I’ve really enjoyed my first summer keeping bees – Working with, observing, and learning about the bees has been very interesting and enjoyable. Before I started I read a lot about the subject, but inevitably experience teaches things that I didn’t pick up on during months of study.
You have to feed bees - And it is more expensive than you would think – ideally bees feed their selves, but if you are trying to increase the population of your apiary you will probably have to feed sometimes – BTW most hobby bee keepers feed their bees syrup made out of plain old granulated sugar. I haven’t kept up with it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve bought $50 (or more) worth of sugar to feed my 1 1/2 hives of bees this year.
Bees make honey of course, but they also eat honey. So if you harvest too much, or if it just isn’t a good year for honey production you might have to feed your bees – even after they are well established. But when you are first starting out and concentrating on growing more bees rather than producing honey it’s almost a sure thing that you will have to feed. Bee keepers have a saying – You can grow bees or you can grow honey, but not both. Don’t plan on producing a lot of honey for a year or two.
I started bee keeping by ordering a “package” of bees by U.S. Mail. Despite placing my order in January I didn’t get my bees until May 10 – a whole month into the TN honey gathering season. Also being my first year I didn’t have any drawn comb so my bees had only an empty box for a home and had to start out building wax comb instead of raising baby bees and gathering honey. If one could start with a “nuc” – a small, but complete hive – earlier in the season the hive would get a much better start, and you might not have to feed them much – if at all.
Getting stung is pretty rare – I’ve only been stung 2-3 times, and once was because I put my hand down on a bee. I know that it varies, but my Italian bees are very mild mannered so far. Something that I didn’t really know before is that even when you open a hive and take it apart to inspect – almost all of the bees just keep on going about their business. Unless you really get them upset they don’t all fly out and mob you – that never happened to me. Very few of them ever try to sting you, and they don’t search for a gap to crawl into your clothes to get at you. I did several full inspections while wearing regular clothes along with a veil and gloves – without getting stung. Some bees aren’t so mild mannered, but my commercially raised Italians are.
You don’t really need a lot of equipment – Like any hobby you could spend a lot of money on a bunch of paraphernalia that you don’t need, but there is really no need for most of it.
What you do need:
Veil – A veil keeps bees away from your head and neck, but a mosquito head net from a hunting supply store will work for less than $5.
Gloves – many experienced bee keepers don’t wear gloves, but your hands are the most likely place to get stung and you will be more confident if you wear gloves at first.
Bee hive – A home for your bees. But this does not have to be expensive. A simple top bar hive can be built very cheaply, and will work just fine.
A plan – there was a time when honey bees could be kept successfully with very little human intervention, but because of the globalization of parasites and diseases that is no longer the case. You need a plan for how you are going to deal with those issues – especially varroa mites. You don’t have to know before you start, but by the end of your first summer you will, or it is likely that you will lose your bees within a year or so. Read all you can.
What you don’t need:
Honey extraction equipment – processing a lot of honey probably won’t be a problem for at least a year or two, and lots of bee keepers do what is called “crush and strain” which doesn’t require anything that you don’t already probably have.
Bee suit – Long pants and long sleeves to tuck everything into will work fine – along with some gloves and some kind of veil. A roll of tape to secure cuffs and sleeves with will make you more confident, but won’t really be needed most of the time.
Hive tool – a putty knife, screwdriver or pocket knife will work. I still don’t have a hive tool.
Feeder – a quart jar works fine.
Frames and foundation – top bars with popsickle sticks will work great for your bees to build comb from.
Chemicals, supplements, medications – You might have to treat for varroa mites, but I personally don’t buy the philosophy that you should arbitrarily dose your bees with antibiotics and other chemicals whether they need it or not.
If you are starting out with a package of gentle commercially produced bees like I did you could totally do without almost all of the protective garb. A “real” bee suit will boost your confidence, but a $2.00 pair of work gloves, a $2.00 mosquito head net from any hunting supply store, a standard “hoodie” – sweat shirt, and long pants will work fine. You don’t have to have a smoker – It is nice for getting the bees to move out of the way, and you will want one sooner or later, but in my opinion you don’t really need it until long after you have installed your package. New packages are especially docile.
One hive isn’t enough – Starting with one hive is fine – two is probably better, but if you plan to keep bees from now on you will need more than one hive. Fortunately, your colonies can reproduce and turn one hive into many if you want to. The problem with keeping only one or two hives is that if you lose one or two hives (not unusual) you are out of bees, but as long as you have one healthy colony left you can use it’s offspring to repopulate a failed hive. So, multiple hives allow your operation to be more sustainable.
It is difficult to be “chemical free” your first year - Most commercially produced bees don’t have very much resistance to parasites and diseases, and it is likely that you will choose to treat them, however there are effective alternatives to expensive synthetic chemical treatments. There is also a lot of bad information about alternative treatments – so choose your plan of action carefully.
Honey bees don’t really care what kind of “house” they live in. If you are building your own hive – woodenware as bee keepers call it – there are good reasons to use a standard configuration, but the bees won’t care if you don’t. For centuries mud covered wicker skep hives like the ones in the top picture were used all over Europe. Skeps are against the law in most parts of the U.S. however, because they are difficult to inspect.
Online forums are a great source of information – However, anyone can contribute to the conversation even if they don’t know what they are talking about. I highly recommend that you check some of them out, but take everything with a grain of salt. BeeMaster.com is one of my favorites, but as with any forum be prepared to filter.