Backyard beekeeping is a fun hobby that helps to maintain healthy honeybee populations. People who want to live and eat more sustainably are increasingly drawn to beekeeping. A beehive in your garden pollinates your plants for maximum yield. Then enjoy the pure golden honey straight from the comb as a reward for your efforts. This raw, unpasteurized honey is far better tasting and healthier than the pasteurized honey found in grocery stores.
We reached out to the experts to get their expert advice on beekeeping. So, if you’re considering becoming an amateur apiarist, check out this guide.
Open feeding: Pros and Cons
As I see it, the open feeding of bees comes with one big Plus and several Minuses.
- Simplicity: It’s easier than opening each hive to check and fill feeders. Just fill one large community feeder and then monitor and refill as needed. No need to lift boxes or even light a smoker.
- Expense: Likely, you’re not just feeding your bees. You may have five colonies, but since honey bees travel a reasonable distance from home to find food, especially during times of dearth, you could end up feeding dozens or more. Not only that, but you’re feeding all of yours whether they need it or not. Why feed five colonies when only two are in need?
- Robbing: Open feeding can incite robbing if your hives are anywhere close by — and it’s the weakest colonies (those who need the feed) that suffer most. Even putting extracted supers out on the deck for the bees to “clean up” can result in thousands of robbers mobbing your hives. I learned long ago that those wet supers need to be put a hundred yards or more away — or better yet, back on the hives.
- Casualties: Speaking of carnage, even the feeding frenzy around your open feeder can result in casualties. Though they’re not protecting their home, bees can and do fight over these unnatural food sources, and you might find the ground littered with dead bees at the end of the day.
- Disease: This is less of a problem if it’s only your bees, but communal feeders can also be a place where bees share mites and viruses.
On balance, I believe that the ease of open feeding is far outweighed by the cost — monetary and otherwise.
– Eugene Makovec from American Bee Journal
What are the benefits of using a beekeeping app or apiary management software?
Modern beekeeping comes with many challenges, but the community of beekeepers has already developed solutions for many of them. Take, for example, one common activity we all do as beekeepers: recording our work done in the apiary, be it treatments or hive inspections, feedings or queen rearing tasks, jotting down equipment inventory, and to-do lists or reminders. All this information and more can be easily logged into an apiary management application installed on your smartphone.
Next time you’re in the apiary, all this data is logged on your phone and easily accessible at any point you need it. So, you might as well forget about pen and paper! There are many beekeeping apps out there, and one that’s a perfect choice for beginners and professional beekeepers is Apiary Book. It is a solution for managing beekeeping activities in the apiary, monitoring beehives, and analyzing data of bee colonies and environmental factors affecting their health. Specifically, how does it help beekeepers?
It is a smartphone application where you can record and log in every detail about your hives and bee colonies. For each hive created in the app, you can add a variety of details, such as: location, number, and types of frames, origin, description, bee family strength, queen bee breed, origin, and state. Furthermore, you can easily identify hives in your apiary and see your recorded information by by printing and generating a dynamic QR code or using NFC tags.
Apiary Book keeps accurate and up-to-date records of your activity in the apiary, such as treatments you performed or feedings. Also, observations from your inspections, like if you found Varroa mites, colony movements for when you’re traveling, veterinary checks, queen rearing tasks, and more. Nothing is overlooked. There’s even a hands-free Voice Action feature that assists you when you’re all suited up and cannot use your gloved hands to type in your observations. Simply use your voice to record information while working.
The app also helps you organize and manage your beekeeping activity to improve productivity and cut costs. Thus, you have access to localized weather information to plan activities when the weather is optimal, and you can create reminders so that you don’t forget what to do next and when. Whether you need to keep track of your expenses and acquisitions or create a beekeeping inventory and to-do lists, you can rest assured that we have you covered.
With Apiary Book, you get access to know-how from all over the world. Our knowledge base includes best beekeeping practices, insights from our community, and personalized recommendations. Based on the information recorded by you in the app, the Assistant feature extracts valuable data and sends you recommendations and insights specific to your situation.
You can connect with other beekeepers and get valuable advice. You can either send them a personal message through the app and ask for advice, or better yet, you can talk with a mentor from our Mentorship program. Our mentors are beekeepers with extensive experience who successfully manage their apiaries and make a living out of beekeeping. So whether you don’t know how to apply treatments correctly, detect early signs of varroa in your hive or catch a swarm of nearby bees, it’s good to know that you can always rely on their advice.
We also offer Cloud Sync and access to your data from other devices. So that you can record your activities on your smartphone when you’re working in your apiary, sync the data to the cloud and access your apiary data on your laptop/computer/tablet when you are at home.
-Maria from Apiary Book
What beekeeping equipment do I need to get started?
