How to Raise Honey Bees: A Beginner’s Guide

How to Raise Honey Bees: A Beginner’s Guide

Bees are generally easy keepers compared to other livestock; they are independent and require less attention and care than other creatures you may consider rising. They are also incredibly rewarding in that they produce both honey and bees wax which has a wide variety of uses. For some, a big motivation for raising bees is stewardship of the land. Bees are incredibly important in terms of the planets’ ecosystems. Bees conduct the important task of pollinating trees and plants. Many farmers and orchardists pay bee keepers to bring their hives around to help pollinate their trees. Given the current decline in the bee population, it’s more important than ever before to start raising bees.

Bee Terminology:

Worker Bee: A female bee that has undeveloped reproductive organs. They are responsible for doing all of the work around the hive. They collect pollen and nectar. Unlike drones they have a stinger.

Drone: A male honey bee whoes main purpose is to mate with the queen. Unlike worker bees they do not have a stinger.

Queen: Has fully developed reproductive organs and is typically larger than worker bees who are also female.

Bee escape: A device that is used to extract bees from a building by allowing them to leave, but not return.

Bee Hive: A box with removable frames that is used for housing a colony of bees.

Brood: Young bees that have not yet immerged from their cells.

Colony: All of the bees including the brood, queen, drones, and worker bees all living in one hive.

Swarm: Swarms take place when a large number of bees including drones, worker bees, and a queen leave their hive to establish a new colony.

Cluster: A cluster is a large group of bees hanging closely together. This often happened during a “swarm” when they can no longer hear the Queen due to noise that is drowning her out. A cluster is also evidenced in the winter months when they cluster together in order to keep warm.

Shock Swarm: Shock Swarm refers to the process of moving a colony of bees from one hive to the other. This is generally done in the early spring. One should use a “queen excluder” in this process in order to prevent the queen from absconding.

Absconding swarm: This is where an entire colony abandons their hive. This can be due to many reasons including disease or a lack of resources.

Bee metamorphosis: The three stages that bees go through before reaching maturity. These stages are egg, larva, and pupa.

Beeswax: A wax that is secreted by worker bees for the purpose of building a cone.

Comb: A mass of six-sided cells made by honey bees in which brood is reared and honey and pollen are stored; composed of two layers united at their bases.

Decoy hive: A hive that is set up to attract stray swarms.

Winter cluster: A large cluster of adult bees that takes place in the winter for the purpose of keeping warm.

Common North American Bees:

German Black Bee: German Black Bees were the first bees brought over to America by Europeans. They are incredibly hardy and winter well. However, they are well known for being extremely aggressive and build up slowly in the Spring.

Russian Bee: Most notably Russian bees are known for being very resistant to parasitic mites. Due to this characteristic they were originally introduced to America due to the rapid decline of the American bee population. They are also known for being good honey producers and winter well.

Italian Bee: Perhaps one of the most common species of bees when it comes to bee keeping. They are hardy and tend to fare well in winter. They are also known to be less aggressive towards people than other species of bees. However, they are also known to be aggressive towards other colonies.

Carniolan Bee: Camiolan bees are known for being quit gentle and conserve their winter store of honey quit well. However, they swarm frequently and are relatively slow at building new cones.

Caucasian Bee: Most notably Caucasian bees are known for being very gentle and don’t swarm very often. On the down side, they do not winter well, are prone to disease, and build up slowly in the Spring.

Buckfast Bee: Buckfast bees are quite popular with bee keepers. They are hardy, winter well, good tempered (low sting instinct), build up rapidly, and are good honey producers. They are also resistant to a prolific parasitic mite known as “Acarapis woodi.”

Africanized Honey Bees: Africanized Bees are relatively new to America. They migrated up from Brazil to Southwest America in the 1990’s. These bees are best known for being extremely aggressive, swarm often, and build smaller nests than their European counterparts.

Social Structure:

Bees have a well-defined but relatively simple social structure. A honey bee’s job is determined by their gender. Bees have two sexes (male and female). The male bees are known as Drones, whereas female bees are either “worker bees” or the Queen.

