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Advice for Beginner Beekeepers
Since your personal philosophy of life will drive your philosophy of beekeeping and since that will drive your choices in beekeeping, As a beginner beekeeper, you really need to decide where you stand. Read this for more info.
One of the most important things to do is sort out the important decisions from the less important decisions.
If you pay attention to the rest of this you'll see that hardly anything I WOULD buy is in a beginner beekeeper starter kit.
I would like to point out that there are many things in beekeeping you can easily change as you go along. There is no point stressing out over these things. There are other things in beekeeping that are an investment and are difficult to change later.
Easy Things to Change in Beekeeping:
You can always go to a top entrance. You only have to block the bottom one (with a 3/4" by 3/4" by 14 3/4" entrance block on a ten frame standard bottom board) and propping up the top. It's not like everything you have is outdated if you decide that you want a top entrance.
You can always choose to put in or leave out a queen excluder. Odds are, sooner or later, you'll need one for something. They are handy for the bottom of an uncapping tank. Or as an includer when hiving a swarm etc. It's not that big of an investment to have one (or not). Nor is it that big of a problem to buy one later if you don't have one.
You can change the race of bees VERY easily. You'll probably requeen once in a while even if you AREN'T trying to change races, and all you have to do is buy a queen of whatever race you want and requeen. So it's not that critical what breed you pick. I doubt you'll be disappointed with an Italian or a Carni or a Caucasian. And if you decide you want something else, it's not hard to change.
Difficult Things to Change in Beekeeping:
The bigger issues are things that are an investment you have to live with or you have to go to a lot of trouble to modify or undo.
If you think you want small cell (or natural sized cell) you're one step ahead to use it from the start. Otherwise you'll have to either gradually phase out all the large cell comb or do a shakedown and do it all at once. If you invested money in plastic foundation, this is disappointing (I have hundreds of sheets in my basement of large cell foundation I'll never use). But at least you won't have to cut down all your equipment.
If you buy a "typical" starter kit you'll get ten frame deeps for brood and shallows for honey. The ten frame deeps full of honey weigh 90 pounds. Some will argue that when they have brood in them they weigh less than that. That's true. But sooner or later you'll have one full of honey and you may not be able to lift it. If you go with all mediums you'll have to be able to lift 60 pound supers full of honey. If you go with eight frame mediums you'll only have to lift 48 pounds boxes. I started off with the deep/shallow arrangement and had to cut down every box and frame to mediums. Then I cut all the ten frame boxes down to eight frames. It sure would have been easier to just buy eight frame mediums from the start. Interchangeability is also a wonderful thing.
Screened bottom boards are easy to just buy. It's harder to convert the old ones.
If you buy a lot of ANYTHING, you may decide you hate it later. Make changes slowly. Test things before you invest a lot in them. Just because one person likes it, doesn't mean you will like it.
Recommended Beginning Beekeeping Sequence.
I've thought about this and I'm sure a lot of people will disagree but I'm going to give my advice on how I would start beekeeping if I were a beginner doing it over again. This is what I wish I had done the first time.
First you have to decide how to get some bees. It's very difficult to get them from a tree or a neighbor's house when you really don't know anything about them. This is really an advanced undertaking. That said, I admit that is exactly what I did. I took them out of houses and trees and bought some queens. But I really didn't do so well at it and I got stung a lot. So all in all I don't think it was that good for the bees, although it was educational for me.
If you have local beekeepers you may be able to get a nuc or some frames of brood etc. The downside to this is they are probably on Deep frames (9 ¼" frames that go in a 9 5/8" box). I'm not going to recommend deeps.
You can order package bees. I used to get them through the mail, but lately that has gotten more and more expensive. Most locations you can find a bee supply place that brings in a truck load of package bees in the spring. If you find a local bee club or association they will probably be able to advise you on this. Two packages would be a good start.
Assuming you are going to buy a package of bees, the next decision is what race. I hate to not have an opinion, but I really haven't seen a race of honeybees I didn't like. Well, I did have some really mean ones once, but they were the same breed I had been raising for decades. I will recommend you get something that is not a hybrid and can be open bred by you with good results. Caucasian, Italian, Cordovan (Italian), Russian and Carniolans are all fine. Take your pick.
