Quick Guide to Getting Ready for Your New Hive
Written by Joe Fondahn of WallaBee Honey
Welcome to the hobby of beekeeping. It is a fun hobby that you get to do in and with nature. It is a healthy source of exercise in bending and lifting. It is a hobby where there is always additional information to learn through study and experience. It is at times exciting when there are thousands of bees buzzing around you. It is at times frustrating when a honey crop doesn’t materialize as hoped or when a hive doesn’t make it through the winter. Most importantly, it is very rewarding when you see your hive grow and thrive and you get to pull off pounds of pure, natural honey that you helped the bees to provide.
I wanted to provide you with this guide as you have the next several months over winter to begin your preparations for the new hive you have ordered for the coming spring. I remember when I started beekeeping and how overwhelming and intimidating it initially was. There was so much to learn and so many things available to buy for the hives, that I didn’t know where to start. Hopefully this guide will save you the time, trouble and expense that I had to learn through either other helpful individuals or through hard knocks.
When you get your hive in the spring, you will be getting a fully functioning hive comprised of one box containing 10 frames of comb with a queen, bees and brood. This hive will quickly grow in size if given a little attention and the right environment.
In my opinion, the best supplier of beekeeping equipment can be found online through the retailer of Mann Lake (https://www.mannlakeltd.com). The equipment is reliably of the best quality and their prices are the generally the most reasonable. Below is a list of items that I recommend you get when starting as a beekeeper. I also have a section on optional but helpful equipment you can buy as you get into the hobby and as your budget allows.
Bee Suit: I recommend a vented bee suit because the solid canvas alternatives get too hot when working bees, especially in the summer months.
Gloves: I like the goat skin variety. They are less thick than the cowhide or canvas gloves but still provide good protection against stings. Being less thick, allows you to better grasp the frames and manipulate the hives. This are my favorite type of glove:
Boots: I’m not a cowboy but I like to wear cowboy boots when working bees as the bee suits tend to rise and expose your ankles when bending over hives. Bees can and will sting through exposed socks, so any type of high rise boot provides good protection against this.
Tools for working the hives
Smoker: I have found that there is no difference between a plastic or leather bellow smoker but have found that using wood BBQ pellets, like those sold for the Traeger BBQ’s are the best source of smoker fuel. I like the Alder pellets as the smoke is lighter. I figure that if the smoke is good enough to put on human food, then it isn’t to harmful for the bees or the beekeeper as compared to pine needles or burlap which produces mildly toxic smoke. These pellets are easily lit with the use of a propane torch and will burn for nearly an hour without needing to be relit.
Hive Tool: I have tried all the assorted styles of hive tools and my favorite without exception is the EZ Pry hive tool. This tool allows you to use a lever action to lift a frame up by pushing the tool against the frame next to the one being lifted. This is especially helpful in lifting the frames evenly so as not to squish bees and to force sticky frames apart that the bees have glued together.
Necessary Hive Equipment:
Boxes (supers): Beekeeping has its own jargon. Hive boxes are called supers. I recommend using what are called medium sized supers which are 6 5/8 inches tall versus deep supers that are 9 5/8 inches tall. This might not sound like much of a difference, but it equates to a substantial difference in weight when the box is filled with bees, wax and honey. A medium super will weigh about 45 pounds while a deep super will weigh about 80 pounds. This is a significant difference when you are lifting these boxes and having the smaller boxes can save you from painful back injuries. There isn’t any harmful effect to the bees in using smaller supers. The biggest difference for the beekeeper is that you need three medium supers to take the place of two deep supers. I find the commercial grade of boxes is the best value in quality and cost versus the budget or select grades. The hive you have purchased comes with one super, but you will want to order two additional supers for the hive to grow into and another one or two additional supers for the bees to store honey in for you to later extract.
Frames: Each box will hold 10 frames and these sit in the super and allow the bees to draw out their comb. I recommend getting frames with black plastic foundation. The black color provides a contrast to see the very small white eggs against when checking to see if you have a laying queen. The color of the foundation doesn’t affect how the queen lays but makes your job much easier. I also recommend using plastic foundation over wax or no foundation in the frames because the plastic provides much more strength for the brittle wax comb and the bees draw out a much more even layer of comb on wax foundation than the alternatives.
Feeder: I also recommend that you buy a feeder to feed sugar syrup to your bees. This allows you to feed your bees in the spring to help them build up their population quicker when the hive is new. It takes 8 pounds of honey to make 1 pound of wax, so when the bees are drawing out wax on new combs, feeding syrup is a very helpful way for them to get the job done so that they will have more time and room to build up their population. The only time you want to be sure not to feed sugar syrup is when they are storing honey that you will eventually want to harvest or when the hive is fully grown and there are lots of blooming plants for them to forage among. Lastly, you may need to feed in the fall to make sure the bees have enough honey stored to make it through the winter. Each hive will need 60 pounds of stored honey, so I recommend weighing all your boxes on a bathroom scale. Each box will weigh about 10 pounds when empty, so if you go into winter with three boxes, you will need the total weight to be 90 pounds to ensure you have 60 pounds of honey. This link is to my favorite feeder which has screened feeding tubes to prevent the bees from drowning in the syrup.
Optional but Nice Hive Equipment
Screened Hive Bottom: Your hive comes with a solid bottom board. An option for the warmer seasons is to provide a screened bottom board. In the winter though, you should reinstall a solid bottom on the hive to protect against drafts. Research has shown that screened bottoms will help the bees rid themselves of about 20% of the varroa mites they are inflicted with by letting them fall through screen and not crawl back into the hive. If you want to spend the money on an extra bottom board, you can but it is not necessary.
