Much like gardening, bee keeping is a seasonal hobby that requires upkeep and maintenance that varies throughout the year. Bee keeping is not for everyone and it is essential that you are committed to monitoring your hive and caring for it throughout the year.
The ideal time to start a bee hive is in the spring. Starting in the spring allows time for a colony to develop, expand and store honey before winter. There are several options for hive systems to get you started. Two of the most popular are Top-Bar hives and Langstroth hives. Top-bar hives are horizontally arranged and have no frame for the combs. Bees build combs on bars that are then pulled from the top. The more commonly seen hive arrangement is the Langstroth, which is stacked boxes composed of frames where bees build their comb.
Along with the hive, beginner apiarist should also consider purchasing a bee suit or at the very least a protective veil and gloves. Many advanced beekeepers opt out of using gloves however to have freer mobility in their hands while handling hives. When handling bees it is important to wear light colored clothing so that you are not confused with a predator. A smoker is also necessary and is used as a tool to calm bees when accessing the hive for harvest or other reasons.
Acquiring bees for your first hive is often done by mail-order. Packages of bees are sent with a young mated queen and 2-3 pounds of worker bees, along with food for the trip. Beginning with such a bare-bone colony, it is important to know that the bees will only likely produce enough honey to make it through winter and the beekeeper should wait until the following year to harvest honey, only after the hive has accumulated an excess.
Another way to get bees for your hive is to catch a swarm. Collecting a swarm is not as daunting as it sounds because bees in a swarm tend to be less aggressive, as they do not have brood or honey to defend.
Sometime you can purchase already started hives from a local beekeeper. A hive that is already established and healthy can produce 50-100 lbs of honey in a single year.
It is important to monitor the health of your hive and your queen bee year-round. In the spring, you should inspect your hive and make sure new bees are there. If your queen bee dies, you should find a replacement.
Periodically you may need to feed your bees. Ideally your bees will have enough honey to survive, but if nectar flow is low or your hive is still small and becoming established, they may need supplemental food. Bees feed on pollen patties or just simple syrup. It is best not to over feed your bees as this may cause an overproduction of brood that could potentially lead to a swarm. In the summer, be sure that your bees have access to water as well.
Honey should only be harvested when you are certain enough is left for the bees. Bees will likely need around 80 pounds of honey to last a winter, though the amount can vary depending on weather and other factors. Any excess honey left at the start of spring can be harvested so it is best practice to leave more than enough to keep your bees healthy in colder months. New combs are ready to be harvested when the cells of the beehive are capped with wax and cured. Honey is cured when the cells no longer leak with a gentle shake.
Ideally, a beginner apiarist should have a seasoned beekeeper to learn from and reach out to with questions and any hive issues that may arise. There are several beekeeping associations locally that should be used as a resource if you think you’d like to have your own hive. DC Beekeeper Alliance, Northern Virginia Beekeepers Association, and Maryland State Beekeepers Association are all local clubs that provide resources and information to the prospective apiarist. It is important to note, that many cities have requirements pertaining to hives and research should be done to make sure you are complying to local laws.