Getting started in small-scale beekeeping
Do I need to register my hives if I have only one or two?
Maryland law requires anyone who owns or is in possession of honey bees to register the colonies within 30 day, then annually thereafter. Registration is done through the Apiary Inspecition program of the Maryland Department of Agrigulture (get the form here: http://mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/pages/apiary_inspection.aspx) . There is no charge for registration. Beside it being the law, there are a number of good reasons to register your hives. For one, you will have the services of Maryland Apiary inspectors to help you assess the health of your colonies. The inspectors will also alert you to any potential threats in your environment that could affect the health of your hives.
Why do I need to take a course?
Although endlessly fascinating and a lot of fun, there is also a lot to learn in beekeeping. A good course will give you the basics, provide you with useful resources for learning on your own, and connect you with other beekeepers and resources who could be helpful. Everyone makes mistakes, especially when they are starting out, but give yourself the best start you can by reducing the potential for disappointment and loss. And remember, as a beekeeper you are part of your local ecology: poor beekeeping can effect not just your own colonies, but wild pollinators and other beekeepers as well.
How much does it cost to get started?
It used to be common to buy or inherit used beekeeping equipment, but due to the spread of diseases and pests, (spores can remain viable for decades in hive equipment) it is recommended to buy new hive equipment to start with. If you are a small-scale beekeeper, you can find good beginner kits for sale from beekeeping supply stores. With the addition of tools and protective equipment, it is foreseeable to spend $800 to $1000 for two or three hives.
Is beekeeping hard work?
Beekeeping is physical, outdoor work but there are tools and techniques used to overcome the strenuous aspects. People with disabilities have been known to keep bees, and a portion of beekeepers are senior men and women. Full sized honey boxes can weigh up to 100 pounds, but increasingly beekeepers are working with medium-sized honey boxes, which, filled with honey, can weigh approximately 40lbs. Building your own equipment is an option, however, assembled equipment is also available.
Will I get stung? What do I do if I get stung?
Yes, all beekeepers get stung eventually. When you get stung, the most important thing is to remove the venom sac and stinger as soon as possible. The most effective way to do this is to lift it out with your fingernail or the fine edge of your hive tool. Try to avoid squeezing the venom sac between two fingers, as this could push the venom into the sting site. For most people, this is a minor event, similar in pain to getting a needle. It will not leave permanent damage. You will likely experience swelling at the site, and often itching for a few days. This is a normal reaction to bee stings. Some people put ice on the sting site, or make a poultice with baking soda, but beekeepers tend to build up a tolerance to stings. The face is a sensitive place to be stung, therefore always wearing a veil is highly recommended. If you are allergic, a sting can be deadly serious (see Q. 6).
How do I know if I am allergic?
If you or your immediate family members have never been stung by a bee, you may be unaware of an allergy to bee stings. It may be of interest to get tested before getting bees (See Q. 5 for a normal reaction to a bee sting) If you are allergic, you may experience hives and discomfort with swallowing or breathing even after the first sting. Allergies to stings tend to escalate with each sting, potentially causing anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening condition. Nothing is worth risking your life, or the life of those you care about, so if you are allergic, beekeeping may not be for you.
How much time does it take?
Beekeeping is seasonal, and therefore the time varies with the season. For small-scale beekeepers, there is not much to do in the winter except to occasionally check for physical damage or debris blocking the entrances, hindering air flow. The busiest times are spring and fall when it can be compared to managing a decent sized garden.
What kind of location is best for bees?
Honeybees need forage, light, access to water, friendly neighbours and protection from predators. You need to also consider what is growing in your forage area, as pesticides and herbicides can be lethal to bees. And don’t forget that you will need to comply with local zoning and other regulatory laws and licences. Hives within one location should be positioned at least a 3 feet apart. Avoid facing the entrances all the same orientation as the bees may not decipher their hive from the ones next door.
What equipment do I need to get started?
The basic components for hives are needed, (bottom board, stand, hive boxes, frames and foundation, an inner cover and an outer cover) but do the research and talk to other beekeepers to help you think about the options and find the best size and type of hives for you. For yourself, you will need protective clothing (including a veil), a hive tool, entrance reducers, winter protection for the hives, queen excluders, a bee brush, and a smoker. You will also likely want to have a feeder for each hive and, again, research the options and talk to other beekeepers to find the one that best suits you, as they all have advantages and disadvantages. A wagon can be helpful for hauling stuff around. And a notepad and camera for learning and management. Later you will need extraction equipment and packaging materials depending on your volume and goals. Pest and disease treatments and/or management tools may also be a necessity.
How much honey will I get?
When starting out with a nucleus colony (a “nuc”) or a package of bees, don’t count on significant honey in the first year. The bees will have enough to do to build up their population and comb, and your job will be to oversee the colony to give them the best chance possible to have adequate numbers of bees and food for the winter. Honey production is dependent on numerous factors, such as the previous winter, the spring season’s weather, temperatures, the number of bees in the colony, overall colony health, etc.
Does my homeowner’s insurance policy cover me for personal liability related to my bees?
This will vary from company to company, therefore it is wise to ask your insurance agent directly; but generally speaking, if you give away or sell your honey you are likely not covered by your homeowners insurance.
Where can I get bees?
Buying local bees that are acclimatized to your region is beneficial. Contact Howard County Beekeepers to get the contact information from local suppliers.
Can I make money selling honey?
If you are like most of us, a small-scale beekeeper, you can make some money selling honey, but you are probably looking at break-even rather than profit-making, especially the first few years. Check out your local farmer’s markets to determine typical rates for honey. If you are considering selling to retailers, usually 50% goes to them. Anytime you sell honey in Maryland, you will have to ensure you are compliant with labelling and other honey related food regulations. And don’t forget all the honey that will go to your friends, neighbors and family!
Where can I get help in a hurry?
If it’s a medical emergency, call 911. For assistance with issues related to bee pests or diseases, contact your local apiary inspector. For general beekeeping management assistance, contact us here at Howard County Beekeepers. You may also want to bookmark a few reputable web-based beekeeping resources that you trust (such as this one) to avoid flailing around on the Internet in a panic.
How soon can I start?
It’s never too early to start learning about bees, beekeeping and their management. Beekeeping education is an essential tool to be a successful beekeeper. Seasonally, you will want to order your equipment and bees, sign up for a beekeeping course, and join the HCBA January for a late spring start. You will need to have your hive bodies constructed (if you are putting them together yourself) and painted, and your beeyard cleared by the time the bee packages or nucs are ready in late April, May or early June.. Check out 10 Steps to Start for more information.