Anyone who’s been following me on Instagram recently has seen an overwhelming amount of photos of flowers and bees. We’ve been keeping bees in our backyard since April 2016 and it’s been an amazing journey of learning, experimentation and awe. Since a lot of friends have been curious and since I love blabbing about my little bees so much, I wanted to take a moment to share the love and hopefully motivate a few of you to take on beekeeping in your backyard too!
Until now, I didn’t know much beyond the basics of bees and certainly had no idea about how to be a beekeeper but adding bees and chickens into our backyard landscape had long been a dream of ours. We’re lucky to have ample space, vegetation and no neighborhood/county/city restrictions, so when my friend Jon got his hive a few seasons ago, we decided to jump into the deep end as well and join the fun.
More than riding your bike to work, line drying your clothes in the sunshine, or composting your organic food waste at home, keeping bees is probably the single best thing you can do for your local micro-environment. Since we bought our house 4 years ago, we’ve been obsessively landscaping and trying to thoughtfully create a bee-friendly space with as many native water-wise and pollinator favorite plants as we can handle. Here in Boulder that looks a lot like: various types of sages, lavender, asters, yarrow, blanket flowers, cone flowers, blue flax, bee balm, sunflowers, wallflowers, geraniums, etc. Phase 2, which is in the works, is creating a food garden for the pollinators work their magic.
So, beyond creating a bee-friendly space, what does it take to become a beekeeper? Here’s what my experience and timeline have looked like:
1) Research local regulations & your local environment: What, if any, are your local city/county/neighborhood restrictions on keeping bees? Do you live in an area with lots of bear activity or other critters (skunks, raccoons, mice) who could cause problems? Does your neighborhood area get sprayed with pesticides? Do you have a good spot in your yard to set up your hive (sheltered from strong wind and preferably not right next to high-traffic areas like windows, doors, sidewalk, swing set, etc)?
2) Talk with a local apiary, apiarist, beekeeping association or swarm removal/rescue service: Ask them if they can recommend where you can buy your bees and also what kind of bee they recommend for you. We worked with a local apiarist/arborist in Longmont (Bees & Trees). He sourced our bees, advised us on what equipment to buy and, once he had the bees, brought them over, and installed them in our hive.
3) Order equipment: Buy everything in the winter so you’re ready to go come Spring. We got everything we needed online at Mann Lake (see equipment list below). We bought the raw unpainted supers, painted them white ourselves and then went a little nuts inspired by Mexican talavera pottery designs.
4) Start reading: The art of beekeeping is as old as time so there’s a lot of information out there to devour! A few of my favorite blogs to follow and resources are : GirlNextDoorHoney, Keeping Backyard Bees, Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association, Beekeeping 101, Scientific Beekeeping.
First Season (2016)
Once we had the bees, here’s what our first season together looked like.
1) Introducing the Queen: Our Queen came in a little cage with a marshmallow “cork”. After a few days we opened up the hive to see if the worker bees were okay with her yet or not. Our first beekeeper task! We were nervous and had no idea what we were looking for! Thankfully, it seemed like the bees clustered on the cage weren’t trying to kill the Queen so we took that as a thumbs up.
2) Supplemental feeding with sugar syrup: To get the colony started, we set up a top feeder and used a ratio of 1:1 water:sugar.
3) Summer mite treatment: Aside from pesticides, mites will be the #1 risk factor for your hive. There’s a lot of information online about how to check and treat for mites and a lot of different theories and tactics. We decided to treat regularly with powdered sugar. Basically, you open up the hive (on a warm day) and literally sprinkle powdered sugar over all of the frames. The bees turn into sugar coated ghosts and get a little annoyed. I imagine it to being caught in a hail storm – the hail isn’t gonna kill you but it’s not exactly the most fun ever either. The bees will then spend some time cleaning each other off. In theory this means they’ll pick off the mites and the mites will also fall off of the bees because their little suction-cup feet will loose their grip. It’s debatable how effective this technique is, but it certainly doesn’t harm the bees either.
4) Water: Bees are thirsty little critters! They also need water to make honey and to cool the hive, so make sure to set up little water feeders for them in your garden. A shallow plate with plenty of perching stones so they won’t drown should do the trick. On a hot summer’s day a hive will drink a liter of water a day!
5) No honey harvest: Even though our bees did make quite a bit of honey by the end of their first summer season we didn’t harvest any. Since they had to start from scratch and since we wanted to make sure they had enough to make it through their first fall and winter season, we left it all intact.
6) Winterizing. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of drone expulsion day in the fall. It’s exactly what it sounds like! The female worker bees evict the male drones before winter. The drones have 1 job: mate with other Queens. If they mate successfully, they die. If they don’t mate successfully then they’ll get kicked out at the end of the season and die anyways.
