Introduction to Beekeeping – Part 2, by K. in Tennessee

(Continued from Part 1. )

III – The Hive

The Beehive is the home you provide for the bees. It is supposed to make your task of managing the hive easier, while giving the bees what they want for a home. This is where you show your mettle and what you have learned. If the bees don’t like your home, don’t worry, they’ll just leave! The signs are all there if you know how to read them (an experienced mentor can help immensely). There are several styles of hives out there. Top Bar and Langstroth hives are the most common styles, Langstroths are the most popular, and what I would recommend new people get. They are affordable and interchangeable. While other versions offer advantages to some beekeepers, the ubiquity of Langstroth style hives makes them the beginner’s choice in my opinion.

Langstroth style hives are the wooden boxes you typically see (in the field, or as seen at the top of this article). The boxes house the frames of honeycomb, where the bees store honey and grow their young. Developed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in approximately 1851. He discovered the magic of “Bee Space” and revolutionized the field. It turns out bees are very particular about the space they occupy. They do not like open spaces, so the equipment in Langstroth hives is all designed to fit together and give you the appropriate bee space between components. This is important to managing the bees successfully – they can live just about anywhere, but your ability to successfully manage them is greatly improved if you pay attention to bee space. Langstroth hives come in 2 sizes – 8 or 10 frames (e.g. the wooden box is sized to fit 8 or 10 frames inside); and 3 depths – Shallow, Medium, or Deep. The boxes hold the frames, the frames hold the honey and baby bees.

Langstroth hives have a few sections, and different vendors have come up with different ideas on the same function. I urge you to not get confused by the variety available – it can be overwhelming to the novice; it was for me. Look at the starter packages available or ask your mentor or a club member to help you choose. I will offer my suggestions below.

With all the new terms it took me a while to understand how it all fits together: There is a base, 2 layers going up (hive body and honey supers), and a top. The hive (and its components) are the container for the frames, which is where all the magic happens. Hives can be made up of multiple parts and pieces for different functions. For brevity I will describe what I would recommend for beginners, but your experiences and environment may dictate different answers – defer to your local experienced beekeepers. I run a 10-frame setup of deeps and mediums, but there is no functional difference to 8-frame setups, just the width of the boxes to fit 2 extra frames – frames are all the same length/width, only the depth changes (deep/medium/shallow). The over-arching issue to decide which setup you chose is weight – a 10-frame deep hive box will weigh a lot more than an 8-frame medium hive box when full. Every box gets picked up and manipulated when full, so think hard about your individual capabilities. Make sure everything matches: all 10-frame or all 8-frame. You can vary depth (deep/med/shallow) within a hive but not the count, all components must be 10- or 8-frame.

  • Bottom Board – makes up the base of the hive, everything is stacked on top of this board. Screened boards or solid all figure into your pest management strategy (IPM), I recommend a screened style with removeable tray. Paint it well, this is the bottom-most part of the hive, closest to the ground, and is difficult to change out once the hive is setup.
  • Hive Body – this is the part where the bees live and raise their young. Hive bodies typically use deep- or medium- style components and frames. The hive body is also called the “Brood Chamber”, as this is where the babies (brood) will live and grow. The larger the brood chamber, the larger the hive population can grow. However, you can’t keep a hive small by only using a small box for the hive body any more than a large breed dog will be contained by a small cage. I typically run 2 deeps for my brood chamber. I have seen people use mediums, they work just fine; you can also mix (1 deep and 1 medium). Despite being a strapping fellow, I won’t lie – 10-deep frames full of brood are heavy, about 50 lbs. Precise statistics are out there if you want to look them up, some hives even come with scales integrated in the bottom boards. Just be honest with yourself about your first hive. Upgrading is easy! I would recommend starting out with 2 hive bodies – deep or medium depending on the strength of your lower back muscles… If you’re not comfortable lifting 50 lbs. at chest height, go with an 8-frame setup instead of a 10. If you find you are comfortable with an 8-frame, buy a 10-frame for your 2nd hive – the frames will be interchangeable!
  • Honey Super – These are the honey chambers that sit above the hive body, and can be deep, medium, or shallow, though most frequently medium or shallow. I recommend placing a queen excluder between your hive body and honey supers. This is a metal or plastic screen with gaps too small for the queen bee to fit through – she is kept inside the hive body. This is both a safety feature (for the queen), and it prevents brood (baby bees!) from appearing in your honey. Usually much appreciated. For a new beek I would recommend either 2 mediums or 2 shallows for the honey super. More may be needed if your bees are good (but that’s a down-the-road problem).
  • Hive Top – is used to protect the bees and their hive from the environment, and one frequently finds feeders deployed here too. At its most basic, it is a set of 2 covers – inner cover and outer cover. The inner cover is there to make the bees happy – bee space (some contain a feeding apparatus). The outer cover keeps out the wind and the rain. I have tried several hive-top feeders with mixed results. My current preference is a system a local beek makes: The inner cover has a hole cut-out that perfectly fits an inverted mason jar. You can find similar setups for sale online. This works better for me and my bees than other style hive-top feeders.

