I've been asked by quite a few people recently how I got into beekeeping, or how to get into beekeeping. The question usually comes in a Facebook message or e-mail. So instead of typing a lot for an answer each time, I decided to make a blog post about it; then I can just refer people to this post. Be warned - it's a long post. But I think it's worth reading.
Like most things on this blog, these comments are my opinions. In beekeeping, there is very little which fits into the "hard-and-fast rule" category. That's what makes it interesting - you can try things, and if it works for you, keep doing it. But what works for you may not work for your buddy, and vice versa. Also, what works here in the Northeast doesn't necessarily work in the Southwest. There's a joke that if you ask 5 beekeepers a question, you'll get 10 answers. There is some truth to that statement! Other people have made information available similar to what you'll read here. Read and compare.
How To Get Into The Hobby
First of all, the type of beekeeping I am doing is considered hobbyist beekeeping. That's where you have a dozen hives or less, and have full time (paid) employment elsewhere that is your main (only) source of income. You may sell some honey on the side, but that's a bonus. The second type of beekeeping is called sideline beekeeping - someone who has a lot more hives (less than 100 or so), and uses beekeeping as a sideline income; a sideliner may have other employment as well, but devotes a considerable amount of time to the beekeeping work. The third type is the commercial beekeeper - those with hundreds of hives, and that work is their full-time employment. Commercial beekeepers usually focus on honey and maybe bees as their income from the activity. They may also do pollination services, where they truck their hives to other locations.
The stuff that a beekeeper does for each of the 3 types of beekeeping differs, as do the priorities for why they do what they do. A hobbyist may spend time building something that would not be cost effective to a sideliner (they would just buy it); commercial beekeepers have to justify every hour spent vs. income, so don't spend a much time in each hive as I do. If a hive is struggling and not productive, a commercial beekeeper would tear it down and spread the resources to other (productive) hives; a hobbyist will try to nurse it to full strength.
Beekeeping is a seasonal activity. It's not something you can easily jump into mid-season. The season generally starts around March (when the flowers start to bloom), and the major work ends around November, when the bees should be ready for the winter. There is considerable mental, emotional, and physical preparation needed to start keeping bees. It's often better to wait for the following season than try and rush things. Also, beekeeping takes time. I had a friend who really wants to be a beekeeper, but he feels he can't dedicate the time he thinks it'd take to do a good job. He doesn't want to fail at beekeeping just because he didn't spend enough time. Smart man.
You should start thinking about beekeeping early enough to have everything ready for March. In fact, if you are ordering a package of bees (common for new beekeepers - see below), you may be out of luck if you don't get your orders in before the end of the prior year. You also need to start getting together the beekeeping woodenware (and paint it, etc.) and your personal equipment (smoker, bee suit, etc.)
Beekeeping is an agricultural activity (something I forget about sometimes). Bees are like farm animals; they can get sick, get hurt, and act up on you. Just because you are doing everything right doesn't mean something won't happen which is not in your control. In fact, last October we had a hurricane storm and it knocked over a tree and took out my hives.
There's a joke that you can read all the beekeeping books in the world, but the bees don't read those books. But don't let me scare you off - it's not hard to be successful as a hobby beekeeper.
Join a Club
My number one advice is: join a beekeeping club. Join it even if you aren't sure if you want to be a beekeeper. You don't have to keep bees to belong to a club (in fact, most clubs will let you come for quite a while as a visitor to check things out).
Second behind that main piece of advice would be to attend a "Bee School." Most clubs put on a 6-8 week beekeeping training school starting in March or so to help beekeepers get ready for the season. The cost of a Bee School is usually reasonable (my club offers Bee School for $30, and that gets you your first year's membership dues in the club as well). Clubs aren't in the Bee School business to make money - they want to teach new beekeepers!
In my case, I started attending the Worcester County Beekeeper's Association in October before my first season keeping bees. This was before I decided to jump into it. The WCBA holds a bee school every year, but I didn't attend. There are a lot of current beekeepers who attend, as well as those newbees just starting out.
Next advice: read, read read! I checked out a bunch of beekeeping books from the library. I also read as much of the beekeeping information as I could on the web. Beekeepers as a whole are very gregarious and like to talk about beekeeping (myself included). So you'll find a lot of blogs by individual beekeepers and some by the beekeeping supply companies. I subscribe to over 220 beekeeping blogs - most of those aren't very active. But there are dozen's of messages each day. There are also beekeeping forums on the web - my favorite is BeeSource. There are some very famous (in beekeeping circles) people who will answer questions and otherwise comment on BeeSource.
Also, the bee clubs usually dedicate a lot of their monthly meetings to education. I learn a lot from the meetings I go to.
You have a few choices in regards to the wooden beekeeping equipment: 1) built it yourself; 2) buy it in parts; 3) buy it assembled. What you choose depends on how much money you want to spend (as compared to time building) and how good you are at woodworking. I bought my stuff from the start. Langstroth hives have very standard dimensions, and there are free plans available for building your own.
Wood is heavy, and if you buy the beekeeping woodenware from a beekeeping supply house, you need to watch out for shipping charges. That can add up fast! But most places will have a free shipping policy if you have a $100 order. A couple of good on-line places I've done well with are Brushy Mountain and Mann Lake. Dadant is another popular site. These are not the only ones, nor are they necessarily the best. There are also a lot of smaller places as well.
You can also find more local supply houses if you Google around. My first hive was from a local (well, 1 1/2 hours away) supply house.
Then you have to get the rest of the stuff you need - like a beekeeping suit and/or veil; gloves; hive tool; smoker; etc. etc. You can go nuts with all of the various accessories for beekeeping. I won't begin to suggest what you need - there are other pages which can do that. Or talk to another beekeeper face-to-face.