Protective Beekeeping Equipment
Minimum equipment is a veil and a smoker. I would recommend a jacket with a veil instead of the veil and a full suit for those times you need extra security. Also a spray bottle of light syrup (2 parts water 1 part sugar by volume), and an Italian Hive tool (Brushy Mt.). A bee brush. A hair clip queen catcher. A nice frame grip is nice, but not necessary.
Beekeeping Equipment Choices
Now that you have lined up a source for bees, you need to make some choices on equipment. I'm going to recommend you use all the same size frames for everything, and since medium frames seem like the best compromise for everything, I'm going to recommend mediums for everything, mainly because of lighter boxes. That includes comb honey, extracted honey, brood etc. These are sometimes called Illinois supers. Or ¾ supers. Or Medium supers. They are 6 5/8" deep with 6 ¼" frames.
Reasons for all the same size: You can bait up supers with brood, or other frames from the brood chamber. You can pull honey from the supers for starting nucs etc. You can run an unlimited brood nest and if the queen lays in the supers, you just pull those frames of brood and swap them for some honey from the brood chamber. Different sizes are really a deterrent to good management of the hive.
Reasons for mediums instead of deeps: A 10 frame deep full of honey can weigh up to 90 pounds. A medium full of honey can weigh up to 60 pounds. 'Nuff said.
Number of Frames
Now that we have a frame size you need to pick a hive size. Standard is 10 frames. There is much to be said for being standard. On the other hand, there is much to be said for lighter (48 pounds vs 60 pounds). The 8-frame equipment from Brushy Mt. is very nice for making less work. You need to choose whether you want lighter boxes or standard sized ones. I converted to 8 frame. One of the other advantages of 8 frame equipment is that it is such a more versatile size. It is the same volume as a 5 frame nuc and can be used for a nuc. With a follower board it could even be used for a 2 frame mating nuc and then expanded, if need be, to eight frames eventually.
Style of Frames and Cell Size of Foundation
Frames, foundation, cell size etc. You need to decide if you want plastic foundation, plastic frames, fully drawn plastic comb, etc. and what size you want the foundation. I would recommend just to buy small cell or PermaComb or Honey Super Cell. If you want to use wax, buy small cell wax from Dadant or one of the other suppliers. The small cell plastic is no longer on the market from Dadant. But Mann Lake's PF120's are 4.95mm cell size and are one piece frame and foundation. If you want to not have to build frames, not have to wait for the bees to draw it and never have to worry about wax moths or Small Hive Beetles then buy PermaComb or Honey Super Cell. I personally heat the PermaComb to 200° F (93° C) and dip it in 212° F (100° C) beeswax and shake off all the excess wax. This results in 4.95mm cells and seems to handle all my mite problems. For now don't worry about regression or all that complex sounding stuff, but just stick with natural sized (small cell aka 4.9mm) foundation.
Now that we've made all these decisions, here's the order I'd get things in.
I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I would buy an observation hive. They will say, correctly, that an observation hive takes more skill to run. But you will learn SO MUCH in just a few days of watching one, and so much in the first year of watching one, that I think they are invaluable. Even if they die or swarm, you should learn a lot. You used to be able to buy a nice four frame "Von Frisch" hive from Brushy Mt. I'm not sure if they still stock it as I haven't seen it in the catalog. It holds four medium frames (remember we want all the frames the same). You do have to make the hookup for the tube yourself but everything else is pretty much done for you. To hook up the tube I take a 1" long 1" diameter galvanized water pipe nipple and a 1 1/8" hole saw (that goes in a drill to make a 1 1/8" hole) and glue a piece of pine in the end of the Von Frisch hive and drill the 1 1/8" hole and use some channel locks or a pipe wrench to screw in the pipe nipple. Get some 1 ¼" tubing and attach it with a hose clamp. Cut a 1 x 4 to fit in under your window and another that fits under your storm window and drill a 1 3/8" hole in both of those so that with the windows closed they line up. Thread the 1 ¼" tubing (a sump pump kit works well) out through the window. I also added a screen molding behind the hinges and behind the door stop to increase the space between the glass by 1/4". This works out perfectly. The 1 1/2" space that it comes with works if the bees are drawing their own comb in the hive. But if you ever swap drawn frames from a hive it's too close and PermaComb or Honey Super Cell is also too close.
Also I would put a very small screw or a staple in back and on the door in the frame rest area to hold the frame out at the correct space. I seem to always be carrying the hive back in from outside and jostle the frames and they slide to one side and mess up the beespace.
