Howland Blackiston, author of Beekeeping For Dummies, shares his tips about beekeeping. He reveals how to set up a beehive, buying honey bee queens and drones, choosing the right beekeeping tools and equipment, caring for your bees, harvesting honey, common mistakes, and much more.
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Most everyone I know loves honey, but aside from the obvious benefits from being able to harvest your own, talk about why people enjoy keeping bees and why beekeeping is such an interesting and rewarding hobby.
Well I think that bees themselves are interesting. They’ve got a fascinating society, and the more you learn about that, the more you become engrossed in how they conduct their business and it’s more than just collecting honey. There’s another reason that’s come along more recently, and that is the idea of let’s save the bees. Let’s start a beekeeping colony so that we can begin to repopulate our neighborhood with honey bees, because they’re dying off. Something’s come along just in the last few years and they’ve given the name Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to it. It’s a mysterious thing where bees are just disappearing by the millions. So a lot of people are getting very, very interested in what can I do to help save the bees? Because they’re very important to our economy. They pollinate 30% of everything we put in our mouth to eat, and if we didn’t have the honey bees, I can assure you, food prices would go through the roof. Save the bees is one reason, and the other reason is because they’re a whole lot of fun because they’re such interesting creatures.
Do you need to consider the size of your backyard, your proximity to your neighbors, maybe the climate you live in, that sort of thing, before deciding to keep bees?
In terms of your property and the size of your backyard, the bees don’t know what you own or don’t own. It doesn’t matter what size yard you have, I know beekeepers that live in Manhattan and keep bees on their fire escape or on the roof or something like that. That’s not so critical. They’re very adaptable. You can be in North Dakota or in Florida and keep bees with no problem. I suppose if you’re in Antarctica, you wouldn’t have much luck. The only thing you might do is, I would go to whatever the equivalent of your local town hall, and just make sure that no local ordinances is against keeping bees in your neighborhood. Usually there are not, it’s not an issue. Better to be safe and just check it out and make sure that your neighborhood is bee friendly, and then go for it.
What are the components that make up a typical beehive, and what function does each part serve?
Well, in nature, it’s a hole in the tree. When you’re keeping bees as a beekeeper, you keep them in a hive, which is essentially a wooden box about the size of a toaster over, and in the wooden box are usually eight to ten wooden frames, just like a picture frame, that hang in there, and in the center of that picture frame, rather than a picture, there’s a sheet of wax that the bees draw out and make honeycomb and they use that to raise their babies, to store their food, so that’s all the hive is. It’s got a top and a bottom and a box. If you go to the places that offer beekeeping supplies, they are usually available in two ways: kit form, which you assemble the box yourself, it’s very easy, holes all predrilled. If you can hammer a nail, you can put a hive together in less than a half an hour. Or, some of these vendors offer hives completely built and ready to go. And if you’re not very handy with a hammer, maybe that’s the best option.
Talk about choosing a hive design. Are there different ones to choose from, which do you recommend, and should you build your own from plans or from a kit or buy something that’s completely assembled?
Well, I would definitely use a kit. I suppose, if you were really, really clever in the cabinet making department or furniture making, whatever, you might want to try to make your own, but the dimensions are so critical, and unless you’re familiar with what those are or have very specific plans, I would get a kit. Now, there are different kinds of hives out there, but in the United States, there’s one hive that probably accounts for 95% of all the beehives out there. And it’s called a Langstroth hive. And it’s named after the person who invented it many, many years ago, it hasn’t changed much in a century. The Langstroth hive is the standard of the beekeeping industry in the United States.
In addition to the hive and the bees themselves, what other beekeeping equipment and supplies are you going to need? What specific products can you recommend?
There’s not too much really. You need a veil—actually, honey bees are very docile, but they’re also very curious, and they love to crawl in little holes and stuff, like your ears and up your nose, so the veil is just to keep them from being too inquisitive. Some people like to use gloves, because they feel more comfortable, but I always urge my students not to use gloves, because they also make you very clumsy, and the bees don’t like that. You need a smoker, and it’s just a little device that looks like a tin can with bellows on, and you can put almost anything in there that will burn, like burlap or twine or dried leaves or something like that, and set it on fire and get them smoking, because you use the smoke when you inspect your hive to see what’s going on inside, and the smoke calms the bees. That’s about it. You might keep an eye on a need for medication, if the situation arises to where your bees get sick, and there are things you look out for, that’s one reason you inspect your hives. Veil, maybe gloves, a smoker, and a hive, and you’re off and running.
Talk about buying honey bee queens and drones. How do you know what you’ll need, and where do you buy them?