Drones: Drones are smaller than the Queen, but larger than worker bees. They also have significantly larger eyes than worker bees. Drones also don’t have stingers and their only job is to mate with the Queen. It may sound as though Drones have a good life; after all their only real job or purpose is to eat and fertilize the Queen. However, once they have mated with the Queen their reproductive organ is ripped from their body. This often results in the drone’s death soon afterwards. In some cases the drone will survive, but may face getting kicked out of the hive since they no longer serve any purpose and will only deplete the hive resources. As if that wasn’t bad enough, drones will often be kicked out of a hive in the late fall/early winter in order to preserve food for the rest of the colony.

Worker Bee: The other form of female bees (besides the Queen) is the “Worker Bee.” Worker bees are female bees with undeveloped reproductive organs. Unlike Drones, they have stingers and their job is to collect pollen, care for the larva, protect the hive, and build cones.  In short, they do all the heavy lifting while the Drones are busy mating and the Queen is laying eggs. Worker bees are smaller than the queen and drones. Also, unlike drones, the worker bees have stingers to aid in their job of defending the hive.

Queen: Each colony has one Queen. The Queens job is to mate with drones and produce eggs which will eventually hatch into larva and grow into adult bees. The Queen is physically distinguishable from worker bees and drones due to their size. Queen bees are the largest bee in the hive. The Queen bee is the most important individual bee and is treated as such. Even when they are in their larva stage, the potential Queen bee is given special attention and food by the worker bees.

Besides the Queens larger physical size, she is also identified by her sound. Honey Bees are dependent on her sound to keep track of where she is. I first learned of this as a young child when a swarm of bees made its way into the neighbor’s yard while I was visiting. They called a local beekeeper who told us to start banging pots and pans together. Once we started banging the pots and pans together the entire swarm consolidated into a giant ball on top on a fence post. The Ball of bees was so large that clumps of bees would drip off. The reason for this was that once the drones and worker bees could no longer hear the Queen, they panicked and started consolidating as close to her as they could so as to not lose track of her.

Feeding Bees:

Whether or not to feed bees is a somewhat controversial subject. Some bee keepers don’t do it, while others swear by it. There are some advantages and disadvantages to feeding bees. There are also a lot of different methods/devices for feeding as well as many different feed formulas and supplements available on the market. 

Why feeding should be done: There are some circumstances in which it’s advantageous to feed bees. These circumstances are when the hive doesn’t have enough food, diseases (particularly dysentery), establishing a new hive, or just an added boost.

Disease is one common reason that bee keepers decide to feed their bees. Although sugar water and other feed supplements aren’t as nutritious as honey, it does have its advantages. One such advantage is that bees have a lower likelihood of developing dysentery when fed food such as sugar water. One tell tail sign of dysentery is yellow streaks running down the outside of the hive. In such cases it may be advantageous to supplement the bees diet.

When establishing a new hive, it can help to give the colony a boost with some added food. Especially when you consider all the work the bees will have ahead of them in regards to establishing their new home. Bees are also prone to swarming (leaving the hive) if there isn’t enough food and resources in the area to establish a colony.
When should you feed:  Feeding is often done throughout the year. As the seasons change, so do the reasons for feeding. A seasonal guide to feeding is as follows:

Spring: in the early spring the bee’s honey store will have been somewhat depleted over the winter months. This is also a time when bees will start building new cones and will need the added food/energy to do so. A good guide to follow is 1 part sugar to 2 part water. That means for every 2 pound of water you need to add 1 pound of sugar.

Summer: During the Summer months the bees will be busy raising larva and building new brood cones. As such, they may need more food to help raise said larva. During this hectic time for raising larva, the bees may require a higher concentration of sugar. A good guide to follow is 1 part water to 1 part sugar.

Fall: During the fall months it’s important that the bees start putting on weight in preparation for winter. As such, they will require a higher concentration of sugar to water than they did in the previous months. This is especially true if you have harvested honey the bees will need the added food to help fatten them through the winter. A good guide to follow is 1 part water to 2 parts sugar.

Winter: During the winter months it’s all about survival. Feeding bees during this time doesn’t really make sense given their behavior during this part of the year, but more on that later.

