So, you want to be a beekeeper?
Disclosure – I have been keeping bees for 3 years now and am not claiming to be an expert by any means. This is my opinion and how I manage my colonies, and as I have been taught by my mentors who have been doing the same for decades. Every beekeeper has their own approach, right or wrong, and this is meant to provide additional considerations before you take the plunge.
I hope you find this article helpful, and it’s meant to offer a glimpse of the year in the life of a beekeeper covering the basics. The rewards and learnings outweigh the efforts. This is a passion for me, not a hobby, and I hope you find your passion too.
Aside from this reading, please make sure that you sign up to your local beekeeping association, take the required courses, register your apiary, and seek mentorship.
Recently, I have been receiving a lot of inquiries from folks who want to start beekeeping. The reasons vary across a broad spectrum – allergies, inspiration, saving the bees, gardening, the list goes on and on. Now, this is by no means diminishing the reasons to pursue a very amazing journey. However, I do not feel that there aren’t adequate resources out there to really delve into the requirements of beekeeping. Yes, it’s awesome! Yes, people make it look easy on Instagram or YouTube! But, there is a lot of work required and I’d hate for you to spend a lot of money only to say “what did I get myself into?!?” As a beekeeper, you have a responsibility to take care of this wonderous living organism and they can’t do it on their own these days. So I had the idea of putting “pen-to-paper” and capture some important details for a first-year beekeeper.
I’ll take you through the journey of the full first year as I experienced it and suggest that in section 3 you start with the mid-May timeframe. Go through the next few months and then go back to the beginning returning to the overwintered section of mid-May. For me, the real challenge came in when I managed overwintered colonies and was in for quite a ride. That was the point I knew that I’m in this for the long run.
I broke down the information into 3 categories, some of which will certainly be meatier than others.
- What is your plan?
- Time commitment
What is your plan?
I put this section first because when it comes to beekeeping, you have to balance the now and 3, 6, 9, 12 months from now. The now comes into play with the fact that you have to maintain colony health and handle any unforeseen situations. At the same time, you have to think about what comes next. The main idea is to consider colony reproduction. Bees reproduce at a colony level and they do it by swarming. It’s a natural part of their lifecycle and spreading genetics. So when you purchase bees today, the now is how do I help them grow and eventually survive over winter. But what happens once they survive winter? Funny question, no? If bees are naturally inclined to swarm, then with 100% survival over winter – one hive becomes two, two become four, four becomes eight, and so on. The likelihood of 100% survival is tough these days, but if you’re thinking you’re only going to have one hive then you’re in for a lot of work.
Beekeeping expenses are both equipment-related and time required to make sure bees are properly cared for. You have plenty of articles out there already that provide you with the starter kits that you will need (hive boxes, super boxes, frames, suit, gloves, smoker, etc.) and provide details regarding a nucleus colony or package of bees. But the buck stops there for some reason. It’s as if you’re well on your way to becoming a beekeeper when in truth you’re not even close. My intent here is to focus on aspects that aren’t widely discussed outside of actually signing up for a beekeeping course.
Once you purchase your initial setup (hive boxes/frames, bees, PPE, smoker), you’re going to have to consider the ongoing maintenance of the hive(s). First and foremost is mite treatment. If you’re not familiar, one of the main causes for colonies collapsing is the Varroa mite (or Varroa destructor). This mite feeds on bees, inserts itself into brood cells where it multiplies exponentially and will vector viruses that will ultimately kill your hive. If the viruses don’t kill them, this mite will shorten the average lifespan of the bees by around 40% so you can pretty much forget about the bees surviving over winter. Treatment should be part of an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy year-round which is crucial to the survival of the colony. These treatments normally take plan in January (if you use Apivar), June or July (Formic Pro/Apiguard), October-December (Oxalic Acid). This only considers a base-case scenario! You may find that you test for mites, treat, and re-test to check and the treatment was not effective. The main objective now turns to save this hive not honey production. So you need to make sure that you incorporate the costs of the treatments into your calculations. More than that, costs for treatment rotations since you cannot use the same treatment year-round. If you plan to naturally let your bees “do their thing” and not treat, you can pretty much stop reading now and change course. The risk you run is that your bees will flee as the hive is collapsing and fly into neighboring hives bringing with them the mites that are attached to their bodies. Also, you’re going to make a seller very happy when you have to buy new bees every year.