1) Beekeeping Equipment
BC Bee Supply has a couple of starter kits that make it easy to decide which items are suitable for a brand new beekeeper. Our Basic Starter kit contains protective clothing and tools for a beekeeper – a veiled jacket, leather gloves, a hive tool, smoker, and brush. The Deluxe Starter kit includes everything in the Basic Starter kit plus enough wooden equipment to house one bee colony – screened bottom board, door reducer, deep hive box, 10 wooden frames, 10 plastic foundations, inner cover, and telescoping outer cover.
BC Bee Supply stocks a wide range of products for beekeepers of all levels. In addition to our Starter Kits, we help “newbees” and experienced apiarists select unique products like queen excluders, honey extractors, swarm catchers, and bee feed that will keep your beehives happy and healthy.
2) Beekeeping Workshops
Introductory beekeeping workshops are offered throughout the year and are perfect for those interested in keeping bees. These informal classes provide an excellent format for learning about starting up, your first year in beekeeping, and getting around others with similar or no experience.
All class participants have the opportunity to get around and handle some bees themselves. BC Bee Supply specializes in providing a comprehensive, in-depth look at backyard beekeeping while covering thorough detail on each subject: starting, installing a hive, checking for mites, equipment choices, beekeeping with others, urban vs. rural, expanding your apiary, plus a look at various techniques for splitting hives, catching swarms and commercial practices.
3) Beekeeping Information
While the classes and workshops are a practical way to learn about the intricacies of beekeeping, BC Bee Supply also has a series of books and publications that review the basics and provides an excellent reference to new beekeepers. How to harvest your honey, expand your apiary and raise your queen bees are among the advanced topics that beginner beekeeping can lead to.
4) Live Bees
Finally, BC Bee Supply is proud to supply live honeybees to beekeepers throughout the Lower Mainland (and most of BC). We have partial and full colonies that can be brought home from our “farm store” and placed into your wooden beehive equipment at certain times of the year. So if you have the space for the bees, about an hour a week for your inspections, and the interest in honey and bees, you too can be a beekeeper in the city or rural areas!
-Winston from BC Bee Supply
How much yard space do I need to raise bees?
There are two parts to this question. First: how much space do the actual wooden hives take up? Presuming you are doing Langstroth hives, the footprint is pretty small. The boxes are only about 14″x20″. A top bar hive takes up a bit more space and can vary from one manufacturer to another. Our top bars are about 48″x18″. Multiply those numbers times the number of hives you plan on keeping; of course, you need a few feet on at least one side of the hive to stand to work, and I prefer to have a few feet on the backside to maneuver as well.
The second part of this question involves how much space you need to allot around the hives as an ‘off-limits’ zone where you would refrain from working or playing. This is a very personal question and pertains to your comfort level. However, I feel completely comfortable letting my nieces and nephews play within about 6 feet of the hives. I would provide additional space in front of the entrance to the hive, closer to 10 feet, as you never want to block the forager bees’ flight path.
-Tara Chapman from Two Hives Honey
What is hive robbing and what can I do to prevent it?
Honey bees are always looking for food. Generally, they leave the hive to seek nectar and pollen from flowers. They are attracted to flowers’ colors, shapes, and odors and can quickly learn which flowers they find are the best in terms of quantity and quality of the food they need.
Foragers from a colony seeking food may find an attractive and appealing odor of food coming from another colony, and they will inspect it. They will approach the colony from the front door, from any cracks or crevices they can find. If they gain entrance to that colony and find already cured honey, they will try and take it home. It is, after all, the food they eat, and finding it close to home is always easier than having to fly far to gather it. The colony being robbed will try and stop them, of course, and fighting will occur to keep the robber bees out of the hive. If the colony being robbed is weak, underpopulated, and suffering from a disease or pest, they will not defend their home and food. You will note bees fighting on the landing board or outside your hive if there is an upper entrance or hole bees can enter to rob.
The foragers from the robbing colony will return home with their bounty of stolen honey and tell their sisters where to go to get more, just as they would if they found a rich nectar source in the field. Soon, many robbers will be sealing honey, and the defending colony will fight to the death to stop being robbed. And sometimes, the robbers will kill all of the bees in the colony they are robbing.
To avoid this, keep your small weak colonies well protected. For example, keep the front door small, seal all cracks and crevices so robber bees can’t get in. A small entry is easier to protect than a large one. You can also purchase a robbing screen, a device that fools robber bees by tricking them into trying to get in the hive through a false entrance.
If robbing has started, you can do a couple of things. First, completely close all colonies in the bee yard so the robbers can’t get out of their home to rob. Leave them closed until dark and then seal the colony being robbed as carefully as you can so in the morning the robbers can’t get in.
