How to Start Building Your Own Colony

Just another fun and satisfying hobby, don’t worry, you won’t bee hurt (if you’re careful.)

Who would’ve guessed that beekeeping is a perfectly safe, fun pastime to include in our outdoor hobbies? What’s not to like? The gardening, the cute little friends flying about, the sweet nectar produced by the little fuzz balls? While you harvest their honey, they also help you pollinate your plants and in turn, you help them with their colony. You can’t go wrong in this win-win situation where both you and the critters benefit from a great partnership. 

But before everything else, there’s the matter of learning how to successfully run your first hives. There’s also the beekeeping equipment that you’ll need, including a beekeeper suit and hat for safety. To guide us along this rewarding journey, we spoke with the president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, Stephen Repasky. Below are tips for the best beekeeping practices starting from where to store your hive to what supplies are needed. 

What should I know about bees?

An average honeybee colony will have a population of 30,000-50,000 bees. This community is lead by the queen, (which lays more than 1,500 eggs on a daily basis) followed by the worker bees who keep the hive running, and drones, male bees that go to other colonies in order to mate with queens.

It is essential for beginners to understand bee biology, and is the reason why Repasky requires all first-timers to take a beekeeping class from a professional organization or a respected and experienced individual. From there, you will learn basics such as equipment use, managing bees for every season and proper terminology. 

What beekeeping equipment do I need?

  • Woodenware: The most important tool for making the beehive, which consists of the hive body, the hive bottom, and the top cover. It is recommended to start by having two hives and colonies for a comparison of what is working and what needs to improve. Repasky comments: “Beekeepers often get one that’s expensive but have nothing to compare it with.” 
  • Protective gloves and veil: It is important for all novice beekeepers to avoid stings at all costs. Repasky warns: “You don’t want to get stung and drop a frame on the ground.” 
  • Smoker: This helps to distract the bees and keep them calm while you work inside the hive.
  • Hive tool: Much like an elongated paint scraper, this allows you to easily move frames around and access the hive, making it a must-have tool.
  • Bees: Make sure you order enough to make two colonies as previously mentioned. 

How do I get my bees?

Usually, there are two ways to fill your hive, the most common is through what is called a package—a screen box that contains 10,000 bees. The queen, however, bears no relation to the other honeybees and stays in a separated cage.

Another option is to buy a nucleus colony, a mini colony that contains an actively-laying queen and five frames of comb. These colonies cost around $50-$75 more than packages but are six weeks ahead in development, which is why Repasky recommends using this method.

How much will beekeeping cost?

Repasky says that cost expectations will be between $800 to $1,000 on your first year for a two-hour setup. This will include the bees needed along with all the equipment. You’re also getting value for your money, as the protective gear you buy can last many years and the woodenware can withstand two decades (with proper care) before it needs replacing. Only the honeybees stand as the expendable necessity.

What’s the time commitment?

As with any hobby, beekeeping takes commitment to reap its rewards. Repasky says that for every two hives, there should be an allotted hour per week to manage your bees. However, some seasons will get busier than others, “in the springtime, you’re going to spend a bit more time as the bees come out of winter and start growing,” he adds.

Where should I set up my hives?

The best position for the hive should be in the south, east or southeast direction as this way lets the bees soak up the morning sun, according to Repasky. This allows the bees to get up and moving in the mornings and then cool down with some shade during the afternoons. It’s also best practice to keep the hive away from high-activity areas such as a swing set or sidewalks. Lastly, make sure the hives are in easy to access spots for your convenience.

When should I start beekeeping?

The answer has variations through geography and climate but Repasky notes that most people wait too late before getting started in the year, so it’s worth taking note of. 

First off, take that beekeeping class around November or December and learn as much as you can. You can then order your bees and equipment. Once your bees arrive in the spring, (usually around April) you can build your hive and concentrate feeding your bees a combination of water and sugar for the next 3-4 months. Repasky strongly recommends this as it will “help them build and draw out wax comb so they can lay eggs and be more productive.”

After this is done and your colony has grown, (and is doing well) you can get your first harvest by fall. When November comes, it will be time to put the bees to sleep in order to prepare for the coming of the cold months. Repasky highly recommends to close up the hives and to protect the bees from the wind. Ensure that the bees have ventilation and that there are no moisture issues inside their shelter, since the next months between December and February, there won’t be many activities. However, Repasky reminds beekeepers to “check on them to make sure they have enough honey stores inside.” Once they have survived winter, the process can start all over again. 

What causes bee colonies to die out?

“There’s a high failure rate, especially within your first two or three years,” Repasky reveals. This is the hard truth, so be prepared to lose a few of your bees as the process takes dedication and lots of practice, so don’t get discouraged. After all, this is not the only cause of death in bees, there are also mites which can cause devastating damage to your hives. 

Overall, Repasky offers one last piece of advice. “Keep learning and keep educating yourself, be observant, take an interest in beekeeping clubs and don’t be afraid to fail,” Repasky added that his measure of success does not rely on whether the bees survive or make honey, but rather on the things he learned and experienced with the bees. 

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