Beekeeping 101: Week One

In January and February of this year, Mom, Abigail, Bethany, and Olivia took Julia McGuire’s Beekeeping 101. We really enjoyed the class. It reinforced what we already knew. The first week was on the basics of beekeeping.

The first step to get into beekeeping is to take a class and join a bee club. Most classes happen during the fall and winter. There is a variety of bee clubs. They can be state, state region, county, or city-wide. City ordinances should be checked before one starts beekeeping. Believe it or not, there are quite a few cities that do not allow honey bees.

After taking a bee class and joining a bee club, getting bees is the next step. There are three basic types of honey bee source: local options; local businesses, but non-local bees; and non-local businesses with non-local bees. Local options are local beekeeping businesses that sell overwintered, local queens. Local businesses, but non-local bees are local businesses that sell honey bee that came from a outside source. Non-local businesses with non-local bees are the companies that ship their bees to the customer.

A beekeeper must decide if they want to be a commercial, sideline, or hobbyist beekeeper. A commercial beekeeper is a beekeeper with three hundred or more colonies and often beekeeping is their main source of income. A sideline beekeeper has between twenty-five and three hundred colonies and beekeeping is often an additional source of income. A hobbyist is a beekeeper with fewer than twenty-five hives. Each type of beekeeper will have different amounts and kind of work.

A new beekeeper must decide if they want to get a package or a nuc. A package is two or three pounds of honey bees with a mated queen. Packages are fun because the beekeeper gets to observe the hive grow. Surplus honey is possible, because a package will most likely not be split. Installation of a package varies with weather. Packages are often available in mid to late April. Queen quality varies with packages. Packages are one of the least expensive options to start beekeeping. Package bees are not usually locally adapted stock and have more potential for pests and diseases. A nuc is five frames of brood and resources with a mated queens and enough bees to fill the box. Nucs are easy to install because it is literally moving frames from one box to the other box. Nucs often produce surplus honey. Nucs are often locally adapted stock. Nuc queens are often of a high quality. Nucs cost more than packages. Nucs are usually not available until May through July. Nucs may have come from hives with lots of pests or diseases.

A beekeeper must also decide what breed of honey bees he wants. The four main breeds in Iowa are Italian, Carniolan, Russian, and Mutt. Italians are very productive honey makers, but they take a lot of brood into winter so they require more feeding. Carniolans are reliable producers of honey and they take less brood into winter then Italians. Russians are winter hardy bees, but are sometimes aggressive. Mutts are locally adapted stock. Mutts tend to be winter hardy, but sometimes have bad traits (e.g. aggression, a tendency towards swarming).

In the spring, packages are available and new and veteran beekeepers install them. When installing a package, one should suit up completely despite the calmness of the bees and the early spring temperatures. We explained how to install a package here. In the spring, established hives are getting busy with the first pollen. A beekeeper will perform his spring cleaning and redistributing. Spring cleaning involves switching an established hives brood boxes and cleaning the bottom board. A beekeeper may choose to re-queen a hive in the spring. It is important to have a good water source in early spring. If a beekeeper lives in a residential area, he should remember that there may be antifreeze from winterized swimming pools near his hives.

A hobbyist beekeeper often inspects his hives every seven to ten days. A sideline or commercial beekeeper will check his hives significantly less. Summer inspections are just to make sure there is still a queen and she is laying well and that the bees have plenty of room. A beekeeper may catch some swarms (Swarming is the natural process by which honey bees reproduce.) or do a cutout or two. (A cutout is when a beekeeper removes a feral hive from a building.) A beekeeper should continue to attend bee club meetings throughout the summer. Thinking about winter in August will ensure the beekeeper has plenty of time to get the bees ready.

Honey should be harvested in either late July or early to mid-August. Hives should be treated for varroa mites and any other pests as soon as the supers have bee removed from the hive (September). Winter boxes should be added in October and hives should be wrapped up late November or early December.

Throughout the winter, emergency food should be fed to the bees. We fed the bees sugar. The bees will take bathroom breaks about every month. A beekeeper should make sure their hives are staying dry. Around early April, the bees will start being more active.

Honey bees are insects. They have six legs, two sets of wings, and two antennae. Honey bees go through metamorphosis. Honey bee metamorphosis starts as a egg. A honey bee is an egg for three day. Next, the honey bee becomes a larvae. A bee is a larvae for six days. A bee is capped on day nine. While the bee is capped, it is a pupa. When the bee emerges from its cell, it is an adult. There are three castes of honey bees. The queen lays all the eggs and is the mother to all the bees in the hive. She is selected by the hive when she is an egg. She will mate once with multiple drones. The worker bees do all the work in the hive. They clean the hive, feed the brood, store the honey, make the beeswax, guard the hive, and forage for nectar and pollen. Drones are the only male bees. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. Honey bees eat nectar and pollen. Nectar is a carbohydrate and pollen is a protein.

Honey bees are social insects. They have a hive mentality which means that the bees will do anything for the good of the hive. All the bees in a hive work together to keep the hive alive and to help the next generation live. The hive reproduces by swarming. The brood pattern indicates the status of the queen and the hive. Solid cells in a solid pattern indicates a strong queen and, therefore, a strong hive. Perforated cells in a spotty pattern indicates a weak queen and, therefore, a weak hive.


This is an example of an excellent brood pattern.

Honey bees (and all native bees) are incredibly important to agriculture. About one in every three bites of food would not exist if honey bees did not exist. The world would be significantly different if there where no honey bees.


Fun Fact: Every pound of honey bees is about 4500 bees.

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