The Ultimate Guide To How To Become A Beekeeper

how to become a beekeeper - Honest Beekeeper

Do you want to get started in beekeeping but you don’t know where to start?

Well, look no further because you found the ultimate guide to beekeeping!

This guide is designed to teach prospective beekeepers on the entire process of beekeeping – from learning about bees to harvesting honey. When you’re done with this article, you’ll understand how to become a beekeeper, no matter where you live.

What is Beekeeping?

Apiculture, also known as beekeeping, is the practice of caring for bees as well as manufacturing honey and beeswax. Beekeeping and honey collection have been around since ancient times. Not only has the process of beekeeping changed quite a bit compared to a few centuries ago, the motivations to care for hives have changed as well. There are many reasons why beekeeping is, not only an enjoyable hobby, but a necessary movement to save the honeybee population and our planet.

Some of the awesome things to consider about beekeeping is:

  • It’s inclusive– Beekeeping is welcoming to all ages. Anyone can start beekeeping, even if they have limited space.
  • It saves the bees– It’s no secret that there was been a significant decline in the bee population in recent years. Beekeeping promotes an environment for bees to thrive and multiply.
  • It’s rewarding– The main reason why people keep bees is for, you guessed it: HONEY! Raw honey and beeswax can be hot commodities that can be used for food, making candles, lip treatments- the list goes on!
  • It’s relaxing– Studies have shown that having a hobby can have positive effects on mental health.

What are the challenges of beekeeping?

Before you start, it’s important to recognize some of the common challenges that new beekeepers have to consider:

  • Concerned Neighbors– Unfortunately, many people are afraid of bees due to common misconceptions. There continues to be a debate in the beekeeping community on whether or not it is appropriate to inform neighbors of your hobby. Beekeeping should never be a secret, however that does not mean you have to inform your neighbors immediately. Some beekeepers suggest waiting until your hive is thriving before informing neighbors- and maybe sweetening with an occasional delivery of a jar of honey.
  • Legal Restrictions– Always check for local restrictions on beekeeping before you begin. Luckily, these restrictions are not as common in many areas, but always do your due diligence before making the commitment.
  • Unpredictable Bee Behavior– The great thing about bees is that they can be unpredictable; the bad thing about bees is that… they can be unpredictable. Bees are independent creatures that do wonderful things for our planet. However, their unpredictable behavior can be a concern in close quarters. Bees are resourceful and can find what they need even if it’s inconvenient to humans. Also, sometimes bees can swarm and that can impact not only the beekeeper, but the neighborhood as well. However, there are strategies to greatly reduce the chances of bees swarming

These are just a few considerations beekeepers to note. Many times, these issues can be addressed. For any unique challenges in your area, contact a local beekeeping group and learn how others are addressing them.

What is Urban Beekeeping?

Urban beekeeping is the practice of caring for bees in an urban environment without access to a large, open space.

Many people believe you need a lot of space to keep bees. When many people picture the idea of beekeeping, they imagine a rural environment with lots of land and nature. There are wild flowers growing by a flowy river and many trees shielding the bees from predators while they venture out to look for pollen. It’s a beautiful picture, but not the only way to care for bees. In fact, beekeepers can live anywhere- including big cities!

What are the challenges of Urban Beekeeping?

Urban beekeeping can present unique challenges, but the good news is that there are easy solutions to get any urban resident started with beekeeping. These challenges include:

Location– Although beekeeping traditionally takes place in a rural environment, the truth is that many people live in urban areas. Does that mean people with a small yard (or no yard at all) can’t keep bees? Of course not! Whether it’s a 100-acre plot of land or a studio in New York City, everyone can keep bees. If someone wants to begin beekeeping in the city, there are a few location options to consider:

  • Rooftops– A common location for beehives in the city is on rooftops. There are even restaurants and hotels that store rows of hives on their roofs and use the honey for their businesses! Apartment dwellers can speak to their landlord and see if access to the roof is an option. This case-by-case scenario can provide a convenient solution.
  • Community Garden– Talk to your local community garden about beekeeping. This is a win-win situation for everyone! The bees now have a buffet of food choices conveniently and gardeners will rejoice at the increased pollination in their flower beds.  
  • Someone Else’s Land– Network with your local beekeeping clubs and see what other options there are. One creative solution can be to partner with someone who has the space for a beehive. There are many people who love the benefits of bees, but they do not have the means to actively take care of them. In this compromise, you will supply and install the beehive and take care of the bees in exchange for using their land. The host will see the benefits (saving the bees, increased pollination, an occasional jar of honey, etc.).