To get ready for winter, you’ll want to change your entrance reducer to a smaller one since the bees will stay inside unless it warms up. Since we can get several feet of snow and temps that dip down into the single digits and negative Fahrenheit, I decided to help them out by covering them up on 3 sides with hay bales. I blocked the front with a board leaving space for the bees to fly out if they wanted to but also giving them some protection from the wind and snow. The thing to watch out for here is that mice appreciate the warmth of the hive and hay bales too and will try to sneak into the hive!
The colony will spend most of the winter clustering in the center of the hive making sure the Queen stays nice and warm so never open up your hive when it’s cold outside! On warmer winter days you might notice a lot of dead bees on the ground just outside of your hive – that’s totally normal. The worker bees will periodically clean up the hive and sweep out the dead ones. Throughout the year I’ll often pick up some of the dead bees and take a look at them to get an up-close look at a bee’s anatomy and also to see if they look healthy.
Second Season (2017)
1) Early spring: Keep an eye on your hive to make sure you don’t see any signs of weakness or a dead Queen. You’ll notice your colony has gotten smaller but as soon as the temperatures warm up a bit the foragers will be busy finding the crocuses, daffodils and tulips and the Queen should get back to work laying eggs and rebuilding the population.
Also, if your area is prone to wasps, hornets and yellow jackets, set up traps to catch their Queen as early as possible. Wasps/hornets/yellow jackets love to harass bees so it’s pretty essential to try to get them under control. During my first summer with bees I didn’t set out my traps early enough so all summer every single day there were a handful of wasps loitering around the entrance of the hive trying to enter and getting kicked out by the guard bees. The wasps like to steal the honey and also eat the bees!
3) Summer: Continue your summer mite treatment & making sure the bees have an ample water supply nearby. Check the colony’s population growth, honey production and brood. GirlNextDoorHoney has a hive inspection checklist which is useful for a super thorough check-up. To be honest, I haven’t gone through the trouble or disruption of such an intense inspection but I do spend a lot of time hanging out with and observing my hive in general so I feel like I’ve got a good enough sense of how they’re doing at the moment.
1) How do you know when your hive is ready for a honey harvest? I’ll be honest, there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there about honey harvesting, so in the end, I just went with my gut and tried to keep things simple. I’d been watching my colony and could tell that they were growing strong and healthy and were filling up the top honey supers quickly so I decided that mid/end of July would be a good time for a harvest. The top honey super would be totally full by then and they’d still have a solid two months of foraging time to rebuild and get ready for the cold. Some people recommend harvesting later in the season but I was worried that my colony would have maxed out their space by then. So you’ll have to judge when’s best to do your harvest based on what you see going on.
2) There are several techniques for harvesting. I opted for using a fume board to repel the bees out of the top honey super so I could pull out the full frames without pissing too many of them off. After a bit of research, I bought Fischer’s Bee-Quick repellent which is non-toxic and just smells like almond extract. It worked like a charm! The bees were cooperative and gentle. I did not need to smoke them. They never seemed agitated and none of us got stung. Harvesting is best done in the sun and on a warm day when many bees are foraging away from the hive. I invited a few family friends who’d never worked with bees before to give me a hand and learn about these magical creatures. We pulled 10 full honey frames which equalled to about 40lbs of honey.
3) Honey processing: You’ll read a lot about extracting honey via centrifuge which you can either buy yourself or you can take your frames to an extractor place and have them extract the honey for you. The benefits to using a centrifuge is that you can leave the honeycomb intact and return it to the bees to refill. It’s also efficient if you have multiple hives and a lot of honey to process. Since we only have 1 hive, I decided to do things manually myself with minimal fancy equipment, low cost, and just a bit of sticky fingers & clean-up to deal with. We used a rice paddle and scrapped the honey & comb off of the frames into a giant tub. Then filtered it 3 times from one 5 gallon bucket into another to separate out the wax. Once that was done all we had left to do was fill up some jars! It was pretty easy and not as messy as I thought it might be.
Equipment & Cost
A year later, once we were ready for our first honey harvest we bought a Fume Board (although you could easily make a DIY version yourself and save the money), a small bottle of Fischer’s Bee-Quick , a 5-gallon bucket with spout & 3 filters, and a regular ol’ 5-gallon bucket from the local hardware store.
Total investment so far has been approximately $620. If you plan to sell some of the honey you harvest, you’ll easily make that investment back in a few years.
A lot to learn yet!
So far, beekeeping has been a magical experience. At times it’s a bit of work but mostly the bees are self-sufficient. As long as you set them up for success and observe them enough to learn what’s normal behavior and what’s not, they pretty much take care of themselves.
That being said, we’ve still got a lot to learn! We haven’t lost a colony yet, haven’t had to re-Queen, haven’t had our colony swarm, haven’t split our colony, and haven’t experienced about a million other likely scenarios yet. When we do, we’ll figure it out!