Make some frames (or wax dip some PermaComb) and put the small cell foundation in it. Put these in the observation hive. Cut some Black cloth so that doubled up and folded over the hive it covers both sides to the floor. This is a privacy curtain.
When the bees outgrow the observation hive you will need somewhere to put them, so let's build or buy a medium nuc. If we are going with eight frame mediums we can just use one eight frame box for a nuc. Get a bottom and cover (or make them). This will make a good start for when they outgrow the observation hive. Put it together so it's ready before you get the bees. Now you wait for spring.
Putting Bees in the Observation Hive
Come spring put the bees in the observation hive. I assume this is a package, so you need to spray the bees with sugar syrup waiting periodically and spraying again until they lose interest in eating it off of the screen wire. Take the bees and the observation hive outside near the entrance to the observation hive. Cover the exit to the hive with a piece of cloth and a thick hair tie rubber band (they are easier to handle) Do the same with the outside entrance to the tube and the other end of the tube in the house. Lay the observation hive flat on its side on the ground and open the door. Put on your protective equipment. Pry open the lid to the box and carefully fish out the queen cage and set it aside. Now fish out the can and shake the bees off of it into the observation hive. Hit the box sharply on the ground to dislodge the cluster and then flip it upside down and pour the bees into the observation hive. Hit the box sharply on its side to knock the remaining bees to one end then dump them in. If there are still 20 bees or so in the box, don't worry about it. If there are hundreds of bees in the box, repeat the steps until there are only a few.
Spritz the queen lightly with some light syrup (a cup of water to a cup of sugar) so she won't fly. Carefully pry the staple off of the queen cage, being careful not to open the screen and let out the queen. Put the queen cage over a cluster of the bees and holding the screen side down, open the screen and put the cage close to the bees watching for the queen to walk out. (difficult, I know). If you didn't see her and you didn't see her fly off and you didn't see her go in, then we may have to keep an eye out for a while. Assuming she went in, use the smoker to drive the bees away from the door frame so they don't get squashed and close the door (squashing some stubborn and indecisive bees, but hopefully not too many.) Now brush all of the bees off of the outside of the hive and take it in the house. Holding the hose up to the pipe, pull off the cloth from both pieces and slide the hose on and clamp it (the clamp has to be on the hose before you do this.
You now have an observation hive. Fill a quart jar with 2:1 syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water by volume) and feed them. Now go take the cloth off of the outside of the tube.
If you didn't see the queen go in, watch outside for any clusters of bees on the ground or bushes. If you see any, look carefully to see if there is a queen. If so, catch her with the hair clip catcher and put her at the tube entrance and see if she'll go in. If she doesn't, you may have to take the hive outside and do it all again, but probably you now have a queen in the hive.
If you got two packages then put the other in the nuc and buy your equipment for a hive and assemble it now.
Keep feeding them and watch them. Count the days until the queen starts to lay eggs. (usually at least three or four days) and how many days until they eggs hatch and how many days until you see capped brood and how many days until you see emergence. The hive will build slower at first but once bees start emerging the population will explode.
Making a Split Into the Nucleus Box
When they have pretty much filled the hive with honey, brood and pollen you need to move three frames and the queen to the eight frame hive. Feed them and keep feeding the observation hive. Try to be sure that the frame you leave in the observation hive has eggs. Now you get to watch them raise a queen. By the time the queen in the observation hive is laying, all of the brood will have emerged. The Observation hive will be struggling again to get going, but the five frame nuc will quickly fill up and when four and one half frames of it are full, add the next box and order four medium boxes and enough frames for them and a screened bottom board and an inner and outer cover or a migratory cover. When the two eight frame boxes are full put the queen and all but two frames in the other hive. Make sure one of those frames has eggs and open brood and the other has pollen and honey. Put those two in one box with a top and bottom and let it raise a queen.
Now you have one hive, one nuc, and one observation hive. If you need a queen you can unite the nuc with the hive, or pull a frame of brood for the nuc to raise one or pull a frame of brood for the observation hive to raise one. You get to watch in detail what is going on with the bees in the observation hive. You can see pollen coming in, you can see nectar coming in, you can see when they are being robbed, you can see if they are having any problems. You can watch the queen lay. You can practice finding the queen without disturbing the hive.
