Beekeeping is a very enjoyable and rewarding pastime that is relatively inexpensive to get started. Moreover, it’s a hobby that can eventually make you money! The following is a primer on how to start your first hive and begin keeping bees.
Before you get into beekeeping, it's critical that you first understand what you'll be getting yourself into. There are any number of ways by which you can get educated on the basic of beekeeping, ranging from self-study to formal courses. Fortunately in North Carolina, there is a wide array of options available to get up to speed before you purchase your first hive.
If you're looking for self-study, there are any number of books on bees and beekeeping, with dozens more published per year, so it's fairly hard to go wrong. That said, we recommend some guidelines on what to look for in any given reading materials in order to make sure you get the most out of your reading. First, make sure that there is sufficient coverage of honey bee biology. Books that only cover "how-to" keep bees (e.g., how to build a hive, when to harvest honey) very rarely describe "why" such activities are done. As a beekeeper, you're helping the bees live in nature, so understanding what they naturally want to do will go a long way to understanding why various beekeeping activities are performed. Second, be sure that there are sufficient pictures or videos within the text, so that you can recognize the various components of the colony and the hive. Third, augment your reading by joining a local beekeeping club so that you're not learning in a vacuum. Taking part of the greater beekeeping community is a great way to find a potenial mentor, get some in-hive experience before you purchase your own colonies, and get your early questions answered by those who have some experience. A list of local beekeeping chapters in NC can be found at www.ncbeekeepers.org.
Like with written books, there are plenty of free online videos on YouTube and other platforms. These can be helpful to view beekeeping in action, showing the motion and activities of the bees as well as the actions of the beekeeper. Like with all online content, however, don't assume that all video content is necessarily accurate or representative; quality of content and instruction can vary widely, and different beekeepers can manage their hives in very different ways. What's most important as a beekeeper is what works for you and your operation, and the reasons why you wish to keep honey bees.
Online beekeeping courses
There are also opportunities for taking more formalized courses from trusted sources, such as the NC Cooperative Extension Service. For example, the NC State Apiculture Program offers the Beekeeper Education & Engagement System (BEES), which is an entire curriculum of virtual courses that can be taken a la carte and at any time. The structure of the BEES network is broken into two ascending levels of complexity ('Beginner' and 'Advanced') and three general tracks of content (honey bee biology, honey bee management, and the honey bee industry). Currently, there are 19 courses, all with multiple lectures for a total of ~1-2 hours each, on a variety of topics relevant to all beekeepers. Each course also has an associated online quiz that is automatically graded, and passing the quiz at 80% or better enables you to download a personalized eCertificate of Completion. Since 2011, the BEES network has served 2,985 students who have collectively taken 17,614 lectures for a total of 6,229 hours of online instruction.
Local bee schools
With over 80 county chapters that meet once a month, most in their local Cooperative Extension Office, there are dozens of annual beekeeping short courses or "bee schools" held throughout the state. Typically, they are held during the winter when the bees are much less active, so that local beekeepers and extension agents can help instruct would-be beekeepers in the basics. Most include field days or other hands-on activities, and the durations vary from single day to multi-week agendas. A current list of available bee schools can be found at www.ncbeekeepers.org.
The minimum amount of equipment you will need to become a beekeepers is one complete ‘starter’ hive, which consists of a bottom board (the hive “floor”), a hive body (the main box) with 10 frames (on which the bees build wax comb), an inner cover (the hive “ceiling”), and a lid (the hive “roof”) (Figure 1). A colony of bees can live very successfully in such a hive and can store enough honey for its own needs. They may quickly out grow this space, however, and produce a swarm (where approximately half of the bees will fly away to start a new colony). To keep the bees from swarming, and to harvest their surplus honey, you will likely need additional hive equipment. But if you don’t want to collect honey, then a starter hive is all the equipment you will ever need.
Most beekeepers are not content with watching half of their bees fly away, and so they will try to prevent this from happening by furnishing more hive space in the form of additional boxes, called ‘supers,’ on top of the original box. This gives the colony more space to grow and the bees more room to store honey. If you wish to remove honey from the hive, adding supers is a necessity.
We recommend that a first-time beekeeper start with two full beehives. That way, you will have a minimal frame of reference to compare your new colonies and to develop your management techniques.
In addition to furnishing a beehive, you will also need some other equipment. There are three items that are required to safely work a beehive: a smoker (to pacify the bees and reduce their defense response), a hive tool (to pry apart hive equipment and frames), and a veil (to protect the head and face). Beginners often feel more comfortable with the extra protection of a full-body beekeeping suit and gloves, but eventually they are not necessary if the bees are handled properly.