Don't You Need Bees?
Yes, you need bees. The standard way new beekeepers get bees is by buying a "package" of bees. Packages usually come from Georgia, which the weather is warmer earlier so the bees will be ready when flowers start blooming in the north. Generally there is a beekeeper or two who collects orders for packages, and then arranges to drive down and pick them up (sometimes hundreds of packages) in a truck.
Bees can also be sent in the US mail, but you end up paying a whole lot more for shipping and it's not worth it. Plus it's a lot harder on the bees when they are shipped through the mail.
You can also buy a nuc, or nucleus hive. A nuc is a mini hive, all ready to go. It usually costs more than a package (50% - 75% more in some cases), but you start out a little bit ahead of the curve. Because nucs need time to develop, they are available later (by a month or so) than packages. I started out with bees from a package, and the later with a nuc.
There's also the ability to get "free bees" via a swarm, but due to the unpredictable nature of swarms, it's usually not a good choice for first time beekeepers.
How Much Money?
Full hives usually cost around $250-$300 each, depending on if they are assembled, and painted, etc. A full hive consists of 2 deep brood chambers, and 2 honey supers; plus the top and bottom parts. A package of bees is around $100. The other equipment will cost around $200 one-time.
The only recurring expenses are for feed (sugar), medicine (if you decide to medicate), maybe replacement queens, and replacing old/damaged woodenware. I would guestimate arond $50 per year, depending on how much you want to expand. And you will want to :-)
I thought I was sinking a lot into my hobby, until I compared it to other hobbies like golf (clubs, green fees, etc.). Then it didn't seem so bad. Plus, you can save some money if you invest a little "sweat equity."
How Many Hives?
That may seem like a strange question, but it is meaningful. Consider this: if you have one hive, and are a new beekeeper, then you don't know if things are going well or not in your hive. You have nothing to compare your one hive to. If you have two hives, you can judge how one hive is doing compared to the other. Plus, if you have a problem with one hive (like you lose your queen bee), then you have another hive you can steal from. Besides, the amount of work to inspect / deal with 2 hives isn't much more than one.
I heard that advice, but ignored it. I started with one hive, but then realized I didn't know how things were going. So I arranged for a friend to make me a nuc, which arrived in August (which is very late). It took some work to get that hive built up strong enough to last through the winter, but it did. Now I generally keep 3 hives in my back yard, manage another 2 at a remote location, plus I usually run a few (3-4) nuc hives at the same time.
Don't I Need A Farm?
Believe it or not, it doesn't take a lot of space to keep beehives. The main thing you have to consider is the nuisance factor of your beehives. You don't want your beehives right on your property line with your neighbor; nor do you want them right against your house. Bees get very active in the summer, and it's a bummer not to be able to use your back deck because you have a beehive on it.
I live on a 1/4 acre residential lot, and I don't have any problems with my neighbors. In fact, I've gotten compliments from my neighbors on how nice their flowers are doing (thanks to the increased bee presence). One neighbor had a pool, and he told me he would fish a few bees out of his skimmer every once in a while, but wasn't bothered by them. My other neighbor is allergic to bees, but is very supportive of my hobby. I make sure to give them jars of honey on a regular basis to
Then there are local ordinances to consider. Until the last couple of years, it was illegal to keep beehives in New York. Other places have other restrictions relative to lot size, hive locations, hive quantities, or registration requirements.
Here in Massachusetts, as screwed up as things are with taxes and politics, it is surprisingly free of regulations with keeping bees. MA is an "agricultural friendly" state where they encourage agriculture, and bees are agriculture. The only thing you should do is get your hives inspected each year, which is free. In the WCBA, one of the active members (and leaders) is the Worcester County bee inspector. So if you go to the meetings, your name gets added to his list for inspections. It's great, because he has tons of experience keeping bees himself, and gives good advice.
What About Vacations?
As I mentioned, the bee season starts in March and goes through November. But there are definite busy periods. In the late spring / early summer, I plan on inspecting my hives about once a week. That's what it takes to keep on top of potential problems. Other times you can get away with an every other week inspection.
The amount of time for an inspection varies, depending on how the hive is going, and what you plan on doing. You can sometimes spend 10 minutes per hive to check for the big problems only; I usually spend about 20 minutes per hive so I can go through things frame by frame.
And then in the dead of winter there is nothing to do with the beehives; most beekeepers use the winter months to rest, and do projects (like building hives) to prepare for the following season.
There are some more advanced aspects of beekeeping, after you have a year or two of experience. These include: building more specialized beekeeping equipment; rearing your own queens; breeding for certain characteristics; making and selling nucs. But I'd wait until you have the basics under your belt before you jump in to the other activities.
Aside from the satisfaction of working with some of God's more fascinating creatures, you sometimes get honey - liquid gold! If you've never tried local honey, you're in for a treat. It's true: once you try local honey (especially your own), you'll never go back to the store-bought version again! You aren't guaranteed to get honey - especially the first year, when the bees spend their efforts building up.
Plus, you can start evangelizing for the beekeeping cause. All of my friends know that if they get me talking about bees, they should be prepared to listen for a while!
I've just scratched the surface of all of the intricacies of beekeeping. Refer to advice 1 - join a club. And read. Like I said, I am blessed to belong to one of (I think) the premier bee clubs in the country. It's been around 117 years now (it's the oldest county beekeeping organization in the country), and we have a wonderful executive board who brings in class act speakers and educators (some of those famous people mentioned above).
I'll update this blog post with anything new that comes to mind. Feel free to ask me questions. And if you get into the hobby, have fun - it'll be a wild ride!