Lack of Food– There is a misconception that urban neighborhoods do not have enough flowers to feed a colony of bees. This is a myth! Bees travel more than 5 miles to search for nectar and pollen. These resourceful creatures can find food even when there aren’t rolling hills of flowers close by. Beekeepers can also take active approach and help bees by strategically planning flowers close by the hive.

When is the best time of the year to start a beehive?

For a new beekeeper, springtime is an ideal time to start a beehive. Plan to set up your hive as soon as the weather warms up and flowers are in bloom. However, orders and preparation should begin months before. Your package of bees will be delivered in early spring, however you need to order your bees well in advance. Demand for bees are high nowadays (which is great!), but that also means it can be difficult to secure a source of bees if you haven’t done so by January or February. Be sure to check out your local beekeeper clubs to learn what time frame works best in your region.

Beekeeping is a fun and rewarding hobby that can benefit you, your neighborhood, and the honeybee population. Besides enjoying fresh honey, your garden will thrive through pollination. It can take time to prepare a new bee hive, but once established, it’s simple to maintain. Beekeepers are eager to perform regular inspections and see how their bees thrive.

Here are the steps to get started on your own hive!

Step 1: Learn All About Bees

Honeybee Social Castes

Honeybees live in a complex society. Typically, a colony of honeybees may contain as many as 100,000 members. Honeybees are very social creatures and have three distinct social castes: the Queen, the Workers, and the Drones.

The Queen- Each hive has one queen bee that is the only bee to lay eggs and grow the population of the colony. The queen spends most of her time in the hive, but she will leave for 2 situations: as a virgin queen looking to mate and/or to lead a swarm. After the age of 16 days, a virgin queen will begin her mating flight. On the mating flight, the queen will mate with multiple males (drones) and return to the hive to lay eggs for most of her life. The queen will reproduce for up to 5 to 6 years.   

The queen will lay all of the eggs for the colony and also decides whether the eggs will be drones (unfertilized eggs) or workers (fertilized eggs).

Workers- Work bees are female bees that do not reproduce. The workers are responsible for keeping the hive functional and safe. The worker bee has various roles throughout her lifetime, depending on her age. Responsibilities include: disposing the bodies of any dead bees, feeding babies, tending to the queen by grooming and feeding her, bringing pollen into the honeycomb, sealing honey, building the honeycomb, cooling down the hive by fanning their wings, carrying water to the fanning bees to help them cool down the hive, guarding the hive’s entrance, and gathering food for the hive. 

Drones- Drones are the male bees in the colony. The primary role of the drone is the mate with virgin queens from other colonies. Once a drone mates with a queen and releases his semen, the force is so strong that his endophallus is ripped from his abdomen and he dies shortly. Unsuccessful drones must return to the hive where they eat honey and pollen. However, once a colony decides to swarm, drones are typically kicked out of the hive. 

How Bees Make Honey

It’s important to understand how bees make honey and why they do it. A colony’s main priority is long-term survival. While food is plenty in the warmer months, bees must plan in order to survive the winter. During the winter, bees do not have the energy to leave the hive and search for food. The bees will cluster together to protect the queen and will only move short distances (less than a few inches) to feed. All the bees have a significant role in creating and storing honey that will ultimately sustain the colony for a long period of time.

For more information on how bees make honey, see our post:  Step-by-Step Guide on How Bees Make Honey.