Keeping bees in winter:

The winter months can be difficult for bees. Bees survive the winter by clustering together and vibrating their wings to create heat. They also survive by living off of their honey stores that they have spent the year establishing. As such, it’s important that you leave your bees around 80 pounds of honey so they can survive. Though this number depends on the climate you live in and the breed of bee (some breeds winter better than others)

As previously stated, bees will cluster together in order to keep warm. They will move to different parts of the hive in order to access their honey stores. However, they need a brief break in the weather (at least 40-45 degrees) so they can break up the cluster and move. For this reason, feeding bees doesn’t make much sense since it can be difficult for them to cluster around a feeding can, especially since they are prone to freezing. The one exception to this is if you check the hive and they are low on/out of honey. In this instance you will need to start feeding them and continue to do so until they can start bringing in their own pollen and nectar.

Bee hives need some year-round ventilation. This includes during the winter months. If the hive is too stuffy, water can accumulate causing a wet and mucky hive. One reason for this is that when heat from the cluster of bees meets the cold winter air it will consolidate to form ice on the top of the hive. This ice can then melt leading to a wet hive. This problem can be mitigated with the addition of insulation on the top of the hive, but ventilation will still be a necessity. As such, don’t go overboard on insulation and make sure that the hives entrance remains clear.

Chill Brood is a condition in which the brood gets to cold and dies. Chill brood usually happens for two reasons, the first being a cold snap in the early spring. However, the second and more common reason is due to error on the beekeepers part. When inspecting your hive it’s important that you do it on a day with little to no wind and try to disturb the bees as little as possible. During the winter months the “nurse bees” will cluster over the brood in order to keep them warm. If you break up the cluster for too long the brood may freeze and die.

Establishing a Colony:

Once you get your hive all put together you will need to find a suitable location in which to put it. An idea location is in an open area that gets plenty of sunlight. Bees are cold blooded and as such a warm morning sun will help them get their day started off right. Bees also need a water source. This shouldn’t be much of an issue if you live in the country with streams and pools.

If you bought bees they should come in a package with the queen separated from the rest of the bees in a “Queen Muff.” You first want to put the Queen in the hive while still in her “Queen Muff.” You will leave her in there for a couple days (there should be food in there with her) while the worker bees get busy establishing the hive. After a couple days you can release the Queen and she should stay in the hive. If you immediately let the queen loose she is liable to fly off with the rest of the colony in high pursuit. And there is no guarantee as to where they will go.

It is also advisable that you leave some food out for them in a bee feeder. This will help give the bees the much needed energy required to collect pollen and establish their colony. A mixture of 1 part water to 1 part sugar should be sufficient, though a little extra probably won’t hurt.


Bee Hive: First thing first, bees need a place to live.(Click here to see/buy)

Smoker: A smoker is a device that emits smoke and is used to calm bees down before handling. The smoke actually calms the bees down for an interesting reason. That reason for this is that bees are a lot like people, in that they tend to gorge themselves when they are stressed out. Smelling smoke causes the bees to gorge themselves on honey which in turn causes them to be more lethargic and docile.(Click here to see/buy)

Veil or bee suit: You might not need an entire bee suit (long tucked in pants and a long jacket may suffice), but you will at least need a veil to cover you head/face and keep you protected.(Click here to see/buy)

Hive tool: A hive tool is a simple device that will suit many of you bee keeping needs.(Click here to see/buy)

Bee Brush: A brush that is used for gently brushing bees off or away without harming them.

Bee feeder: There may come a time when you will need to feed your bees. As such, you may want to invest in a quality bee feeder.(Click here to see/buy)

Queen Catcher: As the name suggests, a “Queen Catcher” is a device used for catching the Queen. This is especially important if you are going to move the colony to a new hive.

Queen Muff: A Queen Muff is a special container to keep the Queen from absconding after you have caught her.

Bottom board: The bottom board is a board or stand on which the hive rests. It’s important that you keep the hive off the ground so it doesn’t become wet and rot.

Bee diseases and predators:

Nosema apis: Nosema is a fungus that primarily effects honey bees. It is one of the most common and devastating diseases that effect bees. Nosema can be difficult to diagnose but does have some distinguishing characteristics such as: Dysentery which is distinguished by yellow stripes running down the outside of the hive, bees being unable to fly do to disjointed wings, and early replacement of the queen due to a drop in her fertility.