The next consideration is supplemental food – sugar and lots of it! One thing I did not know before I started was that bees do not have access to nectar all summer let alone what they do over winter. In the Northeast, there are 2 nectar flows (periods where plants produce nectar to attract pollinators) – Mid-April – July, and August-September. Outside of these periods, the bees will not have access to nectar, as well as pollen most times. Pollen is crucial to brood-rearing since young worker-bee larvae are fed bee-bread (combo of nectar and pollen) which is the main source of protein needed for their development.
If you purchased bees, you can expect to receive them in May depending on the weather conditions. The breeders will be limited by extended frosts or rainy periods before they can make splits and install new queens. So when you finally get your bees you will need to feed liquid sugar. It doesn’t matter that there is a nectar flow taking place since they will not have a large enough population to do much about it. Your objective is to build wax, which is a massive expense for the bees to create – ~6 lbs of consumed honey makes 1 lb. of wax. Bees will spend energy to collect nectar and reduce the moisture content before it’s considered honey. The 1:1 sugar to water liquid syrup will be a critical supplement as they grow the colony. I recommend going to your local paint supplier and purchasing a mixing arm that attaches to a power drill in a 5-gallon bucket. Pour the final mix into a feeder of your choice, get one right away if you didn’t order. Don’t use the front entrance feeders since you will invite robbing since this colony is not strong enough to defend itself.
Fast-forwarding to July, if you have an overwintered colony and the honey supers come off. Now you have honey! But wait, how do I collect it? Unless you have access to someone, or part of a club, with an extractor, how are you taking off the honey? An extractor can certainly be expensive, but you will also need food-grade buckets to store the honey or with a gate to be able to pour. Then you need jars, and labels if you plan to sell it (ensure they adhere to FDA labeling guidelines). I will reiterate this throughout, but do not destroy the wax.
For the colony, you’re going to need to feed the bees again to keep them from starving out. When you’re talking about an average of 50,000 bees in the hive, including consistent larvae to feed, they can run out of food very quickly. Here you’re going to need liquid sugar (I’m not interested in corn syrup myself). Yes, they will have honey stored in the brood boxes, but it may not be enough. For the summer feeding, you’re going to need a 1:1 sugar to water ratio. How you want to do it is up to you, and how much you want to spend. You can use top hive feeders, mason jars, or pails but you want to make sure you do it in a way that prevents robbing. If you have a weaker colony, a stronger colony may overcome that hive and rob it of its resources. That hive will be pretty much doomed. You can mitigate against that by reducing entrances, as well as putting the sugar water jars inside empty boxes over the brood box. One thing is for sure and that is that they will go through this syrup very quickly and you need to make sure to have it re-filled regularly. The second and final nectar flow will arrive when sunflowers, knotweed, ragweed, and goldenrod blooms in August. Supers go back on and removed in late September.
For the final leg of the year, the main focus will be to fortify the bees for the long winter. Starting in late September, feed sugar syrup but the ratio has to be increased to around 2:1 sugar to water. The queen will most likely continue to raise brood through October since it’s still warm out these days. What is different with the hive, and this is starting in July, is that the hive will start raising winter bees. These bees are different in that they are meant to live longer during the winter months. The queen will lay less and less over the coming months, and the bees will store the sugar water (“backfill”) in empty cells. So feeding is critical here for the hive to be as heavy as possible heading into winter. The best way to determine this is by lifting the back of the hive slightly and feeling its weight. It should feel very heavy. You will then stop feeding before temperatures drop to below 50s at night. The bees need warmer temperatures to be able to reduce the moisture in the sugar syrup, similar to what they do with nectar, to around 18%.
