You can't go wrong with gardening and managing a menagerie, but if you're looking to expand your outdoor hobby horizons, beekeeping makes for the perfect pastime. Not only can you reap the benefits of fresh backyard-to-table honey, but you also get to revel in the satisfaction of maintaining your own colony. Plus, the buzzy critters have the ability to lend a huge helping hand in the flowerbed—they pollinate your plants. It's a true win-win.
Before you dive in headfirst, though, know that there's a sharp learning curve when it comes to successfully running your own fist-time hives. You'll need beekeeping equipment and a protective beekeeper suit and hat, for starters. So, to answer all your initial questions, we spoke with Stephen Repasky, president of the . Read on for the best beekeeping for beginners tips, from where to store your hive to what beekeeping supplies to buy.
What should I know about bees?
On average, one honeybee colony will have 30,000-50,000 bees, depending on size. Within that community lives the queen (who lays upwards of 1,500 eggs daily), worker bees who run the hive, and drones, which are the male bees who mate with queens from other colonies.
Understanding bee biology is crucial for all beginners, which is why Repasky requires first-timers to take a beekeeping class from an experienced, respected individual or organization. You'll learn the basics, including proper terminology, equipment use, and how to manage bees from season to season.
What beekeeping equipment do I need?
•Woodenware: This makes up the beehive itself and includes the hive bottom, hive body, and top cover. Repasky recommends starting out with two hives/colonies so you can compare them to get a sense of what's working—and what isn't. "Oftentimes, beekeepers get one because it is expensive, and they don’t know what they’re looking at, necessarily, and they don’t have anything to compare it with," he adds.
•Protective veil and gloves: Novice beekeepers, especially, should avoid stings at all costs. "You don’t want to get stung and be distracted and drop a frame on the ground," warns Repasky.
•Smoker: This helps calm and distract the bees while you're working within the hive.
•Hive tool: Reminiscent of an elongated paint scraper, this must-have allows you to easily access the hive and move frames around.
•Bees: Again, make sure you order enough for two colonies.
How do I get my bees?
To that note, you can typically go about filling your hives one of two ways. The most common route, Repasky notes, is called a package—a small screen box with about 10,000 loose bees. The queen, which typically bears no relation to the other honeybees, stays separated in a cage.
On the other hand, you can buy a nucleus colony, which is essentially a mini colony. Each already contains an actively-laying queen and five frames of comb. Nuc colonies cost about $50-$75 more than packages, but, developmentally, they're about six weeks ahead. Repasky recommends this method.
How much will beekeeping cost?
Depending on where you live in the country, Repasky remarks that you can expect to spend between $800 to $1,000 for a two-hive setup on your first year, which includes equipment and the bees themselves. And, you're getting plenty of bang for your buck—protective gear can last several years, and the hive woodenware can even withstand a decade or two of use (with proper care, that is). The only expendable necessity would be the honeybees.
What's the time commitment?
Like any hobby, you get out of beekeeping what you put in. All in all, for every two hives, Repasky says you should allot an average of one hour per week to managing your bees. Some seasons will be busier than others, though. "In the springtime, you’re going to spend a little bit more time as the bees come out of winter and start growing," he says. "In the summertime, not quite as much. And then in the fall, a little bit more."
Where should I set up my hives?
For the best placement, according to Repasky, face the opening of each hive in either the south, east, or southeast direction. This way, bees get to soak in the morning sun (which gets them up and moving) and then cool down with a bit of shade later in the afternoon. Steer clear of any high-activity backyard hotspots, too, like sidewalks or a swing set. And, of course, make sure you put the hives in an easily accessible spot for your beekeeping convenience.
When should I start beekeeping?
The answer varies by climate and geography, but Repasky offers a tentative timeline. (He also notes that most people often wait too late in the year to get started, so keep that in mind.)
First things first: Take a beekeeping class in the fall or winter (around November or December). From there, order your bees and equipment. When your bees arrive in the spring (typically April), you'll install your hive and spend the next 3-4 months feeding them a combination of sugar and water. "That helps them build and draw out wax comb so that they can lay the eggs and be more productive," adds Repasky.
After this point, once your colony's grown (and if it's doing well enough), you can actually harvest honey in the fall. Come November, the bees will then be "put to bed" and prepped for the colder months ahead. "We close them up, protect them from wind, make sure that they’re ventilated so there’s no moisture issues inside the colony, and then come December/January/February, we don’t do a whole lot in the hive," says Repasky. "But we do check on them to make sure they have enough honey stores inside." Finally, the process starts all over.
What causes bee colonies to die out?
Prepare to hear a hard truth: It's a safe bet that your bees will die your first time (or two) around. "There’s a high failure rate, especially within your first two or three years," says Repasky. The process certainly takes practice and dedication, but don't get too discouraged. In fact, beekeeper error isn't the only common cause of death—pests, especially mites, can also wreak havoc on your hives.
All in all, Repasky has one final piece of advice. "Continue to learn, continue to educate yourself, join beekeeping clubs, be observant, and be willing to fail," he concludes. "I often use the statement that success matters not whether or not your bees survive or make honey—it’s what you learn from those bees that make you a successful beekeeper."