Bee Bus package installation

How To Start Beekeeping (In 2020)

You want to become a beekeeper. Let’s go over some of the information you need to get started properly.

When Is The Best Time To Start Beekeeping

The best time to start beekeeping is in the spring, late March or April. Honey bees need to time to build wax comb used to rear brood and store the plentiful nectar and pollen provided by spring blooms.

As a new beekeeper, you can’t wait until spring to get started. You need to prepare. There are things to learn, equipment to buy, and of course, you need to get bees.

You need to figure out where you’ll keep your bees. In urban and densely populated areas, this may take some doing.

Accounting for lead time, the best time for new beekeepers to get started is in November or December.

What You Need To Start Beekeeping

At a minimum, you’ll need the following to start beekeeping in the coming spring:

  • Basic beekeeping education
  • A suitable location for beehives
  • Hive components, including
    • Bodies to house the bees and honey; plus
    • Frames to go in the hives for wax comb that holds brood, nectar, pollen, and honey
  • Protective clothing
    • Bee suit or jacket
    • A veil (if not included with the suit/jacket)
    • Gloves
  • Tools
    • Smoker
    • Hive tool
    • Bee brush or turkey feather
  • Bees, including a queen
  • More beekeeping education (there’s a lot to learn)

Beekeeping Education

Since you’re reading this article, you’ve already started this process.

It costs money and time to start beekeeping. Before you jump in, take time to learn a little bit about it. The more you know, the more likely you are to be successful.

There are a lot of great 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.

Beekeeping Books

There are a lot of beekeeping books that can help you get started.

Two of our favorites are The Beekeeper’s Handbook (available here on Amazon) and The Backyard Beekeeper (also available on Amazon).

We refer to these books regularly for information.

Check out our page on Best References for Beginning Beekeepers for other suggestions.

Beekeeping Associations

Beekeeping clubs are a great place to meet other beekeepers in your area. An excellent place to start looking is the American Bee Journal’s list of State Associations. Click on your state to get an expanded list.

A lot of beekeeping decisions depend on your local environment. Experienced beekeepers in your area can be a great source of advice. You may even find a mentor to help you along.

Many clubs offer free or low-cost classes to help you get started. We think an in-person course that provides a close-up look at beekeeping is a great way to get started.

Beekeeping clubs are a great place to find a mentor to help you get started.

Online Resources

Of course, we hope you find our site and YouTube videos helpful. But we’re glad to share information about other online sources of information.

You’ll find that a lot of answers to beekeeping questions are opinions based on each beekeeper’s experience. Don’t rely on just one source. You’ll learn a lot more that way.

Courses

Penn State offers an online video course for beginning beekeepers. As of this writing, you get one year of access to the 9-hour course for $159.

Ohio State Beekeepers Association provides a serious of free videos.

You can find other beekeepers offering online courses such as HoneyBeesOnline.com. This course is run by David Burns. Before purchasing the course, check out his YouTube channel first. You’ll find a lot of free videos that can help you decide if the paid course might be for you.

YouTube Videos

It should come as no surprise that there a lot of beekeepers providing how-to videos on YouTube. Besides our YouTube videos and the David Burns videos I mentioned, here are some other channels we like:

  • Don The Fat Bee Man. The Fat Bee Man has over 58k subscribers. I like his down-home style and find his explanations easy to follow.
  • The Bee Vlog. This channel hasn’t been updated in a while, but that doesn’t diminish the usefulness of its content.
  • Vino Farm. I think that Jim, the host of this channel, sometimes belabors a point, but his videos and the comments from viewers can be very informative. Jim is not afraid to share his mistakes or admit ignorance and look for advice.
  • Barnyard Bees. Barnyard Bees is a beekeeping supplier providing video tips.
  • Walls Bee Man. Tim Durham Sr. of Durham’s Bee Farm shares his knowledge, and if you stay to the end of a video, you may even get a “dad joke” to boot.

Online Forums

You can give and get advice on various online forums.

Keep in mind that these forums include beekeepers with a wide range of experience and from different geographic areas.

Beekeeping Location

You need a place to keep your hives. The less land you have and the more densely populated your area, the more challenging this can be.

In general, you need a location that provides good airflow and water drainage, bee access to water and food sources, and doesn’t have a negative impact on your neighbors.

Your locality may have restrictions on where you can place a beehive or the number of hives you can maintain. Do your research.

See our article Where To Place A Beehive for more detailed information.

Hive Components

Once you have a location picked out, you need to buy some hives to house your bees. Get them well before your bees arrive. You may need to do some assembly or some painting. Set them up so you can install your bees without delay.

When it comes to hives, there are 3 common types to consider: top bar hives, Warré, and Langstroth. The components of each type may vary a bit, but they primarily consist of boxes to house the colony and frames to raise brood and store food.

See our article 3 Main Beehive Types (Which To Choose) for a detailed discussion of each.

We recommend you go with Langstroth hives. They are the most common, making supplies and advice from other beekeepers the easiest to get.

Get a stand or platform that will keep your hives up off the ground, keeping them dry.

If you live in a warm climate, a simple wooden pallet may be adequate. Here in the northeast, we keep ours about 18 inches off the ground, so they don’t get buried in heavy snow. Cinder blocks and lumber work fine though you can buy specially designed hive stands.

Whatever hive style you choose, order far enough in advance to ensure you can get them ready in time for your bees.

Protective Clothing

Honey bees sting. Get some protective clothing before you start beekeeping.

At a minimum, get a veil to protect is your face and eyes. According to an article in the JAMA Ophthalmology, “Bee stings of the eye are rare, most commonly occurring at the cornea, and can cause sight-threatening complications through different mechanisms.” (Source: Damrong Wiwatwongwana, MD; Narissara Jariyapan, Ph.D.; Atchareeya Wiwatwongwana, MD, Arch Ophthalmol. 2012;130(3):392-393. doi:10.1001/archopthalmol.2011.1796).

