Updated on September 16th, 2021
Anecdotal evidence in online forums (and my own experience) indicates that a high percentage of beginning beekeepers quit after a year or two.
Higher than anticipated costs (in dollars and time), hive mortality problems, failure to understand the work required, and unrealistic expectations are issues that cause beginners to give up early. Start beekeeping with some basic education and advanced preparation for a better beginning beekeeping experience.
This article outlines and centralizes all the information you need to implement these 11 action steps on how to start beekeeping:
- Begin your beekeeping education and learn some basics.
- Find a suitable beehive location.
- Figure out your budget.
- Order your honey bees.
- Choose a hive type and order it.
- Buy basic beekeeping tools.
- Get protective gear.
- Set up your hive(s) and,
- Install your bees!
- Continue your beekeeping education.
- Manage your colonies to get them to next spring.
You do not need to be an expert to get started, but you do need to account for timing issues related to acquiring and setting up equipment and, of course, getting your first bees.
In this article, we will go over these beginning steps to get you started with backyard beekeeping.
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When To Start Beekeeping
Your first beekeeping season will take flight in the spring when your honey bees arrive, and you install them in a beehive.
However, because of the initial learning curve and the need to order bees and equipment in advance, beekeeping for beginners should start no later than the fall, with a plan to be managing your first beehives the following spring.
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Beekeeping Education: Learn The Basics
Before you dive into the deep end of the beekeeping pool, take some time to think about if beekeeping is right for you.
Since you are reading this article, you have started this process.
Keeping honey bees can be a gratifying experience, but it also has its challenges. There are financial considerations, time commitments, and sometimes strenuous work involved.
As the first step in your beekeeping education, see our article about beekeeping as a hobby to consider if beekeeping is for you. If you want to take the next step, learn some beekeeping basics and start your education in earnest.
There are a lot of great educational resources available to beekeeping newbies. Keep in mind that the information you find is likely to be a mixture of fact and opinion. Get input from a variety of sources and keep an open mind.
The best places to learn beekeeping are:
- Beekeeping books and classes are the best way to learn beginning beekeeping requirements and techniques. These books and courses organize information, so it is easier to follow.
- Beekeeping associations.
- Blogs, online forums, and YouTube channels.
Learn more! See our article about beekeeping education for beginners, including specific book recommendations, information on beekeeping courses (including a FREE online video series), and other sources to increase your beekeeping knowledge!
You may have noticed that we had a step 9, “continue your beekeeping education.” Always keep reading and learning. Beekeeping is not a “set it and forget it” hobby.
Find A Suitable Beehive Location
To start beekeeping, you need to have a suitable location for beehives.
You do not need a lot of acreage for a couple of beehives.
While access to food sources is essential, those sources do not need to be on your property. Honey bees travel significant distances to forage. However, providing additional water nearby is beneficial at times of drought or high heat.
Beehives are best situated facing east/southeast, level from side to side, and near water sources, nectar, and pollen. In addition, they should be easily accessible with room to work. Other considerations are afternoon shade, winter windbreaks, shielding from neighbors, good airflow, and water drainage.
Note: our directional information above is for the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the direction would be east or northeast.
The amount of space you need and where you place a beehive may depend on beekeeping rules and regulations in your locality, especially in urban and suburban areas where neighbors are nearby.
Learn more! Read our article about where to place your beehive for details regarding these recommendations, options to consider if your property is not suitable, ways to mitigate issues in smaller spaces, and more.
We also suggest you see our article about the best type of beehive for beginners (and some reasons you should consider an alternative).
Figure Out Your Budget
Beginning beekeeping can be rather expensive. How much your first year will cost depends on various choices you make.
Based on our recent surveys of reputable online suppliers, we estimate your first year of beekeeping will cost about $725 to purchase one hive, your first bees, protective gear, basic tools, and miscellaneous supplies.
Your costs will vary based on your circumstances and some choices you make.
Learn more! See our article How Much Does It Cost To Start Beekeeping?for detailed information on equipment you should get and the impact of your choices. Then, use the included calculator to estimate your first-year costs.
Unexpected expenses are discouraging to beginners. Our article can help you avoid unpleasant surprises.
Order Your Honey Bees
You can purchase bees from reputable local beekeepers and online suppliers.
Bee suppliers usually take orders starting in December and January for the following spring. Suppliers have limited supplies and make them available on or about specific dates.
Get your bees at the earliest date that fits your schedule. An early start for your hives helps your colony build up stores in time for winter. Having your colony survive winter may be the most critical step in your first year of beekeeping.
When buying honey bees, you have two primary choices to make: what “race” of bees to purchase and whether you want them in a “bee package” or a “nuc.”
Honey bees are classified by “race” based on their genetic history. Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian, and Russian bees are common types. There are also hybrid bees bred for specific traits like Varroa resistance, such as Saskatraz.
Choosing a type of bee can be confusing for beginners. We recommend that you purchase your first bees from a local beekeeper, if available. Local bees are genetically adapted to your local climate.
If you cannot get local bees, Italian bees are an excellent choice for beginners. Italian bees are the most common in North America. They are widely available, prolific, and excellent foragers.
Learn more about the advantages and drawbacks of common bee races in our article What Type Of Honey Bees To Buy.
You can acquire honey bees in two basic formats:
- A bee package is a box of about 3 lbs. of bees (around 10,000 bees). The package includes a caged queen and a can of sugar syrup to feed the bees in transit.