That’s about all you need to get started. My recommendations are not the gold standard, but if you are strong and healthy I would suggest buying a 10-frame setup with 1 screened bottom board, 2 deeps for the brood, 2 mediums for the super, queen excluder, inner cover (possibly with feeder), and an extended outer cover. If lifting heavy objects is challenging, go with 8-frame mediums for the brood chamber and 8-frame shallows for the supers (2 of each). Get enough frames to cover all your boxes, I’d recommend foundation as well to get started. You can find videos online or other articles or manufacturers instructions on how to assemble everything properly. Do not experiment with fancy plastic hives, get the cheap wooden ones, those ‘flow’ hives with pipes and dials don’t work (have you seen how thick honey is?) Starting in the hobby is not the time to experiment, stick to what is known to work. You can experiment as you grow.

IV – Personal Equipment

If you are allergic to bee stings, then you should seriously consider if this hobby is worth it. The best personal protective equipment in the world will still place you at significant risk of getting stung. I know beeks that have had to leave the hobby because they developed an allergy after several years, and barely made it to the hospital in time one fateful day. Do not risk your life over something you can buy for 20-bucks a jar at the farmer’s market.

When I first started out I was afraid of investing too much money in a new hobby. What if I didn’t like it? Wasted capital… So I thought I was going to be smart! I only bought a veil. You’ve probably seen it, 12 bucks on Amazon, “Camo” green? I put on an old pair of jeans, a hoodie-style sweatshirt, with a nylon overcoat, and some leather work-gloves from the shed (and my green camo veil). Tucked my pant legs into my socks and went out to the hive! Man, it must have been quite a sight?! But I was only down 12 bucks! Smart people don’t have an issue investing in personal protective equipment when faced with a known threat.

Some folks don’t mind bee stings, some are highly allergic. I fit into the former category but will say unequivocally – don’t skimp on your suit. I found it impossible to NOT be afraid when faced with a buzzing hive 4 boxes high. The bees can pickup on that, they can sense it, no matter how calm your actions remain. After a couple years I decided I guess I do like this hobby and found a jacket and veil combination that made a great Birthday present for me. I still wear the old jeans and tuck my pants into my socks, but my confidence level when in the hive is 1,000% better, and the bees are calmer around me, allowing me to work them more easily.

If you think you want to give this hobby a go for a couple years, don’t try to save money here. You don’t need an Armani branded bee suit, nor head-to-toe coverage, but do get yourself a quality jacket/veil combo and nice set of gloves to work with. This is money well spent – I’ve even used my suit and smoker to help a neighbor with a yellow-jacket infestation! You can find a functional jacket/veil combo for around 50-bucks. Well worth it. I’m as cheap as they come, but don’t skimp here.

A pair of sturdy pair of jeans will work fine for your lower half. The bees seem to know to attack your face/torso, but I have gotten stung on my legs/ankles during inspections. If you are sensitive to stings a full suit may be the answer. I have found that a lightweight pair of nylon windbreaker type pants pulled over the jeans to work well (and I can pull the nylon track-pants on/off without taking my shoes off). These pants live in the shed with my bee suit and hive tools, cost 15 bucks at China-Mart.

Tools – Insert clip of Tim Taylor and his trademark Gorilla noises here. You NEED 3 things, arguably 2. A hive tool and a smoker, a bee-brush is worth the few extra bucks, too. That’s all you NEED (besides your suit).

A hive tool is a small pry-bar. It is used to separate the hive components and remove frames to facilitate inspection. Bees will attempt to secure their hive by gluing it together with propolis, a sticky, waxy sort of material (this is why “Bee Space” is critical). The Hive tool goes between the pieces, and gives you leverage to spread them apart. I’ve seen 12-15 different designs, some intricate and fancy: just get the cheap one, it’s fine. I don’t even know what half those fancy ones are supposed to do. Quality steel is about the only thing worth paying extra for. If you stick with the hobby, you’ll end up owning several, so your first one doesn’t need to be a Mercedes Benz.

A smoker is the little metal can and bellows that you use to smoke the hive. Some people are switching over to sugar water. I’ve done both. Get a smoker. Any decent one will work, they last many years if cared for. Don’t pay for burlap fuel – twigs, grass, sticks and leaves are all you need. As a prepper I’ll assume you can start a fire with wet tinder and a single match (it takes a little practice, but I can always find fuel on the ground around my hives).

A bee brush is a small nylon brush used to sweep the bees into and out of areas of the hive. When you open the hive for inspection, bees will come boiling out. When you put the hive back together after inspection, those bees are still boiling and flying all around you. Since you purchased a quality veil and jacket however, you’re not the least bit afraid! Squishing those boiling bees can be a problem. This releases a pheromone that alerts the rest of the bees (kill just one, and you will hear the tone of their buzzing change…) The bee brush is used to gently sweep them off the edges and away from the top of the frames so you can safely reassemble the hive. They only cost a few dollars and are well worth it. I’ve had to cut inspections short because I angered the hive by accidentally squishing a couple bees. Some people have squished their queen accidentally! Not a good day.

That’s all I would recommend getting to start. You can surely blow thousands on fancy gear, there is ample opportunity for toys. Some retailers are offering starter kits for personal equipment, hives, or both! I have had good experiences working with several of the larger companies and would not hesitate to order. Don’t need the super deluxe model, just the basics – order the fancy toys later. Don’t order from Amazon retailers at this stage, go with a reputable supplier to the industry to ensure proper equipment of good quality. You can save money shopping around, but for your first experience I do not recommend it. Finding a mentor or local club member to assist will be very helpful, and ensure you get the right stuff the first time.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)

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