Beekeeping – Getting Started

It seems simple but there’s a lot to learn when it comes to keeping honey bees. When my wife and I moved to Connecticut in 2018 to start a little hobby farm/orchard (maybe one day become a bee farm lol) bee’s were at the very top of my list of things I wanted. Little did I know how deep the rabbit hole would go. After reading tons of books, attending classes and just plain fail/learn cycles I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned to help other new or aspiring beekeepers. When you really dig it, it’s pretty amazing how it all works.

Stages of Life

This little chart is a great reference for the lifecycle of type of bee in the colony. Strangely the Queen Bee(the largest) takes the shortest amount of time do develop. When there’s no queen in the hive I guess it’s super high priority that they get a new one and the species that could create queens quickly just ended up surviving.

As I’m sure you remember from high school biology(or not) the initial life cycle of a bee is broken down into 4 parts

Egg

The surrest sign that your hive is queen right is to check for eggs. Even if you don’t see or can’t find the queen if there are eggs present you know the queen has been laying within the last couple of days.

The fertilized queen lays a single egg in bottom each open cell. A new queen will often times lay the egg on the side wall and in some cases lay more than one egg in the cell. This is just the sign of a new queen and shouldn’t be worrysome.

If you see multiple eggs laid in multiple cells this could be a sign of a laying worker which could spell disastor for you hive. This is an indication that no furtile queen is present and a new queen should be added as soon as possible. The laying worker scenario could be the result of the queen getting killed either accidentaly or deliberatly by some outside force. Without having a furtile queen in the hive, the population will dwindle over time and the hive will eventually die completely.

Larva

3 Days after the queen lays the egg it hatches into a larva. When observing your hive the thing to look for at this stage is for pearly white larva. If the larva are yellow and not pearly there is a chance you have some sort of bacterial infection in the hive. The most common bacterial problems in a hive are European Fowl Brood and American Fowl Brood. In some state in the US contracting American Fowl Brood can result in distruction by fire if the state entomologist deems necessary. It’s a sad outcome, but it’s for the benefit of all the other beehives in the area that they infection be destroyed.

At this stage the larvea are fed royal jelly, a milky super sweet mixture to help them develop. Over the next few days the larva are transitioned to a mixture of honey and pollen. Once the larva fill the cell the worker bees cap the top of the cell for the final development phase before the bee becomes an adult.

Pupa

This is the stage where the bee really starts to become recognizable as a bee. The eyes start to develop and go from white, to pink, to purple, to black. All the other anatomy of the bee starts to develop as well. After 12 days the fully developed adult bee emerges from the cell to became an adult.

Adult

Bee Life Cycle

As an adult the bee’s role changes throughout it’s life. Drone bees(which we’ll talk more about later) fulfill only one purpose: mating.
Worker bees however(females) have different jobs depending on their age.

Types of honey bees / “Bee Stock”

“Bee Stock” is the higher order of characteristics related to a particular group of bees. This includes species, race, region(not religion), population or breeding line. Saffice it to say, each “species” is really used as a shorthand to refer to the region the bees came from as well as their general characteristics

Common Species For Beekeepers

Italian

In my area these are very common. Obviously they originated in Italy.

Traits

  • Excellent Honey Producers
  • Gentle Natured
  • Don’t easily swarm
  • Light colored(which makes it sometimes easier to spot the queen)
  • Have a tendency to “rob” weaker hives
  • Less resistant to mites and other pests
Russian

Originally from Russia and were given little bee visas in 1997. Due to their mite resistance they USDA allowed importation to help rectivy the effects of colony collapse disorder which becoming more and more prevalent.

Traits

  • Very dependent on natural food sources
  • Studies have shown they carry up to 50% of the mite load of standard available bees
  • Limited availability makes them harder to find
  • Due to the fact that they’re so new we’re still in the process of learning all the aspects of this type of bee
Carniolan

This is one of the most common types of bees available commercially. If you’re new to beekeeping, you’ll almost certainly have this type in your hives the first year.

Traits

  • Explosive build up in the Spring
  • Great for quickly building comb
  • Not prone to “robbing”
  • very gentle
  • Higher likelihood of swarming due to explosive growth in colony size (just keep an eye on things and give more room once 80% of your frames have bees walking around on them)

In The Hive

Queen

Days to emergence – 16

Days to fertility – 23+

It goes without saying that the queen is the most important bee in the whole hive. If you’re not careful(like I wasn’t) it’s easy to squash your queen and start the quick process of losing your hive entirely.

Some beekeepers go as far as to mark the queen with a special paint pen so she can be more easily spotted. This isn’t really necessary and for inexpereinced beekeepers it could actually injure the queen which could be disasterous for your hive.

Take special care, especially when the queen is on a frame outside the hive. If she falls off she might be able to make it back in. If not, often bees will swarm around her while she’s on the ground which could create quite an issue getting her back into the hive. Just keeps your eyes peeled and you’ll be ok.

Workers

Days to emergence – 18-22

All worker bees are female. As stated earlier each worker bee has a series of jobs that they are fulfill at different stages of their life.