There are reputable bee suppliers. These are usually people down in the Southern states because the weather is warm. Their business is raising bees to sell to beekeepers. The bees arrive in a little box about the size of a shoebox, with screen sides, it comes in the mail, and in there will be about 8,000 bees and one queen. You will use that to install your bees into your brand new hive kit. If you see ads on the Internet or in magazines for suppliers, if someone is making what I would call extravagant claims, like disease-resistant bees, I wouldn’t order from those people—that’s just marketing hoopla. Ask them for a copy of their health certificate. Any of these breeders need a certificate from their state to certify that their bees are healthy. And if they refuse to give you that, I would refuse to do business with them.
By the time you’ve purchased everything you’re going to need, what kind of financial investment are you looking at, and speaking of investments, what kind of time commitment will your bees require?
As hobbies go, it’s not so bad. Depending upon where you buy your supplies, anywhere from $300-$500 max will get you going. And that’s a one-time expense. In terms of the time you spend, here’s what happens—you don’t have to spend that much time with your bees. Strictly speaking, if you think you just don’t want to spend much time, you’ll probably will only need to visit your bees and inspect them and see what’s going on about a half a dozen times a year. About a half-hour each, so you’re only talking about a few hours over a course of a year that you really should be spending with your bees. But Matt, here’s what happens. When people get started with this beekeeping thing, they get so engrossed and so fascinated by these little creatures, that they can’t wait until the next time that they go out and open up their hive to see what’s going on, so they wind up going every weekend—not that they have to, just to see what’s going on in there, particularly in their first year. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to see.
So the bees will overwinter in the hive, you don’t have to buy new bees every year?
You don’t, that’s the great thing about honey bees, and actually, technically, that’s why they’re such great pollinators. They do overwinter in the hive, they cluster together for warmth, with the queen in the center of the cluster, so when the first signs of spring come along, you’ve got the hive with tens of thousands of bees in it ready to pollenate. Versus other insects that pretty much all die off, except for the queen, over the winter, and then they have to rebuild their colonies from scratch. Honey bees don’t do that, they’re one of the few that overwinter.
Once you get your hive all assembled and ready to go, how do you install the bees into the hive—is there any trick to that?
I wouldn’t say there’s a trick, but I’ll tell you what, it’s one of the most fun parts of beekeeping. It’s also, for the new beekeeper, one of the most terrifying parts, but there’s nothing to be frightened of, it’s just the unknown if it’s the first time you’re doing it. I mentioned package bees, the box of bees that come in the mail—you pick those up at your post office, you’ll get a call about four o’clock in the morning when the post office opens, “come get your bees!” They’re glad to get rid of them, I can assure you. You bring them home, you’ve got a beautiful new hive kit ready to receive them. Just to oversimplify it, you pop the top off that package of bees and you shake them into the hive, and that’s it. Now, do they go crazy and all come out yelling and screaming and looking for someone to sting? No, because they don’t have a hive yet, they don’t have a colony established to protect, so they instantly take to this new environment, and they start going about their business immediately of making honeycomb and collecting pollen and nectar and taking care of the queen and all that. It’s really easy to do and it’s sort of shame, you only get to do it once unless your bees, of course, get sick and die, then you’ll have to replace them. You don’t get to do it nearly enough, and it’s a lot of fun.
How long does it take before you can harvest the honey, and how do you extract it from the hive. How much honey will you get from a typical hive each year?
Well, beekeeping is like farming. The answer to that question depends on the weather and other conditions. It’s like asking someone how many tomatoes they’re going to get—it depends on the year. I can tell you that one hive will yield anywhere from forty to a hundred pounds of honey. So that’s equivalent of anywhere to 40-100 one pound jars of honey. And think of this, if you can sell those at your local farmer’s market at $10 a pop, you’ve paid for your beehive in the first year, practically. In terms of how soon can you harvest the honey, the first year is really the year that your bees are going to get established. Normally speaking, you don’t get too much honey in your first year. The bees will make honey, and they’ll make quite a bit, but you need to leave them honey for them to overwinter unless you’re in Florida, of course. If you’re up in Maine, you want to leave them 60-80 pounds of honey for them to eat during the winter. Anything they make over that is yours for the taking. That’s the surplus honey, and that’s the honey you harvest. In your second year, they’re all established, they’re a robust colony, and that’s when you start to see 40-80 pounds or more of honey from your hive. In terms of how you harvest it, it’s quite easy. I mentioned those frames that go in the hive. They will load those up with honey. The honey will be in the little cells, you’ve seen the honeycomb, they’re filled with honey and they cap it over with a lid of wax. Thousands of teeny tiny little sealed jars of honey. You remove the frame, you take a heated knife and slice off the cappings, and then put it in an extractor, which is like a big drum that spins, and by centrifugal force, the honey is forced out of the frames, dribbles down to the bottom of the barrel, and then the spigot’s at the bottom, you just fill up the jars, and it’s that straightforward.
