So you want to be a beekeeper? You're in for a wild ride before you get your sweet reward
Shhh … do you hear that?
Deep in the winter gloom, hives of honey bees all over southeastern Wisconsin are quietly abuzz. The workers gather around the queen in a cluster at the center of the hive, vibrating their wings to keep the colony warm.
And like the bees they keep, hobbyist “beeks” (beekeepers) are staying warm and planning for spring.
It’s not for everyone
Winter is the time to start preparing if you’re interested in becoming a beekeeper. It’s a rewarding hobby — but not something to take up on a whim. Caring for a colony of one queen and up to 60,000 workers requires commitment, attention to detail and, above all, planning.
“The learning curve is really steep,” says Linda Reynolds, an instructor at the MKE Center for Urban Beekeeping, part of the Milwaukee County University of Wisconsin-Extension system. She recommends getting started by finding a more experienced person to show you the ropes.
“Mentors are key, someone who is knowledgeable, experienced and can spend time hands-on,” Reynolds says. Local clubs and apiaries in community gardens are great places to find your beekeeping Yoda.
See if you can tag along with a mentor for a year before you get your own bees. You’ll gain a lot of experience and also have a better understanding of what kind of equipment and bees you want. There are half a dozen different types of hives, for example, and the equipment is generally not interchangeable. Purchasing a hive is an investment that will last years.
Know your bees
There are also several strains of European honey bee, each with their own pros and cons. When I took a class with Reynolds in 2017, for example, classmates and I tended a colony of Carniolans, originally from the Balkans and known for their docile nature and ability to survive cold winters.
I have three hives of my own now: one Saskatraz, a newer, pest-resistant strain, and two Buckfast, hardy but feisty bees that produce a lot of honey.
Whatever set-up you choose, make sure your hives are legal. The requirements for backyard beekeepers vary by municipality. You may be required to take a class and get neighbors’ written permission, for example. Check out your local ordinances and follow them — and be open with neighbors before the bees arrive.
“Communication takes place beforehand,” says Tim Wilbanks, who runs Heritage Honeybee in Sullivan. “Make sure you check with your neighbor before you buy your bees.”
While properly managed colonies generally don’t pose a threat to humans in the vicinity, if problems arise it can be difficult to move an established hive, which will weigh more than 100 pounds. If keeping backyard bees isn’t feasible, consider starting your hive in a community garden apiary.
Once you’ve done your research, found a mentor and determined a good spot to keep bees legally, it’s time to go shopping. Plan on spending about $700 for one colony, including bees, their hive, tools you’ll need and protective gear such as gloves, a veil and a jacket or suit.
If you can swing it, most beekeepers recommend starting with two hives. Having two colonies to compare side by side can help a newbie spot trouble sooner. For a second hive, you’ll spend an extra $500, so about $1,200 total for the basic setup, including equipment.
“You can be more frugal or you can go out and get all the bells and whistles, which the bees probably won’t care about,” says Wilbanks.
While some newbies are fortunate to inherit a fully functioning hive, or to catch a swarm that left their old colony to look for a new home, most people starting out purchase bees. Beekeepers typically place their order now, either through their club, a local seller or a regional distributor, and pick up their bees in April or May.
Once the bees arrive, expect to spend an hour or so every 10 days to two weeks monitoring their activity and health. During certain times of the year, you may need to invest more time (and money) feeding them, expanding the hive and protecting the bees from both predators, such as wasps, and pests, including the varroa mite, which can devastate even large and healthy colonies.
No honey right away
“They do require some management,” says Wilbanks. “Take on the role of being a beekeeper. … It’s not about putting them in a box, leaving them until the fall and hoping to find 100 pounds of honey.”
Don’t plan on honey your first year, in fact. Bees will be busy settling into their home, building comb and filling it with the honey they’ll eat in winter to survive. It’s unlikely they’ll produce surplus honey for you to enjoy.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, you might want to try a lower maintenance way of beekeeping.
The European honey bees that produce the sweet stuff arrived in North America only a few centuries ago. There are thousands of species of native bee, however, many endangered or threatened. Give them a hand by cultivating pollinator-friendly plants and even building homes for them. You won’t get honey, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping the insects that keep Wisconsin plants thriving.
If, however, you’re ready to start keeping honey bees, you’re in for an adventure.
“It’s just like growing a garden,” Wilbanks says. “You’re doing the things you’re supposed to do, but there’s so much of it that’s just sitting back and watching nature take its course.”
How I did it — my zigzag year in beekeeping
I took a class. I read a bunch of books. But nothing prepared me for the first time I zipped down I-94 with 10,000 venomous insects riding shotgun.
It was late April when I picked up my first package of honey bees: a screen-sided wooden shoebox full of workers and, somewhere within the thrumming, buzzing ball of bees clinging to a syrup feeder within the package, a new queen.
The queen had been bred separately from the workers, and they had only met recently, shortly before the package was assembled in California and trucked to Wisconsin.
The queen was in her own little cage, a mini-version of the package, for her protection. The 10,000 workers surrounding her had not yet accepted her as their leader. They would kill her if they got the chance.
So there we were, heading from the package pickup point to an apiary at a Milwaukee County community garden. The week before, I’d set up a hive stand of cinderblocks. Now, the back of my car was packed with wooden hive components: boxes and boards of different sizes that would fit together to form the bees’ new home, where they would raise brood and store honey.