Treatment of Nosema includes of use of  “Fumidil B.” Although Fumidil B does not kill the Nosema spores it does inhibit the spores from reproducing. In conjunction with the use of Fumidil B, one should thoroughly disinfect the hive along with all utensils and equipment used for the bees/hive.  Disinfection can be done with the use of acetic acid and through heat treatment of a least 120 degrees for 24 hours.

Varroa destructor : A parasitic mite that feeds on the bodily fluids of adult bees, larva, and pupa. These mites are found all over the world with the exception of Australia. However, some feral bees have appeared to have developed a resistance to them. Varroa mites are easy to identify and can be seen by the naked eye. They appear as small red or brown spot on the bees. They also cause bees to have deformed wings.

There are many chemical treatments for Varroa mites. Though regulations on these treatments vary from country to country and are intended to be used when “marketable honey” is being produced.  These treatments are marketed as Apivar, Apistan, CheckMite, ApiLife-VAR, Sucrocide, and Mite-Away.

One can also mitigate Varroa mites by mechanically removing them from the hive. This is generally done by placing a screen on the bottom of the hive to allow the mites to fall out of the hive. This is done in conjunction with dusting the hive with powdered sugar which causes the bees to start cleaning. In doing so dislodging the mites so they can fall through the screen.

Acarapis woodi: A small parasitic mite that is small and hard to identify. They can be incredibly devastating and are credited with nearly eradicating the bee population of the British Isles. There isn’t any treatment for these mites that I have been able to find. However, a popular hybrid bee known as the “Buckfast bee” was developed by Brother Adam at the Buckfast Abbey (credit where credit is due). The Buckfast bee is resistant to Acarapis woodi and is incredibly popular with bee keepers around the world. Besides being resistant to Acarapis woodi, Buckfast bees are known for being good honey producers, winter well, and have a low sting rate.

Nosema disease: Nosema disease is caused by a microsporidian (a spore-forming unicellular parasite that is known to be a either a fungus or belonging to a sister group of fungi) known as Nosema apis. Nosema disease generally comes about during the winter months when bees are less active and unable to deposit waste outside of the hive.

Treatment for Nosema disease is done in several different ways. Increased ventilation helps in preventing and limiting the spread of Nosema disease. Sometime antibiotics such as fumagillin are used by bee keepers. Another method of treatment is to remove most of the honey from the hive in the fall and feed the bees sugar water. Refined sugars has less ash than plant nectar and will help prevent the bees from developing dysentery. However, the down side is that sugar water contains less nutrients than honey. As such, many bee keepers only do this once every other year or every few years.

Small hive beetle: The Small Hive Beetle (also known as “Aethina tumida”) originated in Africa, but has been found in hives around the United States since the late 1990’s. As the name suggests, small hive beetles are small dark colored beetles that live inside hives.

Treatment of the small hive beetle involves either preventing them from entering the hive (though the use of devices that are generally marketed for preventing ants from climbing in) or by disrupting their life cycle. Part of the Small Hive Beetles lifecycle (pupation) takes place on the ground below the hive. Some beekeepers have experimented with using “diatomaceous earth” (a naturally forming rock that is formed from the fossilized remains of hard shelled algae that is crumbled into a fine powder). Diatomaceouse earth works by dehydrating young Small Hive Beatles and in doing so killing them.

American foulbrood: American foulbrood is caused by a bacterium known as Paenibacillus larvae. This bacterium infects bee larva and cause them to darken and die. The bacterium produces long lasting spores that can survive up to 40 years. As such, it’s of the utmost importance that you thoroughly clean and disinfect any utensils that are used.

A drug treatment called “tylosin tartrate” has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, due to the pervasiveness of this bacterium many  State Apiary Inspectors require that infected hives be burned in order to prevent it from spreading.

European foulbrood: As with the “American Foulbrood” the European foulbrood is caused by a bacterium that infects bee larva. However, the good news is that it’s not a serious as American foulbrood. European foulbrood generally takes hold in hives that are already under stress. An otherwise healthy hive can often survive an outbreak. Symptoms of European foulbrood include dried out/rubbery larva that may appear brown or yellow.

One popular treatment is the “Shook Swarm” technique. This involves moving the colony from their old hive to a new/clean hive. However, this is generally done in the Spring time and requires the use of a “queen excluder” to prevent the queen from absconding.

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