Sunday, December 8, 2013

Think Spring: Evaluating Bee Hive Kits and the Beekeeping Starter Kit (Part I)

You will find that your beekeeping kit grows with you.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but all the excitement and associated activities really messed up my posting schedule. If you've been waiting for this post – I am sorry for the delay!

Winter is the time when many beginner beekeepers will start attending classes and gathering supplies. Most of the bee suppliers target those beginners with their bee hive kits. You see a beekeeping starter kit on the first few pages of most beekeeping catalogs. So, let’s figure out what a beginner beekeeper needs to get started and then let’s take a peek at those bee hive kits and see if a beekeeping starter kit will work for you.

Beekeeping is very easy to start. You will need:
  • Some basic knowledge in the form of a beekeeping class, a beginner beekeeping book, or reading a lot of blog posts and beekeeping forums. A good beginner beekeeping book is Beekeeping Basics that Penn State uses in its online program. You can find it here (PDF): Starting in early spring, I also plan on publishing a series of blog posts and YouTube videos showing how I manage my nucs and packages into full size, honey producing hives. If you would like to do it along with me, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and YouTube channel from the links on the right.
  • Personal protection equipment. This can be anything ranging from a hat with a hiker’s mosquito net along with a long-sleeved shirt and jeans (this is what I started with) all the way to a vented full body suit (this is what I am currently using). You may see a lot of YouTube videos, where the beekeeper is not wearing any protection. Don’t be tempted by those videos! One of my worst inspections started with a perfectly calm hive on a perfectly nice day. Things got awful in a hurry when a crop duster decided to take a closer look and took a dive right above the open hive. I had to beat a hasty retreat as the whole hive went on alert. Bottom line: always wear protection!
  •  Smoker. This has been the beekeeper’s go-to tool for ages. In the spring, you can get away with using sugar water or similar. In the fall, there is no substitute for the smoker if you want to avoid starting a robbing frenzy or if you want to stop one.
  •  Hive tool. Over the years, I have used a painter’s tool, an extra-long screw driver and an actual hive tool. Anything that will let you pry apart propolized frames works just fine.
  •  Hive(s). You will need a bottom board, brood box (or boxes), honey supers, and a cover. There is a myriad of options out there. You can pick deeps, mediums or shallows in 10 frames, 9 or 8. All of them have their pluses and minuses. The most useful advice for picking the size of your brood boxes is to make sure the brood boxes are the same as your supers. Manipulations are a lot easier and straight-forward when you can exchange a brood frame for a frame from your honey super. 

You can find a lot of posts and articles discussing the benefits and the drawbacks of the different size boxes. In this blog post, I want to focus on the number of boxes you are going to need.  Beekeepers in the south, where the bees can fly through the year use only a single deep for a brood box. Beekeepers in the northern part of the USA traditionally use 2 deeps as brood boxes. The second brood box provides ample amounts of stores that sustain the bees through 5 or more months of non-flying weather. If you are not sure whether to use one or two deep brood boxes, I would suggest erring on the side of caution and going with 2 for the first year. In the spring you can gauge the amount of leftover honey and have a better idea if two boxes will work for your area.

You have probably heard that first year hives do not make honey. Many beginner beekeepers interpret this as “I only need to buy brood boxes for my first year”.  Many experienced beekeepers have found out that placing swarm traps near beginner beekeepers’ apiaries usually results in them catching nice swarms with a marked queen as a bonus.

Bottom line is that first year hives (started by either nucs or packages) managed by beginner beekeepers often swarm. I believe this is due to the timing of the install, the abundant feeding of sugar and the lack of space.

Demand for earlier and earlier packages has pushed package bee suppliers to deliver queens and bees as early as possible. The further north in the USA you are located, the better your chance of getting a package early enough to make the most of your major flow. For example, here in NW Ohio, packages are available early in April (usually the 1st week of April). Our first frost free date is May 1. Dandelion blooms by the end of April. Apple bloom starts soon after, in the beginning of May. Our major flow usually starts by the end of May/early June. As you can see from this timeline, an early package here has a very good chance of making a honey crop.

According to the 2013 USDA honey report (, the average hive production for USA is 59.6 lbs. This is enough honey to fill a deep super or a couple of medium supers or 3 shallow supers. To get an estimate that is more appropriate for your specific location, please consult the USDA source above. After all, all beekeeping is local. As I mentioned in “Think Spring: How many bee hive boxes do I need? Should I get a bee hive kit?” (, I also like to keep an extra box on hand in case I end up with an exceptional flow. All in all, to consider any bee hive kits adequate, I would expect to see some supers included (generally at least 2 deep supers, 3 mediums or 4 shallow).

Finally, I personally believe that each bee hive kit (or even a beekeeping starter kit) should include an extra bottom board, an extra brood box and an extra set of covers. This would allow you some wiggle room in case you package decides to swarm. It might surprise you, but packages, especially those belonging to beginner beekeepers swarm quite frequently, due to the lavish feeding with patties and sugar syrup. Having an extra single hive will allow you to have a safe place for your queen at the first sign of swarming. In this way, you will have extra options in case the virgin fails to mate or you're not happy with the replacement.

This entry is getting fairly long – stay tuned (you can subscribe to the blog from the links on the right side of the page) for the next part where we will see how the bee hive kits match up to the above criteria. Of course, let me know if you think I should add something to the above!

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