Updated: Oct 20, 2022
I get a number of questions on a daily/weekly basis about bees. Keeping and caring for them, honey and extraction, our wax products, everything! I've always thought of doing something like this or a video of some things I wish I could tell my younger self to avoid or jump all over.
For those that don't know us, my wife and I keep bees in the southern part of NB. Not quite to the coast but just south of the province's capital city. After about a year of researching and a good few chats with a local keeper, I finally made the jump and here are some things I may or may not have done differently.
1. Buy a minimum of two hives to start
When you have just one hive it makes it very hard to know if it is weak or strong. You can find out quickly if one is having issues, or is delayed when you have a second one to compare to. Our initial investment was for one full hive and we split into two. Alternatively, you could buy two nucs and have them both grow.
This year, if you were to purchase two nucs and all the boxes, frames, etc, it would cost about $1000-$1200. (In our area) That's including feeders, and miscellaneous items but not treatments. It's a pricey endeavor, and you don't even have a suit, tools, or smoker yet. It may seem like a savings to stick with one but I can assure you, getting a minimum of two is in your best interest.
Not only will you have a better feel for the strength or growth progress of each and a comparison available, but if one hive does begin to slow it's progress or, if you happen to make a mistake and squish a queen, you will be more equipped to handle the situation. As an example, grab a frame from the strong hive and move it over to the weaker one to allow them to build a new queen.
If you're so new that you're not sure why one is out preforming the other, that is ok. Learning is part of it, and that brings me to the second tip.
2. Reach out to another keeper to act as a mentor
My initial contact became my go to, and to be honest in many ways, I still reach out if I have some ideas or questions. It's great to have a person that has experience working with bees because they can tell you pretty quickly if something you're planning is out in left field or not.
This past season I had a queenless hive that never had a chance to, or for some reason didn't, build a replacement. If you're thinking what's the deal? Well, worker bees will not lay eggs if a queen is present. There's a reason for it but I'll leave that for another blog. When there isn't a queen present, a worker can begin laying eggs. What's so bad about that you ask? The workers haven't mated with a drone like the queens have. Without mating, the eggs this worker is laying are all drones(male). It quickly becomes a mess in there without the head girl running the show. On top of the mess, the drones hatching really don't possess the strong genes you want mating with other queens in your yard.
After some thought, and discussion with my mentor, we figured out a way to merge the hive and keep the genetics away from future generations of our queens.
Experienced keepers may not have all the answers, but they do have knowledge of how bees work within the hive and can use that and the tools available to achieve the desired results. I guess you could say, they know how bees think. They know what they are looking for at certain times of the year and they know how to work with the bees while making minimal disruption to their daily duties.
3. Join a group!
What's better than a mentor? A group of them! We're members of the CBA. (Central Beekeepers Association) In our area, there is also the NBBA (New Brunswick Beekeepers Association Inc.) We'll likely join that soon enough.
The CBA is a local group of keepers ranging from their first time to decades of experience. Some have a couple hives and others may have 50+. The group meets monthly and offers education and group discussion on relevant and timely information. In the spring, we discuss feeding, treatments, splits, queen rearing, etc. In the summer, monitoring and checks, and fall is all about feeding and prepping for winter. At the time of writing this, it is $20.00 to join, and the number of friends you will meet and years of experience you will have access to is well worth it.
4. Know your area
So, you know spring comes in April right? Well, it's not that simple. When are the maple buds out? How about dandelions? Is there a dearth that happens in the summer? When is it?
This all may sound like a lot to watch out for. My first couple of years I didn't watch this. Now, as I go throughout the community, I look for budding hardwoods as the first sign of pollen. As time goes, I look for dandelions starting, and as apples and clover come, I know to put on extra boxes as a honey flow begins.
Your local association, if there is one in your area, will know a lot of the normal times on these kind of blooming plants. They will also know what to look for as a dearth happens and how you should handle feeding and wrapping hives for winter. They can guide you as you navigate a changing environment.
5. Don't waste money and time with the gadgets
Beekeeping is like any hobby. It can be as expensive as you make it. There's tools for pulling out frames, and holding frames on the side of hives. There are monitors for temperature, and of course the famous Flow Hive, which maybe I'll cover some time on here. So, what do you buy? What's best, and what just doesn't cut it? How much money can you spend while "saving" on you honey?
It's a pretty basic hobby to be honest, and starting out, it's just best to keep it that way. The basics any keeper will need are 4 simple tools. Believe me, these 4 items will leave you wondering if saving the few bucks on honey is actually worth it.
This simple tool prevents the bees from communicating, and as some put it, keeps them calm. Calm bees, or distracted bees sting much less, and that's a good thing.
- Hive tool
This and a smoker will be your 2 go to items. I specifically use a J tool. This allows you to easily start frames by using the small J hook on the end to pry up the frame making it easily grab and pull. The sharp edge makes cleaning burr comb simple. Being metal, they are easily cleaned with a torch.
- Some sort of clothing or face covering
I say some sort of clothing because the full suit really isn't a requirement. Now, if you're nervous and unsure of yourself, go big. Grab a suit and get working. With some time working with your girls, you will be more confident and begin working with less covering. Don't get me wrong, there is no shame in wearing the full suit. I have found that mid summer heat and hive inspections for hours in a bulky suit on a hot day are not fun for anyone. I have a full suit for times I can, or need to wear it, but for most of my warm summer days, a simple vale will do.
- Bee brush
This one isn't something you will need much, but will come in handy. Be sure to get the real bee brush with the horse hair. Penny pitching here wont help you. The horse hair brushes are soft and prevent the bees from getting too upset. Other plastic fiber brushes only hurt and upset the bees.
And that's 5! There is still a lot I would tell my younger self, maybe 6-10 can be another blog at some point.
If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading! We're excited to make this a form of content for you as we share what we've experienced as keepers.
Until the next one!