Beginning Bee Keeping, by A.B.

I always planned to have a bee hive someday but someday had not come until I mentioned my interest to a friend who promptly told me he was splitting a hive (taking a few hundred bees out to prevent them from feeling over crowded) in one week and that he would share the “split” (a couple pf hundred bees) with me.  I promptly ran to the library and checked out three books on bee keeping.  Many questions and concerns kept floating around in my mind, a few of which included:  I know nothing about bees!, What equipment do I need to start a hive?, How do I care for them?,  How will I get the honey out?    Following is the answer to all of these questions.  This will hopefully guide you in your steps to managing your own apiary (scientific name for bee keeping).  It is important to start beekeeping now and make mistakes before you really need the honey.  But if  you are reading this post TEOTWAWKI there are still ways that you can obtain a honey bee hive that I will address. I now have one hive in production and plan to build more.

Bees live for one purpose only and that is to work.  They spend their entire lives working themselves to death.  During the summer, when bees are the busiest they can live up to 6 weeks.  If a bee is born during a non-busy season they will live up to 6 months.  Within the hive you have three types of bees: Queen, drones, and workers.   The Queen bee is bigger than all of your other bees.  She looks different with a shorter thorax (the middle of the 3 sections on a bee), small wings, and a longer torso which enables her to back up her behind into a cell and lay an egg.  She puts off pheromones (a scent) that inhibits all other female bees’ ovaries from working.  She can lay up to 2,000 eggs daily. 

A drone is a male bee that exists in the hive at a ratio of 1 drone to every 100 worker (female) bees.  The drones exist for the sole purpose to mate with the queen.  They are not able to feed or care for themselves and are cared for by their kind sisters. 

Worker bees, once hatched from a cell, start their work within the hive cleaning cells,  (a queen will only lay an egg in a clean cell), feeding and caring for baby larvae, grooming and feeding the queen, removing dead bees to the front of the hive, cleaning dust pollen and debris off other bees,  building wax from wax glands (located on the underside of their abdomen) and rendering it to honeycomb, capping pupae and ripened honey from their secreted wax, fanning honey in the cells to remove water which preserves the honey, and placing propolis (a sticky substance they make) in any crack that needs to be filled.  Once a worker’s mandible and stinger are fully formed, at three weeks, they can work outside the hive foraging for pollen, nectar, and water and protecting the hive from impending dangers.   

The life cycle of a bee starts when a queen lays an egg in a cell.  The eggs, shaped like a small grain of rice, are hard to see inside each cell.  A pair of reading glasses may help a beginner spot the eggs easier.  The workers regulate the ratio of males to females by constructing larger cells for males and smaller cells for females.  The queen recognizes the cell size and deposits the correct egg within.  Usually drone and queen cells are on the edges of the frame and females are concentrated in the center of the frame.  Eggs develop for three days before moving to the larva stage where they look like small pearly white semi-circles in their cell.  The top of their cells are sealed to enable them to spin a cocoon around themselves and turn into a pupa.  They will emerge 7, 10 or 14 days later depending on if they are a queen, worker, or drone.  A queen takes 16 days from egg to maturity, a drone 24 days, and a worker 21 days.  
This is a brief overview of the life and function of a honey bee.  There are great resources to learn about honey bees if you decide you are interested in bee keeping.


It is important that you obtain a hat with a veil.  There are many options but I like an XXL (I normally wear a women’s medium)  jacket with the veil attached.  This way the back of the jacket will cover me at all times no matter how much I bend over.  I will have no chance of being stung on the back.  You will need a hive tool to pry apart the boxes and the frames.  A smoker is used to induce the bees into a more submissive state.  Smoking a hive takes a lot of practice and has not come naturally to me.  You also want white gloves.  Bees do not like dark colors and if you can find white goat skin gloves it is best. 

