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In the past few years, there’s been a bit of buzz concerning the world’s honeybee population. While honeybees aren’t on the endangered species list (unlike their cousin the bumblebee), their population is plummeting due to a combination of parasites, pesticides and habitat loss.
While there have been national efforts to promote the health of honeybees, pollinators overall have suffered severe losses, and the overall health of the environment is declining, too.
That said, there are a few ways you can help sustain honeybee populations while participating in an enjoyable and relaxing activity – and that’s by starting your own honeybee hive at home.
We reached out to expert Brian Peterson-Roest, founder of Bees in the D, to provide you with five steps for starting to raise bees at home.
Step 1: Do Your Homework
Perhaps the first and most important tip for beginner beekeepers is to increase your knowledge of the subject.
“Sustainability of honeybee hives is a hot topic and one that has been very discouraging in recent years. It’s important that beekeepers are educated about issues with beehives, like mites, hive beetles, wax moths, Colony Collapse Disorder, Nosema, and other diseases,” explained Peterson-Roest, whose 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Detroit is dedicated to the overall health of honeybee colonies and educating people on the colonies’ importance to the environment.
“I believe that honeybees are one of the most fascinating and industrial creatures on our planet,” Peterson-Roest stated. “Unfortunately bee populations are declining, so it’s imperative that we learn about their importance and help with their conservation as they are critical to our environment and the food industry.”
Peterson-Roest urges anyone who’s interested in beekeeping to “do their homework.” He further suggested mentoring with an experienced beekeeper for a considerable time in order to gain insight into beekeeping.
Step 2: Suit Up
After you’ve done your homework and made the commitment to your bees, it’s time to suit up.
“I am big on safety because I feel it’s an important part of education,” said Peterson-Roest. “Many beekeepers don’t wear protective clothing and gear, but I always encourage it. You need to respect you are disturbing the bees’ work and home.”
You’ll need a few key pieces of protective beekeeping apparel:
The beekeeper’s suit is one of the important pieces of apparel needed for safe bee handling. The main purpose is to protect the beekeeper from stings if the bees get agitated.
The suit, generally sold as a single bodysuit, includes a long-sleeved body covering that’s meant to have a baggy fit to prevent bees from stinging through the suit. The wrists and ankle areas should have tight, secure cuffs to prevent bees from entering the suit through any gaps.
Peterson-Roest suggests wearing comfortable clothes underneath, refraining from any perfumes or artificial scents on the body.
Veil and Hat
The next piece of apparel is the veil and hat. These items protect your head and face from bee stings by zipping onto your bee suit, eliminating any entrance into your suit.
The veil is traditionally made from mesh to give protection from the bees while still allowing you to see well enough to complete your task.
Leather gloves are especially crucial for inspecting the hive and extracting honey.
Since your hands will be in direct contact with bees, you’ll want to purchase some sturdy leather gloves. Just like the bee suit, you’ll want the gloves to be slightly baggy to prevent bees from stinging you through the material.
You’ll typically want your gloves to extend and cuff around your elbow.
The leather, while protecting your skin, will also provide a secure grip on the tools you’ll use during bee handling.
The last part of your beekeeping apparel is the footwear. You’ll want to make sure that anything that falls below the cuff at your ankles is covered, so you’ll want a pair of boots that are ankle height or higher. You’ll also want to ensure that the material is strong and impenetrable, like rubber or leather.
Step 3: Know Your Hive
Man-made hives are enclosed or sheltered structures where the honeybees store their nectar, honey, pollen and brood (eggs, larvae and pupae).
There are four basic components to a beehive, including the bottom board, the supers, the frames and the covers. Each of the four hive components have different options to choose from, but a common configuration consists of deep supers for the brood chambers and the medium or shallow supers for honey.
Each part plays an important role in the construction of the hive, as different parts have specific purposes.
The outer cover fits over the inner cover with sides that hang down over the top super. This piece, preferably made of wood and typically weather-resistant, is designed to keep the beehive sealed.
This inner cover fits on top of the uppermost super, with an entrance hole to the outside located in the middle of the structure. The purpose of the inner cover is to control the comings and goings of bees into and out of the beehive.
The honey super is a box that holds the honey super frames where the bees will store their honey. It’s typical to use a medium- or shallow-size super for honey, as opposed to deep supers, because honey is heavy, making deep supers hard to lift when full.
The honey super frames fit inside the super and typically fit eight to 10 medium frames per box. Bees will then build wax onto the frames to fill with honey.
The queen excluder is a flat rack designed to prevent the queen bee from laying eggs inside the honey super. The holes are large enough to allow worker bees to squeeze through, but small enough to keep out the queen.
Much like the honey super, the deep super frames fit inside the supers and typically fit eight to 10 frames per box. The bees will build their wax onto the frames. Along with honey, the deep supers typically contain brood – or eggs, larvae and pupae. This is where the queen bee traditionally lays her eggs.