Equipment is available from any one of several beekeeping supply companies (listed below) and may be purchased in a variety of ways. Most companies have ‘starter kits’, which usually include a complete starter hive (without bees), smoker, hive tool, and veil (Figure 2 and Figure 3). There are also ‘deluxe kits,’ which include the previously mentioned items, as well as additional equipment to add to the hive as the colony population grows. The prices of these kits range from about $300 for the starter hive to about $600 for a deluxe kit. You can also buy the individual (pre-cut) parts of the hive and assemble it yourself (listed in Table 1).
Once a hive is assembled, it is ready to house bees. There are three main ways to acquire a living honey bee colony. First, you may purchase a five-frame ‘nucleus’ colony (or “nuc box”) from a local beekeeper who is registered to sell bees (contact the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services for a current listing; see below). A nuc box usually contains five frames of 10,000 adult bees, wax comb (with honey and pollen), brood (developing young), and an egg-laying queen. Starting a colony this way can cost between $150-200, but it will become a mature hive very rapidly and be less likely to fail. Second, you may purchase a three-pound ‘package’ of bees with a queen. Any number of beekeeping operations nationwide will send through the mail a screened wooden box with live bees, costing $100-125. The bees can then be shaken out of the package, and they will establish themselves in the hive. Third, you can capture a swarm that has escaped from another hive. Although not as common as they once were, wild swarms can be obtained in the early to mid-spring (late March, April, and early May). Local beekeeping clubs often have “swarm-call” lists to assist beekeepers in capturing swarms reported in their area, and beginners usually need help with capturing their first swarm. These latter two approaches are more cost effective (virtually free in the latter case), but the bees will need more time for the colony to develop and become productive.
Of course, honey bees have the potential to sting in defense of their hive. The frequency of being stung, however, is much lower than what is commonly believed. If managed properly—using smoke, a hive tool, protective clothing, and gentle manipulation—stings are quite unlikely. If a beekeeper is stung, localized pain and swelling is a normal reaction and one that should not cause undue concern. Nonetheless, bee venom can be a serious allergen for certain people, with 1 in 200 persons having a true allergic reaction requiring immediate medical attention. Consult with a physician if you have any concerns about being stung.
|Individual Hive Item
|Approximate Price (or range of prices)
|Hive body sits on this and acts as the floor of the hive.
|Standard size is 9 5/8 deep. Holds 10 full-size frames. Also called a deep super.
|10 deep frames
|Full-size frames used by the bees to construct their wax comb.
|10 wax sheets
|Foundation used by the bees for building their honey comb.
|Thin board between top box and outer cover. Helps with ventilation.
|Covers the top of the hive. Provides shelter from the elements.
|Used before opening a hive to help calm the bees and make them less likely to sting.
|Used to pry apart pieces of the hive that have been stuck together with 'bee glue' or propolis.
|Covers the head and face of beekeeper to prevent stings to these sensitive areas.
|Complete suits cover whole body to help protect from stings.
|May be used to prevent stings to the hands, but they can make it more difficult to manipulate the hive.
|Minimizes amount of entrance space the bees need to guard and minimizes the flow of cold air in winter.
|Placed below the honey supers to prevent queen from laying eggs in the honey comb.
|During times of food scarcity, bees may need to be fed sugar water. There are several types of feeders available.
|Supers (assembled with frames)
|Any box placed on top of the hive body to give the colony more room. Honey supers are used for producing honey.
North Carolina has overr 80 county beekeeping associations across the state, which are part of the larger North Carolina State Beekeepers Association (NCSBA). Most of these chapters meet monthly with instructional programs, and many clubs offer new beekeeper classes each year. These local associations serve as valuable resources where experienced beekeepers offer advice and can act as mentors to beginning beekeepers. If you would like some hands-on experience before you start your own hives, offer to help a beekeeper in your area when they are working with their bees.
North Carolina is fortunate to have an active Apiary Inspection program, which is part of the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). There are six regional inspectors across the state who serve as important resources for beekeepers to keep their hives free of diseases and pests. All new beekeepers should contact their regional inspector so that they may register their hives and have them periodically inspected.
The Apiculture Program at NC State University has been a leader in honey bee research, outreach, and instruction. Part of the program’s mission is to assist beekeepers by helping to develop and disseminate information about new management techniques to improve colony health and productivity. For further information about the program, visit our website or contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension agent.
David R. Tarpy
Jennifer J. Keller
Publication date: March 21, 2022
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