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New to beekeeping? A novice guide to starting your first hive

Two bees on honeycomb. DepositPhotos

Take the plunge on your beekeeping journey with smart decisions. Read our guide for everything you need to get started with your first hive!

Inside: A detailed plan can take your beekeeping adventure in the right direction, eliminating many beginner mistakes and giving you the confidence you need to start your first hive. Let’s dig in!

Beekeeping opens many doors

Honey bees not only produce golden honey, but they play a crucial role in the mortality and productivity of flora. Beekeeping is a fascinating venture that embraces environmental responsibility, personal fulfillment, and potential economic gain. This exploration into beekeeping guides novices seeking to dive into this remarkable practice, detailing the steps to set up their first hive and foster a thriving bee colony.

Photo by Leung Kwok Tung Ktleung from Pexels

Understanding the basics of beekeeping

Beekeeping, aptly referred to as apiculture, is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years. Bees play an integral role in our ecosystem, serving as pollinators for plants, thus improving crop yield and diversity. They are admired for their complex social structures and their efficiency in collectively working toward the betterment of the hive.

A typical bee colony consists of three types of bees: a queen, workers, and drones.

The queen bee is the only reproductive female bee in the colony, laying as many as 3,000 eggs per day during peak season. Worker bees are infertile females carrying out various roles—from foraging for food to nurturing larvae. Their unwavering dedication earns them their name. Drone bees are the fertile males whose primary role is to mate with the queen.

Before diving into beekeeping, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations concerning beehive placement, honey extraction, and potential disease control. Knowledge about common bee diseases and pests that could affect your hive is also necessary. Reducing risks and maintaining hive health is critical not just for your bees but for neighboring colonies and the broader bee population.

Understanding these basics effectively equips you for the next stages of creating and maintaining your own hive. This journey requires diligence, an enduring curiosity, and a willingness to engage with nature in a manner that few other hobbies can offer.

Choosing the right bee hive

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As you embark on your beekeeping journey, preparing the appropriate environment for your beehive is crucial. Ensure your selected site is easy to access, gets adequate sunlight, and has an ample supply of nectar and pollen from plants around.

One of the first significant decisions a novice beekeeper must make is choosing the right beehive type. There are several designs available, but the three most common types are as follows:

  • The Langstroth Hive: Named after its inventor, Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth, this is the most common in North America. It is designed for ease of honey extraction with less disturbance to the colony. 

  • The Top-Bar Hive: Favored for its simplicity and lower costs, this type does not require heavy lifting, but it necessitates more regular inspections.

  • The Warre Hive: This design represents a middle ground between the Langstroth and top-bar hives. It allows bees to build their comb naturally.

Choosing the right beehive largely depends on your personal goals, resources, and how much time you can devote to beekeeping. For commercial beekeeping or honey production, the Langstroth hive is popular. However, for a hobbyist interested in a more hands-off, natural approach, the top bar or Warre might be ideal.

Regardless of the hive type, its proper setup and placement greatly influence the colony’s success. So take your time, do your research, and make the best choice for you and your soon-to-be buzzing friends.

Acquiring bees for your first hive

After setting up your hive, the next step is to populate it with bees. There are different methods to acquire your bee family:

  1. Buying a package: This is a common and convenient way to start. The package typically includes a queen honey bee and a certain number of worker bees. Ensure the supplier is reputable to avoid weak or sick bees.
  1. Purchasing a nucleus (nuc): A nuc is a mini-hive with a queen honey bee, workers, and broods. It’s like a ready-made family that can quickly adapt to a new hive.
  1. Catching a swarm: This is an advanced method and is advised for more experienced beekeepers. It involves catching a swarm of bees in the wild.

Once you have your bees, the next step is introducing them to their new home: the beehive. This should ideally be done during warm weather when flowers are in bloom. Avoid stormy weather or evenings, as bees may not orient properly.

Gently shake the bees into the hive and carefully cork the queen in while ensuring she has access to honey. Over the next few days, the workers should chew through the wax to release the queen. Smooth integration can take a week or so. 

Through this process, it is crucial to monitor the behavior of your bees, ensuring they are comfortable and adjusting well to the hive, as their well-being will shape the success of your beekeeping venture.

Essential equipment for beekeeping

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Starting your beekeeping journey requires some essential tools and protective gear. Here are the essentials:

  • Beehive box: These are the actual homes for your bees. They come in various sizes and dimensions, catering to different bees and honey production capacities.

