Beginning beekeeping requires education, planning and preparation. Here are 8 action steps to start beekeeping:
- Learn the basics and begin your beekeeping education;
- Determine your budget;
- Select a suitable hive location;
- Choose a hive type;
- Order your bees;
- Buy your initial equipment;
- Set up your hive(s); and,
- Install your bees!
You don’t need to become an expert to get started but you should understand some basic fundamentals about beekeeping. You need to account for timing issues related to acquiring and setting up equipment and, of course, getting your first bees.
In this article, we’ll go over these beginning steps. There will be a lot more to learn and do but if you follow these steps you will be on your way.
Before You Start Beekeeping
Before you dive into the deep end of the beekeeping pool, take some time to think about if beekeeping is right for you.
Keeping bees can be very rewarding.
Beekeeping is also fairly difficult. There are financial considerations, time commitments and sometimes strenuous work.
Check our article Beekeeping As A Hobby (Is It Right For You?) for more information on things to consider before you start beekeeping.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the action steps!
Learn The Basics – 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.
There are a lot of beekeeping books that can help you get started.
We belong to several beekeeping groups on Facebook where Beekeeping for dummies is regularly recommended for newbies.
We refer to these books regularly for information.
Start beekeeping by checking out our article 11 Best Beekeeping Books for other suggestions.
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 start beekeeping. 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.
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.
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 series 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. You’ll find a lot of free videos that can help you decide if the paid course might be for you.
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.
You can give and get advice on various online forums.
- Beesource Beekeeping Forums are frequented by helpful beekeepers.
- Facebook is another place to get answers to questions. Find groups for general information and others for local specifics. We follow Beekeeping Techniques, Beekeeping Basics, and Northeast Beekeeping, among other groups.
Keep in mind that these forums include beekeepers with a wide range of experience and from different geographic areas.
Determine Your Budget
Once you understand the beekeeping basics, you will need to make some choices on how to proceed.
Depending on the options you choose, your initial foray into beekeeping could cost anywhere between $600 and $1,000. That expense may be spread out over the course of your first year of beekeeping. Make choices that work within your budget.
See our article How Much Does It Cost To Start Beekeeping? for help in budgeting.
Also see Beekeeping On A Budget (Money Saving Tips) for suggestions on lowering your costs.
Select A Suitable Hive 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. Again, your local beekeeping association can be a valuable source of information in this regard.
See our article Where To Place A Beehive for more detailed information.
Choose A Hive Type
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 (or bars) to hold wax comb where honey bees 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.
Order Your Bees!
Stating the obvious, you need bees to start beekeeping.
Aim to get your bees by late April, so they have time to establish the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and a local beekeeper for advice. Also, shipping can be strenuous for the bees and delays happen.
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. Consider your budget.
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. If you’ve never handle bees before, dealing with a swarm is probably not the best idea.
After your first year, we think catching swarms to expand your apiary is a great way to go.
Buy Your Initial Equipment
We recommend that you do not buy used beekeeping equipment unless you know it comes from a reputable beekeeper with healthy hives. Used equipment may carry parasites or pathogens that will ruin your beekeeping start.
There are ways to properly clean used equipment to reduce potential problems. However, if you a real beekeeping newbie, this is probably not the best allocation of your time and efforts.
Your hive(s) should be assembled and in place before your bees arrive. Order them in time for you to be ready.
If you go with our suggested Langstroth hive, the basic components for a “typical” set up are:
- A bottom board for the base;
- 2 deep hive boxes (also referred to as the brood boxes);
- 2 medium boxes (honey supers you add as the season progresses);
- Frames and foundation for each box; and,
- Covers (an inner cover plus telescoping outer cover or, alternatively, a migratory cover).
Some beekeepers opt for alternative set ups. For example, we’ve been transitioning to all medium 8 frame boxes. However, we recommend the set up described for beginners. As you gain experience, you’ll figure out what other options may work better for you.
Honey bees sting…and they will get you. Protective clothing is the best bee sting preventative. Get it before you start beekeeping.
Protective clothing includes:
- a bee jacket for your upper body or a full body bee suit;
- a veil to protect your head and face if it’s not part of your jacket/suit; and,
We think a veil to protect is your face and eyes is the most important gear to have. 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.
There are two must-have tools to start beekeeping: a smoker and a hive tool. A bee brush (or a turkey feather) also comes in handy. Many beginning kits include an uncapping fork to remove wax cappings off honey but you probably don’t need this in your first year.
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.
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.
See our page on recommended Beekeeping Tools
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.
Where To Buy Equipment
You may have local suppliers you can rely on. Amazon carries a variety of beekeeping equipment and can be a very good source of tools and protective gear.
Two suppliers we’ve used and recommend are Mann Lake and BetterBee. They both provide a great selection and we’ve always found their customer service very helpful. It doesn’t hurt that they within driving distance (ok, bit of a long drive).
Although we haven’t tried Dadant, it is one of the oldest and largest suppliers in the United States.
Set Up Your Hive
You know where you are putting your hive. You ordered in well in advance and have all the parts together.
At the outset, you don’t need to put up all the hive boxes.
Put you bottom board on a stand to keep it off the ground. One deep hive complete with frames and foundation and your cover(s) are all you need for your bees when they arrive.
Eventually, as the colony grows, you will add a second brood box and then honey supers.
Install Your Bees
With your hive set up, all that’s left is to put your bees in it when they arrive. How you install the bees depends on whether you got a bee package or a nuc.
The first time you put bees in a new hive can be a little intimidating. Spend time reading and watching YouTube videos to get familiar with the process.
See our article How To Install Bees In A New Hive
Put on your protective gear and take your time. Work slowly and deliberately.
Accept that something might go a bit wrong. If it does, stay calm and work to correct it.
Other Things To Consider
We’ve already covered the primary areas you need to plan for. There are other things to consider that may not prevent you from beginning beekeeping but you will need to address in your first year.
Pests And Disease
If you start with new equipment and bees for reputable suppliers, pests and disease should not be a concern at first. But as your colonies get established you need to be aware of, and learn to recognize, common issues that afflict honey bees.
Among these are:
- Varroa mites (virtually unavoidable);
- Small hive beetles;
- Wax moths;
- Foulbrood; and,
Start learning about these early.
See our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide
Skunks, raccoons and bears can damage your hives and colonies.
Elevating hives a foot or so can limit the damage from skunks and raccoons as they have to get up on their hind legs.
Raccoons can also topple a low hive or get on top to remove the cover. Some stones/bricks on top or using a ratchet strap can help keep the top securely in place.
Bears are especially difficult to deal with because of their size and strength. A bear can destroy your apiary in one night. The best way to deter bears is with an electric fence which takes planning and time to install…another reason to start your beekeeping journey before spring.
See our article Protect Beehives From Bears (How To Set Up An Electric Fence
When 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.
However, as a new beekeeper, you cannot wait until spring to get started. You need to prepare. There are things to learn, equipment to buy, hives to set up, 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 (or sooner). Late fall and early winter are good times to pre-order bees for the coming season. If you wait until spring, you may find limited options available as suppliers sell out inventory.
- Start preparing in the fall to become a beekeeper the following spring;
- 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.