The type of hive I have is called a Langstroth hive named for the man who invented a way to obtain honey and avoid ruining the hive each time honey was harvested.  For the hive itself you need a bottom board.  They come solid or screened.  Where I live in the Rocky Mountain region I have chosen to go with a screened bottom board to prevent significant condensation inside the hive in the winter that would drip and kill the bees.  You will need 2 hive bodies called brood chambers.  The height on these boxes are 9 1/2 in. and most of the eggs, growing larva, and pupa reside within these chambers.  When these boxes are full of brood, bees, honey, and pollen they can weigh 60-80 pounds.  On these brood boxes “supers” are often placed.  These boxes are shorter at 6 5/8 in height which makes them easier to carry and move around when they are full of honey and you are ready to extract.  Full they can weigh 40-45 pounds.  Within the boxes you will usually have 10 rectangular shaped wooden frames that contain foundation sheets stamped with a honey comb pattern to guide bees in building regular combs with uniform cells.  There are many types of foundation including:  pure beeswax, plastic with beeswax overlay, and plain plastic.  The foundation can be bought separately or already in the frames.  An outer cover rests on the top to protect the hive from rain, hailstones, and snow.  There are many other parts that can be added to a hive but these are the basics.

You will need to fashion from a net like material a hood that will keep your head and neck covered to prevent being stung.  Light colored gloves are preferable but any gloves will work.  Many beekeepers do not wear gloves because a stinger left in the glove will put off a scent that tells the other bees to sting. 

Early settlers frequently  used “bee gums” or hollow sections of a tree with a board placed over the top and the bottom to house their bees.  The problem that occurs with this type of hive is it will have to be destroyed by breaking it open in order to obtain the honey.  When you chop down the tree keep a few sections of the it to be able to replace the section that is dismantled every year to obtain the honey.  Make a few openings in the front of the hive small enough for the bees to enter but not large enough to allow mice or other small rodents that are looking for a warm house.
A smoker will be difficult to come by but a big torch from a branch will work just as well and will assist in helping the bees become more docile.  Over the centuries, wildfires have trained the bees that when they smell smoke they gorge themselves on honey and then leave the hive to find a new home. 


Placement of a hive is important.  You want good drainage around your hive.  Raising it off the ground onto cinder blocks or wood will usually keep moisture from getting inside the hive due to run off.  The hive needs to be in an area that you can get around and access easily.  You need to have water accessible.  Water is crucial to a bees survival.  They may need a float in your water source to prevent drowning your bees.  A windbreak will help them maintain their temperature during summer and winter.  A southeastern exposure is ideal to provide morning sunshine to stimulate the foraging bees to get up and get busy. 

