying instead of constructing yourself.

A bee veil costs about $2.00 and is indispensable. Inside one of these mysterious-looking head coverings, you’ll feel, if you’re old enough, like a kid again, wearing the cardboard-box Captain Video space helmet you made for yourself because there wasn’t any of the plastic kind on the market yet. So protected, you can approach the colony with the confidence you need to do any job surely and thoroughly.

This precaution is especially important if you’re bearded, as I am. Bees get upset when caught in hair and are likely to retaliate by stinging. They also become annoyed if you breathe over their backs.

Your “spaceman” appearance as you approach the hive is increased by the potent bee-queller you wield in your right hand. This weapon, also indispensable, is the smoker. It costs about $5.00 and looks as if it’s easily worth three times the price.

To use the smoker, tear strips of burlap or other cloth (wood chips work well too) and light them with a match. Drop the whole works into the smoker’s zinc barrel and squeeze the bellows a few times to fire up the fuel and start it smoking. Never overheat the device or let flame shoot out the nozzle: You don’t want to burn your little people, just to quiet them.

When the machine is working well, puff a few shots of smoke into the bottom entrance of the hive to drive back the guard bees. This creates a panic in the colony and the inhabitants, thinking that a natural catastrophe is about to take place, gorge themselves on honey and get set to flee, if necessary, to a new nesting site. Once they’ve filled up this way, they become quite gentle and will never sting unless provoked by gross carelessness.

Next, lift the metal hive cover a little and shoot a puff or two inside to cool out the bees you missed on the first assault. Then remove the top altogether and hang the smoker on the hive or set it on the ground within easy reach (just in case it’s needed).

A smart beekeeper, by the way, always stands to the side of the hive when he’s working, out of the guard bees’ line of vision. The sentries become infuriated if you place yourself directly in front of them.

With veil and smoker you can handle the largest hive with impunity. As a beginner, however, you may also want to use bee gloves ($2.00-$5.00 per pair) which are made of leather or coated drill cloth and reach all the way to the elbows, where they are tied. Later on, you’ll find it easier to work without them.

Finally, you’ll need a hive tool or a screwdriver to pry loose the supers and frames that have been glued tight by the bees since your last encounter. The tool costs $1.00 or so, depending on the dealer. They’re all the same, except for weight grades, so buy the cheapest you can find.

As your colony gains strength, it may outgrow its quarters to the point that the queen and a large number of drones and workers swarm, or leave to seek a new home. When they’re ready to do so (usually near the beginning of the honey flow), they begin to cluster in golden masses on the front of the hive. This is because they lack room or incentive to enter, or because the heat inside is becoming unbearable. Since days of precious foraging are lost in this way, and a successful attempt to swarm means the loss of half the colony or more, a beekeeper tries to hold down this instinct as best he can.

A colony swarms most often because there are too many bees trying to pack themselves into a hive of insufficient size. When a few empty supers of used comb or new foundation are added, the restless insects are usually satisfied to stay rather than split the community.

You can also prevent swarming by clipping the queen’s wings or restraining her within the hive by means of a queen trap, a wire or perforated metal device that fits over the hive entrance and allows only the smaller workers to pass. With these precautions in force the bees may rise joyfully into the air, buzzing like a low-flying aircraft, but when they realize that their leader isn’t with them, they’ll wander sheepishly back into the hive and forget the whole thing until next year.

Any swarm that does succeed in leaving usually won’t go far at first because the queen isn’t used to the bright daylight and finds flying difficult (she takes to the air only when mating or swarming). Wherever the mother alights, the colony surrounds her, and there it sits humming on a nearby branch, rock or bush, waiting for the scout bees to return with news of a newly found home.

If you find part of your colony in this condition, you must prepare an empty super with foundation frames and cut the branch to which the bees are clinging. In case their position prevents you from gathering them in a bunch, you can take a ladle or cup and spoon them gently into a basket or cardboard box. No, they won’t sting! A new swarm is contented and gentle. This is so because the workers prepare for the move by filling themselves with honey to build fresh comb in their new location and, as you already know, a honey-gorged bee won’t attack unless greatly provoked. Just don’t be foolish enough to think you can handle the critters roughly. If you do, they’ll be rough in return.

When you’ve secured the swarm in a box or on the branch, shake a few bees into the fresh hive and put the rest on a white sheet laid directly in front of the entrance. If you can locate the queen, so much the better: Once she’s hived the rest will follow immediately. Handle her carefully by the thorax or wings (never by the abdomen, lest you injure her and impair her egg-laying ability). Don’t worry, however, if you can’t find the mother in that mass of life. In most cases the bees will take the hint and enter the super anyway.

If your newly hived swarm remains where they are a few days, you’ll have doubled your colonies quickly and free of charge. (The stay-at-homes in the original community will immediately rear a new queen.) The only disadvantage is that two separate smaller hives produce much less honey than a single large one.

Still, some beekeepers feel that dividing a colony in this way is an inexpensive way to fill hives and they encourage the action just before their bees are ready to swarm on their own. This procedure is slightly more involved than those I’ve described here and is covered in specialized books on bee culture (see the reading list with this article).

As a colony gets into full production, the storage cells in the brood chamber will fill up and you’ll need to add supers (one at a time) to take the surplus honey. In a northern state this stage will be reached somewhere between the middle of June and the middle of July, and you’ll be able to share the bees’ harvest shortly thereafter.

If you like, you can remove a super when it’s full, cut out the comb in chunks and enjoy or sell it just like that. Should you plan to do this, be sure to use the thinnest foundation you can buy or eating your honey will feel like biting into the backbone of a fish.

