How do I get started in beekeeping?
Beekeeping is an amazing hobby that is fun for the entire family and opens up a door to lifelong learning. Besides the clear benefit of your own honey, you will be improving the environment and basically saving the planet. A very common question by potential beekeepers is, “how do I get started in beekeeping?” It’s not hard, but it takes more than just buying a queen bee and a box. If you think you would like to keep bees, there are more resources available than you may realize. Below are some very common questions we receive on a fairly regular basis.
In beekeeping, the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, could not be more relevant. The first thing any prospective beekeeper should do is check local zoning regulations for the area in which the bees will be kept. Some localities might consider honeybees as livestock, and technically they are. However, they hardly compare to chickens, goats, or pigs in your backyard. In most communities around us in northern Virginia, one can keep up to four colonies of honeybees in as little as a quarter acre. Some of the biggest issues with keeping honeybees are the local Homeowners’ Associations or HOAs. If you live in an HOA community, check with the rules and see if honeybees are mentioned. Again, they may list chickens or other ‘livestock’, but not honeybees. Frankly, having a beehive or two in your backyard would go completely unnoticed by anyone who can not physically see the hives. The bees will just go about and do their business.
You may be concerned about liability, should a bee happen to sting a neighbor. Generally, honeybees aren’t going to bother anyone and will likely get blamed for a hidden yellow jacket nest, but there is a chance of an accidental sting. Definitely check on your state’s liability laws. Virginia has a limitation on liability law concerning beekeepers. Basically, if a beekeeper keeps bees using best management practices, that beekeeper cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from the bees. That said, a potential beekeeper should let neighbors know about plans to keep bees. This may spark a bit of apprehension, but a jar of fresh honey and some interesting bee facts go a long way to appease neighborly concerns.
What is the best resource to start beekeeping?
Prospective beekeepers should absolutely seek out the local beekeeper club or association. If an internet search of “Beekeeper club near me” doesn’t turn up anything, try your state beekeeper association. For example, the (VSBA) website provides a list of all the local clubs in the state that have registered with the VSBA. Bee clubs are an integral part of beekeeping. Most offer bee school in the winter, which provides the basics of getting started with beekeeping. They also are the central hub for mentorship, and no YouTube video in the world is better than having an experienced beekeeper with you on your first inspection.
Beyond bee schools, bee clubs are a place to share information and learn more from fellow beekeepers. This is important because all beekeeping is local. Managing an apiary in upstate New York is very different from managing an apiary in Florida. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we have a very short season and frenetic winters, so we manage bees very differently. While the internet is full of expert opinions, the advice from experienced beekeepers that raise bees in your region is most valuable. A new beekeeper is also more likely to get help from fellow local beekeepers than from some random know-it-all on a Facebook group.
What do I need to start beekeeping?
Any prospective beekeeper might be surprised to learn that very little is needed to start beekeeping. Beekeeping catalogs are an inch thick and full of widgets. Ask fellow bee club members or other local beekeepers about what you really need to get started. They will likely point you to major distributors such as Mann Lake or Dadant. It’s pretty easy to spend more than you need on countless gadgets that don’t really do much for you. Items you will absolutely need include:
- a bottom board
- hive bodies (aka brood chambers)
- frames and foundation
- an inner cover
- telescoping outer cover
- hive tool
- bee brush
- protective clothing.
We always recommend starting with two complete colonies or hives of bees. Colonies behave differently and have different personalities. There is an old saying that goes, “two is one, and one is none.” It’s all about redundancy. With only one hive, if you have problems, you may lack the ability to correct it quickly. However, with two hives, you can move resources between them. In beekeeping, resources mean bees, beeswax, eggs, larva, pollen, nectar, or honey. If one colony loses a queen (a rather common occurrence), you can move eggs to the queenless hive and the bees will make a new one. As you go into winter, if one or both hives are weak, you can combine them and have one strong hive to survive the winter.
Where can I get beekeeping classes?
Most bee clubs and associations hold “bee school” in the winter, when beekeeping chores are at a minimum. That should be your first place to start looking. We’ve mentioned before that beekeeping is local, so getting a lesson from a beek in Minnesota may not be helpful to a beek in Virginia. Bee clubs also have one goal – to promote responsible and sustainable beekeeping. Generally, they are not going to try to sell you things that “you just gotta have!” Bee club bee school usually can provide a straight line to local bees and, most importantly, a mentor. Organizations such as the (EAS) and some state beekeeper associations (including also offer beekeeping certifications up to Master Beekeeper. Look for local shops that offer Virginia beekeeping classes as well for a great look into your local bee culture.