Screened Inner Cover: Instead of spending your money on a screened bottom, I like using a screened inner cover in the summer months. This screen sits between your top box and your top cover. This allows there to be better airflow in the hive for the humidity to escape and the honey to cure quicker. It also takes the heat stress away from the bees which is surprisingly more harmful to them than cold. I remove the screened top in the fall.
Robbing Screen: If you have trouble with wasps in the summer or if you are located near a commercial apiary with many other bees that may try robbing your hive, having a robbing screen on your hive in the summer months of June through August, can save your bees a lot of energy in fighting off invaders.
Drone Comb: Drone comb allows the bees to make larger sized cells for laying the male worker bees called drones. A hive will naturally want to have about 20% of it’s population be drones during the buildup season. Using this comb also allows you to do something called integrated pest management (IPM). IPM are natural techniques to manage parasites and viruses in the hive. One of my favorite web resources for beekeeping knowledge and information is Scientific Beekeeping. He has articles for beginners up to advanced users. Here is a link to his article on drone comb management (http://scientificbeekeeping.com/fighting-varroa-reconnaissance-mite-sampling/). I will be providing you with one drone comb in the hive you are buying but having an extra drone comb to rotate out of the hive as part of your IPM plan is helpful.
Top Covers: The hive you purchased comes with a migratory top cover. These can work year-round and are especially good in the summer months when more ventilation is helpful. If you live in region with wetter winters, you may want to consider also purchasing a telescoping cover which provides edges that extend beyond the hive boxes to act as eaves on house and direct the rain away from the hive. I would put this on every fall and remove it in the late spring. The inner cover in the telescoping cover is used to help prevent against the formation of condensation. Bees can handle cold very well if they remain dry.
Queen Excluder: This piece of equipment prevents the queen from going into your honey boxes and laying eggs into the comb that you will be extracting honey from. The gaps in the excluder are just wide enough to allow the workers through who have smaller abdomens than the queen. I like the wood framed excluder as it allows for the proper bee space of 3/8 of an inch. Bee space is a term used to describe the amount of space a bee needs to move. If the space is any larger, than they will start drawing out comb and plugging the area up. You can also use cheaper plastic excluders, but they don’t provide the bee space which can slow the movement of the bees between boxes.
Bee Clubs: I highly recommend getting acquainted with your local bee club. They often offer new beekeeper classes in the winter. These are an invaluable source of information for the new-bee.
Books: The book that I think is the best resource for any beekeeper is called The Beekeeper’s Handbook, written by Diana Sammataro (ISBN-13: 978-0801476945). Here is the link to it on Amazon.
Medications: Unfortunately all bees have varroa mites in the United States. The varroa mite is a parasite that lives on the bee and if left untreated will weaken the hive to the point that they won’t be able to fight off other hardships like winter or viruses they are exposed to. I treat the bees twice a year for varroa with natural miticides and prefer not to use synthetic miticides that can accumulate their toxins in the wax comb. When looking at buying miticides to treat your bees, I have found the most effective treatment to use in the spring is Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS). Follow the directions carefully when applying this as temperature and safety precautions matter. To prevent the mites from developing a resistance to one treatment, I rotate to treating the bees with Hop Guard in August. Hop Guard which is made from a byproduct of beer hops, so I figure it can’t be too bad.
Testing for Mites: Unfortunately there is no truly accurate way to test for mites without sacrificing about a half of cup of your nurse bees. Just be sure that you don’t collect the queen in the process. I like using the Easy Check tool below to find the ratio of mites to bees in your hive and to be able to determine when it is time to treat with a miticide. I recommend devouring all the information you can on treating for mites on ScientificBeekeeping.com. If you can manage your mite loads, you should be able to keep your hives alive and healthy. Bees are already subjected to enough environmental stressors that you can’t manage such as pesticides and viruses, that the varroa mite is often the stressor that puts the bees over the edge.
Protein Patties: In nature, the bees collect pollen to provide their protein. Nectar in flowers provides their carbohydrates. While the sugar syrup provides them with an easy source of carbohydrates, you can help your bees build up their population quicker by supplementing their protein with patties. These are generally made of soy powder and I recommend giving these to new hives in the spring and to mature hives in the month of September to help the bees fatten up before winter. About 5-10 pounds of protein per hive is a good amount to provide.
I hope this little tutorial will help you have a successful first year to keeping bees. Don’t be discouraged if you have some setbacks or failures in your first year or two. There is much to learn, and you generally have to learn through experience with bees. Research has shown that new beekeepers have about a 50% chance of having their hive make it through their first winter. I provide this ratio, not to scare you but to motivate you to learn as much as you can about beekeeping and for you to realize that bee keeping isn’t a passive hobby. To have a healthy hive you can’t set it up and forget it while expect to be able to harvest honey in the fall and have your bees survive through winter. Beekeeping requires regular checks, ideally every two to three weeks in spring and summer, to make sure that you have a laying queen and that the bees have enough space. It also requires a modest initial investment to get the tools and equipment you need to start. Fortunately, though, this equipment will last for many years. Also, please don’t think you need to get all the optional equipment I listed earlier. These are just helpful options if you have the budget but are not necessary to have a healthy and productive hive. As I mentioned in the introduction, bee keeping is an active but rewarding hobby and I wish you all the success in your new adventure.