Keeping bees is a fun and rewarding project for the homesteader or prepper. However, it’s not as easy as reading a book, buying a hive and some packaged bees. Beekeeping is both an art and a science. The science part can be learned by reading books and research. The art part will only happen when you become an observer and student of your bees and bees in your area.
When our son was 14 he told us he wanted to try his hand at beekeeping; we were excited to let him try. We have a friend who has twelve hives and he agreed to let our son come help with a honey harvest. The friend also recommended that our son read, Beekeeping for Dummies before actually making the commitment to keep bees.
It was great advice. Bees are a commitment and should be treated just as we would treat any other animal we bring onto our property. We would never just bring home a cow or dairy goats without doing some research, bees should be treated with the same respect.
Our son began keeping bees soon after that. He has continued to research and learn all he can about bees. In addition to keeping bees he also does bee removal/rescue. Sometimes the bees are quite tame and are able to be rescued and are brought to our property. Sometimes the bees are very aggressive (we live in an area that has Africanized Honey Bees) and are not able to be rescued.
For every amazing thing that has happened with our bees, there has been a heartbreaking thing. We have been under drought conditions for the past couple of years. Admittedly, this is not the best time to begin beekeeping. It’s been one of the hardest things we’ve done on our homestead, and yet, one of the most gratifying.
Common Beekeeping Mistakes to Avoid
Not having a mentor or mentors. Reading books and online research is a great help when learning about bees. However, many bee challenges are regional and having relationships with local beekeepers can be a great help to the beginning beekeeper. Here is a list of beekeeping associations by state. Also, your local county extension office will be a great help in finding beekeepers in your area.
Having a bad location for your apiary. While bees can certainly live anywhere, that doesn’t mean they will thrive just anywhere. The most important question is, will there be enough food for bees? Most bees will forage within a mile to two miles from their hive and they need food sources within that area. Open fields with clover or wildflowers are great sources, but so are fruit trees and other flowering plants. An apiary should not have a lot of shade nor should it be in super windy areas or marshy area. If you are keeping bees in an urban or suburban area make sure that your apiary faces away from your neighbor’s property in order to avoid the bees becoming a nuisance to them. Your bees will also need a water source, so if you don’t want them hanging out at your neighbors kiddie pool make sure you have some water available on your property for them.
Not feeding the bees enough. There are times you will need to feed your bees a sugar syrup. Yes, wild bees do not need to be fed but the bees in your apiary are probably not wild bees that have been living on their own their entire lives. Your bees are domestic bees or feral bees you have put in some kind of box and they will need to be fed at times. When you first install packaged bees into a hive you will need to feed them until they are settled in, know where to find food and start foraging. Think of it as a house warming gift. If your hive swarms, you might need to feed it during the rebuilding process. Also, bees need about 60-80lbs of honey to make it through the winter – more if the winter is long. When you check on the bees in the fall, if a hive does not have this much honey, you will need to feed it. During the early Spring, pick a day that is mild (about 60°F), dry and not too windy to check on your bees. Most hive loss occurs in March when winter stores are low.
Getting into your hive too often and staying in it too long. You need to occasionally check inside the hive to make sure all is well, however, this doesn’t need to be done weekly or even monthly. This is the art part of beekeeping; you need to get to know your hives and your environment. When the nectar is flowing you will need to check on your hives enough to make sure they have enough room. When there isn’t much nectar flow, you won’t need to check on them as often. When you open the hive, you need to do your business and then get out. It helps to plan what you want to accomplish before you open the hive. The longer you stay in the hive, the more agitated the bees will get. How would you like someone snooping around your home for long periods of time?
Not wearing protective clothing while working with bees.At the minimum you need a veil, long pants and long sleeves every time you get into your hive. Before my son got a bee suit he would wear an old camo jacket and duct tape the cuffs down over his gloves. Also, you will want to wear your socks over your pants. Yep, it looks nerdy but bees can fly up your pants leg. Once one bee stings you, the pheromones that used to be on the inside of the bee are now on the outside of the bee and the other bees are attracted to it. They will try to attack the same spot. If you don’t wear some sort of protective gear, it is quite possible that you will have many stings, some dead bees and a very agitated hive.
Not being able to identify the queen or understand what she does.The hive will survive or not survive based on the queen. She really is the most important bee in the hive. You need to be able to recognize her. If you see a bee that is big and doesn’t look like any of the other bees walking around the hive, that’s probably your queen. If you can’t see her but notice that eggs are being laid, you have queen. The eggs will look like miniature rice. If the egg laying is spotty, you know your queen is getting old. In this case, either the workers will try to replace her or you can requeen the hive.
Worrying excessively about your hive swarming. Sometimes you can do everything right and still have a hive swarm. Swarms happen. If it happens you can feed the remaining bees while they raise a new queen or you can requeen the hive yourself. You can also have an extra deep (or whatever hive box you use) ready in the event you are able to catch the swarm. Swarms are relatively easy to relocate into a box if you can find where they landed.
Not taking pests seriously. There are several different ways to protect against pests, from powdered sugar and screen boards to toxic chemicals. Every beekeeper has his own opinion on what is best based on his experience and research. One thing they all can agree on is that pests are a problem and every beekeeper needs to have a plan.
Starting with too many hives and growing too fast.Ideally a new beekeeper should start with 2-4 hives. This is enough so that if one hive doesn’t make it, you won’t have to start all over the next year. But it’s a small enough number to be manageable and ensure there is enough forage for the bees. Even if your ultimate goal is to make money selling your honey and wax, it is better to manage a few hives well, than to have a lot of weak hives.
Harvesting honey your first year.You have to practice self control when you are a beekeeper. The bee’s needs always need to come before your desire for honey. This is so hard to do, especially the first year when that golden honey is just sitting there. Unless your bees just do an amazing job of producing excess honey the first year, it is better to leave the honey for the bees for the winter.