I’m guessing you’ll have to keep a pretty close eye on things, especially the first year or two. Talk about inspecting the hive and what you’ll be looking for and some of the diseases and parasites and other kinds of problems that can affect your bees.
You’re looking for a couple of things, really. You’re looking, first of all, to see evidence that you have a viable queen. And you can do that by either finding the queen, which can be quite a trick since there are so many bees in there, but she does look a little different than the rest of them. When you order your bees, ask your vendor, your bee supplier, to mark your queen. They actually put a little dollop of paint on her back, and it helps you find her, and it also helps you establish that that indeed is your queen that you installed in your hive. You’re looking for the queen, if you can’t find the queen, you’re looking for little tiny rice-like eggs that sit in the bottom of those cells. And if you see eggs, you know you have a queen. Because it means she was there laying those eggs within the last day or two. You’re also looking for signs of problems. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it’s just like if you had any other kind of pet or animal, you’d look for issues. If they looked like they weren’t doing well, you’d want to provide them with a remedy of some kind. You’re looking for evidence of disease, and this is diseases that bees get, not that we get, and you’re looking for evidence of parasites like mites that can wreak havoc on the hive if not treated. So those are the things you’re looking for—a viable queen, make sure they’re looking healthy, and also, make sure they have enough room. I mentioned that surplus honey—you want them to make as much honey as possible. So if it looks like they begin to fill up all their frames, you add another box of frames. And the boxes start to pile up like so many stories on a skyscraper. And in a great year, when you’re going to be harvesting 100 pounds of honey from one hive, you’ll find that you might have one, two, three, four, or five additional boxes stacked on top of that hive for them to fill up with honey.
Are there any good hands-on beekeeping courses available through maybe a local cooperative extension or another local organization that might be helpful for someone just getting started?
There are, and they’re all over the country. Every state has beekeeping clubs. People with a common interest, they love bees and they get together once a month, they often offer courses for beginners. Here’s what I would do—in terms of finding these resources, there’s a great website that’s called beeculture.com. It’s established by one of the great magazines on beekeeping called Bee Culture. So if you went to beeculture.com, you can follow a link that will list every single bee club in the United States by state, so just find your state and up will come a listing of all the bee clubs and associations in your state.
What are some of the most popular beekeeping resources? You mentioned Bee Culture, can you recommend any other organizations or websites or forums that can be especially helpful for a new beekeeper? And you also mentioned Bee Culture Magazine, any other great magazines worth subscribing to?
In this country, there are really only two. Bee Culture is terrific, and it’s really geared towards the hobbyist beekeeper. There’s another magazine, but it’s much more technical and it’s geared towards the professional beekeepers, the people who are migratory beekeepers and provide pollination services. If you’re looking for really good information that’s applicable to the hobbyist, Bee Culture Magazine is great. There are a lot of other sites devoted to beekeeping. One that comes to mind is beemaster.com. It’s put together by another hobbyist, John Clayton, and he’s just got tons of information on there and useful links. And then there’s some of these sites like Bee-Commerce, which is a place that not only sells supplies, but they’ve got a lot of downloads there on how to do things, and instruction sheets and all kinds of useful stuff.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that new beekeepers make when getting started in the beekeeping hobby?
One would be going at it without really knowing what you’re doing, of course that would be a mistake for almost any hobby. Some people are “bee havers.” They have bees, but they don’t pay any attention to them. They just like the idea of having a beehive on their property. But that’s not the same as being a beekeeper. A beekeeper is someone who cares for their bees, who does inspect them occasionally to see what’s going on and make sure they’re healthy and make sure they’re producing honey and have enough room and so forth. So that subtle difference between a “bee haver” and a beekeeper is important. If you want to be successful, you want to be a beekeeper.
Any other advice or words of encouragement for would-be beekeepers?
Well, first of all, it is so much fun, this hobby, so fascinating, that most people start out the first thing they’re afraid of is are they going to get stung and all that. It’s a natural thing. Eventually, you probably will get stung, but it doesn’t happen very often and bees are very gentle. Here is how I would get started—I would get a hold of some good books on beekeeping and read before you start. Learn what it’s all about. Find a local club, you’ll learn a lot from that. Interesting guest speakers and various workshops on the weekends, and finally, latch onto a mentor. Find a beekeeper in your area that’s willing to share his knowledge with you. That’s the best way to see how it’s done, to watch somebody do it, you can’t go wrong.
Howland Blackiston has been keeping bees for over 25 years and is the author of Beekeeping For Dummies.