Once winter sets in, fun fact, the bees do not hibernate. They will form a cluster around the queen all through winter where they will generate heat by shivering and therefore spending a lot of energy. These are the winter bees, and they have more fat content to make this happen. A large cluster of bees can consume around 10 lbs of honey per month, and winters can be long and brutal. Let’s start the process in January. At this time, the queen will start laying eggs and will not have access to pollen or nectar until the maple starts blooming in March. To keep the bees from starving, you will need to feed the bees either plain sugar (misted with water to help them break it down), fondant, or candy. You can either purchase or make fondant/candy yourself. Depending on where you live, pollen substitutes would also be required. It is too cold to feed them liquids since introducing moisture during winter will kill the bees. You will need to keep this activity going, periodically ensuring they have sufficient food until the dandelions bloom. We will talk about the activities in the next section below.
I do want to make a quick note of protective equipment. There are plenty of people on Instagram who like to keep bees with no veil and in tank tops and booty shorts. Please don’t do that! My main objective with social media is awareness and hopefully providing some education. It is a lot of fun to share those moments, but you have to be careful and protect yourself. Bees are insects and not pets. Trust me that it is not a fun experience to get stung in the face.
At this point, you can clearly see that this is a commitment! I find it crazy that beekeepers are hobbyists if they’re keeping less than 25 hives. Having 5 hives is a tremendous amount of work and time between juggling work and family obligations. Let’s turn our focus to the timing requirements for hive management (on average).
- January – Late-March – Visiting the hives once per month and equipment assembly
- Late-March – Mid-April – Visiting the hives once every week to two weeks.
- Mid-April – Mid-May – Visiting the hives every 3-5 days.
- Mid-May – July – Visiting the hive every 5-7 days.
- July – October – Visiting the hives once a week.
- November-December – Visiting the hives once per month
January – Late-March & November-December
In the winter months, you don’t want to spend a lot of time in the hives and your main concern is the food situation. To get a sense of how the hive is doing check its weight (lift test). If the hive is heavy then come back next week. If the hive feels light, then you put supplement food on that should last for a few weeks. As mentioned before, you can put sugar on a sheet of newspaper or fondant/candy on top of parchment paper. You really don’t want to spend more than 30 seconds doing this. Some beekeepers also prefer to treat bees with Apivar during this time since they can insert the strips, and then come back 45 days later to remove them. The bees will come into contact with the strips and knock off any phoretic mites (on the bodies of the bees). I prefer using Oxalic Acid vapor which I treat once per month starting in October through December once there is no brood in the hive to do the same.
Early in the year is also a great time to order and assemble new equipment. You will need to build boxes and paint them unless you spent more money on assembled and painted equipment. Then you will also need to build frames, again unless you ordered a pre-assembled plastic foundation. Alternatively, you can choose wired wax frames where you will need to build, wire, and insert the foundations. These are very time-intensive but well worth it in my opinion. The decision is ultimately up to you.
If you’re looking to expand your apiary, it’s a also a good time to place orders for nucs, packages, or new queens. Although, it may be better to do this around November depending on demand.
Late March – Mid-April
The bees will start to have access to pollen during this time in this area, and if the temperatures are above freezing, say 50’s, you can initiate the first inspection of the year. Here you want to check and count brood frames, food stores and potentially reverse the brood boxes if the hive is not weak. During winter, the cluster will spend its time in the top box, and quite often you will find the bottom box empty. Reversing is pretty much flipping the top and bottom boxes. By doing this, the queen will have room above to lay and expand. From there, you continue to check on food and the progress of the laying. If the laying pattern is poor during the inspection (i.e. spotty and not solid coverage in the center of the frames), then you have a queen problem. You may also not have a queen altogether. The colony may try to replace the queen, creating supersedure cells but that depends on the availability of young larvae. In addition, you may have issues with the new queen being well-mated since the weather is quite unpredictable. If it’s too rainy, she will not have a chance to fly out and mate with enough drones. Also, re-queening will not be possible at this point due to the high demand for queens. You will probably have to wait until May for this and that may be too late. You may consider having to order a nuc, if available, as it would be easier than getting a single queen.