You may want to get a full bee suit that protects you from the ankles up until you get more comfortable around your honey bees. Make sure the ankles and wrists have elastic or other closures to keep bees out.

A bee jacket will protect your upper body with closures at the waist and wrist. We’ve found a bee jacket to be adequate protection, but this is a purely personal choice.

Bee suits and jackets can include protective hoods making a separate veil unnecessary.

We’d suggest you get some leather gloves when you start beekeeping. Leather gloves will protect your hands but make it more difficult to handle equipment. Over time, you’ll become more comfortable going barehanded or wearing nitrile gloves.

Beekeeping Tools

There are two must-have tools to start beekeeping: a smoker and a hive tool.

Blowing a little cool smoke on the bees has a couple of effects.

First, it triggers a feeding response. The bees begin to gorge on honey in anticipation of abandoning the hive to a fire.

Second, the smoke masks any alarm pheromones that might cause defensive behavior.

Smoke makes the bees much calmer and easier to work with. Take some time learning to light a smoker, and keep it lit, before your bees arrive.

Beekeeping tools
Beekeeping tools

A hive tool is a multipurpose tool used during hive inspections. Use it to:

  • Pry apart hive boxes so you can move them.
  • Separate and lift frames from the hive.
  • Scrape off burr comb.
  • Remove bee propolis that glues things together.
  • Extract nails from equipment.

Always take your lit smoker and hive tool when you inspect the hives.

A bee brush or turkey feather can be used to remove bees from a frame or other location you’re trying to work on. The feather is a bit gentler on the bees.

In the beginning, we used the bee brush or feather regularly. Now we seldom do; we move bees with smoke or a firm shake to drop them off a frame.

Bees

Stating the obvious, you need bees to start beekeeping.

Get your bees by late April, so they have time to establish themselves in your hive in the coming summer.

Suppliers gear up to meet springtime demand for their bees. They may also run out of bees, so it’s best to order them in advance to make sure they are available and delivered on time.

Selecting your first bees can be a bit confusing.

Bee Races

There are different “races” of bees, each with their own genetic traits. Check out our article What Honey Bees To Buy for information on the more common races.

You can ask local beekeepers about their recommendations for your area. Personally, I don’t think bee race should be a significant consideration.

VSH Bees

Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) bees are bred to be varroa mite resistant. Varroa is a significant problem faced by beekeepers. Varroa, left unchecked, will destroy your colony.

VSH bees may not be the ultimate solution to varroa problems but can mitigate the damage

Different bee races can be bred for varroa resistance. If you opt for a particular race (e.g., Italians), I suggested you strongly consider VSH ones.

Bee Package vs. Nuc

Bees are delivered in two different formats: a bee package or a nuc (pronounced “newk”).

A bee package is a screened box containing about 3 lbs. of bees (around 10,000 bees) and a caged queen. The box includes a sugar syrup feeder for the bees during transport.

The queen is caged for her protection. She is likely to be killed if introduced to the colony without it. After some time, the queen’s pheromones permeate the colony. Once accepted, she is released from the cage.

Installing a package isn’t overly complicated, but it can be intimidating as a new beekeeper. After adjusting the queen cage so that she can be released by the bees in a few days, you shake the package into your hive.

An alternative to the package is a nuc (a nucleus colony). A nuc is a mini-hive: usually one box with 5 frames that contains bees (including the queen), brood in various stages of development and food.

Honey bees need wax comb to raise brood and store food. As a new beekeeper, you won’t have existing frames with comb to help package bees get started.

We strongly recommend that you start beekeeping with a nuc (actually 2 as I’ll explain below). A nuc gives you a significant jump-start in your first year of beekeeping. The queen has been accepted, frames already have wax comb, the population is beginning to grow, and you are primed for the spring nectar flow.

Nucs are also easier than packages to install in your hive. Just lift the frames out of the nuc box and put them in your hive.

Installing Our First Nuc

Some disadvantages to nucs are cost and lead time. A nuc costs more than a package because of the additional effort they require. Suppliers also carry fewer nucs than packages, so be sure to order early.

Bee Suppliers

You can order bees from a variety of suppliers:

  • Online suppliers will either ship bees to you or make them available for local pickup.
  • Some local bee suppliers pick them up in bulk and make them available by pre-order.
  • Local beekeepers supplement their income by selling bees.

Check the following suppliers for bee packages, nucs, and queens:

The best place to get bees is from a local beekeeper. In addition to saving on shipping costs, you’ll get bees already adapted to your local climate.

Our short advice on bees is to buy local and get a nuc if it’s within your budget.

Start With 2 Colonies

All beekeepers suffer losses over the winter. If you can afford it, we suggest you start with 2 colonies. If you experience a 50% loss in your first winter, at least you’re not back to square one.

This approach is more expensive, so it’s not for everyone.

Swarms

Free bees are available by catching swarms and setting them up in your hives. A lot of beekeepers grow their apiaries with these free bees.

Some online sites we’ve seen suggest swarm catching to start beekeeping. While it’s doable, we think this is terrible advice for new beekeepers as there are no guarantees that you’ll catch one.

Conclusion

In summary:

  • Learn some basics about beekeeping;
  • Gather the necessary equipment and set up your hive in a suitable location;
  • Get bees and install them in your hive.

There will be a lot more to learn and do, but you’ll be on your way.

About Us

Melanie and Jim

I’m Melanie Howard. My husband, Jim, and I want to share with you everything we’ve learned about beekeeping since we were newbies 6 years ago. Maybe the the ups and downs we’ve experienced can help you along the way.

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