  • Bee suit: A full-body suit, including gloves and a veil, will protect you from bee stings. Opt for a light-colored suit, as darker colors can agitate bees.

  • Smoker: The smoker calms bees by blocking their pheromone communication, making hive inspections less disruptive.

  • Hive tool: This is used to separate hive boxes and frames that are stuck together due to propolis, the bees’ “glue.”

  • Bee brush: This tool gently brushes bees off of frames during hive inspections.

  • Frame lifter: Also known as a frame grip, it aids in lifting and handling individual frames.

  • Bee feeder: Especially useful during dearth periods, a feeder ensures that your hive gets essential nutrients.

  • Queen marking pen: This tool helps in identifying and keeping track of the queen bee by gently marking her without harm.

  • Uncapping fork: This is required during honey extraction to remove wax cappings from honeycombs.

  • Honey extractor: A key tool for harvesting, it spins out honey from the frames without destroying the comb structure.

Acquiring and properly using these tools acts as your first line of defense and makes handling the hive easier and safer. It’s an investment in ensuring a successful and rewarding beekeeping journey.

Inspecting your hive

Regular hive checks are imperative to ensure the colony’s health and productivity. During an inspection, you’re looking out for a few key things:

  • Queen presence: Spotting the queen, or proof of her (like eggs), assures you that she’s still there and laying.
  • Diseases and pests: Look for signs of disease or pests such as varroa mites or foulbrood.

  • Honey and pollen stores: Ensuring the bees have enough food is essential, especially in cooler climates.

Note that inspections should ideally be conducted on warm, dry, sunny days when most bees are foraging. Also, try not to disrupt the colony too much by limiting the inspection duration to around 10–15 minutes.

Harvesting honey from your bees

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One of the most rewarding parts of your beekeeping journey is undoubtedly the harvesting of your bees’ honey. However, it involves a careful process to ensure both the safety of the bees and the quality of the honey.

Step 1. Make sure your bees have an excess of honey. It’s vital for their survival during winter, so only harvest the surplus. Ideally, the time frame to collect honey is late summer to early fall, when the hive is bursting with honey produced from spring and summer blooms. 

Step 2. Start by donning your protective gear, including a beekeeper’s suit, gloves, and veil to protect against bee stings. Use a smoker to calm the bees, which makes removing the honey-filled frames easier. 

Step 3. With your hive tool, carefully remove the frames filled with capped honey. These caps can be sliced off using a heated knife, revealing the golden honey within. 

Step 4. You’ll need an extractor to spin out the honey from the frames. A manual extractor works perfectly fine for smaller harvests, but electric extractors can save time for larger quantities. 

Step 5. Filter the spun honey to remove any leftover wax pieces before letting it settle in a clean, warm environment. After 1–2 days, the honey will be ready for bottling.

Respecting the bees and their hard work is integral to this process, so always operate gently, avoid squashing bees, and leave them with enough honey for their needs. Enjoy the fruits of your collective labor, knowing you played a part in this sweet gift from nature.

Common challenges and risks in beekeeping

Like any venture, beekeeping does come with its share of challenges, and being prepared can significantly enhance your success. Some common issues you may face include:

  • Disease: A widespread concern in beekeeping is diseases. Bee colonies may suffer from several illnesses, such as American foulbrood or varroa mites. Regular hive inspections help in early detection and control.

  • Pests: Various pests, such as wax moths, mites, and small hive beetles, can pose a serious risk to your colony. Maintaining hive cleanliness is an effective preventative measure.

  • Absconding: Absconding happens when an entire colony abandons the hive. It could be triggered by factors such as lack of food, disturbances, or poor hive conditions. Providing adequate resources and minimizing interference can help deter this behavior.

Understanding these potential challenges can better equip you to handle them efficiently, promoting a thriving bee colony.

Advantages and rewards of beekeeping

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Beekeeping is an incredibly rewarding activity, yielding tangible and intangible benefits alike:

  • Environmental contribution: By keeping bees, you are contributing to pollination, crucial for our ecosystem’s healthy functioning and food production.
  • Health benefits: Beekeeping is a therapeutic hobby that promotes mental wellness. It encourages outdoor activity, fostering a connection with nature.
  • Economic profit: Honey, beeswax, propolis, pollen, and other hive products can be sold or used personally, offering considerable economic benefits.

Start your beekeeping journey today!

