How to get started in beekeeping
Here's what you'll need:
1. A hive. A hive comes in different parts that stack together.
2. Some bees. You'll probably get a 'nuc', or small colony, that comes in a box like this:
3. Frames and foundation - for the bees to build combs on.
5. A smoker and a hive tool or two...
7. And maybe a feeder.
4. Some protective gear.
6. You might need some medications and related equipment...
8. And somewhere to keep your bees...
Readings recommended by our members:
Storey's Guide to Keeping Honey Bees, Malcolm Stanford and Richard Bonney. Storey publishing, 2010.
Homemade Living: Keeping Bees with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Tend Hives, Harvest Honey & More
The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro
The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum
Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad
The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush
A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell
Getting a Mentor
You can get started in beekeeping with a book in one hand and a hive tool in the other, but having some support and advice from an experienced beekeeper is a big help. In central and southern NB the best way to find a mentor is to attend one of the Central Beekeepers Association meetings, held monthly. These are informal gatherings with a focus on new and beginner beekeepers. With any luck you can get paired up with a beekeeper somewhere close to where you live. At the CBA meetings you can get answers to those questions that don't seem to be covered by any of the books. Best of all, the advice you will get will be based on local conditions, which is often the key to success.
Read up on beekeeping and make contact with other beekeepers. Find a mentor if you can. Hint: join the CBA!
Order your bees early in the year (before spring).
Talk to your beekeeping supplier and get your woodenware and other essentials before your bees arrive.
If you need to, prepare the location where your hives will be set up.
Install your bees when they arrive in early summer – if you have a helper, so much the better.
Enjoy your bees over summer and prepare for getting them through the coming winter.
In fall you will be into feeding and winterising and worrying about the well-being of your bees – congratulations - you are a beekeeper.
How much will all this cost?
Bees $185-200 for a nuc
Hive boxes (2 deeps, 2 mediums) $180
Frames and foundation $150
Hive tool $15
Protective gear $200
Medication and equipment $50-200
Total $865 - $1030
Costs are approximate as of January 2017.
Yes it looks like rather a lot, but remember that much of this is 'capital' expenditure for gear that should last for years.
Hive boxes, frames, and foundation
In North America the Langstroth hive is the most common design, and almost all hive boxes sold in the Maritimes are this type. The typical setup you will see in beekeeping books consists of two deep boxes for brood with varying numbers of honey 'supers' stacked on top. You will need at least one deep box per hive, as your nuc will come on deep frames. After that you can build up your hive with another deep box, or medium boxes. For honey supers you also have the option of shallows, which are smaller still. You also have the option of 10 frame or 8 frame boxes. 10 frame is standard, but the boxes can be heavy and inconvenient, especially deeps. 8 frame equipment is harder to find, but can be more manageable. If you are handy in the workshop you can make hive boxes to your own design, but remember the frames have to fit, allowing the necessary bee space all around.
Apart from the Langstroth there are other hive designs such as the top bar hive and Warre hive. Beginners are best to start with the Langstroth. After a while you may want to experiment with the other types.
Another decision when it comes to 'woodenware' as the hive boxes, frames and other bits and pieces are called, is whether to use a solid or screened bottom board. They both work. A screened bottom board offers the ability to monitor your colony's activity as well as to detect mites and some other diseases such as chalkbrood. Screened boards are a bit more expensive. Beekeepers differ on which type of bottom board they prefer, as they often do on all other aspects of beekeeping. Talk to as many as you can to help make your own decision.
Another common item is a queen excluder, used to restrict the queen to the brood area of the colony and prevent eggs being laid in honey supers. Some beekeepers do without them. Another topic to discuss with your helpful mentor!
The frames support the combs the bees will build for both brood rearing and honey storage. Frames come sized according to whatever boxes you have - deep, medium or shallow. Your supplier will help explain this if necessary. A standard box holds 10 frames. Wooden frames are popular, they are 'natural', and widely available. You can buy them ready made, or as component parts that you assemble yourself.