On top of making their own food, honeybees are a vital part of the pollination system and contributes to 90% of the seeding of flowering plants and 30% of the fruiting plants for our food. Bees bring back nectar and pollen to the hive. Bees make a significant impact to our planet. The earth relies on the pollination efforts of honeybees for their food.

Step 2: Select a Hive

The most important purchase you’ll make as a beekeeper is the beehive. A beehive is the living structure for a colony of bees. Manufactured beehives are designed to mimic a natural beehive in the wild.  

What is a Hive Stand? Do I need a Hive Stand?

You need to keep you hive off the ground to protect the bees. With any purchase of a hive, ensure it is accompanied with a proper hive stand. Hive stands are also easy to build and can be inexpensive. Many beekeepers will build their own stand using 2x4s or cinder blocks. The proper height for a beehive is about 18 inches. If the hive is too high, the beekeeper risks personal injury from lifting heaving components.

Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth hive is the most commonly used design by beginner beekeepers. This hive consists of stacked boxes with removable frames. The Langstroth hive offers beekeepers flexibility in height, depth, and the number of boxes. This universal design has been used for decades because it maximizes honey production. When considering the Langstroth hive, remember that this design causes more disturbance to the bees when you are inspecting the colony. Also, the larger frame is heavy and can weigh up to 80 pounds.    

Langstroth Hive
Langstroth Hive - Photo Courtesy of BeeBuilt.com

Top-Bar Hive

Top Bar Hive
Top-Bar Hive - Photo Courtesy of BeeBuilt.com

The top-bar hive is the oldest hive design and is becoming increasingly popular with novice beekeepers. This design has no frames, but rather bars across a hive cavity. Many beekeepers love this design because there is no heavy lifting required. With this design, bees experience less stress when beekeepers are working in the hive.  This hive design is also economical because beekeepers do not need to purchase a honey extractor to harvest the honey. Harvesting with a top-bar hive is a simple process of lifting out the bars when the time is appropriate. This is a budget-friendly hive design that is inclusive for the elderly or people with disabilities.     

Warré Hive

A Warré hive is a vertical top-bar hive that uses bars instead of frames. This design is best suited for those looking for a low-cost, low maintenance hive design. There is no foundation which gives the bees a more natural environment. A prominent feature of this design is that minimal inspection is required by the beekeeper. The bars cannot be moved for inspection and the cavity is efficiently planned to allow bees to stay warm and close to a food course in the winter. The Warré hive is popular among those who want to approach beekeeping in a natural way. Before considering the Warré hive, check with your local regulations. This design is illegal in some states that require movable comb hives.      

Warre Hive
Warré Hive - Photo Courtesy of BeeBuilt.com

Should I purchase a used beehive?

It is not recommended to purchase a used beehive. Unless you know the history of the equipment, you are putting your colony in risk from the start. Used equipment can carry diseases or can contain chemical build-up that can negatively impact your bees.

Control Flight Pattern

Install shrubs or a fence to prevent bees from flying in convenient places. This will ensure that bees don’t naturally fly into a neighbor’s patio or pool area- which can cause a disturbance. This also created a barrier to strong wind.

Step 3: Gather Your Supplies

Now that you’ve chosen your hive, it’s time to order all of your supplies! A novice beekeeper should always start small and grow their supplies over time. When considering which products to purchase, keep in mind that these tools are an investment for your beekeeping endeavors. Look for high-quality, durable supplies that will last you for many years.

To learn how to research tools and see lists of the best products for beekeeping, check out our Equipment Buying Guides.

