Becoming a Beekeeper Part II: Hobbyist Beekeeping

At trade shows and special events, one of the biggest things the Bayer Bee Care Program hears is, “Oh! My neighbor just got some bees!” or, “I’ve always wanted my own hive. How do I get started?”.

Have you been following the rising trend of hobbyist beekeeping (raising bees as an enjoyable pastime, rather than for profit), and do you feel ready to take the first step? If your answer is yes, that’s fantastic! Chances are you’ve done your research and know that it takes time, money, skill, and the cooperation of those around you. Let’s say you have done a lot of reading about beekeeping, taken a course, have a location picked out for your hive(s). Now you need to survey the bee forage within a 1-3 mile radius to ensure there is plenty of diverse plants as nectar and pollen sources. Also, it is wise to check with immediate neighbors to make sure they do not have any known allergies to honey bee stings. You will also need to make sure your apiary complies with local rules and regulations. Finally, make sure you join a local beekeeping club to learn from others and to support the activities of your club. Now you are ready to start down the road of becoming a knowledgeable and responsible beekeeper. So, let’s begin!

In addition to these things to consider before diving in, we compiled the following tips and essentials on what supplies you will need, where to get them and how to ensure your first hive of honey bees is healthy and productive.

Beekeeper Managing His Hives


Purchase a Starter Kit

The exact components of each beekeeping starter kit can vary, as there are seemingly endless options available online. Whether you order a complete set or piece it together yourself, you’ll need a few essentials to properly house your bees and for keeping yourself and the bees safe.

Whether you prefer to purchase a starter kit or opt for a DIY beehive, here’s what your supply list should include for a standard Langstroth, or similar, hive:

  • Outer cover
  • Inner cover
  • Boxes (supers)
  • Frames with plastic or wax foundation
  • Bottom board
  • Hive stand
  • Feeder
  • Entrance reducer
  • Hive strap

Additionally, you’ll want to purchase a beekeeping suit, complete with gloves and a veil, as well as a bee smoker.


Getting a Colony of Honey Bees

It is critical that you purchase bees from a reputable source. Your best bet is to find an established organization with verified reviews. Be sure to ask your beekeeping club members for recommendations. Some club members may have bees for sale, but make sure they have been inspected and approved to sell bees. There are many parasites and diseases that bees are susceptible to, so you want to be sure you’re receiving a healthy colony.

When you do find a provider, there are two types of colonies you can purchase: packages and nucs. Some beekeepers recommend buying nucs, or nucleus colonies, while others prefer packages. As a beginner, you should be aware of the pros and cons of each. Packages are cages filled with worker bees, and one queen. These bees can be from one or more hives and are obtained by shaking bees from frames of comb into a funnel that is positioned over the cage opening. Often, they have not accepted their new queen yet and have not started to work together to produce honey. This option is typically more affordable. A nuc is typically created by splitting a strong colony, including the frames that they are on which have brood and food stores. Nucleus colonies, should have a new queen that has been accepted by the colony and is laying. If it has a queen that is older than one year, plan to replace her as soon as possible to avoid any sudden queen failures later in the season. For more information on the advantages and disadvantages of each type, check out Carolina Honeybees’ guide to buying bees.


Care for Your Bees

Even if your hive is placed in a location with diverse forage for miles around, you may still need to provide food the colony from time-to-time. Remember, as a beekeeper, you are responsible for ensuring your bees needs are met. That includes food, shelter, and safety. In these early days of establishing a nuc or package of honey bees (or during harsh winter months), you can feed the colony a sugar water mixture. Contrary to popular understanding, honey bees can starve even in summer, so always assess food stores when inspecting your hive. As a general rule of thumb throughout the active bee season, you’ll want to go into your hive every 7-10 days to determine if your colony is healthy. If your colony is not healthy, determine what the problem is and make a decision on how to fix the problem before the next weekly inspection. The Healthy Colony Checklist (HCC), developed by Dick Rogers, research manager for Bayer’s North American Bee Health program, is a helpful tool for improving colony health assessments. Learn more and download the most recent HCC form here. Remember, early detection saves hives. During inspections, it is also a good idea to do simple maintenance, such as removing burr comb and propolis from the frames and other hive components.

The parasitic bee mite, Varroa destructor, is the primary underlying cause of many colony losses, so make early detection and management of this pest your highest priority. Use sticky boards for monitoring mite drop. To learn about other ways to monitor Varroa and the best options for managing the mite, read the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s guide, Tools for Managing Varroa. Bayer also has an excellent booklet on Varroa which can be downloaded for free. However, it is important to remember that Varroa is not the only challenge to honey be colony health, so please learn to identify American foulbrood, European foulbrood, chalkbrood, sacbrood, small hive beetle, Nosema infection, and numerous other common disorders of honey bees.

Varroa Mites on a Bee
Adult bee carrying Varroa mites

Even though honey bees are not always aggressive, it is important to appreciate that worker honey bees are armed with stingers and will sting to defend the nest if provoked and under certain conditions. Therefore, please keep in mind these tips to avoid stings when entering your hive. Stings can be avoided, but getting stung occasionally is likely, so learn how to recognize the different possible reactions to stings and what to do in each case.

You’ve made an admirable commitment to take this journey, as bees are such an integral part of a healthy planet and secure food supply. As you continue to care for your bees, be sure to check out some of our bee health initiatives and see what else you can do in your community to support pollinators. For more information on bee-friendly flowers you can plant in your garden, go to FeedABee.com.