If you’ve followed stories about the plight of pollinators and colony collapse disorder with unease and think, “Maybe next year I’ll get a hive,” consider this your heads up: Next year is right around the corner, and there’s never been a better time for beekeeping.
So while your future hive will mostly be a warm-season endeavor, preparing for it is a hobby unto itself, and something that will easily keep you busy and engaged all winter long. If you’re ready to take the plunge with a colony of honeybees, here are five ways to maximize the cold months so you can have a happy hive when the leaves return next year.
1. Join your local bee club. There’s no better way to learn the ins and outs of managing a colony of honeybees than to spend time with people who already do it. Many bee clubs host introductory classes for aspiring beekeepers, and you might even have an opportunity to suit up and participate in hive inspections.
If there are no clubs close to you, see if one in your region has a Facebook page or email list you can join. You could find helpful reminders of seasonal tasks right in your news feed or inbox.
Students in the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Beekeeping for Beeginners watch as Jon Zawislak gets ready to transfer honey bees from a transport box to their new home. (Photo: Mary Hightower/uacaescomm/flickr)
2. Read everything you can about beekeeping. Surprisingly, both "Beekeeping for Dummies" and "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping" are well-respected texts that give clear pictures of two styles of beekeeping, with the "For Dummies" book presenting standard modern beekeeping, and the "Idiot’s Guide" showcasing the theory and practice of naturalistic, chemical-free beekeeping.
Read widely, and read online as well. There are plenty of excellent beekeeping communities, forums, blogs, websites, and mailing lists available online, and beginners can glean enormous amounts of knowledge from reading those discussions.
3. Decide what kind of equipment you want and then order it. Google can direct you to any of a number of beekeeping supply houses, as can your local bee club. In general, hive bodies come in three sizes, deep, medium and shallow. These are the four-sided wooden boxes you probably think of when you picture a hive. They are open on the top and bottom (those are separate pieces) and distinguished by their height. Boxes hold frames, much like a filing cabinet holds files, and aside from the three heights of boxes, they also come in eight- or 10-frame versions.
One increasingly common hive concept for the backyard enthusiast the eight-frame medium hive. The big driver for these smaller hives is weight. A deep 10-frame hive body filled with honey weighs in at more than 90 pounds and moving those around during hive inspections can take a real toll on the back. If you have kids who might like to help out, using lighter equipment can give them more of a chance to be involved.
In addition, using only medium sized frames means that equipment can be easily moved from one hive to another, or one box to another. You’ll never need to worry about whether that spare frame is the right size when you need to swap gear. Having components that can work universally is extremely convenient for the bees and the beekeeper.
If you live in a region with harsh winters, your climate requirements may make medium hives a risky choice. Talk to your new friends at your local bee club and see what works for them.
Honeybees enter a hive. (Photo: Shutterstock )
4. Order your bees. There are major suppliers in each region offering bees of varying types. If you’ve networked with local beekeepers, you may also have the option of purchasing a package of bees or, more likely, a five-frame nucleus hive when the bees build up in the spring. Check out your preferred supplier for order dates and specifics. Usually, orders for packages of bees are placed over the winter, and in the spring, they ship out to startled postal workers coast to coast. Once a supplier starts taking orders, the process is first-come, first-served, so ordering at the earliest possible date means you’ll get your bees earlier in the season. That gives your new colony more time to build comb and collect stores before the fall.
(You can count on a very interesting exchange when you retrieve your buzzing charges at the post office next year.)
5. Build your equipment and learn the lay of your land. Once your hive parts arrive, you’ll probably have some assembly to do. Nailing and gluing together hive bodies and frames is a great way to pass gray winter weekends while you plan for spring.
For optimal placement, locate a flat, sunny spot in your yard. Avoid putting hives into areas that may flood. In regions with small hive beetles, some beekeepers have reported an advantage to placing hives on concrete slab or having other types of barriers beneath the hive to interrupt the beetle’s life cycle. If you also keep chickens, you may find that chickens and bees are an ideal pair — chickens love to clean up dead bees and eat parasites and their larvae under and around the hives.
Like a lot of hobbies, beekeeping tends to take on a life of its own. You may find yourself poring over seed catalogs next winter so you can grow the perfect pollinator garden, or ordering more components to expand your apiary. Once you’re bitten by the bug — or in this case, take a few stings — it’s hard to imagine life without bees. And that’s exactly why it’s such an important time to finally get that hive going.
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