Cleaning Phase – 1-16 days old

At this phase the new bees do the bulk of the grunt work. Items like removing dead bees, debris, and general cleanup.

Nurse Bees Phase – 4-12 days old

Nurse bees take care of and feed the brood and the queen.

Fanning/Nectar Transfer Phase – 12-18 days old

This phase is broken into two jobs. That of transfering nector around the hive and fanning.

Fanning is useful for 3 things.

  1. It keeps the hive cool by circulating air.
  2. It helps to remove moisture from the nectar and turn it into honey
  3. It helps to circulate pheromones within the hive. If they hive is under attack certain pheromones are released from the dying bees they know the spring into action. Additionally when a queen is present they other bees can smell her pheromones. If the hive can no longer smell they pheromones of the queen they quickly take steps to create a new queen to keep the hive alive.
Wax Production Phase – 12-36 days old

It may come as a surprise but not all bees produce wax. It’s only within this tiny window of their lives that they produce wax. All wax produced in the hive is only created by bees that are within this short phase of their lives.

Guard Bees Phase – 18-21 days old

This is the last phase before a bee beings to leave the hive on a regular basis. To keep out foreign insects or other unwanted guests the guard bees watch all enterances and are prepared for attack.

Forager Phase – 22+ days old

Any honey bee you see flying from flower to flower is one of the oldest bees from the hive. After a long journey she has earned the right of passage to leave the hive on nice days, help create food for the rest of the hive and help create food for all the other creatures on the earth.

Drones

Days to emergence – 24

Days to fertility – ~ 38
Drone bees are all male. Their only function is to mate with a virgin queen when the time comes. As winter approaches the female workers bees “evict” all drone bees by dragging them out of the entrance of the hive in order to conserve food resources. Although this seems brutal the drones no longer serve a purpose after the queen has mated and act only as extra mouths to feed during the long and cold winter.

As the days get shorter and the temperatures start to drop you can often see 1-2 worker bees wrestling the drone bees out of the hive and leaving them outside the hive to die. If however a Drone did decide to come back to the hive he would never make it past the guard bees who cover the entrances.

Bumble bees vs Honey bees

As you can see the visual differences are quite obvious once you know what to look for. But there are actually several other characteristics that set these bee types apart. Both bees produce honey, but bumble bees only produce what they need. For this reason beekeepers have opted to keep the traditional honey bee to harvest the extra honey for themselves.

Honey Bee & Bumble Bee Facts

Honey Bees Bumble Bees
Slender/abdomen tip is pointed Robust/abdomen tip is rounded
Few body hairs Visible body hairs
Translucent wings Dark wings
Typically builds above ground nests Typical builds below ground nests
Queen Lives up to 3 years Queen Lives for 1 year
Population 10,000+ Population in the 100’s

see also – 30 amazing honey bee facts

Bee Equipment & Supplies

Beekeeper Suits

Let me be frank. When it comes to keeping bees, the bottom line is you WILL be stung occasionally. Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as you might think. My first night of beekeeping I got stung twice in about the span of 20 second but I learned and got better. As you get more experience you’ll learn to move slower and more deliberalty. Eventually you’ll get more familiar with handling the bees and magically you’ll get stung less.

Even though I have experience handling bees I still think people are crazy to not wear some sort of suit. Although expert beekeepers sometimes wear suit, sometimes not even a vale, if you treasure your eyesight it’s a must have.

Choosing your suit

Full body w/ vale
Initially I got this type. I thought I would incur less of a risk of having a bee go up my pant legs, but depending on the size you buy it might too snug. Typically the material is cotton and as a result isn’t very flexible. If you’re stretching, picking up & putting down hive boxes etc it makes it hard to move the way you want. Typically this still has a full length zipper in the front from about belt buckle height all the way up to the sewn on vail.

I personally don’t recommend this because it’s too constrictive, but some people prefer to be totally covered from head to toe because you do get quite dirty when you’re handling the hive.

Jacket w/ vale
This is my preferred style of protection. I always wear jeans; typically with my pant legs tucked into my muck boots. I would avoid having open edges since bees always seem to find their way in. The style I currently have is a slip over style. It works ok, but it’s pretty annoying to take on and off. If you’re wearing a hat it almost always get pulled off along with the shirt you have on underneath.

Other beekeepers I know have a style much like a zip up hoodie. You put it on just like a jack and it zips in the front up to the vail. The vale has zips near your collarbones that zip forward making a T shape that’s zipped shut. Based on observing other beekeepers using this style it seems much easier to get on and off and provides just as much protection.

Vale Only
link to beekeeper suit types and reviews

Bee Smoker

how it works
link to how to use a bee smoker

Bee Boxes

talk about different types of bee boxes
link to wood review
link to plastic review
link to flow hive reviews

beekeeper gloves

few sentences with recommendation & link to purchase nitrle or leather gloves.

where to buy bees

locally,
online

Bee Keeping Courses

Contact your stat

entomologist

bee keeping books

click here to read more/reviews

the ultimate beekeeping starter kit

backyard & urban beekeeping

click here to read more