Beekeeping Basics: How to Raise Honeybees in Your Backyard
Dive into hive care, pest control, and honey collection in this comprehensive beekeeping guide
1. Choose the location
Bees need four things. First, they need sun, or afternoon shade if your weather is hot. Second, they must have access to fresh water near the hive. We used a large plant saucer with stones in the center for the bees to land on and refreshed the water every day. A shallow bubble fountain would work well, too. Third, the hive must be protected from wind, which can blow rain (or snow) into the hive, making it harder for the bees to keep the hive warm. Finally, bees need privacy. Don’t put the hives near high-traffic areas, play areas, swimming pools, or pet areas. Give each hive plenty of space— 50 feet from high-traffic areas is ideal, but if space is limited, position the hive so the entrance is near a tall fence or hedge. This will force their flight path overhead to minimize contact with people and pets. And screening them from view will keep bees and people happy.
2. Prepare the location
Hives should face south, if possible, and they need to be kept off the ground to protect them from dampness and critters. After clearing the brush and leveling the ground, we poured a cement pad to make care easier.
3. Install the bees
Spring, when blooming flowers furnish a food supply, is the time to put your bees in their hives. Once you’ve chosen how to buy them, the best bet is to rely on your source for installation instructions.
Here is what happened when we picked up our bees from Randy Oliver at his property in Grass Valley: He gave us an introductory class in beekeeping, showing us how to use the hive tool and the smoker, handle bees, and check for eggs, brood (larvae), and queen—all vital signs of a colony’s health. Randy loaded 5 frames of his gentle hybrid bees and a queen into each of our two brood boxes and sealed the openings by stuffing them with our beekeeping gloves. We used ratchet straps to secure the boxes in the back of our truck. When we got back to Sunset, we positioned the brood boxes in their designated locations and removed the gloves from the entrances. One hive we named Betty; the other, Veronica.
4. Feed the bees
Young colonies have a lot of work to do—storing pollen and nectar, sealing all the cracks and seams in their new home, and taking care of the queen and new brood. To make their adjustment easier, we fed them a “nectar.” Here is how to make it: Dissolve equal parts granulated sugar and water and use to fill the quart jars. Top with the feeder lids and invert the jars into the holes. The lids should not drip; they should be barely moist. The bees will drink what they need from the lids.
In the beginning, our nucs drank about three-fourths of a quart jar per day. Over the next 3 weeks or so, it tapered off to the point where we realized sugar water was no longer necessary. The bees were finding their nutrition in flowers. Plus, sugar water makes for insipid honey and should not be continued if it is not needed.
5. Inspect the hives inside and out
Much of beekeeping is simple observation and response. If you are a novice beekeeper, inspect the hive about once a week for a couple of months so that you can learn. Once you feel comfortable, adjust your routine to every two weeks. Make sure the outside of the hive is clean and free of bee poop, the landing board is free of litter, and there are no ants on the hive. Open the hives and check frames for larvae and eggs (on warm days only). If the queen is healthy, you will see plenty of larvae in various stages of development.
If you don’t see evidence of a healthy queen, consult an expert. Your local beekeeping guild is a good source.
Ultimately, the less often you inspect the hive, the better for its health. Opening the hives and thoroughly checking them requires smoking to keep the bees calm. This stresses the bees and it takes them about a day to recover. As you learn more, you will find you won’t need to pull many frames to know what is going on inside. And you will figure out a lot simply by observing the bees as they come and go from the hive.
6. Check regularly for pests and diseases
Varroa mites are the pest most typically found in hives. Left unchecked, they can cripple and eventually kill the hive (see Pest Control, below, for hints about checking for mites and mite control). Other pests you need to watch for include the small hive beetle and the wax moth. Diseases you need to be on the lookout for are American and European foulbrood. Early intervention can often mean the difference between a healthy hive and a dead hive.
7. Expand the hive when necessary
Start with one deep hive body-brood box. When the bees have filled it with 7 or 8 frames of bees and brood, top it with a second brood box. Let the bees build up brood cells in the second brood box, too. When the second brood box is well filled (7 or 8 frames of bees), top it with a queen excluder, if you choose to use one, and, finally, the honey super (the box from which you will collect most of your honey).
Bees are like flying balls of delicate spun sugar filled with honey. Everything wants to eat them. Here are three of the worst pests we battled, and the tactics we used.
Argentine ants can kill a hive by robbing honey and eating the brood. We couldn’t spray to kill the ants, since that would also kill the bees. We tried Terro ant bait—little containers filled with boric acid mixed with a sweet substance ants like—with some success. In the end, we were most successful with a physical barrier. We placed each leg of the hive stands in plastic tubs filled with water that the ants could not cross.
