Beekeeping for Beginners

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“The Modern-Day Pioneer” by Charlotte Denholtz shows you how to live a healthier and more sustainable life in the 21st century.
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It’s best to harvest your honey on a sunny, windless day, as bees are at their most calm then.

The Modern-Day Pioneer (Adams Media, 2012) by Charlotte Denholtz is a charming book that celebrates simple pleasures by showing readers how to incorporate basic skills and living into their everyday life. Whether you’re interested in growing your own fruits and vegetables, mending your own clothes, or crafting delicious meals from scratch, The Modern-Day Pioneer will be your guide every step of the way. Interested in keeping your own bees? This excerpt discusses beekeeping for beginners, covering the basics from the equipment you need to how to gather honey.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: The Modern-Day Pioneer.

The pioneers knew that bees produced more than honey—they helped the farming cycle renew each year. Bees are an essential part of agriculture, necessary for pollinating plants to ensure better fruits and bigger crops. In this section, you will learn the basics of beekeeping, but this is an intense process only for a very dedicated Modern-Day Pioneer. Before beginning this hobby, make sure you have a thorough understanding of the complexities of keeping bees.

Honeybees can be kept almost anywhere there are flowering plants that produce nectar and pollen. Choose a site for beehives that is discreet, sheltered from winds, and partially shaded. Avoid low spots in a yard where cold, damp air accumulates in winter.

Pioneer Tip!

Before you begin beekeeping, know that most states have very strict laws as to where and who can keep hives. You need to understand the laws of your state before you begin beekeeping.

The Beehive Location

The best beehive location is one where your best source of pollen and nectar is within two square miles of your hive; the closer the better. Because bees actually use pollen and nectar to produce their own energy, the farther they have to travel for it, the more they have to consume themselves. In contrast, if you can place them closer to their food source, you can collect more honey.

Position your hive so the entrance faces east. This way the early morning sun will alert them to the new day. Because flower nectar will often evaporate in the morning hours during the summer, the sooner bees are out of their hive foraging, the more honey they will produce. The best position for a hive is where it will also have afternoon shade, shielding the hive from the summer sun. Shade, rather than sunlight, will give the bees more time to concentrate their effort on making honey, because they won’t need to work on carrying water back and forth to cool the hive.

Basic Beekeeping Equipment

A manmade hive is built to imitate the space that bees leave between their honeycombs in nature. The dimensions are fairly standard and should be copied exactly if you decide to make you own beehives.

The following equipment is used within a hive:

Bottom board: a wooden stand that the hive rests upon. Bottom boards can be set on bricks, concrete blocks, cinder blocks, or any stable base to keep the hive off the ground.

Hive body or brood super: a large wooden box that holds eight to ten frames of comb. In this space, the bees rear their brood and store honey for their own use. Up to three brood supers can be used for a brood nest.

Queen excluder: a frame made with wire mesh placed between the brood super and the honey super.

Honey supers: shallow boxes with frames of comb hanging in it for bees to store surplus honey.

Frames and foundation: frames hang inside each super or box on a specially cut ledge, called a rabbet. Frames keep the combs organized inside your hive and allow you to easily and safely inspect your bees.

Inner cover and outer cover


Smoker: A smoker calms bees and reduces stinging. Pine straw, sawdust, chipped wood mulch, grass, and burlap make good smoker fuel.

Hive tool: used for prying apart supers and frames.

Bee suit or jacket, veil, gloves, ankle protection, and gauntlet: this is all protective personal gear worn when working with bees.

Feeders: hold sugar syrup that is fed to bees in early spring and in fall.

Beekeeping for Beginners: Purchasing Bees

Usually the best way to start keeping bees is to buy established colonies from a local beekeeper. Often a local beekeeper might even have a colony he or she wants to give away. It’s better to get two colonies at the beginning, because that allows you to interchange frames of both brood and honey if one colony becomes weaker than the other and needs a boost.

Have the beekeeper open the supers. The bees should be calm and numerous enough that they fill most of the spaces between combs.

Moving a hive is a two-person job. It’s easiest to move a hive during the winter when they are lighter and populations are low. The first thing you want to do is close the hive entrance. You can accomplish this with a piece of folded window screen. Then look for any other cracks and seal them with duct tape. Make sure the supers are fastened together and the bottom board is stapled to the last super. Remember to open hive entrances after the hives are relocated.

Pioneer Tip!

If you are buying the colonies, realize that the condition of the equipment usually reflects the care the bees have received. If you find the colonies housed in rotting hives, don’t purchase them.