There is an overwhelming market for beekeeping supplies and it can be daunting to a new beekeeper. If you’re new, here is a list of the recommended supplies to start with:

One of the most important investments a new beekeeping can make is protective gear. Protective gear allows you to work closely on the hive with minimum risk of bee stings. There is no right or wrong gear for beekeepers. When choosing the appropriate piece, consider your comfort with bees. Many beginners are still uncomfortable or distracted around bees. And since bees are intuitive creatures that can sense fear, this can cause them a lot of stress. The proper gear can ensure that you feel confident and safe while performing your hive inspections. There are a few different kinds of protection gear to consider:

Protective Gear

One of the most important investments a new beekeeping can make is protective gear. Protective gear allows you to work closely on the hive with minimum risk of bee stings. There is no right or wrong gear for beekeepers. When choosing the appropriate piece, consider your comfort with bees. Many beginners are still uncomfortable or distracted around bees. And since bees are intuitive creatures that can sense fear, this can cause them a lot of stress. The proper gear can ensure that you feel confident and safe while performing your hive inspections. There are a few different kinds of protection gear to consider:

  • Beekeeping suit– The full beekeeping suit is an essential item for beekeeping. Many beekeepers purchase a suit first. The beekeeping suit is a popular choice for novice beekeepers because they are protected from head to toe from any bee stings. The suit provides a level of assurance that allows them to work closely with bees. Beekeeping suits are made of different types of fabrics that can affect durability, protection, and ventilation. Check out our list of the 10 best beekeeping suits for any beekeeper!
  • Ventilated Jacket– A ventilated jacket with an attached veil is a standard choice for typical beekeeping work. This is an alternative to the beekeeping suit, but it does not offer protection for the lower half of the body.
  • Hat and Veil Combo– The hat and veil combo protects you from bees becoming entangled in your hair. The hat and veil combo is popular to use in the hot summer months, typically when the beekeeper is doing minimum work. 
  • Gloves– Gloves are an excellent safeguard for beginner beekeepers. Gloves are made of soft, flexible leather to protect against stings.   

Smoker

A smoker is a cylinder-shaped tool where you build a fire inside using pine needs, wood, or commercially prepared smoker fuel. The goal is to produce smoke that will come out of the nozzle and into the beehive. When the smoke enters the hive, the bees begin to feel calm and drowsy- giving beekeepers time to work on the hive with minimal interference. Smoke also interferes with the chemical communication that occurs within the hive so alert signals are not communicated.    

The smoker is an invaluable tool that calms down irritable bees. For bees, the smoker resembles a forest flower and prompts them to prepare for a potential move. Smoke also masks the internal communication in the hive and minimizes the defense reactions of the colony. A smoker will calm bees before you perform hive inspections or collect frames to harvest honey. 

A smoker is a necessity for any beekeepers with aggressive bees. Because the smoke makes honeybees believe there may be a wildfire nearby, they are prompted to eat as much honey as they can in preparation for a potential move. Honeybees are most docile with a full stomach due to physical difficulty in tipping their abdomens up to sting.

Honey Extractor

A honey extractor is a device used to extract honey from wax combs without damaging them. There are many different sizes and variations of the honey extractor. Some are manual while others are electric. When choosing an extractor, consider the number of hives you have and how often you plan to harvest honey. The advantage of the honey extractor is that it leaves the wax and combs undamaged so bees are able to use them again.

Check out our list and reviews for the best honey extractors for beginners.

Bee Brush

A bee brush is a simple device used to gently move bees off of combs or any other inconvenient places. This is an essential tool for honey harvesting and hive maintenance. Bees do not like the brush and will begin to sting so it is advised to use the bee brush sparingly.

Hive Tool

The hive tool is crowbar-like tool that is used to pry open the boxes in your beehive that often are stick together with beeswax. It also allows you to detach combs from the sides of the hive. 

Uncapping scratcher

The uncapping scratcher will help you uncap your comb to release honey.

Step 4: Purchase Your Bees

Now that you’ve purchased the home for your bees and ordered all of your equipment, the next step is to purchase the bees that you will be caring for. There are many different races of bees, but there are usually three kinds of bees that are the best choice for the novice beekeeper. You will have many choices of bee races- there are even hybrids. There are a several different considerations when choosing the appropriate bee stock for your hive: production, geography, temperament, disease, honey quality, reproduction rates, swarm rates, and winter resilience to name a few. Every beekeeper will have a different set of criteria. When in doubt, reach out to your local beekeeping club to get recommendations for your region.  