Embarking on a beekeeping journey is a fascinating and rewarding exploit, full of lessons, challenges, and sweet victories. While the way may be strewn with hurdles, your preparation, due diligence, and passion can help bridge the gap between novice enthusiasm and expert mastery. The world of beekeeping awaits you with all its buzz, honey, and the promise of a deeper connection to the natural world. Begin your journey today and savor the richness beekeeping adds to your life.

Beyond these, the sheer joy of watching your colony thrive and grow, the wonder of observing their complex social systems, and the satisfaction of your first honey harvest make beekeeping a uniquely rewarding pursuit.

Sabrina Lopez

About the author… Sabrina Lopez, an impassioned environmentalist and storyteller with a background in environmental science, seamlessly weaves her love for nature into compelling narratives that serve as a call to action, encouraging readers to appreciate and safeguard our delicate ecosystems. In her tranquil writing retreat, surrounded by cherished rescue animals, Sabrina draws inspiration, using her stories to underscore the interconnectedness between humanity and the broader web of life, instilling a sense of urgency and purpose in environmental stewardship.

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  • This seems like a drastically oversimplified and unrealistically optimistic introduction. But what do I know.

    • I agree to some extent, but then again, if one is writing an introductory guide, one of the trickiest parts is deciding what to leave out. Rusty has pages and pages devoted to each of the major subsections in this introduction, illustrating just how much there IS to leave out.

      I myself had a number of “Yes, but. . .” moments when reading this overview. I was amused, for instance, to see “varroa mites” listed as a “disease” under the challenges. True, generic “mites” are also listed under pests, but to me this obscures the fact that there are actually multiple types of mites to be concerned about. It also glosses over the multiple diseases that may (or may not) be carried by various mites.

      Then there are the laconic pros and cons of three hive types. Any of those statements could start a few heated arguments!

      So I applaud the effort, but encourage any newbies to also take advantage of Rusty’s excellent cross-references and index. Not all at once! and don’t be afraid to go back and re-read posts. I almost always learn something new or just interesting when I browse around the site. Never mind the couple of hours that it takes me.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful evaluation. I agree that the hardest part of writing is knowing what to leave out. Lots of times, my comments section (or my email inbox) lists all the items the reader believes I “forgot,” but I can’t repeat everything I know every time. It discourages me because I know before I start that complaints will follow. But I try to run beginner articles now and then because most of my traffic is from new beekeepers even though I have a solid core of regulars, some of whom have been with me for many years. To add a fresh perspective, I used Sabrina’s article because I thought she did a pretty good job of touching on beginner concerns.

  • Nice article, but you should have mentioned local Beekeeper Associations/Clubs/Groups.
    Many allow the use of extractors, and all have members with a slew of knowledge to impart.
    They also may make certain bulk purchases for group discounts, provide training and mentorship, etc.

  • I run a youth beekeeping program for my local club that has averaged over 20 kids the last 5 years (which I am pretty such makes this the biggest youth program in the nation). This article isn’t bad, but there are a few things I would add and others I disagree with outright.

    Add: I think it’s very important to suggest that people start w/ more than 1 hive. Good beekeeping practices are “socialistic” in nature – meaning it’s good to take resources (food, brood, built comb, etc) from a strong hive and give it to a weak hive. In this way, it’s actually easier to keep 2 hives alive than it is just 1.

    Add 2: How to learn – I always tell people that they need to put their hands on at least 100 *different* hives in order to really learn what they are doing. The way to do this is to JOIN A CLUB and find experienced beekeepers that will let you come help them with their hives.

    Disagree: Frame grabber. I hate those things – I have dropped more frames using one of those than I ever have just using my fingers. The key here is to use the LEAST amount of gloves you can – using bare hands to lift frames gives you more “feeling” which allows you to be gentler on the bees.

    2nd disagree – extracting equipment. Instead of spending the hundreds of dollars for equipment you won’t use until year 2 (or even 3), instead I recommend people JOIN A LOCAL CLUB. Most (good) clubs have an extractor that can be checked out for free to club members.

    • Chris,

      I’ve never used an extractor of any type, but that’s a separate subject. However, I’ve heard enough horror stories of AFB transmission through unsanitized extractors, that I never recommend sharing them; it’s like sharing needles. If people eat honey tainted with AFB spores, there is no consequence (except for infants). But if the tainted honey gets fed to bees, a colony can easily contract the disease.

      As for clubs, you have been lucky. I have been horrified by the misinformation that flows through most beekeeping clubs, at least the ones I’ve been involved with. The truth is some are great, some are terrible, and most probably fall in the middle. The trick is in knowing the difference, something that’s hard for a new beekeeper to figure out.