You can also buy packaged bees and queens. Bees are commonly shipped in two- to five-pound packages of about 10,000 to 20,000 bees. Keep the packages cool and shaded when they arrive. To transfer bees to their new hive, set up a bottom board with one hive body and remove half of the frames. Spray the bees heavily with sugar syrup (one part sugar to one part water) through the screen on the package; the bees will gorge themselves with syrup and become sticky, making them easy to pour.

The next step is to move the queen, which will be in a separate cage. Pry off the package lid, remove the can of syrup provided for transit, find and remove the queen suspended in her cage, and reclose the package.

The queen cage has holes at both ends plugged with cork. Under the cork at one end you will see that it is filled with white “queen candy.” Remove the cork from this end and suspend the queen cage between two center frames in your hive. Workers bees will eventually eat through the candy and release the queen.

Shake the original package lightly to move all bees into a pile on the bottom. Take the lid off the package again and pour the bees into the hive on top of the queen. As they slowly spread throughout the hive, carefully return the frames to their original positions. Replace the inner and outer covers on the hive. You must now feed the bees sugar water until natural nectar starts to appear.

Beekeeping Throughout the Year

You want your bees to be at their maximum strength before the nectar flow begins. This way, the created honey is stored for harvest rather than used to build up their strength. Feeding and medicating your bees should be done in January through February. Because the queens will resume egg-laying in January, some colonies will need supplemental feedings of sugar syrup.

By mid-February, you should inspect your hives. You should be looking for population growth, the arrangement of the brood nest, and disease symptoms. If one of your colonies has less brood than average, you can strengthen it by transferring a frame of sealed brood from your other colony.

If you use two brood supers and find that most of the bees and brood are in the upper super, reverse the supers, placing the top one on the bottom. You want to do this because it relieves congestion. When a colony feels congested it swarms, looking for another place to live. If you only have one brood super, you will need to relieve congestion by providing additional honey supers above a queen excluder.

Annual requeening can be done in early spring or in the fall. Most feel that requeening is one of the best investments a beekeeper can make. Young queens not only lay eggs more prolifically, but they also secrete higher levels of pheromones, which stimulate the worker bees to forage.

In order to requeen a colony, you must find, kill, and discard the old queen. Then you need to allow the colony to remain queenless for 24 hours. After that period of time, you can introduce the new queen in her cage, allowing the workers to eat through the candy in order to release her.

By mid-April your colonies should be strong enough to collect surplus nectar. This is when you should add honey supers above the hive bodies. Add enough supers to accommodate both the incoming nectar and the large bee population. Adding supers stimulates foraging and limits late-season swarming.

During late summer and early autumn, the brood production and the honey production drops. At this point, you should crowd the bees by giving them only one or two honey supers. This forces bees to store honey in the brood nest to strengthen the hive. Colonies are usually overwintered in two hive bodies or in one hive body and at least one honey super. Be sure that if you overwinter in one hive body and a honey super, you remove the queen excluder so the queen can move up into the honey super during winter. If your colony is light on stores, feed them heavy syrup (two parts sugar to one part water). Bees should have between fifty to sixty pounds of stores going into winter. A hive with a full deep frame weighs six pounds and full shallow frame weighs three pounds. You can pick up the frame to estimate the weight of the hive and stores. Never allow stores to drop below twelve to eighteen pounds.

Beekeeping for Beginners: Gathering Honey

It’s best to harvest your honey on a sunny, windless day, since bees are calmest then. Remove the bees from the hive by blowing smoke into the hive opening. After a few minutes, pry the outer cover loose and lift it off. Blow more smoke through the hole in the inner cover. Now you can remove the inner cover. After the inner cover is removed, once again blow smoke into the hive to finally drive the bees downward and out of the way.

Remove the super and pry the frames loose with the hive tool. Be careful not to crush any bees. A crushed bee releases a scent that stimulates other bees to attack. Gently brush off any bees that are clinging to the frames. A comb that is ready to be harvested should be about 80 percent sealed over.

Uncap the combs in a bee-proof location, like a tightly screened room. Bees will want to take the honey, if they can get to it. Slice off the comb tops with a sharp knife warmed in hot water. A heavy kitchen knife is fine. It’s best to use two knives, cutting with one while the other is heating. Once the honey is extracted, return the emptied combs to the hive for the bees to clean and use again. With care, combs can be recycled for twenty years or more.

If you do keep bees, remember that you can use your honeycombs to obtain wax for your candlemaking.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Modern-Day Pioneer: Simple Living in the 21st Century by Charlotte Denholtz and published by Adams Media, an imprint of F+W Media, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Modern-Day Pioneer.

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