Recommended Bee Races for New Beekeepers

Italian bees are the most popular bees to order in North America. They are known to be gentle as well as good honey producers. Italian bees have some difficulty in colder climates so they thrive in the southern region of the country with less harsh winters. Worker bees are a light color with alternating abdomen stripes, the queen is darker.

Italian bees have a tendency to swarm. Also, they lack the level of direction compared to other bee races and may drift from one colony to another. As a result, they can contribute to the spread of disease between hives, if not properly cared for.  

Russian bees are a dark brown to black bee with a yellow abdomen. This race of bees developed a natural tolerance for Varroa and Tracheal mites. Due to this, they were brought to the US to breed mite tolerance into the US honeybee population Russian bees are gentle and highly accustomed to cold climate.

It should be noted that Russian bees need extra space as they can be erratic and are prone to swarms.

Carniolan bees are dark, brown-spotted bees that are smaller compared to other races of bees. They are a gentle race that are easy to work with- a perfect combination for the novice beekeeper. The Carniolan is ranked one of the best bee races to survive harsh winters. They also are less prone to diseases and parasites.

How to Buy Bees

At this point, you’re probably wondering where one goes to buy bees and how do you bring them to their new hive. When beekeepers are ready to populate a hive, they will purchase a package of bees. You can order a package of bees through local beekeepers’ clubs who should have access to local suppliers. It’s best to purchase bees locally so you can pick up the bees directly versus shipping them. Not only are shipping costs high, but the travel can put the bees in danger. It’s important to preorder as early as the fall because quality bees are high in demand. They are only available for a short time in the spring. Buy your bees from a reputable beekeeper to avoid getting sick bees.

For more information on bringing bees home, see our post about how to transport bees in your car.

A Nuc (short for “nucleus”) is a young hive with a newly laying queen. Packaged bees arrive with a queen caged separately. This is the best way to start building a colony as a new beekeeper. Sometimes, new beekeepers want to capture a swarm or begin with a well-established colony, however it is advised to start small and work your way up.     

Installing a Package of Bee

There are many ways to install packages of bees. Packages are boxes built to ship bees safely and securely. Most packages range from two to five pounds or 6,000 to 25,000 bees.

Packages of bees are typically made with a wood frame on the top and bottom with wire screen sides. The wooden lid holds a tin can feeder filled with sugar water for the bees to eat while in transit. Within the package, you will also a find a wood or plastic queen cage. This holds the queen safely separated from the workers while they get accustomed to her scent.

When the bees first arrive, mist them with sugar water while they are in the package. This will calm them down as you prepare to move them to the hive. Be sure not to over-wet the bees.

After you’ve assembled your hive and removed the cover, pull out a few frames from the middle to create a space for the bees. Remove the lid from the package using your hive tool and remove the tin can used to feed the bees during shipment.

Gently separate the queen cage and set it off to the side. Turn the package upside down and gently shake it to help the bees fall into the hive. If you can’t get every bee out of the package, place the open package near the front of the hive to encourage the remaining bees to enter.

Next, install the queen. It’s typically advised to keep the queen in her cage for the first few days so the workers have time to become accustomed to her pheromones. There are a couple ways to do this. Sometimes, a queen cage will have a candy plug that keeps the queen in her cage. The worker bees will eat through the candy and release her. No further action required from the beekeeper. Other queen cages have a cork with no candy. In this case, leave the queen in the cage and place her in the hive. In a few days, return to the hive and gently remove the cork. Some beekeepers will remove the inedible cork and replace it with a mini marshmallow. The worker bees will eat through the marshmallow and release the queen.    

Finally, replace the frames that you previously removed and put on the hive cover.

It is very important that the hive is not checked or disturbed for a minimum of seven (7) days. Interfering with the hive before this time has lapsed may result in rejection of the queen and, ultimately, her death. After a week, check to see if the queen has been released (otherwise, release her at this time). And you’re done! Your bees are getting settled into the hive that you created and now it’s time to step away and let them do their thing.

Step 5: Inspect and Care for the Hive

Bees are sensitive creatures that require some maintenance once they are established in their new hive. It’s imperative that beekeepers check on their bees periodically to ensure that they are doing well. 

