Wanna live that bee life? It’s not all fun and bee jokes! Here’s what you need to know about bee-coming a beekeeper (and beekeeping in general). Did we say bee enough?
What is beekeeping?
Beekeeping (apiculture) is the practice of managing honeybee colonies. The most common primary objectives for managing colonies are to:
1. Ensure large, healthy adult honeybee populations to coincide with major nectar flows
2. To use these strong honeybee colonies to best execute the beekeeping management plan to:
- Maximize the collection of nectar (ie. to maximize honey production); and/or
- Provide pollination services for local food crops
Some beekeepers have other objectives for their honeybee colonies such as:
- Raising honeybee livestock for sale to other beekeepers
- Producing other honeybee substances, including bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly
The Bee Plan
To attain desired results, be it honey production, pollination services, or other goals, the beekeeper needs a plan. The fundamental elements that drive the plan are:
- 1. Knowledge of local nectar flows. This knowledge is critical in that it tells the beekeeper which crops provide nectar and pollen for the honeybees, when the nectar flows occur, where the crops are located, and how prolific they are. This also provides timing for moving honeybee colonies into and out of fields for pollinating various food crops for growers. This knowledge not only gives the timing for maximizing the strength of colonies to take advantage of nectar flows, but also identifies times when there will be a shortage of food for the bees.
- 2. Knowledge of honeybee biology. The beekeeper must understand the natural instincts of the honeybee in order to facilitate an environment to enhance the productivity of the colony. Honeybees are social insects and the beekeeper must manage honeybee colonies as opposed to managing at the individual bee level. To do this, the beekeeper must have a good knowledge of the honeybee life cycle, seasonal cycles of the honeybee colony, the roles of of the different types of bees, and honeybee diseases. Since most of the beekeeper’s objectives revolve around honeybees collecting nectar, knowledge of the food requirements of the colony, and how the bees collect and process food, is critical.
- 3. Beekeeping techniques to manipulate the colony. There are a number of basic beekeeping techniques that are used to ensure good colony health, and to maximize colony strength at the desired times. Management techniques do vary somewhat, and are fine-tuned to the conditions in particular regions.
- 4. Deciding on the goals and how to use the colonies. Given the local nectar flows, pollination opportunities, and the price of honey, the beekeeper must make a plan as to how to best manage the colonies to achieve the desired objectives.
Beekeeping Tools and Equipment
Basic Hive Equipment
Modern honeybee colonies are designed to mimic the dimensions and environment of a bees nest built naturally by wild (feral) honeybees, with the added ability to remove individual frames of honeycomb for inspection and manipulation. The dimensions of the removable frames are similar in dimension to honeycomb built in the wild. One notable feature is that the space between each frame, known as the “bee space”, is approx 8 mm. This space is sufficient for the bees to move around but not big enough so that the bees will build additional honeycomb in the space, thus facilitating easy removal of the frames.
A standard bee hive consists of:
- One bottom board
- One or two brood chambers (each containing 9 or 10 removable frames)
- One queen excluder (to prevent the queen from moving from the brood chamber to the honey supers)
- One or more honey supers (boxes each containing 9 or 10 removable frames)
- One inner cover
- One telescoping hive cover
The essential tools required by a beekeeper to manipulate honeybee colonies are:
- Hive tool
- Bee veil
Some beekeepers additionally may use a full bee suit with gloves, and a bee brush.
Basic Colony Examination
Beekeepers check their colonies approximately once every 10 days from spring until fall to ensure the colonies have good nutrition, strong health, and enough space. The best time to check the hive is on a warm sunny day with little wind to prevent chilling the brood and to take advantage of having most of the field bees away from the hive. The primary things that a beekeeper is looking for when doing a hive inspection are:
- Are there fresh eggs present? This signifies that a queen is present, even if she is not seen during the inspection.
- Is the brood pattern good? A spotty appearance to the brood pattern may indicate a poorly performing queen or disease issues.
- Does the colony have enough honey and pollen? If there is not enough food stores, and there is little external food present, the colony may need supplemental feeding.
- Are there any signs of disease? If so, appropriate disease treatment protocols may need to be initiated.
- Is there enough space? If the colony is strong and there is an abundant food source, a lack of space will cause the colony to swarm.
The Beekeeper’s Calendar
In February and March beekeepers are checking to ensure that the bees have enough food and are strong and healthy. If a colony becomes weak, it is combined with a strong one. If a colony becomes too strong, it may be divided in half by the beekeeper, thus creating two colonies. Poor queen bees may be replaced with new ones, and beekeeping equipment is removed from colonies that did not survive the winter. In the world today, this unfortunately occurs 35% of the time.
During April and May, beekeepers are checking to ensure that the bees have enough room to expand the colony. If the bees outgrow their physical space, they will swarm. During swarming, a little over half of the population of bees leaves the hive to start another colony. If this happens, the beekeeper will lose the year’s honey crop from the colony that swarms.
In June and July, the majority of honey and pollen for the year is gathered. During this critical time, the beekeeper might need to visit the hives every day. Full boxes of honey are removed for extracting, and empty boxes returned to the hives for refilling. Pollen traps are emptied into freezers for storage, and no one gets a day off.
By August and September, the last of the honey crop is gathered and the bees are prepped for winter. Beekeepers ensure that brood is redistributed to make all colonies of equal strength. Colonies are fed if needed, and weak colonies are combined to make strong ones. In colder climates, all of the colonies are wrapped in an insulated blanket by October.
To Become a Beekeeper
There is an unbelievable amount of knowledge available on beekeeping, including excellent books and periodicals. Although the basic biology of the honeybee is constant, there are many variables such as weather, genetics, disease profiles, local crops, and climate that combine to make beekeeping a complex activity. There are a number of different methods or variants when it comes to how to manage honeybee colonies. Beekeepers also tend to be an independent lot (they like to be one with the bees) and experiment with their own methods to find out what works for them.
The recommended way to become a beekeeper is to read a number of books on the subject, and then to take a course from a beekeeping instructor that is familiar with your local area. Learn about our beekeeping courses.
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