As the observation hive gets too strong you can pull frames out and put them in your regular hive to boost them. As the nuc gets too strong you can pull frames and put them in the regular hive. You can replace them with undrawn foundation. If you only want one hive, you have one and some spare parts to fix it. If you want another hive, just let the nuc grow and put it in a regular hive too. Then start another nuc from some frames from the observation hive so you have two hives a nuc and an observation hive.
Starting With More Hives
Of course if you wanted to start with more hives (a good idea actually), you could put a package in the observation hive and a package in the nuc or the hive at the same time. More redundancy let's you have resources to fall back on when they get into trouble.
Here are some essentials for the beekeeper:
A smoker. (most any size will do for a hobbyist but the big ones are easier to keep lit.).
Veil, jacket, or suit. I would prefer, if I only have one protective suit, to have a full coverall with a zip on veil. That way I can be pretty fearless of the bees. If you make them mad enough, long enough, they will still get in, but that would require quite a bit of time. If you have the money to spare, I'd buy a jacket with a zip on veil besides because it's easier to take on and off, cooler and handier. I like the hooded ones, as opposed to the ones with a helmet. I was paranoid at first of the hood being in contact with my head, but I have three nylon outfits (one jacket and two coveralls), all with hoods, and have never been stung on the back of the head like I expected.
Some kind of hive tool. Any little flat bar will work. One of my all time favorites is a very old light cleaver (the blade is about 1 1/2" wide and 6" long) that I sharpened on the end. I can pry a box apart or scrape things. It doesn't pull nails well and if the prying is really heavy I do worry about breaking it. If you're going to buy one, I really like the Italian Hive tool from Brushy Mt. It has a lift hook on one end and is light and long has a lot of leverage. My next favorite is the Thorne hive tool with a frame lifter and next is Maxant's Frame Lifter hive tool. But I do like the Italian one from Brushy Mt. better.
A bee brush. You can buy one, or if you hunt or have birds you can use a large feather. It has to be a nice stiff quill to do any good. You will need to brush bees off from time to time. In order to harvest, in order to do other manipulations. Shaking can work sometimes, but sometimes you just need a brush. Like when the bees are all clustering on the edge of the hive you can brush them off before you set the next box on top.
Nice to Have Beekeeping Equipment:
These are nice, but not essential, you can do fine without them, but I don't think you will regret buying them.
A spray bottle with light syrup. (2 parts water 1 part syrup)
Tool box. You can put your tools in a five gallon bucket, but if you want a really nice toolbox, Brushy Mt. has one that can double as a swarm box, has a place for a hive tool, a frame grip, a smoker, a frame perch and room inside for odds and ends. It makes a nice stool too.
Queen Catcher. The hair clip kind are the nicest ones I've seen you can pick up a queen without hurting her. You still have to be a little careful, but it is designed to not hurt her and to let the workers out. There are times you just need to know where she is while you rearrange things or do a split and then you can release her. This plus a marking tube and a paint pen and you can mark her too.
A Queen Muff. I got one from Brushy Mt. You can catch the queen in the hair clip and put her in the muff and not worry about her flying off.
A frame nailing device. (Walter T. Kelly has these) is very nice to put wooden frames together. It holds 10 frames in place for you to nail them. It is a little tricky to figure out at first, but it's a real time saver and frustration saver.
A 1/4" crown staple gun and compressor. Everyone who owns a car needs a compressor anyway. The staple gun is under a $100. Walter Kelly has one that is the right size. It will shoot from 1 1/2" to 5/8" staples (which I buy at the local lumber or hardware store). The 1" are perfect for frames. The 1 1/2" are perfect to put boxes together. The 5/8" are nice for when you don't want it to go through a 3/4" board and the 1 1/4" are nice when you don't want to go through two 3/4" boards (like when you put a cleat on for a handle on a homemade box). Then you don't have to pre drill all those holes in the frames. I was a carpenter for years and am pretty good at nailing, but when doing frames I bend as many nails as I don't bend. Half of them are bent and pulled out when nailing by hand. But maybe my problem is I used to "one lick" a 16p nail and I don't have the finesse.
It is nice to have, but for two or three hives, I don't think it's worth the expense unless you find a used one really cheap. Of course you can always keep your eye out for a bargain on a used one. I just crushed and strained and made cut comb for the first 26 years of my beekeeping. I finally bought a 9/18 radial when I started getting more hives. I'm glad I held out for a real extractor when I finally got one.
Copyright 2006 by Michael Bush