By Dan Fitzpatrick:
Maybe it’s the feeling of pouring out 10,000 bees into a hive from the box, then hearing and feeling the subtle change in the hum when they discover their new home and start to call the other workers back. Or perhaps you find joy in remembering the smell of the wind that blows across a wildflower field as you bite into a fresh comb and taste its sweetness.
Beekeeping is an amazing hobby. However, like anything else it takes a certain amount of experience to learn. Remember the journey to catching that first fish? It’s the same with beekeeping. There are hundreds of how-to books, websites, YouTube videos and chatrooms available. But the overwhelming number of learning options can feel like finding the queen amongst 20,000 bees.
As a teacher, I spend most of my days pointing people in the right direction and focusing on the most important part of the lesson. In this article I identify the four levels of beekeeping that most people experience.
Level 1: Discovering Your Interest
It takes a real sense of adventure to begin keeping stinging insects. For me, it started with a taste of raw honey from a local beekeeper. The house was in the county, in the middle of nowhere. I began to notice the tall golden mason jars, set on an old wood shelf next to a box of change. I would always drive slowly and watch the hives along the country road. I went past rock quarries filled with bass and catfish, where my friends and I would swim at midnight and gaze up at the stars that seemed close enough to reach out and touch.
One day, I was driving by and the old beekeeper was outside. As I bought a jar, I mentioned to him I was interested in starting beekeeping someday. The comment turned into a tour. He showed me all of his equipment. We ended up on his porch drinking a glass of lemonade. He gave me an old catalog to take home.
I took me a couple of years before I was finally able to get bees. I don’t think I would have done it without that encounter. One of the best things you can do in the beginning is to meet a local beekeeper. Ask if they have some time to answer questions and show you around.
How to Meet Local Beekeepers
- Stop where you see hives and honey, and inquire about checking things out sometime.
- Contact the nearest beekeeping supply store and ask about local clubs.
- Search the internet for your local beekeeping club.
- Check your local parks and nature centers for the “bee guy.”
- Take a class on pollinators and bees.
Level 2: You’ve Decided to Start, Now What?
Once you’ve got the buzz, it’s time to study the craft. Finding joy and fulfilment is important, but to be a successful beekeeper, and avoid unnecessary work and expense, you’ll have to study. There are many philosophies and methods of keeping bees. You will need to spend time learning about the various equipment, supplements and strategies. For my advice, listen to my Anchored Outdoors recorded presentation.
Here are some other resources I recommend:
Beesource forums — It’s Reddit and Craigslist for beekeepers. This is one of the best! It has great moderators, good advice and forums for beginners to advanced.
The beekeeper’s handbook – If you want a full-on how-to book with no-nonsense, this is my recommendation.
Michael Bush website — I have a lot in common with Michael Bush’s beekeeping philosophy. He has a book and everything that is in his book is on his site too.
A Book of Bees: and How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell is a great just for fun read.
Level 3: Time for Action
Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to put your plans into action.
Action 1 – Purchasing bees!
- Do this between January and March. Don’t procrastinate because suppliers run out quickly.
- Make sure your pickup date is around when dandelions bloom. Bees need food like everything else. Yes, you can feed them, but it’s tricky if it’s too cold.
- You don’t want to drive far to get bees. It’s best to find nearby beekeeping clubs, bee supply stores or use a place that ships bees in the mail.
- Bees are expensive. I would just get Italian bees and not worry much about breeds. Local swarms are the best genetics.
Action 2 – Building and purchasing equipment
- If you’re bad at building things, let me say, it’s OK to treat yourself. However, several items are pretty easy to build.
- For example, building boxes is simple. Here’s my table saw walkthrough on making mediums. You can also look for used/cheap equipment.
- Buy the jacket with a veil suit. It’s easy to put on and take off.
- Buy the larger smoker. You can always put less in there.
- Consider foundationless frames or ones that have a combination of foundation types.
- Use crush and strain for small operations rather than the spinning extractor. Also, many beekeepers will let you borrow theirs.
- The bee escape is better than a fume board. Fewer chemicals in your hive is always better. I like Brushy Mountain’s Design.
Action 3 – Attract wild swarms by setting out a bait hive.
- Local genetics are the best bees you can get because they’ve evolved and adapted to the climate in your area. Also, packaged bees are expensive!!
- All you need to attract bees is a good-sized box. Two mediums or one deep with some old honeycomb will work great. Top, bottom and the entrance of course, then set it out.
- The idea here is to let bees decide that your box is the best place to choose residence.
You don’t need all these, though they will increase your odds:
- Lemongrass oil in hive (it’s an orientation pheromone)
- Right-sized space (two med or one deep)
- 12-feet off ground (I usually skip this one)
- Old honeycomb in the box (frames with comb)
- 2 square inch entrance
- A shady place
- 150 yards from other hives
- Most importantly, you’ve put a box out. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you can’t catch a fish unless you put the hook in the water, right? Swarm traps work way better than you would think. I’d say put several out and replace them when you take the swarms away in case it happens again.
- Bees will want to return to the swarm location if it’s nearby (under 3 miles). It’s easy to move them to where they need to go, but there’s a trick to it.
Level 4: Journeyman
Now that you have bees and are getting experience, it’s time to move on to more advanced techniques. Here’s a list to give you some ideas about how to expand your beekeeping journey.
|Research and experiment with insect pests controls
Figure out swarm prevention and improve bait boxes
Take a queen bee breeding course
Become a master beekeeper
Build an observation hive
|Join the local beekeeping clubs
Teach classes, help nature centers
Beekeeping blogs, social media and pictures
Inviting groups to tour your hives
Making mead, honey beer and honey whiskey
|Going to fairs and festivals to sell honey
Finding other value-added products like soap, lotions, balms, salves
Start a swarm removal business
Look into pollinating orchards and the big bee business
As a seasoned beekeeper you can expect to begin to get questions: Have you ever been stung? Do you have any more honey left? I like to think of creative answers. For example, I like to answer the worst place I’ve been stung with a spider-man story.
Congratulations, once you know these questions all too well, you’ve become a journeyman. It’s time to enjoy the sun setting on your empire and follow your dreams. Make sure to have honey ready for your family and friends the next time they visit you. Let your hives bring people together, bring happiness and make memories. Enjoy the company of your bees and blooms and realize all these levels get re-visited each time you level up.