The best way to prevent robbing is to make sure all of your colonies are about equal strength so a strong colony can’t pick on a weak one.
– Kim Flottum from Beekeeping Today Podcast
Is it good practice to kill drone cells to help control Varroa mites?
Removing drone cells can be a small part of a larger Integrated Pest Management strategy to control Varroa mites in a managed colony. Drones serve a purpose in the superorganism, but more drone comb correlates to more Varroa mites. In addition, varroa mites prefer to reproduce in capped drone cells as they have longer pupation.
I recommend culling extraneous drone comb at the bottom of Langstroth frames during a brood build-up season. One needs a little smoke and a scrape of the hive tool to get this done. It’s a messy affair, but the worker bees will tend to it. While one cull drones, she can also observe any reproductive Varroa mites in this comb.
A beekeeper can also install a drone comb frame – made exclusively to breed drones – and remove it from the hive before the drones hatch. The beekeeper would then stick the frame in the freezer to kill the pupae (and mites!) or feed chickens. A word of caution, the beekeeper must be careful to know the timing of the drone pupation, or she will have a Varroa factory on her hands! Of course, this strategy on its own is not enough to combat Varroa mites; one must test Varroa mite thresholds regularly and implement other pest management strategies as well.
-Nicole Buergers from Bee2Bee Honey Collective
Why do bees beard and what should I do if bees are bearding?
If you notice your bees are bearding, it might just mean the colony is hot (But aren’t we all in the middle of the summer). Bearded honeybees work to regulate temperature and humidity inside a colony by actively cooling the hive’s interior with airflow.
The airflow is created by the bees flapping their wings, pulling the cooler air outside the hive into the hive to cool it. In addition to creating airflow, the bees are physically getting out of the hive’s interior to reduce the amount of heat inside the hive. When they do this, they hang on the front of the hive and are typically suspended from the front in a beard shape.
The majority of the time, bearding is normal behavior with no cause for concern. In fact, the bees want to keep the interior brood nest around 95° Fahrenheit year-round, which is already fairly warm. So even with a highly well-ventilated hive or with a well-insulated hive, the bees will still beard on the outside when it’s warm.
Even though it is normal behavior, there are a few things that the beekeeper can do while it’s hot.
If the hive does not have sufficient boxes, a beekeeper may need to add an additional box to the hive. Usually, 2 or 3 langstroth boxes in the 8 or 10 frame size are sufficient.
Beekeepers can introduce a water source if the bees cannot easily find a nearby water source. A honeybee colony will use water to help cool the hive’s interior to prevent it from overheating.
To learn more about why bees beard and what beekeepers can do, click here.
-Adam Hickman is an EAS Master Beekeeper and owner of Foxhound Bee Company
How can I protect my bees from pesticides/insecticides?
We use pesticides to eliminate harmful and nuisance insects. Unfortunately, honeybees can be greatly impacted by these pesticides, and the hobbyist beekeeper can do little to avoid it. Honeybees can forage in a five-mile radius around their hive, and that is about eighty square miles. You simply cannot control where your bees will go and what they will get into.
A major concern for beekeepers is commercial mosquito spraying. However, there are plenty of private companies that will spray properties to prevent mosquitos. If you have honeybee colonies in a neighborhood, you should notify your neighbors and ask that they inform you if they have a mosquito spray service. If they do, try to have them conduct the spraying in the evening, when your bees will be back in the hive. That might not be feasible, but you can safely close your colony, ensuring proper ventilation, the evening before the mosquito service for a day or two until the spray dissipates.
If you suspect your colony has been affected by pesticides, you can look for a few warning signs. Bees impacted by pesticides will often shake with spasms and cannot fly. You may also see an unusually high number of dead bees around the hive. Honeybee colonies with plenty of resources (honey, pollen, brood, nurses, and queen) can often rebound from pesticide exposure. However, if nurses and the queen also die in high numbers, you likely have pesticide inside the hive, brought in with pollen and nectar. This is more common with plants using neonicotinoid-type pesticides.
We need pesticides in farming and landscaping; they are unavoidable, even if you find more organic pest control methods. The important thing for the beekeeper is to know what is happening inside the honeybee colony. Through routine inspections and careful note taking, the beekeeper can identify the early signs of a problem and take necessary corrective action.
– John Klapperich from The Bee Store
What is the best type of climate for beekeeping?
The allure of beekeeping sounds energizing and fun. However, in actuality, it is a ton of work and takes a reasonable amount of time. Anyone starting in beekeeping will soon discover that beekeeping isn’t going to turn a profit or, at best, perhaps break even.
