Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby that is also beneficial to the environment—honey is just one of the many sweet rewards of beekeeping. Learn more about how to start and maintain your own bee colony.

By Leah Chester-Davis, Diana Dickinson
Updated August 05, 2019
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Honeybees are efficient, hard workers that have a big impact on gardens and crops. Without them, our food choices would be quite limited. Apples, oranges, lemons, limes, broccoli, blueberries, cucumbers, cantaloupes, carrots, avocados, and almonds are among the many crops that are pollinated by this tiny insect. Unfortunately, honeybee colonies have been declining for the last 30 years. Some of this decline is natural, and some of the causes are human-made. You can help this important pollinator by taking up beekeeping, which is an easier and more rewarding hobby than you may think. Anyone can start beekeeping—all you need is the right information and tools to get you started. Whether you're trying to decide which type of bee to keep or want to know what equipment you need to start out, we've got you covered.

Editor's Tip: If you have a severe reaction to stings (difficulty breathing), beekeeping isn't the right hobby for you.

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Why Honeybees are Disappearing

Honeybee colonies have been on the decline since the 1990s. One of the causes is parasites that take over beehives. The varroa mite is the most widespread hive nemesis. The tiny mites reproduce in colonies, lay eggs in honey cells, and suck energy from adult bees.

In the last 2o years, scientists have also observed a scary phenomenon that affects bees called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Beekeepers reported the unexplained collapse of their colonies. Worker bees disappeared, sometimes overnight, leaving the queen behind.

We also have a part in why bees are disappearing. Pesticides play a part in the decreasing bee population. Numerous scientific studies have shown that pesticide spraying spreads chemicals that harm bees and their environment. Also, bees need pollen, water, and a place to live. Urban sprawl makes it harder for them to find these things. What was once green is being covered with concrete.

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Creating a Safe Beekeeping Environment

People of all ages can become beekeepers. It's important to do your homework before you get started. One of the first steps to consider is where you will keep the bees. Even though bees can thrive in city neighborhoods, even on rooftops, it's important to consider your neighbors and local zoning ordinances. Some municipalities allow the keeping of bees on lots that are less than a fourth of an acre, which indicates you don't need a lot of space, but a small lot is probably not the best site.

Look for a spot that has some distance from neighbors and from areas where children and pets play. Place the hive where the bees' direct flight path in and out of the hive will be 15-20 yards from houses or spaces where people enjoy outdoor activities. The proper care of bees is nonthreatening, but for those unfamiliar with bees or for those who might be allergic to stings, their acceptance of a hive next door isn't something to take for granted.

Screens, such as hedges or buildings, where neighbors can't see the hive can be a solution. A screen or building near the hive encourages the bees to fly up and away when leaving the hive, avoiding encounters with people.

A nearby water source, no farther than a quarter-mile, is important. A shallow pan or a birdbath filled with water, along with rocks or a sandy slope on which bees can rest, will help keep bees on your property and out of your neighbor's yard. The water source must not dry up or bees will likely head to nearby watering spots, such as a neighbor's pool.

Myths About Keeping Bees

Unless you've actually tried it, you probably have a picture in your head of what beekeeping is like. Here are some assumptions about this hobby that are often incorrect:

  • You Need a Big Yard: The average suburban yard (about a quarter of an acre) is plenty. For easy bee comings and goings, a hive should have at least 10 feet of open space surrounding it. Hives should face southeast (for morning sun) and have shade, if possible. Be sure to check local regulations and let your neighbors know in case they have concerns or want to help.
  • It's Expensive: Gear and bees cost about $300. For $190 you can get a starter kit that includes a hive, leather gloves, bee veil, smoker, hive tool, and instructions. Our favorite site to gear from is mannlakeltd.com. Bee colonies run $90–$100 and are available in the spring from local suppliers.
  • It Takes a Lot of Time: You’ll need to devote about 30 minutes a week during the spring and summer to inspect the hive and check on the queen and the honeycomb-making progress.
  • A Swarm is Bad: It looks menacing, but a swarm is a natural occurrence. It’s the result of a thriving colony. When a hive gets too crowded, a new colony forms and leaves in search of another home. Sometimes swarms rest en route in an inconvenient place. (In a tree by a school, for example.) To find a specialist to relocate one, go to honeybeeswarmremoval.com.
Left: Blaine Moats
Right: Blaine Moats

Beekeeping Equipment You'll Need

An investment of less than $300 and a few minutes each week in early summer will get you started. Standard equipment and estimated prices include:

Editor's Tip: Avoid purchasing used equipment, which can harbor bacteria and diseases.

The Best Time to Start Beekeeping

The best time to order equipment and bees is in the fall or early winter, for delivery of the bees in April. Early winter is an excellent time to take advantage of classes offered by beekeeping associations.

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Popular Bee Types for Keeping

Since its arrival from Europe in the 17th century, the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been bred for various and distinct attributes. The most popular breeds for hobbyists include:

  • Buckfast: Excellent honey producers that do well in cold, wet winters.
  • Carniolan: High marks for overwintering and gentleness. (Yes, some bees have a gentle side.)
  • Italian: Good honey producers and popular in the South, where winters are mild.
  • Russian: A bit more aggressive, but they are mite-resistant and withstand cold winters.

Join the Beekeeping Community

Most beekeepers love to share their knowledge. Find a beekeeper who is willing to be a mentor and you will be on your way to a beneficial, enjoyable hobby or business that offers sweet rewards.

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