DIYers Guide to Beekeeping in your Backyard
Keeping bees isn’t easy, but it can be an extremely rewarding hobby that can be beneficial to both you and your local bee population. It is no secret that bees have been in decline recently, and it is also well-known that fresh honey can be a tasty ingredient in dozens of dishes or treats. But whether you are doing it for conservation purposes, want to get some of that honey for yourself, or just like bees in general, you will need to understand how it works and what steps to take.
Before You Start
Choosing a living space
Bees are living creatures, and like all pets or farm animals, it is not as simple as creating an enclosed space for them and leaving them to fend for themselves. You need to understand the bees themselves and the kinds of things they will require.
For a start, what do they actually offer you? Well, bees are not only great for producing honey, but they are an excellent pollinator for various plants, meaning that they will help nearby plants thrive without actually eating the plants themselves (like other insects do).
Second, where should they be kept? Bees don’t just stay inside the colonies you build them – they will wander around the general vicinity, it is best to keep them somewhere out of the way. Even if they don’t sting you or a family member, they can still intrude on other outdoor activities, and it’s easy to kill a few if you are walking past without paying attention. Certain places even have regulations against beekeeping in certain ways or environments, so it is important to know the relevant laws.
How to treat bees
Bees are similar to other livestock and farm animals in the way that they act, which means that you can’t just treat them like you would a dog or cat. They like to have an isolated home and don’t appreciate large intrusions, even if they recognize you as a non-threatening presence. Bees follow a caste system where the queen is the top priority, so the bees will try to protect her if you seem to be a threat.
However, if you are able to pacify the bees with a smoker, there’s not much else you’ll really need to do. They can usually look after themselves, as long as you check for diseases and mite infestations that can threaten the colony’s health.
You should also be aware of “swarming.” Not every bee colony does this, but you might notice that a lot of bees seem to vanish during either spring or summer – half of them have left to establish a new colony, taking their queen with them and forcing the remaining half to start repopulating again. There are ways to trick them into thinking they’ve already swarmed, but novice beekeepers will probably prefer just to let them naturally leave.
This can be important if you are keeping bees in an area where they are in decline. Letting them swarm allows them to repopulate and spread, but keeping them contained in one hive makes it hard for the local bee population to increase.
Creating a Hive
Bees need a hive to live properly, and bees will go off and create their own if you don’t provide one for them. However, this isn’t always a good thing, since it makes it extremely hard to collect honey and puts them at greater risk of setting up home outside your property. If you want to ensure that they will stay in your garden, you should provide a nest for them instead.
The Hive Design
Ideally, you’ll want to have multiple different levels or layers for them, since bees like to separate different tasks by area. They will store honey as high up as possible, using the layers below that as extra protection, and then keep the bottom layers as a storage and living space. This means that a large hollow space won’t usually be enough, but a stack of several smaller spaces can provide the separation the bees need to live there properly.
When you are constructing a hive, look into different designs that you can use, since you don’t need to stick with the popular ‘beehive box’ shape that professional beekeeping companies and organizations use. If you can’t create your own, it’s not hard to buy pre-made artificial beehives online or at gardening stores. These are often more reliable for people with very little experience building structures like this, but obviously, they aren’t as easy to customize or alter for your own needs.
Bees will generally construct their hives themselves, but the materials you use can still make a difference, mainly from a practical standpoint. As long as the interior is built properly, most bees won’t worry about what the hive is made from, but it can still matter during certain situations. Wood is one of the most common materials used to create artificial hives, but this is mostly because it’s very easy to get hold of.
The major differences come down to things like flammability, weather protection and resistance from rotting. When bees create hives, they will use the internal surfaces around them to support it, and they will rely on those surfaces to stay structurally-sound for as long as possible. If wood starts to rot, their hive might begin to collapse or slip, and a damaged hive can take a long time to repair if it’s collapsed in on itself.
If you weren’t already aware, fire is one of the biggest weaknesses of bees. Not only does the smoke make them instinctually flee the area, but it can destroy their entire hive and doesn’t leave behind many materials that they can use to create a new one. If your wood can catch fire easily, be sure to protect it as best you can, especially if it’s near a smoker, barbeque, or other kinds of open flame that can cause fires quickly.
Protecting yourself from harm is always important, and bees are known for being quite painful to handle if you upset them. However, even if they are not trying to hurt you, they can still be a handful for unprepared and inexperienced beekeepers. They can get tangled in long hair, get under your clothes even accidentally fly into your face, so having the right protective gear makes a huge difference no matter how skilled you are.
There is a reason beekeepers are often shown wearing their signature veil masks – it is the easiest way of keeping bees out of your face and preventing them from stinging you, and it also doubles as great protection from any other insects that happen to get in your way. You don’t need the full suit, but it’s probably a good idea to have some gloves or another type of hand protection, just in case.
If you are just doing it on a small scale, and don’t have multiple hives to deal with, a thick jacket and relatively protective gloves (along with face protection) will be more than enough to keep you safe. Just remember that certain types of clothes might irritate bees easily, especially if you’re wearing things that could seem harmful to their hive.
Get Extra Equipment
Once your hive is set up, you’ll need a few more pieces of gear. A smoker is a good way to non-lethally shut down the bee’s ‘hive mentality’ for a while by flooding it with smoke, giving you time to open it up and adjust or remove anything inside.