Small hive beetles
Hive beetle larvae will eat all parts of the hive, including the baby bees. We kill the beetles on site, and have been experimenting with traps like AJs Beetle Eater ($5.25) from Dadant.
The most damaging pests a beekeeper has to deal with are these mites, as they threaten the survival of a hive once they become established. They suck the blood of adult bees and lay their eggs in brood cells, where their larvae feed off bee babies, infecting them with viruses and weakening and even killing them. To save their bees, beekeepers use a variety of methods:
A 24-hour count of a natural mite fall will give you a good idea of a hive’s infestation. Coat the bottom of your Country Rube board with petroleum jelly or cooking spray (to trap the mites), slide it into the lower part of the bottom board, wait for 24 hours, and then pull it out and count the mites. Anything more than 10 mites per brood box indicates you have a problem.
2. Sugar dusting
The powdered sugar method lets you both count the mites and control them. Sift powdered sugar, 1 cup per brood box, over the tops of the frames and brush it into the hive. The powdered sugar makes the mites lose their grip on the bees and fall off; plus the bees groom the sugar off their bodies, dislodging more mites. Again, use the bottom board to capture the fallen mites. You should not see more than a few mites 10 minutes after dusting. If there are more, you have a problem.
3. Mite trapping
Drone frames will also help trap varroa mites. These frames are designed to encourage bees to make drone comb cells, which are larger than worker comb cells. Since varroa mites prefer drone brood 10 to 1, the drone comb makes a great mite trap. Just before the drones hatch (24 days after the eggs were laid), destroy the drone comb (you can freeze it and return it to the hive, or simply cut it out), and replace the drone frame for the next cycle. (Since our queens have already mated and have a lifetime’s supply of sperm inside of them, they do not need the drones in order to reproduce.)
A gel infused with thymol, made from the oils of thyme plants. It works well, but it makes the honey stored during the treatment taste like mouthwash.
5. Formic acid
More toxic than thymol, formic acid kills the mites by gassing them. It makes the honey inedible for humans, so it is applied in the fall and winter, when the nectar flow is slow or stopped. You need to wear a respirator when applying it.
For more information on mite control, see the sources listed under Helpful Information, opposite.
We were lucky to collect honey the first summer. Typically, during the first year the bees build up their hive, and if they overwinter well, you can begin harvesting in the late spring or early summer of the second year. Three months after bringing our bees home, we had 4 frames packed with honey, each weighing about 8 pounds. Lacking a professional extractor, we used the following low-tech method.
1. Cut and crush Using the bench scraper, we cut the honey—wax and all—off the foundation into a bowl, balancing the frame on a wooden spoon set across the bowl like a bridge. Then we used a wooden spoon to crush the honey and wax in the bowl.
2. Straining and settling We poured this slurry of wax and honey through a double layer of cheesecloth and the stainless-steel strainer into our food-grade plastic bucket. Then we left it to drain and settle for a couple of days (bubbles and foam rose to the surface).
3. Bottling We covered the floor with newspapers and got our jars ready. Then we loosened the honey gate (the stopper at the bottom of the bucket) to release the honey into each jar. In went the honey, on went the lids. It was as simple as that. From 4 full frames of honeycomb, we reaped 12 pounds, 10 ounces of honey. We rinsed the leftover wax and froze it. Later, we rendered the wax in a solar wax melter and used it for craft projects like lip balm and hand salve. We had a second surprise harvest later in the summer, bringing our total to about 31 pounds of pure, fragrant honey.
WHERE TO GET BEES
Packaged bees and caged queen It takes time to build up the colony this way, but it’s the least-expensive choice. You can usually order packaged bees through your local beekeepers’ guild. Preorder as early as the fall and certainly no later than early spring, as bees are only available for a short time in spring. About $65.
Nuc (short for “nucleus”) A nuc is a young hive, usually covering no more than 5 frames of comb, with a newly laying queen. Starting this way helps you get a jump on honey production. Buy from a reputable beekeeper to avoid getting diseased equipment or sick bees. We ordered two nucs from master beekeeper Randy Oliver and drove to his location in Grass Valley, California, to pick them up. $90 for each nuc, queen included;scientificbeekeeping.com.
Well-established swarms or colonies Large colonies can be daunting if you’ve never kept bees before, and beginning beekeepers shouldn’t try to capture a swarm. Leave that to a more experienced beekeeper (contact your local beekeepers’ guild to find such a person), and perhaps he or she will help you start a hive with the captured swarm.
Check out The One Block Feast for more information on Sunset’s beekeeping experience.