If you want liquid honey, however, you’ll need a contraption called (what else?) a honey extractor. This is a simple centrifuge mounted inside a stationary stainless steel tank with a honey gate at the bottom. The full foundations are uncapped on both sides (that is, the caps of fresh beeswax are sliced off with a warm honey knife) and the frames are slid down in a basket inside the tank, which may hold two or more, depending on the machine’s capacity. Then a handle at the top is cranked and the whole works inside spins around rapidly, throwing all the fluid out against the sides of the container. The harvest drips down to the bottom and, after a few sets of frames have been extracted, is let out into a pail, filtered through damp cheesecloth and bottled.

Some extractors are very expensive (mine cost $29.00, marked down from $65.00, the usual price for a two-frame model). If you look around, however, you may find a farmer or beekeeper near you who’s willing to part with a good used machine at a reasonable figure. A handy person might even be able to make an inexpensive substitute that would work as well as a store-bought model.

Did that last section make your mouth water? Good! You still have time to prepare your homestead for one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences in animal husbandry. Start right now, and by the end of the season you’ll be-as I am-a firm friend of the little golden folk.

The following list includes only what you really need to start off one colony. I’ve omitted surplus-honey supers (which you can make yourself on the pattern of your store-bought beehive, or buy, with 10 frames but minus the beeswax foundation, for about $7.00 each).

Covered 10-frame beehive, complete with bottom board, honey board, frames, etc. : $14.50Beeswax foundation (10 pieces): $3.10Boardman feeder: $0.50Bee smoker: $5.40Bee veil: $1.75Bee gloves: $2.20Hive tool: $1.00Nucleus of Golden Italian bees, with queen ( 3 lbs.): $10.50

Total minimum cost: $38.95

(These prices are as of about one year ago in 1973. Don’t be surprised if they’ve risen somewhat since that time. -MOTHER. )

A beginner’s outfit consisting of the above items can be bought in separate pieces or in money-saving kit form. Remember when you order by mail that you pay the transportation charges, and add the appropriate amount to your payment (any excess will be refunded).

The following firms have a full range of packaged bees and beekeeping supplies (Kelley seems to be the less expensive of the two):

The Walter T. Kelley Co.PO Box 240,Clarkson, KY 42726

The A.I Root Co.Medina, Ohio

Sears and Montgomery Ward supply beekeeping equipment, but in my opinion their prices are higher than you should have to pay.

You may find a friendly farmer or beekeeper nearby who’s willing to sell you whatever you need. Just make sure you’re not paying more than you would for new items and, if you buy bees locally, see that the colony is healthy. (The A.I. Root Company’s handbook Starting Right With Bees advises against stocking your apiary this way and adds that -if you do so- you should insist on a certificate of health from the state bee inspector’s office.- MOTHER.)

There’s no better reading for the beginner with bees than the free catalogs sent on request by suppliers of apiary equipment. You can learn almost as much about the business from one of these funky brochures as from a textbook.

The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C) is another valuable source of knowledge. I wrote them for information on bee culture and was surprised one morning to find in the mail a thick copy of Agricultural Handbook No. 335, Beekeeping in The United States. This 147-page book cost me nothing, is officially priced at $1.50 and is easily worth $5.00 or more. The department is notoriously slow at answering letters, but in this case their reply came before I got catalogs from the commercial suppliers I had written to, and the USDA hadn’t even the incentive of future sales!

You can also obtain much useful information by contacting your local extension.

Other recommended reading:

The Life of the Beeby Maurice Maeterlinck, Dodd, Mead & Co., $4.00 (or see your library). This work was written around the turn of the century and is as philosophical and poetic as it is informative. Maeterlinck takes you inside the society of the bees to share their life from the spring thaw to winter clustering.

ABC and XY2 of Bee Culture by A.I. Root, revised 34th edition, 1972, $6.50 from The A.I. Root Co., Medina, Ohio. This classic has been going strong since 1877 and is organized like an encyclopedia so that any question can be answered quite easily.

Starting Right With Bees by The A.I. Root Co., revised 16th edition, 1973, available for $1.10 from Root. A useful paperback manual for beginners.

First Lessons in Beekeeping by C.P. Dadant, available for $1.00 from American Bee Journal, Hamilton, Illinois. An excellent guide for both beginners and advanced beekeepers.

The Hive and the Honey Bee. This work was originally written in 1853 by the great-granddaddy of beekeeping: the same L.L. Langstroth who invented the movable frame hive in worldwide use today. In 1889 the book was revised (at the author’s request) by C.P. Dadant, another distinguished early authority. Many further revisions have been made by associates of Dadant & Sons, publishers of the American Bee Journal. . . most recently in 1973, to celebrate the firm’s centennial. This newest version-edited by Roy A. Grout-can be ordered from Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Illinois (or from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf) for $6.75 and consists of technical articles by various experts on the habits and culture of bees and the commercial production of honey and beeswax.

How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey by Walter T. Kelley (available for $1.00 from the Walter T. Kelley Co., Clarkson, Kentucky).

Finally, you’ll find helpful articles and many classified and display advertisements for bees and equipment in the following magazines:

American Bee Journal, Hamilton, Illinois (subscriptions are $4.00 per year).Gleanings in Bee Culture, Medina, Ohio 44256 ($3.50 per year).

Sugar/waterPollen/soySoybean flourCaseinBrewer’s YeastDry Skim MilkDried Egg Yolk-MOTHER.Covered 10-frame beehive, complete with bottom board, honey board, frames, etc. : $14.50Beeswax foundation (10 pieces): $3.10Boardman feeder: $0.50Bee smoker: $5.40Bee veil: $1.75Bee gloves: $2.20Hive tool: $1.00Nucleus of Golden Italian bees, with queen ( 3 lbs.): $10.50Total minimum cost: $38.95 -MOTHER.MOTHER