Traffic slowed suddenly. As I braked, the buzzing beside me ticked up a few notches in intensity. There had been an accident. Rolling by the fender-bender, I could only imagine what might happen if my car was rear-ended and my passengers dislodged from their shoebox.
Welcome to beekeeping.
The months that followed have been full of delight, frustration and sometimes heartbreak. I picked up a second package the following week, planning on having two hives my first year.
After a slow start, both hives seemed to double in size overnight in late June, reaching about 60,000 bees each. Then one of them swarmed. That’s when the colony decides they’ve run out of room, so the queen and half of the workers leave to find a new home.
By pure luck, another beekeeper was in the apiary when the swarm exited en masse and called our mentor for help. They lured the swarm into a bucket before I even arrived, a freshly purchased hive in my car for the captured swarm’s new residence.
And then I waited.
The half of the colony that had swarmed was doing well, including Queen Butterscotch, who began laying eggs again almost immediately. But the remaining half of the colony, still in the original hive, was now queenless. While I could have purchased a new queen, I chose to let them requeen on their own, which is a tricky business.
Requeening is a complex process. Workers choose several eggs with queen potential and groom them for greatness, then let the multiple would-be queens fight it out until only one is left. It’s all very Game of Thrones.
That virgin queen then must head out into the world on her own, find drones (male bees) to mate with, and fly back to the hive without being eaten by a bird or wasp.
About a month after the swarm, I saw eggs again in the colony, indicating a healthy queen was present. All hail Her Majesty.
Meanwhile, as the summer days began to shorten, that first package I had installed in late April faced a crisis.
The colony had exceeded all my expectations, exploding in number and even bringing in enough nectar, and turning it into honey, that I was able to harvest some for myself.
I spent an afternoon extracting the honey, then returned the emptied frames of comb to the hive an hour or so before sunset. The frames had a little bit of residual honey here and there. It was enough.
Moments after I placed the frames back inside the hive, I heard a loud buzz from another colony in the apiary. A stream and then a flood of bees came out of that hive and, well, made a beeline for mine. I was witnessing a robbing.
Bees are opportunists, and they had caught the scent of honey during a dearth, a period when there isn’t much in bloom to forage.
Soon it seemed the entire colony from that other hive was trying to get into my poor girls’ home. Bees brawled all over the entrance area, tearing each other apart. My hive’s guard bees, outnumbered, were being slaughtered.
I raced to my car to grab a robbing screen, a device that stops the invaders from getting in – but it also prevents foragers from returning home. Soon hundreds of foragers, tired from their travels and laden with pollen and nectar, clustered around the shuttered entrance. The robber bees started to pick them off.
Incredibly, the hive recovered. And in September, all three of my hives endured my butterfingered application of industrial strength formic acid to treat a spiking varroa mite population.
Winter of waiting
In November, I winterized the hives, wrapping them in roofing felt and taking measures to make sure they would have good ventilation. It’s not cold but moisture that kills bees in winter, even here in Wisconsin.
And now, I wait again. I visit them every couple of weeks to check on food levels, but mostly I just stand beside the hives and watch. Though the bees cluster when it’s very cold, on a calm, sunny day, even in the 30s I’ll find them out and about, sometimes landing on me to say hello. Ever since that first unnerving car ride together, I’ve felt a deep sense of stewardship and respect for these amazing insects.
In a couple of months, I’ll remove all the winterizing material. The foragers will start exploring, looking for the first blooms of clover. And our second year together will begin.
Keys to successful beekeeping
Getting started in beekeeping can be overwhelming, but you can make the steep learning curve easier to climb by educating yourself. Here’s where to start:
Take a class. Take another. The MKE Center for Urban Beekeeping, formerly the Urban Apiculture Institute and part of the Milwaukee County University of Wisconsin-Extension system, offers a hands-on beekeeping class from spring through late fall and runs apiaries in several community gardens. Look for dates, location and registration information about the 2019 class soon at milwaukee.uwex.edu (search “beekeeping class”)
In Sullivan, family-run Heritage Honeybee (heritagehoneybee.com) offers free two-day courses on getting started in addition to selling bees and supplies. The next class runs Feb. 2 and 9; advance online registration is required.
Join a club. Most counties have beekeeping clubs, easily found by searching Facebook. Local knowledge is crucial in beekeeping because climate, pests and plants are area-specific. Your bees’ needs will change from week to week depending on what (if anything) is in bloom; seasoned beeks from your neck of the woods can offer advice specific to your location.
Find some mentors. Most clubs will help newbies hook up with veterans, but if there’s no club in your area, check with the person selling you the bees, who may be able to help you network.
Go online to keep learning. There is a wealth of free, high-quality information out there. A few of my favorites include:
Honey Bee Suite: honeybeesuite.com Loaded with practical, friendly and encouraging posts from Washington State beekeeper Rusty Burlew, it’s particularly good for easy DIY projects.
Scientific Beekeeping: scientificbeekeeping.com California-based biologist Randy Oliver serves up straightforward, evidence-based information about keeping your bees healthy. Start with his “Beginner’s Pages.”
University of Minnesota Bee Lab: beelab.umn.edu Lots of free webinars, many specific to beekeeping in a cold climate.