The bottom board can be solid or screened. The screened bottom board aids in hive ventilation and pest management and resides at the bottom of the hive.
Hive Upkeep: Commitment and Cost
There are a few key concepts to understand about bee handling beyond learning about the various parts of the hive. For example, consider the time commitment of caring for a beehive at home.
Peterson-Roest suggested that, while the time commitment varies based on whether you’re a fully hands-on beekeeper or a more minimally intrusive one, he would encourage a beginner beekeeper to plan for a weekly to biweekly inspection of the hive.
“This can vary,” adds Peterson-Roest. “There are times that you want to leave a hive undisturbed for a long period of time, and there are other times you will want to do more frequent checks.”
This, he suggested, depends on the age and overall health of the hive. If you start to notice a lack of honey or brood, you may want to examine the health of the queen. If the queen isn’t laying eggs, then the hive won’t grow. Additionally, without worker bees, honey won’t be made in the hive.
As far as a suitable environment for your bees, it’s all about location, location, location.
“It’s encouraged to locate hives in a mostly to completely sunny location,” Peterson-Roest recommended. “Plants around the hive are not required, but are beneficial. Honeybees fly within a 2-mile radius of the hive to seek out all their needs.”
As far as cost of operation, Peterson-Roest says it varies greatly depending on the quality, material and preconstruction of the products, with an average cost for one hive, including equipment, ranging from $500 to $2,000.
Step 4: Tools for the Task
Now that you’ve learned the basics of the beehive, along with the time and cost commitment, it’s time to go over the tools of the trade. The tools below are part of the basic bee handling process, mostly concerning the hive.
The hive tool, a flat metal tool, helps beekeepers pry up and remove beehive frames that are stuck together by propolis, a sticky substance made from tree resin that often glues together the frames.
The smoker is a must-have tool for bee handling, because the smoke produced from this piece of equipment is known to calm down bees during a hive inspection or honey extraction.
Along with the smoker, you’ll need matches and kindling (leaves, twigs, paper, bark, dry grass, etc.) as well as water to make the kindling smoke.
The metal frame grip is used to help with handling beehive frames during inspections and honey harvesting. The grip fits the frames and makes it easier to lift them out of the hive for a better look.
The soft-bristled bee brush is used to gently remove bees from frames, honey supers or any area where bees might be in the way. It can come in handy during hive inspections and honey extractions.
Step 5: Get the Honey, Honey!
According to Peterson-Roest, bees produce honey as food storage for the hive during the winter. However, they typically produce two to three times more honey than they need, so what isn’t necessary for storage becomes a harvesting opportunity for beekeepers.
There are a few tools you’ll need for honey extraction and to maintain the bees during the process:
- Honey extractor
- Decapping tools (fork, knife)
- Filters and containers
- Honey jars and lids
- Hive tool
You’ll want to light the smoker and use it to calm the bees during the harvest. Using the hive tool, you’ll lift the hive lid and blow smoke into the hive.
Pull the honey super frames out of the super and inspect the honeycombs. Make sure to check that the wax cells are capped, as those are the ones with honey inside. Any uncapped cells with nectar are not harvested. You’ll also want to make sure to distinguish honey from brood, nectar and pollen.
The light cells are pure honey; the dark ones are pollen. The capped brood typically is a tan color and located toward the center of the hive.
After you’ve located the supers with honey, it’s time to extract! Take the frames with capped honey, mount the frame above a container, and use a decapping tool to unseal the cells, removing the wax on top of the honey cells so that the honey can freely flow.
During this stage, Peterson-Roest suggested, “Go slow, stay calm and enjoy being part of their amazing world!”
Place the uncapped frames in the extractor and close the lid. Start the extractor off slowly and then speed it up. Typically within 10 to 15 minutes, all the honey will be out of the honeycomb and inside the extractor.
Pour the honey from the extractor into a container, using a filter to catch the wax and impurities as you pour. You need to let the honey sit for at least 12 hours to let any air bubbles settle.
After 12 hours, fill sealable containers with your harvested honey and enjoy!
While beekeeping can be a fun and enjoyable activity, it’s important to understand that you’re dealing with living organisms who not only react out of instinct but are also a crucial part of our world’s environment and ecosystems.
Peterson-Roest suggests joining a beekeeping club or working with a mentor for a considerable time before deciding to start a beehive at home.
If you’re interested in starting your own hive at home, here are a few items we mentioned above that will get you started:
- Bee suit: Wayfair
- Bee hat and veil: Wayfair
- Bee gloves: Wayfair
- Hive: Wayfair
- Hive tool: Amazon
- Smoker: Amazon
- Smoker fuel: Wayfair
- Frame grip: Amazon
- Bee brush: Amazon
- Honey extractor: Wayfair
- De-capping fork: Wayfair
- De-capping knife: Wayfair
- Honey strainer: Wayfair
- Honey container: Wayfair