Beekeeping, apart from being a full-time or a part-time vocation, is also a popular hobby practiced by millions of people across the globe. It's a hobby which has sweet returns! Anyone and everyone can keep bees except those who are allergic to bee stings and pollen. However, before initiating beekeeping, it's advisable to be well versed with bees. Reading books on beekeeping or apiculture is a good option, but as far as possible visit an experienced beekeeper and observe how he handles them. You could even join a local beekeeping association for more information and practical experience on the subject. As a beginner, it's best for you to start off with only two hives. You can expand the number as you grow in confidence and experience.
Choosing an Appropriate Location for the Beehive
It's not necessary to have a large garden to keep a hive. People living in towns and cities can place their man-made hives on platforms on the house roof, balcony, etc. Ensure that the hive is placed on level ground. You need to choose a spot that faces south or southeast with a wind break behind the hive. Avoid placing them facing the road, as passersby could get stung.
The area where the hive is placed must have an abundant supply of pollen and nectar. Corn, sorghum and several other grasses are excellent sources of pollen. Further, leguminous plants, dandelions, willow trees, locust trees, fruit trees, etc are excellent sources of nectar. However, if you live in a city and cannot plant corn and legume, then ornamental plants and trees come to the rescue. They provide pollen as well as nectar and result in extended honey production. Another point to be remembered is to have a source of water near the hive. In case there is no natural water-body present, you could place a shallow pan with clean water near the hive. Such water pans will keep the bees off your neighbor's yard!
Equipment for Beekeeping
The basic equipment is the hive, protective gear, a source of bees, ancillary gear and equipment to handle the honey crop. Order all this equipment during fall itself and assemble everything in the winter. This will keep you well prepared and organized for the bees by April.
Hive: The hive refers to the man-made structure in which the bee colony lives and produces honey. The most popular hive in the US is the square-shaped hive called the National Hive. The Langstroth hive is popular in other countries across the globe. The hives are available in an unassembled format, so beginners have to begin by assembling hive equipment. Purchase new equipment as it will be disease free. The assembling instructions are supplied along with the hive and are easy to follow. If you are going in for a second-hand one, then make sure they are checked and certified as disease-free by the local bee inspector. Irrespective of where and how you acquire your hive, you must ensure that it's of the standard size: 9-5/8 inches deep, 16-1/4 inches wide and 19-7/8 inches long.
Source of bees: There are ample number of ways of obtaining bees to start a bee colony. You could either purchase a nucleus colony (nuc) or an established colony of bees from another beekeeper. You could even purchase package bees (bees placed in a screened cage or package without honeycombs). Or you could try collecting swarms and even taking bees out of trees or walls. But for a beginner it is best to buy a bee package. If you buy a nuc or colony from another beekeeper, there is always the risk of buying their disease as well (if they have any). And as far as capturing a swarm is concerned, it is not an easy task.
Ancillary equipment: As a beekeeper you will need to purchase ancillary equipment such as bee smoker, hive tool and other several equipment to carry out honey extraction. A bee smoker will enable you to keep bees from getting agitated and comes in handy while you are working with them. Then there's the hive tool which is something that has been designed specifically to enable you to manipulate the frames in the hive, without disturbing the bees. For honey extraction you will need a bee brush to sweep the bees from each frame and a bee escape board that is useful to direct the bees out of their honey super (part of the hive where the bees collect honey). There's also the honey extractor and the electrically heated knife that are required for honey extraction.
Protective gear: Getting stung is something you will get used to as you spend more and more time with the bees. However, it is advisable to put on protective gear while dealing with them. Bee suits, a pair of high boots, bee gloves and bee veils are all available in the market. A bee veil is useful as it prevents the bees from crawling over your face. Besides, stings on the head are terribly painful.
Characteristics of a Good Bee Colony
It is essential that a strong population dwells in the hives. The queen will lay eggs in almost 12-16 frames, skipping one or two cells here and there. During summer the population will reach 75,000 (inclusive of 30,000 field bees) which will cover all the frames in the two hives. A good colony is one that is docile when handled and exhibits very little tendency to harm and attack. Such colonies will be able to produce 50-100 pounds of surplus honey each season, which you can use, so from the time you place two hives, you will start receiving 100-200 pounds of honey every season! However, always remember not to rob the bee colony of its honey in fall, or else they will die of starvation. Death of bee colonies due to winter starvation is a common cause for their demise. Each hive must comprise two deep brood chambers packed with bees and 60-90 pounds of honey to enable them to survive the winter months.
Bees are fascinating insects and their colony structure, working patterns, etc. are simply intriguing! Bees not only provide us sweet honey, but also serve as pollinators by pollinating fruit trees, resulting in bigger and tastier fruits. But bees do have a habit of going on cleansing flights and often use the neighbors washing line to do their business. You could get a few complaints from your neighbors, so make sure you keep filling their pantries with sweet-smelling honey every year!