A Quick Guide to Starting a Beehive

beekeper inspecting his hives in his garden, bees on honeycomb


Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

With Colony Collapse Disorder consistently chipping away at our global honeybee population, the art of beekeeping has become more important than ever. So when I found out my local newspaper--the San Francisco Chronicle--had a rooftop beehive, I just had to see it for myself as I've been curious about starting my own hive for a few years now. I do hope what I learned on my visit inspires you to start your own apiary.

Since 2009, colony loss levels reached 29-percent, according to the USDA, and they increased to 34-percent come 2010. Compounded by a steady drop in beekeeping since World War II, it's a scary time for our bees considering just how important they are to our global food system. We need more bees!

Meredith May is one of the main beekeepers over at the Chronicle and she gave us a do-it-yourself tour of their rooftop beehive. May is also a reporter for the Chron, and I might add, has the perfect name for the job. It is very Lois Lane-ish, no?

Now, let's start beekeeping!

What You'll Need

Beekeeper suit hanging outdoors
Fran Polito / Getty Images

Smoker - Any size will do but the buzz on the street is that the larger ones are easier to keep lit.

Veil - You are going to need some sort of protective garments like a veil and a jacket. You probably do not need the full suit.

Hive tool - Any flat bar will work, or a flat head screw driver if you are on a budget but if you can afford it, the Italian Hive Tool is the one to buy. It is well crafted for most any beekeeping task.

Bee brush - No, this isn't for grooming the bees! You can buy one or you can use a feather.

Smoker, bee brush, hive tool, bee keeping tools
 Paul Starosta / Getty Images 

Top Feeder - A gallon can with small holes in the cap that fits into a hole drilled into the hive's cover, into which syrup (2 parts water and 1 part sugar) is poured. The syrup gives them the energy to build the wax honeycomb.

Spray bottle - Fill it with syrup. Do not reuse an older spray bottle if it has been used with other chemicals. Bees are very sensitive.

Queen Catcher - This makes catching the queen a lot gentler on her. No one wants a ticked off queen bee, especially a bee keeper. And I have to say, living in San Francisco, the term "queen catcher" conjures up many different images.

blue and yellow bee hives outside
Maria Fedotova / Getty Images

Bee Hives - Now the one place you don't want to skimp on is hive boxes. Get a few, at least three, because you never know when you are going to need an extra one. But when you do, you need it immediately and not a moment later. So having a few on hand will save you a lot of grief in those moments.

Bottom board - wooden stand on which the hive rests. Set bottom board on bricks or concrete blocks to keep it off the ground.

Extractor - It would be nice to have one of these but they are quite pricy. I suggest you go in on one with other beekeepers in your area or see if you can rent one.

Queen Muff - Yes, I said muff. After catching the queen, put her in the muff and as to not worry about her flying off.

Mail Order

bees on honeycomb
Daniel Milchev / Getty Images  

Obtaining bees is not necessarily easy but it is a lot easier than you think it will be. You can get them off of Craigslist or just check for bee forums in your area. Lot's of beekeeping enthusiasts come across swarms they are always trying to unload. Of course, this requires some planning and a bit of serendipity as the perfect time for starting a hive is in the spring.

A common type and amount of bees to order is a 3 pound package with an Italian queen. For a few dollars extra, you can have your queen marked. It is a good idea to have your queen marked. Since they will come in the mail (yes, in the mail) you will want to notify your local post office about them.

There are three types of bees: the queen, the worker and the drone.

Queen bees - The queen's sole purpose is to lay eggs, that is all she does. Heck, she doesn't even feed herself. She is like some self-indulging Roman emperor, just lying around being fed grapes all day long by the worker bees. I mean, they do all the work! They even get rid of her waste (eww!). During the height of laying season, the queen can produce around 1000 eggs a day.

Worker bees - Worker bees are sterile female bees. And all they do, as their name implies, is work.

Drone bees - Guys, be thankful you are not a bee. Like most guys, all these bees do is eat and think about sex. Their job is to get jiggy with the queen, that is it. But it isn't as sexy as it sounds. If a drone is lucky enough to mate, the queen bee rips out his sexual organs during coitus and stores the sperm for future use. He then falls to the ground and dies. If he isn't fortunate to find a queen to mate with, the worker bees will force him out of the hive come winter, as he is no longer deemed useful.

Beehive Feng Shui

beehive in a garden
 Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

You want to place your bees in an area that encourages healthy flight patterns. For example, you want to take the bees away from your neighbors or your pets.

"Keep the hive in a dry [and sunny] place and you want the hive entrance near a wall near it because you want the bees to fly up and over something. It is also nice to have something like that to block drafts and wind," explains May. Bees kept in the shade are angry bees. Remember, no one wants angry bees.

Of course, proximity to flowering plants and shrubs is good for bees. Bees tend to like lavender a lot but oddly enough, they really enjoy the color purple! They are very much attracted to it. They also love buckwheat.

As Meredith jokes, "Buckwheat is like bee crack, they really go crazy for it!"

You also need a water source of some sort, but nothing fancy. They prefer standing water with natural minerals so put away the cat drinking fountain. That isn't going to work here. And as you might know, bees cannot swim. So they need something to stand on in the water, such as rocks or a piece of wood.

Installing Your Bees

I think the best--and safest--way to learn about installing your bees is to watch a video on it.

Up Next: Honey Bee Management