  • Thank you for this great intro to beekeeping!

    I love how straigthforward yet thorough it is… and I love how you’re pointing out how Langstroth equipment is better adapted to commercial beekeeping, and that top-bar hives for example are much more cost effective, allowing for simpler and more natural management.

    I would point out that top-bar hives are actually much less intrusive than Langstroth hives, and much more cost-effective than any frame based hive. For those wanting to try their hand at it, Les Crowder has some very easy free plans on his website at Bee Mindful (he makes them from scratch with three 2×10 boards in less than 2hrs and for less than $30/colony) – just google “Les Crowder plans bee mindful” to locate his plans.

    One thing I would add otherwise, if I may, is that a solid understanding of bee biology and colony cycles is critical, and can make or break a successful beekeeping experience.

    Lastly, if one intends to keep their bees without pesticides, they might consider using survivor stock instead of treated stock (getting treated stock and simply discontinuing treatments often leads to failure also).

    Thank you for all the great content!!!!

  • Hello! Help please!

    We had 1 hive, did well, we didn’t take any honey so they would have enough for the winter. We noticed the honey was reducing, so we added white sugar to the top. They used quite a bit of it. Last March 2023, the bees were gone. We only seen a few dead ones. We hadn’t had a moth or moth problem either. So we collected the leftover honey, we thought, it looks like honey, but tastes similar to heavy sugar syrup.

    We strained twice and jarred a lot of the product, then left some on the frames for the spring bees to clean out, which they nicely did.
    Question: Is this a GOOD consumable product for people or just sugar syrup, high carb?

    Can I leave this out for spring bees to take this year before spring flowers?
    Thanking you for a much needed reply, by blog or email.

    • Paula,

      A few things here. First, it sounds like you may have had a mite problem. Often, a lack of dead bees with only a few left indicates the live bees were hauling out the dead ones as fast as they could. This typically happens when a colony is being overrun by mites.

      Also, the bees may have been storing the sugar syrup you gave them. That would certainly make for tasteless (but harmless) “honey.” If it looks and tastes like sugar syrup, it probably is sugar syrup. You can surely save it for the bees to get them started in the spring.

      The number of carbs in sugar syrup and honey are about equal. However, sugar syrup lacks the antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other nutrients that honey has. Basically, if the bees stored sugar syrup, it’s not better or worse for you than eating sugar syrup from your kitchen.

  • Rusty,

    Thank you so much for answering my concern. I love this website, also I greatly appreciate all of the information you share and your understanding.

    One more question please:

    Having unpredictable and messy January weather here in Tennessee, when would be the best time to set out this sugar syrup? What to place it on? The syrup is very clean, I hope the bees and others will accept it.

    Thanks again.

    • Paula,

      If you have any left in frames, you can put those directly into the hive. If it’s all extracted, you can put it in an entrance feeder (like a Boardman feeder) although these sometimes attract robbers. Alternatively, you can put it in an internal hive-top feeder or on the top frames in a baggy feeder. You can do this now up until your bees begin to forage on their own.

  • The most important thing for a beginner beekeeper is to design a plan for the entire beekeeping year.
    He must know in advance when he must inspect the hives, why he must inspect them and what measures has to be taken.
    This plan must be constantly completed, as information and experience are accumulated.
    When the review of the work plan is minor and occasional, only then the beekeeper is no longer a beginner.

    Another important aspect for a beginner beekeeper is to find answers to his questions, and this work plan will help him evolve on his own.

    All the best!

    • I agree except for the fact that it’s hard for a new beekeeper to understand how to plan for the entire year, including when to do inspections and and what measures need to be taken. Many details, especially concerning any beekeeper’s local conditions, need to be learned from experience.

  • I have a question for you. I live in southeast Mississippi. I had several old, some falling over, bee boxes and at least 5 had bees. A novice moved all of the hives about 1/2 a mile, and now my house and land is covered in angry bees. What do I do?

    • Howard,

      Well, those bees are probably not angry at all. They are scared, confused, and frustrated because their homes have disappeared. When you move bees a short distance from home (about 2 miles away or less) they will return to the spot they have memorized as home. Moving bees a short distant is an art form and it requires locking the bees inside at night, and then moving the hives and keeping the bees locked inside the hives for several days. This will force most of them to reorient and re-learn where home is. Some instructions for moving hives can be found here. At this point, the person should bring the hives back so the bees can move in again. Then he/she should make a plan and start over.