As you progress into April, you may need to increase your visitation depending on the strength of your hive(s). For a single hive, there isn’t much you can do other than being very vigilant on swarm signs (skip to next section). If you have multiple hives, you will need to consider equalizing or preparing splits. Equalizing means moving frames of brood from one hive to another to try to strengthen weaker hives, or to weaken hives that are too strong. You try to ensure the hive’s population will not explode ahead of the nectar flow. Equalizing can also apply to splitting hives, where you would put equal frames of brood on the top and bottom brood boxes. You would then ensure the queen is in the bottom box and use a queen excluder so nurse bees will come up to keep the brood in the top box warm. You could then take off the top box a day or so later, and then move the top box to another location. If you keep the split in the same yard, you will lose the foragers from the split who will fly back to the old hive. You can then introduce a new queen, or consider making a walk-away split where the bees will make a new queen themselves. Remember that you will need to have a frame with eggs to accomplish this.
Mid-April – Mid-May
I’ll split this section into parts – first for the brand new beekeeper, and the other continuing the theme from the prior section where your bees overwintered.
Brand new beekeeper
If you’re a new beekeeper, this is most likely the time that you will get your colony. You’re going to be inserting them into a hive and the main focus will be for you to build comb. When you bought equipment and depending on whether you did plastic foundation or wired wax foundation, you will not have pulled foundation (i.e. you will have an empty sheet of plastic or wax). You need the bees to extend wax to the edges of the frames and then the queen will be able to continue laying.
With nucs, you will get 5 frames that are built, and then you will add 3 or 5 additional frames (8 frame setup or 10 frame setup) and feed the bees to encourage wax building. This will give you a good head start since those frames will be pulled and you’ll have less to build. But you’re going to have to have to come every few days to refill the feeder.
Packages will have zero frames and you’ll be building wax from day 1. You’ll need to insert the queen, feed the colony, and leave them alone for at least 3-5 days. During this time, the bees will work on releasing the queen from the cage and building wax (or comb) for her to start laying. They will work on this rather quickly but you have to resist the urge to check. Depending on the feeder, you’ll need to come every few days to refill and not mess with any frames. About a week or so in, a quick inspection of the hive should take place to see if the wax is being built, the queen is ok and if she’s laying.
It won’t matter much if there’s a nectar flow since you will not have enough foragers to bring in nectar. Once you have bees covering 80% of the frames in the box, you can then add the second deep with foundation and keep feeding for them to continue building the frames. You will need to return every few days to keep feeding them if necessary.
If you overwintered the colony, this is probably one of the most important and busiest of times that can make or break your season. The reason that you will be visiting the hives more frequently because this is the period of time that your colony will swarm unless you do something about it. Just be mindful that there are no guarantees here. At this stage, depending on the strength of the hive, you will start seeing queen cups throughout the bottom of the frames – cups have no eggs present. If eggs are present, then you’re now dealing with a swarm cell and the colony is preparing to go. During this time, the bees will stop feeding the queen to slim her down to a point where she can fly, and she will take more than half of the hive with her if they swarm. This is a primary swarm, but there can be multiple swarms if the population is large enough.
As a new beekeeper, as was the case with me, you hopefully ordered additional equipment, but that just means that you have no built frames. It’s a very tough spot. You’re going to pretty much battle the natural instinct the hive has to swarm by constantly destroying cups and/ or swarm cells if you wish to have any honey crop. Your best course of action will be to split the hive and do a walk-away nuc if you don’t have another queen. This way you can take out 5 frames of brood and food (2 brood with eggs/larvae/capped cells, 2 food, and one foundation) and replace the frames in the main hive to have the bees build those frames out. The main consideration is that bees don’t recognize foundation as space, and so you will need to continue checking every few days for cups/cells throughout this period. Trust me that you will be so geared up for a potential honey crop here, but you have to remain vigilant.