Again you have choices: beeswax or plastic. The price is similar, beeswax is maybe a little more expensive. You can also buy all-in-one plastic frames that have the foundation moulded right into them. These can save time, but are more expensive.
Place to set up your hive
Location is important, although bees are adaptable and will work with what you have. A good location for a hive is sunny and open to south and east, with protection from winter winds from north and west. It is also some distance away from the daily comings and goings of people and animals, and not at risk of flooding, or under trees with branches that are prone to falling off. Midday shade is not essential in the NB climate.
If you are in a municipal area you may need to check your local bylaws to see whether beekeeping is permitted. If there are bears about, you may need to invest in a heavy duty electric fencer.
The only choice here is large or small....experienced beekeepers often prefer large smokers as they stay alight longer. You can find all sorts of suitable free smoker fuel around the house or in the woods and along roadsides. Good fuel includes old cotton cloth (such as worn out jeans), burlap, cedar bark, spruce and pine needles and cones (dried), sumac seed heads, wood pellets, dried grass or hay, or a mixture.
A hive tool is essential for many tasks including opening up the hive and prising out frames. There are special beekeeping hive tools or the 'paint scraper' variety that can be found in the local hardware store. The “J” design tool can be handy for freeing up stuck frames. Buy a couple. Hive tools develop legs, wings and camouflage, and go missing at the drop of - well, a hive tool.
Unless you take almost no honey you will need to feed your bees at times. There are several types of feeders available. The best type are tray-style top feeders.
Protective gear: suit/jacket, veil, gloves
You need a veil of some kind but beyond that, what protective clothing you buy is a matter of personal preference. You can go for a full suit, or a jacket and veil, which just protects your upper body. Full suits may make you feel safer, but can be very hot in summer. Ventilated suits and jackets are worth considering. There are many design variations in suits, jackets and veils and it's best to go in person to try some of them out to decide which you like best.
For gloves, you can buy specialist beekeeping gloves, although some beekeepers use a variety of work type gloves found in the hardware store. Others like disposable vinyl gloves. When buying leather beekeeping gloves, go for a snug fit, otherwise you will not be able to feel what you are doing.
You can probably get by without one. Some types of brushes seem to annoy the bees. A large feather works well for clearing bees off a comb – old time beekeepers used a goose wing.
You can easily make a stand from 2 x 4 lumber or old pallets, just make sure whatever you make is strong. A full hive can weigh over 200 lbs.
This is a big topic and there is a separate section on this site where you can read more. You will almost certainly need some kind of system for varroa mite control. Beyond that, you may decide on routine preventative treatments for common bacterial conditions, or you may decide to treat as needed. This is a topic where your mentor and beekeeping supplier can help you decide your approach.
Beekeeping is great for people who like spending time in the workshop. There are many things you can make yourself, such as hive boxes, stands, feeders, tool boxes, or escape boards and other gizmos you have dreamt up yourself. For many items, detailed plans are available on line that make construction that much easier.
This site has a lot of useful information and plans for beekeeping equipment.
For an excellent introduction to beekeeping, take a look at this excellent series of instructional videos produced by the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre. Most are about 10-15 minutes in length. The whole series includes more than 30 videos, which cover a lot of basic and more advanced procedures and practices. Highly recommended!
And now the details....
You can't be a beekeeper without bees.
Beginners are best off buying nucleus colonies, or “nucs', which are miniature hives usually consisting of four deep frames covered with bees, a laying queen and some pollen and honey reserves.
An alternative is package bees – a few pounds of worker bees in a screened box, together with a queen supplied in a queen cage. Usually a bit cheaper, but harder to find in the Maritimes, and bees are likely to be more stressed during transit than in a nuc box. Also harder for a beginner to manage, as you have to manipulate both the bees and the queen when installing the package, which carries the risk of damaging the queen.
Beekeeping has its own language. If you see a term you don't understand, you can look it up in the beekeeping glossary.
This will take you to the excellent glossary built by Michael Bush.
A fully developed hive might seem best, but this is hard to come by, expensive, difficult to move, and harder to manage for a beginner. You will also miss the development of a colony which you can learn from day by day if you get a nuc.