Considerations Before Becoming a Beekeeper
I got started with beekeeping in my backyard a few years ago after receiving a hive as a wedding gift. I had done a bit of research the winter before driving to pick up my first package of bees the following year. I have had failures, but I am continuing to learn all the time. There are quite a few things to consider before embarking on this truly rewarding experience. Here are some initial considerations before you jump in:
Why do you want to keep bees?
For me, the initial impulse was because I wanted to produce my own honey. But the more I have learned about honey bees and how fascinating they are, I have grown to appreciate them and want to protect them for future generations. Bee populations are shrinking globally and I want to do my part to continue the pollination of our food sources, as well as the trees and flowers that feed wildlife.
Are you allowed to keep bees where you live?
I happen to live in an unincorporated area of my town, so I did not need to worry when I wanted to get started with my bees, but you should certainly check with your local government to see what the rules are where you live. Because bees are in crisis, education about their importance has increased and has trickled down to local governments, and in many places policies are changing to allow for more hobbyists to raise bees in their backyard, or even rooftops in cities.
Can you afford it?
The initial costs for equipment can be steep with a hive kit starting around $300, a package of bees costing $100, plus the cost of additional supers and frames as you go throughout the season. Then, there is the equipment you will need if you extract honey which can range from very low to high tech. Check with your local bee clubs, as many share or rent these tools.
Are you allergic to bees?
This one should be pretty obvious, but if you have a severe allergy to bee stings, this hobby is not for you. Along the same lines, you must ask yourself if you mind being stung. I have gotten two stings in the past three years and both times I felt were my error. Nevertheless, it can happen, even if you are fully suited and covered (the first sting was through my thickest pair of jeans on my knee). If you follow correct procedures for hive inspections, stings should rarely be an issue. Honey bees are not aggressive and will only sting as a last resort. I spend a lot of time in my garden and bees just come and go around me as they please while I work (they're too busy!).
Do you have a good location for a hive?
The ideal location for a hive is somewhere that is sheltered from strong winds, is on a level surface, and receives several hours of sunlight during the day. Morning sunlight is preferred to afternoon because it means the bees get an earlier start and also don't have to work as hard to cool the hive in the afternoon heat. Another recommendation for hive orientation is for the entrance of the hive south. If you have neighbors close to you, building a tall fence around the hive(s) is a good idea since bees will need to fly up and over to get out to forage; you are essentially manipulating their path to go over rather than into an unsuspecting neighbor.
Can you lift up to 40 pounds?
A deep super full of honey will be very heavy, and you definitely do not want to drop it. Heavy supers are certainly the case with the Langstroth hive that I use (pictured above), so if lifting is an issue, there are other hive designs like a top bar hive that may be a better option.
Are you willing to commit your time to the year-round tending of the hive(s)?
Bees are industrious and hard working and in order to successfully keep them, you must be too. Spring is the time to install your bees and monitor their food levels if they are a newly established hive. Then as time marches into summer, you will continue to perform hive inspections every 1-2 weeks to ensure things are looking good inside the hive. As you head into fall, you will determine whether the bees have enough stored honey to get through winter and you can remove any excess supers to keep for yourself. Winter is a time for planning and studying. Also, if you get a 50°F or above day, you can look for activity around the hive. Hopefully they are still alive and this would be a good time to check the top frames for honey, or to see if they are going to need to be fed to make it through the rest of winter.
Do you enjoy research and learning?
These elements are crucial for the successful beekeeper. The first hours you spend as a beekeeper should be reading some key materials. I have linked what I have found to be essential reading below. The more you understand about how the hive operates, the better equipped you will be to make decisions about its management. I am fundamentally a proponent of natural beekeeping and do not treat my bees for disease or pests because I want only a strong colony to survive to pass along its genes for long-term success, not short-term gains. The first linked book below is especially useful if you are also interested in keeping bees naturally, and you are a beginner.
All this being said, do not be overwhelmed with the notion that you should learn everything you possibly can before ever getting started because much of my learning has come from doing!