If you went with the split to a nuc, you can put honey supers on only once the 5 new frames you inserted are built. Once you have the supers on, it’s just a matter of continue to check on progress of the supers. Remember that you are never to feed sugar syrup when the supers are on. The bees will store the sugar water in the honey supers, and you will get “funny honey” that you might as well buy that in the supermarket.
Just note that you will not be able to put honey supers on if the colony swarmed. The recommendation would be to go into the hive and cull all but 2-3 capped queen cells. I like this article on selecting the queen cell – https://www.theapiarist.org/queen-cells-quantity-quality/. Reducing it to a small number of cells will avoid the hive potentially swarming again. You will then need to leave the hive for at least 10-14 days before coming back to do a spot check for a new queen and eggs. It’s one of the best feelings to get this to work.
Mid-May – July
This period of time is game time! If you managed to avoid swarming, the bees will turn their attention toward collecting honey and be flying in and out of the hive constantly. You will also see a lot of white wax on frames, but more commonly on the inside of the inner cover. If you don’t have built frames, you will put one super with foundation at a time. I use a queen excluder otherwise the queen can go up to the honey supers and lay eggs. By the time that brood emerges, you will not be able to extract any honey from those frames. Follow the 80/20 rule where once the super is 80% built you can then put another super on. Check-in once a week for progress, and move the frames around. Bees will build from the center out, so take the frames that they built and move them to the outside of the box, replacing them with the ones that they haven’t touched.
When June comes around, it will be a good time to check the girls for mites. Since the population of bees is continuing to grow, plateauing in July, you can bet that the mite population is significant. Think of it this way – a queen can lay upwards of 1500 eggs per day, the eggs develop into larvae which are then capped for the pupae to form on day 9. The mites can detect when the brood is about to be capped and goes into the cell, hiding in the food behind the larvae. For every bee that emerges on day 21, there will be 3+ mites that emerge. In fact, they prefer drone cells since they can stay in there for 24 days before the drone emerges to increase their numbers further. New hives, if they managed to grow their populations into a 2nd deep, you should do a test to check the mite levels or mite-load. Overwintered hives can have anywhere between 50-70,000 bees! These bees live around 45 days in total due to wearing themselves out with foraging so you’ll have around 10-15 frames of brood that will continue to cycle through this time and the mite numbers can be staggering. Do a mite wash, or alcohol wash, and check the mite-load. If you have more than 1 mite come back then treat the hive. Recently, I learned that it’s best to do this in June since July will be too hot for most miticides. But choose a treatment that is safe to use with honey supers on.
The supers will need to come off anywhere between July 1st and the 4th. The nectar flow will pretty much be gone. When you check the supers, you have to use frames that are at least 80% capped, and when you give them a quick shake to check that no nectar drips out. High moisture content is going to ferment your honey and then it’s gone. If you have a frame with a lot of nectar that is uncapped, I would simply leave that on the hive for them to eat. You can put that super on top of the inner cover, and the girls will bring the honey down into the deep boxes. The win here is that you have built comb! This will be key for the fall flow and the seasons that follow. For capped frames, make sure to uncap the wax and then extract. Do not destroy the wax! The bees created that at great expense, and you’ll regret it thinking you can just take a spoon right into the frames. I know I did ?
July – October
This is a bit of a rinse and repeat. You will be feeding the bees until August which is when the ragweed, goldenrod, and knotweed bloom. I know this is happening since my allergies flare up, but you can tell by seeing a lot of activity again coming in and out of the hive. You can put supers on to collect excess honey and remove them mid-to-late September. Do not put foundation frames on at this time, since the bees will not touch them. Follow the same rules mentioned above for extraction.
From here on out it will be feeding to prep for winter. I will also do a mite check around this time to determine mite-load, and I begin my Oxalic Acid treatments once I see that there is no brood (once per month starting in late October).
Thank you so much for reading this information and hope that it reaffirms your desire to keep bees. Happy beekeeping and enjoy the journey!