Do This in Winter If You Want to Start Keeping Bees This Spring

Hobby beekeeping has become extremely popular.  Lately honey bees have been getting more press than the Kardashians, and suddenly it is fashionable to keep bees.  Even mainstream stores like Tractor Supply now sell bees and beekeeping equipment.  (I know some of you may not consider Tractor Supply mainstream, but it is a much bigger retailer than the niche beekeeping supply stores.  If you think pole beans, country ham and cornbread make a great dinner, you will most likely agree that Tractor Supply is a mainstream retailer.)  Beekeeping can be daunting.  The initial set up expense to buy the basic equipment and bees will be at least $500.  Next you need to know what to do when a 3 lb package of bees arrives at your door step.   The best time to prepare to be a beekeeper is in the winter when you don’t have bees.  I have prepared a list for anyone thinking about starting beekeeping for the first time.  Do these things over the winter, and you will maximize your chances for a successful first year.

  1.  Check local zoning laws and HOA rules. –  Before you invest any money or time in your new hobby, make sure you have a place for your bees.  Some home owners’ association (HOA) rules may not allow them.  Most cities are accepting of beekeeping, but you need to check local ordinances in advance.  You don’t have to keep your hive in your yard.  Many beekeepers keep hives in other locations.  We keep most of our hives on my parents’ property because they have a better location.
  2. Decide if you have the time and money for this new hobby. – You might think that beekeeping is a cheap hobby that doesn’t require much time since you know that bees make homes in hollow trees and get by just fine on their own.  Perhaps this idea was formed by the images you saw of honey bees while watching Winnie the Pooh as a child.  Beekeeping is not outrageously expensive, but it does have costs.  (See my previous post, Can a Hobby Beekeeper Make a Profit.) This hobby also takes time. Life is very tough right now for honey bees due to varroa mites, small hive beetles, loss of habitat, and unpredictable weather patterns.  To keep your bees alive, you will need to learn about pest management.  You will need to feed your new bees, and bees can eat a lot of syrup.  Weekly checks are best for the first year, and those checks need to be done on days when the weather conditions are good.  Do you have the time to do this?  Do you have the extra income to spend on things like mite treatments?  If you don’t, then don’t buy bees.  My feeling is that the bees are living creatures, and you have an obligation to do your best to try to keep them alive.  If you don’t want to commit to beekeeping, plant a pollinator habitat around your house.  You will get to watch the bees without having the responsibility of keeping them alive.  For ideas, you can check out my previous posts on bee hotels and monarch butterfly waystations.)
  3. Enroll in a local beekeeping school. – Most beekeeping groups will host beekeeping 101 schools in January and February.  These are usually low cost.  Our club hosts one for free every February.  This is a great way to learn and to connect with local beekeepers that may serve as mentors.
  4. Start educating yourself. –  Read books. Watch YouTube videos. Talk to people.  Just make sure you are getting your information from quality sources.  Anyone can make YouTube videos.  There are excellent educational videos on YouTube, but there are also some ill informed ones.  (Barnyard Bees is one of our favorite YouTube channels.)
  5. Order your bees in winter. – If you wait until March or April to order your bees, you may not get them.  Bees aren’t like widgets that get pumped out of a factory.  Suppliers can’t rapidly produce more when orders spike.  We started with Italian bees and have been happy with them.  You may want a different variety based upon your local climate.  Check with local beekeepers to see what they suggest.
  6. Order your equipment. – Some people buy hives that are already assembled and painted.  Others buy hives that come in kits and require assembly and painting.  Make sure you allow time for receiving, assembling, and painting.  You can’t put new bees in hives that are still wet with paint.
  7. Make a plan. – Know what you are going to do the day your bees arrive.  Have a plan for installing them and caring for them in the early weeks.
  8. Find a buddy. – Beekeeping is a fun hobby to do with other people.  Find a friend or relative that may want to do this with you.  Many people keep bees as a family.  We have several parent/sibling groups that attend our local bee club meetings.  One dad told me that his young daughter is better at finding the queen than he is.  Having someone to share your hobby can make beekeeping more rewarding.

What would you add to the list?  Feel free to drop suggestions into the comments.

Doug installing nuc

Doug installing nucs into our new hives.  This was the day we officially became beekeepers.

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