For those wishing to start beekeeping there can be no better first step than to join a beekeeping association. Most associations, comprised of large and small, new and experienced beekeepers, meet regularly to share information and insights. Most have beekeeping books, magazines and videos for loan and they bring in expert speakers. Grab a coffee and a lemon square, mosey up to an experienced beekeeper and ask for a visit to his/her beeyard. Or better yet, offer to help out to get some hands-on experience. (Note: Try not to set yourself on fire with the smoker.)
Increasingly, bee suppliers in Ontario will sell bees only to people who have had some training. Sign up for one of the OBA workshops or look for a local course. But don’t stop there: buy or borrow a few good beekeeping books, (see resources section), join the OBA and see what guidance the Tech-Transfer Program is offering, read beekeeping periodicals, and explore the Internet. There are a lot of good on-line resources, but be aware that there is also a lot of bumpf (a technical term for really bad beekeeping advice). Pick a few recommended experts that you can relate to and listen to them. Look for conferences as well: the OBA in Ontario and the EAS Summer Conference in the US which are both great for beginners.
Even if you plan to scale up or if you have had little or no experience, it’s a good idea to start with two or three hives. This will give you an idea of what it takes, how your location works out, and whether you like it or not. It’s not recommended to have only one, as it’s helpful to have two or more for comparison and for equalizing winter stores and population for successful over-wintering.
There are a lot of things to think through when you start beekeeping: your budget, where you are going to get bees, what kind of bees, what kind of equipment, how you are going to manage your hives, what kind of records you will keep, etc. And then there is the honey production side as well. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you’ll feel a lot more confident if you aren’t flying by the seat of your pants at all times. (There are enough surprises in beekeeping as it is!)
There are a lot more options in equipment than you might think, especially in hive components. You’ll want to consider your physical capacity and the pros and cons of various options as it is a significant financial investment and you’ll be living with your decisions for a long time. Most common hive bodies used are “standard” sized Langstroth equipment, but increasingly, beekeepers are working with medium-sized honey boxes, and some are even using 8-frame components, although they are harder to find in Canada. There is a growing interest in topbar hives as well. Check out local suppliers for 10-frame, and Brushy Mountain and Dadant in the U.S. for 8-frame equipment. Don’t stint on your smoker or hive tools, you want them to last.
You must register your hives in Ontario. Here also are links to other important beekeeping regulations. Beekeeping is not the time to explore your inner outlaw. Registering your hives not only gives the Province important statistical data but they will send you updates on recommended practices and you can request notification if there is any significant pesticide spraying in your area. It also connects you to the Provincial inspectors, who, although terribly overextended, are a fantastically supportive source of expert information and advice. Click here for a “Have you hugged your bee inspector today?” bumper sticker. (No, not really.)
First, as described in the Five Questions To Ask Yourself make sure you, your family members or close neighbours are not allergic to bee stings. Have an Epi-pen on site anyway (you can get them at your local drugstore). And second, start thinking about your sting protection. Most experienced beekeepers don’t use gloves, but you may want to start with them until you are comfortable with the bees. Make sure they fit you snugly; you don’t want to drop a frame of bees on your foot. In terms of suiting, personal preference, climate (it gets hot in there) and comfort with stings will determine your choices. It’s helpful to have a couple of options on hand, perhaps a veil for light beekeeping (external inspections, feeding, etc.) and a suit or at least a jacket, for full inspections. If you can afford it, look for the thick mesh suits, you won’t get stung, and they are cooler than the cotton ones. But they can be pricey. Rubber boots are good as well, especially if you have poison ivy in your beeyard. And, third, consider liability insurance. Even if you are just giving away your honey, your home insurance isn’t likely to cover you. Check with your insurer and then check out OBA’s affordable group insurance to protect your personal assets.
Courses, books, magazines, discussions with other beekeepers and conferences are all critical in building expertise and confidence. But at the end of the day, paying attention to what is going on in your hives is an equally important way to learn. Spend time in the beeyard. Get a little stool and sit yourself down for a while. You can learn a lot by watching, listening and sniffing. Write down questions. Take your time when doing inspections, make comparisons, watch for changes. Wonder. Think. Be ‘one’ with the bees.
Further to ‘looking and learning’ keep notes on what you are seeing and doing. Some beekeepers keep a journal to track what’s in bloom, weather, actions taken, learning, mistakes, questions. Some use a calendar to ensure timely interventions. But there are also some excellent software programs for your ‘smart’ phone which you can take into the beeyard that provide a framework for what to look for during inspections. You might think you will remember when you installed that queen (“I could never forget Gloria!”), or when you put that honey super on or fed them, but you won’t. Jot it down.
Finally, give yourself a break. You will make mistakes. You will do some really dumb things - you may not believe how many dumb things one person can do - but that’s the way it is. Beekeeping is one of the most enjoyable and interesting endeavours you will ever encounter, but even seasoned beekeepers will tell you that it’s forever a work-in-progress. Do your best, keep learning, keep going, and have fun.