You might also want extra protective gear or some treatments for bee stings, just in case. The more bees you’re keeping, the more likely you are to need them in the future. There are also things like bee feeding tools, season-specific hive protection, medicines for infected colonies and other assorted tools or items that might be useful, but not all of them are a must-have, and some won’t apply to particular bee types.
Protecting the bees
The bees are even more vulnerable than you are, so you should be gentle with them. All of them have more or less the same weaknesses – they’re easy to squish, they can get caught in loose hair or clothing, and they die if they sting you. It’s often forgotten by new beekeepers, but a bee sting is generally a suicide attach to protect the colony, so more stings lead to fewer bees until they can repopulate.
That doesn’t just apply to the keeper, though. Bees will usually sting any threat, so make sure you can keep other pets and residents away from the hive if possible. The bees might be fine with them walking past the outer shell, but anybody opening the top or trying to get inside will be seen as a target unless you’ve used a smoker to vacate the hive first.
Choose your Bees
There are dozens of different types of bee you can keep, far too many to list in a single guide. It’s best if you look up types that thrive in your local area and climate since they are the most likely to survive during more extreme weather conditions. Certain bees might require certain extra items or pieces of equipment, so make sure you plan ahead before buying them.
Actually acquiring the bees can take a while, since you’ll need to find local suppliers – they can be one of the more expensive parts of the setup depending on how far they need to be delivered, especially if bees are fairly rare in your area. Since they’re living creatures, it’s rarely a good idea to try and get them delivered through long-distance means, but most countries, counties, and states have at least a handful of people who can sell you live bees.
Start Keeping Your Bees
Beekeeping can be quite an involved process in certain circumstances, but most of the time it’s similar to looking after a regular pet – not only that but the bees are fairly self-sufficient, so they can feed and protect themselves most of the time without needing your intervention. You’ll have to keep checking on them and making sure that they’re surviving properly, and you’ll also probably want to collect their honey on a regular basis, but there’s not always a complex routine you’ll need to go through.
Since there are so many bee types, and so many ways things can change, make sure you’ve read up on the bees and understand how to keep them. The hardest part is setting up a good hive, so once that’s out of the way, you’ll be able to handle the bees quite well most of the time. If you start to get the hang of how it works, consider expanding your existing bee colony with another hive to increase honey production, or upgrade the existing hive to make it easier for the bees to thrive there.
Once you’ve got a solid and stable colony that is able to fend for itself, it’s up to you what happens next. You can collect and sell the honey, or use it in your own recipes and meals at home. If you’re a fan of animal conversation, you can set up another colony to start helping repopulate your area with bees, or you could stick to a single hive as a hobby. Whatever you do, take the time to learn how bees act and start building up your skills – once you’re past the beginner stages, DIY backyard beekeeping becomes much more interesting.
Collecting the honey
When bees make honey, they’ll store it on whatever surface they can find – ideally, that’ll be a shelf or layer of the hive you’ve built. To collect it, all you need to do is uncap the wax and remove it from the hive, then you can go about extracting it properly.
Before you do anything, remember to smoke the bees to get them out of your way, or use whatever other methods you find works best. Then take an uncapping tool and take the wax caps off of the honey – if you’ve designed the hive well, you will usually be able to remove the entire shelf to make this much easier.
Once the shelf if out of the hive, place it in a honey extractor (you can use whichever version you like, manual or automatic) to force the honey out into a drum or bucket. It’ll pool at the bottom, making it far easier to collect. That’s not pure honey, though – you’ll need to filter it through a paper or metal filter to get rid of any remaining wax or hive debris, and then bottle it in a jar or other container as soon as possible.
Once you’ve got the purified and filtered honey, it’s up to you what you use it for. All bee honey is generally the same, so they’re mostly interchangeable for things like cooking recipes or baked treats.
Expanding your colonies
As mentioned earlier, bee colonies like to swarm every year or two, creating a new colony in the most suitable place they can find. If you set up a second potential spot for them to settle, then they’ll be more likely to stop there instead. The original hive will struggle without a queen, but a new one will come forward eventually, and there are ways to combine them if you really need to convert them back into a single hive.
By having multiple safe places for them to hide within a short distance, the bees will be more likely to spread and won’t hesitate to use up more space, allowing them to create larger colonies with bigger honey outputs. You can even attach a second hive to an existing colony if you’re able to pacify them while you get it into position, and the extra room can bring about much larger honey yields.
Should I Keep Bees?
DIY backyard beekeeping is a great hobby, and it’s also a good way to contribute to nature without having to set aside a considerable amount of land for animals. Unlike a lot of pets, you also get rewarded for your efforts (in this case, with honey), and the bees themselves are able to spread and repopulate outside of your garden, meaning that you will be aiding a declining animal population.
Is it worth the money? It depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re only doing it to get honey, think of it as an initial price for an endless supply of premium honey – after all, it’s supposed to taste better when it’s fresh from the hive, rather than shop-bought thanks to the chemicals involved in the process. If you’re wanting to help nature, then it’s absolutely worth it, especially since bees are struggling to survive in dozens of countries these days.