It’s your responsibility to keep your bees healthy. It’s important to consider your climate, the season, and local diseases and parasites. Sometimes, if flowers are late to bloom, you may need to feed your bees.

In the beginning of the year, beekeepers must check on their bees to ensure they are strong and have enough food. If a colony becomes too weak, a beekeeper may opt to combine it with another colony. Likewise, if a colony is very strong, a beekeeper may consider splitting the hive and creating two colonies. This is the time to replace queen bees, if necessary.  In the early spring, beekeepers must continually check on the bees and ensure there is enough room to expand the colony. If the bees outgrow their physical space, they are more prone to swarm.

Swarming is when over half of a bee colony leaves the hive to start another colony. When this happens, the beekeeper will lose the year’s honey crop.

To learn more about why bees swarm and how to spot the signs of a swarming before it happens, check out our post called Bee Swarms: What is a Swarm, What are the Signs, and How to Prevent Swarms.

Feeding Bees

New colonies work hard to store pollen and nectar while adjusting to their new hive. To make their adjustment easier, beekeepers will feed them a sugar water mix. Typically, this means dissolving equal parts of granulated sugar and water and placing it in the feeders of the hive.

You can observe the hive and see how often they are drinking the sugar mix. If you find that they are no longer drinking the mix, there is no need to continue to feed them. The bees are able to find their own sources of pollen and nectar. 

Inspect the Hive

Beekeepers must inspect the hives throughout the year. In fact, much of beekeeping is simply observation and troubleshooting when necessary. As a novice beekeeper, plan to inspect the hive once a week for the first few months so you can learn the behavior of your new colony. Once you are comfortable, cut back and check on the hive every two weeks.

When you are inspecting the hive, you want to ensure that the outside of the hive is clean. This may involve cleaning bee poop, ensuring the landing boards are clear, and ensuring there are no ants on the hive. Next, open the hive and check the frames for larvae and eggs. If the queen is healthy, you should see larvae in different stages. Speak to your local beekeeping club if there is evidence that your queen may be sick.   

Ultimately, your goal is to inspect the hive less and less. Fewer interference yields better health for the colony. Too much hive inspection can lead to stressed bees that can take days to recover.

Pest Control

As a beekeeper, expect to be busy in the spring and summer. During this time, you will need to check the inside of the hives weekly to look for potential health problems like varroa mite. Varroa mites suck bees’ blood and makes them prone to infection. If these mites are left unnoticed, they can eventually kill an entire colony. Early intervention can often mean the difference between a growing and dying hive. Other pests to keep an eye out for are ants- who can kill a hive by taking the honey and eating the brood. Also, small hive beetles will eat all parts of the hive, including the baby bees.

Step 6: Harvest Honey

Phew! It’s been a long road to get here, but now it is time to reap the rewards of your hard work. If you’re lucky enough to have enough honey to harvest in your first summer, read on! Typically, during the first year the bees build up their hive, and if they overwinter well, harvesting can begin in the late spring or early summer of the second year. After that, harvesting typically occurs in the fall although you can take out honey anytime of the year.

One easy way to gather honey is to take out honeycombs and make cut combs. Many people enjoy to eat the honeycomb raw. An extractor will separate the honey from the wax and create raw, smooth honey.

There are many ways to harvest honey. For more information on how to extract honey, check out our posts:

How much honey can you expect to get every year?

There are many factors that will determine how much honey your bees can produce in one year. Depending on your area, the weather, and the condition of the bees, one hive can produce 100-200 pounds of honey a year. However, the national average is closer to 50 pounds per year. For this reason, many beekeepers start with two hives- which provides beekeepers more than enough honey to use and sell.  

Get started now

Now that you have a good understanding of what beekeeping is and what you can expect in your first year, it’s time to take action.

Venture over to our blog to learn even more about beekeeping and be sure to check out our equipment buying guide so you are equipped with the very best products for your beekeeping endeavors.

Happy Beekeeping!