Beekeeping is a type of farming that encompasses a myriad of skills and ingenuity. Mainly being technology savvy, including everything from engineering, troubleshooting, internet marketing, and very mechanically inclined, and entomology, just to name a few. A significant part of the profession will rely upon how quickly the beekeeper can adapt and diagnose problems and apply appropriate solutions. In addition, any farming endeavor requires physical strength, stamina, and perseverance.
Other factors are weather, and climate and the beekeeper must be cognoscente of the influence on their hives. Climate change will provide a new dynamic for beekeepers as pests, and other invasives benefit from a warming planet. Ingenuity and adaptation by the beekeeper will be a cost factor of climate change.
Bees also need space and an adequate danger-free foraging area. Bees typically need at least a square mile of good cover to forage. Good mature tree cover in spring and fall flowering plants are essential. Any commercialized crop farming within a mile is a potential hazard for honeybees as pesticides are way over-used in the US as fallout and runoff from an application is common. A clean water source is also essential as bees can easily and quickly dehydrate. Sources of water need to be free from petroleum, sewage, and other toxic runoff/leaching.
Perhaps one of the factors that are commonly overlooked is the social factor. The aspiring beekeeper must consider neighbors and family. If the setting is a tight housing development, it will be more apparent to neighbors and a concern based upon proximity. Another very important social consideration is family. Will the significant other be receptive to the hobby, and will the overhead requirements induce stress into the relationship?
Beekeeping is a lifelong learning experience and perhaps one of the dark arts as there are many ways and many opinions on what to do to solve the ongoing, never-ending challenges. There are, however, numerous resources for folks preparing for and managing hive maintenance. In any case, if you take a gander at it, you may soon realize and discover something hidden in plain sight; beekeeping is one of the most challenging yet most rewarding things on this planet.
– Ward Graham from Brighton Honey
How to identify the different types of queen cells?
There is really only one type of queen cell, the type that houses a developing queen. Many books and online articles will talk about “swarm cells” vs. “supersedure cells” and how to identify them based on where they are located on the frame. According to the books, a swarm cell appears on the bottom of a frame, and a supersedure cell appears in the middle of the frame. While this can be true, it’s more important to look at the hive as a whole to understand why your bees are building a queen cell at all. If it’s springtime, your hive is heavily populated with bees, and there are few remaining open cells for a queen to lay eggs, then it’s likely to be a swarm cell regardless of where it’s located on a frame. This is the most common reason for bees to build queen cells, particularly in newer hives. This happens in preparation for a swarm, where the existing queen moves on, leaving behind developing queens in their queen cells. A true supersedure cell, which can look identical to the swarm cell, is created when the colony needs to replace a queen, either because she was damaged, killed or is no longer a viable egg layer. This situation is not very common in the first or second year of beekeeping. Regardless of which type of queen cell the bees have created, it is the job of the beekeeper to follow up and ensure that the new queen hatches, mates, and begins to lay successfully.
– Erin Masterson from Masterson’s Garden Center
What is a queen cup and when do bees build them?
Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive. When bees are working on familiar frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of comb: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two comb sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees. Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.
Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees. This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees. A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees. In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb than drone-sized comb cells.
What about the queen though?
Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup. A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup. It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell. It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen. As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population. Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible. The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.
Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time. If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell. The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen. Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier.
-Murray Mosco from Wild Flower Meadows
Colony Collapse Disorder: What Is It, and why does it matter?
Colony collapse disorder is when the worker bees of a hive leave without the queen. The queen bee is left behind with a small group of nurse bees and any unborn brood. All of the honey and food stores the hive has collected also remain. The absence of the worker bees leaves the hive vulnerable. Typically, some of the worker bees would fulfill the role of guard bees, which prevent intruders from entering the hive. Without the guard bees, the hive can be taken over by robber bees, bees from another hive, that sense the weakness of the hive. Robber bees often kill the existing queen and begin a new hive. Intruders are not the only complication the queen will face when she is left behind. Without forager bees to continuously replenish food supplies, the stored food will eventually run out. Several variables can trigger Colony Collapse Disorder. It is thought that if bees sense the presence of pesticides or other undesirable substances in the area, they will leave to find a place where they can thrive. An infestation of varroa mites can also cause colony Collapse Disorder. These tiny parasites latch onto the bees causing poor nutrition and health. No matter the cause, Colony Collapse Disorder is detrimental to the pollination of crops and natural ecosystems. When large numbers of colonies leave an area, there is a noticeable change in the plant population. To help prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, use pesticide-free landscaping methods, encourage agriculture, and treat mites if you manage hives.
– Danielle Klein from Planet Bee
Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby, but it is not for the faint of heart. To get started, you’ll need to have a certain amount of knowledge, and you’ll also need to put in some effort and money to get your colony up and running. So before you jump into beekeeping with both feet, consider all the given advice on this guide.