We live in the information age. That basically means you can find just about anything about anything on the internet. However, would you trust your doctor if he told you, “someone on my Facebook medical group told me this would work?” Probably not, and the stakes are hardly as high, but we hope you get the point. That said, there are some pretty good resources online, but take the information in with a bit of caution. The online forum is a good resource, as is and the Practical Beekeeper himself .
Of course, if you are in the Northern Virginia area, we offer a complete basic beekeeping course at The Bee Store and some shorter seasonal workshops. Regardless of the source of the training, we strongly recommend getting the basics down before branching out into more complicated techniques such as queen rearing, grafting, or observation hives.
When should I get started in beekeeping?
Generally, beekeeping starts in the winter. It’s in the winter that bee clubs offer classes, that bee providers take orders for spring bees, and when you have time to get all of your woodenware prepped and assembled.
One of your first tasks will be to find a bee provider. Your local bee club should be your primary resource for this. Local clubs offering bee school will often provide a list of club members or other reputable beekeepers that can provide bees. As a brand-new beekeeper, we recommend purchasing a basic bee. In other words, your basic Italian, Carniolan, or Russian bees will do fine. There are a lot of “designer” bees out there claiming to be Varroa Sensitive Hygienic or VSH. Just starting out, you likely wouldn’t know the difference between a VSH queen or the mutt from the neighbor’s yard. Learn the basics first, then experiment.
You will also need to decide on buying a package of bees or a nuc. We recommend a nucleus colony or nuc. Nucs are small but complete colonies of bees, usually consisting of 4-5 deep frames full of bees of all ages. Packages of bees are shoebox-sized boxes full of bees (about 3 lbs or 12000 bees) that are shaken into the package from other beehives. A mass-produced queen is attached to the box along with a can of sugar syrup. Packages are most often brought up north from southern states and are available several weeks earlier than are nucs. Starting off as a new beekeeper, we strongly recommend nucs over packages. Nucs are complete colonies, already have 5 frames of drawn honeycomb with eggs and brood, and have workers of all ages doing all the jobs needed to sustain the colony. Further, all the bees in the nuc are literally family with the queen being the mother. Success rates, especially with queens, tend to be much higher with nucs.
Winter is also the time to purchase all your necessary woodenware for your bees. Woodenware consists of specially made boxes and frames that will make up your bees’ home. Generally, each colony will consist of 2 deep boxes with 20 deep frames to make up the brood chamber. Smaller boxes called “mediums” will be used as honey supers or ‘supers.’ Supers are used to store and collect excess honey. The frames consist of a wooden frame and either plastic or wax foundation inserted. The foundation provides a template for the bees to draw out honeycomb. While the bees can make comb without any added foundation, as a new beekeeper, we recommend providing foundation to keep the honeycomb straight and orderly. The hive bodies should be painted with exterior paint or stain, and hardware stores usually have “oops piles” of paint available for cheap. Only paint the outside of the boxes.
Where should I put my apiary?
The place where bees are kept is called an apiary or bee yard. When planning your future beekeeping endeavors there are a few things to consider regarding placement of your bees. Beekeeping books tend to show the ideal location for apiaries and the very worst location. You will probably be in the middle and settle on the “this is what I have to work with” location. Location is important, but sometimes we just have to make do with what we have. The most important factors are clean airflow, low moisture, and accessibility.
Apiaries should get plenty of sun, particularly in the morning. Keeping bees in heavily shaded areas has some negative impacts such as moisture, wet soil, and higher volumes of small hive beetles (SHB). If shade is all you have, make sure you have plenty of ventilation in the hive. You may also consider treating the soil around your beehives to kill SHB larva that burrow into the ground to pupate. Steady airflow is very important for all apiaries but is particularly important for heavy shade.
Apiaries should be easily accessible by the beekeeper. In the immediate area around the beehives, the beekeeper should have access to either the side or back of the hive. When inspecting the colonies, beekeepers should stand either behind or on the side of the colony, thus leaving the entrance clear for foragers coming and going. We recommend building hive stands so that the base of the hive is about knee high to the beekeeper. This will provide enough height for comfortable inspections. Hive stands can be as simple as cinder blocks or tree stumps or as complex as commercially built iron benches.
Spring will be here before you know it. If you think beekeeping is something you would like to do, there are plenty of resources available to get started. Check with your local bee club for zoning issues, bee school, and bee providers. Pick up a couple of books and spend some time researching to get an idea of what to expect. Finally, if in the area, stop by The Bee Store and talk to any of our employees, all of whom are beekeepers.