A typical package of bees - Image credit: TheBeeYard
How to Install a Bee Hive: It Really Isn't Scary
I got pretty excited about news that the Obamas were including bee hives in the White House garden. After all, honey bees are one of the most important pollinators for our modern food system (and a great source of, errrm, honey). But many people are still very wary of bees - after all they sting like crazy, right? Well having been preparing for a few weeks now, I finally picked up my first bees over the weekend. I'll be the first to admit that I was more than a little nervous - but those nerves proved unfounded. The experience was a sheer delight and I'd recommend it to anyone. For those who are curious about amateur beekeeping - here's a little account of what was involved in getting started, and a few resources (including a great video) for those tempted to try it. First, Some Disclaimers
I'm sharing this information as an amateur, more to encourage others to explore beekeeping than as a guide on what to actually do. Read all you can, seek out EXPERIENCED beekeepers, and don't take my word for anything. I should also note that I was way too nervous to take pictures of most of the installation - so many images are borrowed from the internet.
Anyhow - here's what installing bees was like for me:
Beekeeping Research and Education
First off, I should say that I took a 12 week course a couple of years back on beekeeping. It was organized through my local agricultural extension office, and there are many similar courses around the country. You can contact your local beekeeping association for a course near you. The course was informative, fun and above all reassuring - and it was great to meet similar folks who are just starting out. But I don't think it's a must to take a course - most of the information can also be obtained from listservs, websites, other beekeepers and books (I highly recommend Beekeeping for Dummies).
Equipment and Preparation
Having read all I could on the subject, the next step was to get all the equipment together. Luckily I have a beekeeping supplier down the road from me, but there are also plenty of online sources for equipment too (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm has a great reputation). But remember to plan ahead. Hearing rumors that demand was way outstripping supply, I placed an order for bees way back in January for an April 9th delivery.
About two weeks before the arrival date I visited my supplier and picked up hive parts, a smoker, a veil helmet, feeder, and a hive tool (a kind of mini-crow bar used for everything from opening the hive to stoking the smoker to brushing off obstinate bees from frames). All in all the investment was in the region of $250 for equipment and 2 hives, plus about $160 for two packets of bees. I know I still need to get miscellaneous odds and ends once the honey starts flowing - including honey supers (extra parts to the hive where honey will be stored), a bee brush, and I may also buy a suit - but I have everything I need to get started.
A typical hive tool - Image credit: BeeClass.com
Setting up the site simply involved leveling some ground next to our garden and raising the hives up on cinder blocks. Bees will do best in dappled sunlight facing south-east - but they also seem to be pretty forgiving. I also painted the outside of my hive with a white exterior paint - mostly to help preserve the equipment, but the white color may also cool the hives in the heat of summer. Then I just had to wait...
Installing Bees in the Hive
Installing the bees was the scary part - luckily I had a friend who already keeps bees with me to help. When delivery day finally came I brushed aside my nerves and headed out. We picked up two packets of bees for me, and five for my friend, and after a brief talk with our supplier about his preferred installing method - we headed home. The bees came in a small cage with a can of sugar syrup, and a separate cage for the queen and a few attendants. Transportation couldn't have been simpler - we just put the cages in the car and drove home (you can also get bees by mail, if you are not near a supplier).
Once home we filled the feeders with sugar syrup - which I prepared the night before - and then pried open the cages. Once the cage was open we had to lift the queen cage out and place it in the hive, wedged between two frames. The cage is sealed with a plug of sugar which the other bees will slowly eat over the next week - eventually freeing the queen. The idea behind this gradual introduction is to make sure the bees are used to the queen's smell before she is freed, helping ensure that they accept her as theirs. (I will be checking in a few days to make sure she is free - if she isn't, I'll be removing the sugar plug myself.)
A queen in her cage - Image credit: 4 Legged Farm
Once the queen cage was in, we simply removed the syrup can from the main bee cage, removed some frames from the hives and placed the cage inside for the bees to crawl out. All we then had to do was replace the lid. I then had to come back a day later to remove the cage and top up the feeders.
I should note that this is the installation method recommended by my supplier, and differs a little from that detailed in most books. The method I see most often recommended is first installing the queen cage, then removing five frames and simply holding the main bee cage above the open hive and giving it a good few strong shakes so the bees fall in. You then gently replacing the five frames once the bees have dispersed a little - see the link and video at the bottom of this post for more info on this method.
A Note on Getting Stung
Generally speaking bees are very gentle - especially when they are first being introduced to a hive. They will be disoriented and they do not have anything to defend, so it's unusual to get stung. We didn't even wear veils when installing our bees as my friend felt it was unnecessary ( though I suspect a slight case of beekeeping machismo...). I personally will be wearing my veil from now on though, as we did encounter some problems.
My bees went in without incident, and only one sting - unfortunately that sting was around my friend's eye, which looked pretty painful. The next four hives were being installed next to an established hive with a honey super on it - and that's where we ran into trouble. The bees in the existing hive were clearly unhappy about all the activity - and they let my friend know in no uncertain terms - delivering about 15 stings to the head, and a few to me for good measure.
Although the swelling went down by the same evening, it's still worth taking precautions - especially if you may be allergic. Mostly wearing veils would have protected us, and that's why I'm a convert from now on, whatever my friend says. Gloves are not recommended as they can make you clumsy (bees don't like clumsy keepers!). Simply staying calm and not getting angry or panicking helps keep bees in a good mood. And it's important to never walk directly across the front of a hive entrance as this may alert the guard bees to danger.
Other precautions to keep in mind for future visits to the hive:
- Smoking bees gently calms their aggression. Though too regular or too heavy smoking can stress a hive. (Smoking is unnecessary on installation.)
- Hives should only be visited on a warm, sunny day when the bees are too busy collecting pollen to pay you much attention. Like us, they get grouchy when it rains.
- Open the hive only when necessary - visiting too regularly can cause them to think something is wrong.
Here's me feeding the bees a few days after the installation - note that there is a frame feeder inside the hive which I am filling up with sugar syrup.
After the Hive is Installed
Now the waiting begins. Because the nectar flow has not yet begun in earnest, it's necessary to feed the bees sugar syrup to keep their energy up as they build comb and establish the hive - feeding takes place every spring and fall, and you simply keep feeders topped up until they stop eating. And once feeding is over, you settle back to a less intensive regime of checking - ensuring that the queen is laying and that there is a good pattern of comb-building in the hive. Eventually, you will need to add extra hive bodies, and possibly even a honey super (though that may not happen in your first year).
There is, of course, much more to successful beekeeping than outlined in this short post - so please read up on all you can. But I hope the above account allays some fears from those thinking beekeeping is too complicated, or too dangerous, for them to have a go. We need all the bees we can get - and that means we need beekeepers.
For more resources, check out Honeybee Farms' step-by-step instructions on installing a package of bees, or you can check out the video below from NeBees. And of course, if there are any other beekeepers reading this - amateur or professional - please share your experiences in the comments below!
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