- A nuc (pronounces “newk”) is a nucleus colony usually consisting of a small hive box with 5 deep frames. The bees have been in the nuc for a while. The queen is accepted, and the frames likely include drawn comb, brood, pollen, and nectar.
Nucs are more expensive than packages but are easier to install in a hive.
Note: Nucs are generally available for Langstroth hives and can be hard to find for top bar hives.
Learn more! See Where To Get Honey Bees? for everything you need to know about buying bees, including shipping considerations, transporting bees locally, suggested suppliers, and packages vs. nucs.
Buy Beekeeping Tools
There are three “must-have” beekeeping tools for beginners:
- Bee smoker
- Hive tool
- Bee brush
A bee smoker helps bees during a hive inspection. Puffing cool smoke on the bees to move out of your way, gorge on honey (which calms them), and disrupts alarm pheromones that may make them more defensive.
Calmer, less defensive bees are easier to manage. Take a lit smoker on every inspection, so you have it if needed.
Learn more! See our article about bee smokers, explaining how they work, how to light them, clean them, and more.
You may not need a smoker on each hive visit, but you will almost always need a hive tool.
Hive tools are hand-held implements that serve many purposes. Hive tools separate and lift boxes or frames that are stuck together with propolis. A sharp edge scrapes off wax, propolis, or even a stinger lodged in your skin.
Learn more! See our article What Is A Hive Tool? for information about various hive tools and how to use them.
A bee brush will move some bees out of your way or brush them off a frame for inspection. (Our beekeeping instructor suggested we use a large turkey feather that is just as effective.)
Though we call the bee brush a “must-have” tool, we rarely use it now; however, we recommend beginners get one.
As we got more comfortable working with bees, we learned to remove bees from frames with a good hard shake without being freaked out. I believe that as a beginning beekeeper, you will be more comfortable with a brush.
Always brush frames with a gentle, upward stroke.
Get Protective Beekeeping Clothing
I know there are videos online of beekeepers wearing little or no, protection. However, these are mostly very experienced beekeepers who have adapted to the stings. They also stay calm and tend not to do things that will cause the bees to be overly defensive.
As a newbie beekeeper, you will probably be a little anxious when you start handling bees. Therefore, wear protective gear when you start. Then, later, when you are more experienced, you can decide how careful you want to be in this regard.
Protective clothing can include:
- A veil to protect your eyes and face;
- Either a full bee suit or a bee jacket;
- Leather gloves; and,
As you gain confidence and become more comfortable with the bees, you may opt to wear less protective equipment (though we recommend you always wear a veil).
No matter what you do regarding protective gear, expect to be stung.
Learn more! Read our complete guide to beekeeping protective clothing for more information about different options and what to look for when shopping.
Set Up Your Hive
Set up your hive before your bees arrive, especially if you get a bee package. You do not want your bees sitting around for days while you get things together.
You may have a little more latitude with a nuc, depending on how many frames the bees have filled. With only five frames in a nuc, they may be close to capacity, and you will need to give them more room quickly.
How much time you need to set up your hive depends on what you bought. Fully assembled and painted boxes along with assembled frames and foundation take little time.
If, however, you bought unassembled equipment, you need time to put it together.
Learn more! See our article about how to set up a beehive your first time.
Install Your Bees In A Hive
If you have followed our guide, you ordered your bees in plenty of time to receive them in early spring, after you set up your hive.
How you put honey bees in the hive will depend on whether you got a bee package or a nuc.
We recommend a nuc if it is within your budget because it is much simpler to install. Using your hive tool, lift the frames with the bees on them, and place them in your hive.
If any bees remain in the nuc, shake them into the hive. Alternatively, place the nuc box in front of the hive, and the bees will figure out where they need to go.
Installing a bee package is a bit more complicated.
With a bee package, you put the caged queen in the hive first give the colony a few days to accept and free her.
Once the queen cage is in the hive, shake the box to get other bees into the hive.
Learn more! Read How To Install Bees In A New Hive for a detailed explanation of what to do when your colonies arrive.
Continue Your Beekeeping Education
With your honey bees in a hive, you are now officially a beekeeper. But the goal is to be a successful beekeeper.
Keep up with your beekeeping education. Read more books, watch more videos, explore online information, and keep learning.
Manage Your Bee Colonies
As a beekeeper, your job is to manage and tend to your livestock, the honey bees.
Your primary goal as a beginning beekeeper should be to get your colonies through their first full year. Achieving that goal requires that you actively manage your hives.
Managing your honey bees includes:
- Regular hive inspections to assess conditions such as:
- The status and health of the queen
- Population and space needs
- Adequacy of food stores
- Evidence of pests or illness
- Colony’s disposition
- Indications of swarming
- Cross combing
- Physical condition of hive components
- Taking steps to remediate problems noted during hive inspections;
- Adding and removing boxes and frames as dictated by the colony’s population and activities;
- Limiting the impact of robbing on your hives;
- Preparing your hives for winter;
- And eventually, harvesting honey and other hive products.
As you can tell, managing your apiary requires more information than we can reasonably put into one article.
Advance preparation is the key to starting a backyard beekeeping hobby.
If you follow the steps in this article, you will reduce the probability of unpleasant surprises that can be discouraging to beginning beekeepers.
Get your bees through the first year and you will be able to enjoy your own, harvested honey before you know it!