Putting the bees in the hive

Early spring is the best time to start beekeeping.  This gives the bees all summer to build their stores for winter.  During the first year you will likely not extract honey.  The bee population is usually not high enough to produce extra honey and the bees will need the top and bottom brood boxes full to feed themselves from during the winter.  Bees are shipped in a box with a wire screen (also called a nuc box), with a can of syrup that will feed them on their journey through the postal system.  Be prepared for an early morning phone call from the post office to come pick up your buzzing package.  The queen will be in a small cage inside the package with several bees attending to her needs from the outside. 
            1. In the late afternoon or evening put on your protective gear, open the hive up to have access to the frames, place the nuc box near the hive and light your smoker
            2. There are 2 ways to do the next part, either a) splatter a syrup mixture onto the wire cage.  This will calm the bees.  Continue doing this until they quit eating. or b) Spray a sugar water mixture onto the bees.  This will not hurt them but will make it difficult for them to fly.  The sugar water mixture will also give them a snack as they will clean it off of each other.  Rap the cage onto the ground and let the bees fall to the bottom of the cage.
            3. Take the cover off the cage, remove the queen, and put the lid back on to prevent escaping bees.  Make a small hole in the candy plug that will allow the bees to eat their way through to the queen and release her.  Wedge her small cage between 2 frames within the hive making sure the candy plug is accessible to the bees. 
            4. Again rap the cage on the ground, then remove the lid and pour/shake the bees onto the frames in the hive.  At this point they are not going to be territorial and try to sting you.  They currently have no home and are not going to try to protect this hive.  It will take a few days before they call this new box home.  After you have poured most of the bees onto the hive, lay the box on its side to allow the other bees a way to crawl out and get into the hive.  Put the lid on top of the hive and then leave them alone.  Bees do much better without our help. 
After 3-5 days you want to make sure the queen has been released from her cage.  Open the lid during a warm sunny afternoon.  Hopefully most bees will be foraging and not at home.  If she has not been released, pull the candy plug out or push it carefully into her cage being careful not to squish her.  After this, leave them for a few weeks.  It is not prudent to check them more than every 2 weeks and many people wait 4 weeks.  When you do open the hive it will be hard to separate the boxes and the frames.  Bees use a sticky substance called propolis to glue all openings and frames together.  You will need to separate the box lid and the box with your hive tool, then put a little smoke into the crack.  This will induce the bees to go down into the frames and gorge on honey making them more sluggish.  After you take the lid off, lean it against the hive.  Pry a frame apart and lift it up, being careful to keep it over the hive so the queen does not fall off onto the ground.  When you look at your frames you want to make sure there are eggs and brood (growing baby bees).  The egg should be in the center of each cell and there should only be 1 egg in each cell.  If there are more than 1 egg in each cell it could mean your queen has failed and the worker bees have taken over by laying non-fertile eggs.  This will produce an all male (drone) hive which will die off very quickly as they are not able to care for themselves. 
In the spring before bees have a lot of plants to forage from they may begin to starve because they have eaten their reserves and have nothing to forage.  At this point it is a good idea to feed them.  There are many contraptions you can buy to feed them but last year the method I chose was to make a syrup with a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water, place it in a gallon zip lock bag, lay it on top of the frames, and then cut an X in the top of the bag.  The bees will land on the bag and eat from the syrup oozing out of the X.  My only expense was the sugar.  There are other recipes and substances you can use to feed bees but the important thing to remember is that during early spring you may need to feed your bees.
When working with bees use slow and gentle movements.  If you are quick or abrupt they will feel threatened and are put on high alert.  If a bee stings the stinger rips away from the bees body and the bee dies.  The stinger continues to pump venom into your skin so brush the stinger off quickly.  If you grab the stinger to pull it out you will force all of the venom into your skin. If a bee is squished this sends the bees into high alert and they are more likely to sting.  To get the bees off of the rim of the hive before putting the lid on use the smoker and they will bury back down into the frames, to again gorge on honey, you will be less likely to squish the bees and they will not try to harm you. 


In the event you do not already have bees, you can try robbing a hive to get your bees.  If you see honey bees around your property and are not sure where they have their hive hidden you can try this trick.  To do this you will need to make yourself a box with a glass or plexiglas top piece that will fit onto the box by sliding into grooves.  Place honey, molasses or a syrup mixture inside the box and place it somewhere you think the bees might come.  Once a few bees are in the box filling up on your sweet substance sprinkle them with flour.  Let them fly away and watch where they go.  They will go back to their hive and recruit other bees to come get food.  Other bees will come to your box.  Once your original flour coated bees come back to the box place the lid on the box and walk in the direction the bees flew off to.  This will bring you closer to their home.  At this point the bees will be full and ready to fly away.  Put the box on the ground when you no longer know which way to go, take the lid off, and let them fly away.  The bees will be confused for a minute, once they find their bee line they will head off towards home.  Watch them to see where they are headed and make a note of the landmarks you should walk to that will bring you closer to their hive.  When the floured bees come back do this again.  Put the lid on, walk their bee line (the path they take to and from their hive), let them out, watch them.  Do this again and again until they lead you to their honey tree.  Likely the tree the bees are in will need to be chopped down.  Doing this at night will be easier because the bees won’t be active.  They will be sluggish and sleeping, especially if the temperature is a little cooler.  When you chop the tree down, place your hollow log (with a board nailed to the bottom) next to your main body of bees.  You want to find the queen, which is much larger and has small wings.  When you find the queen, deposit her into your hollow log and the other bees will follow.  You can take a stick and pick up bees on the end to shake into the log being careful not to squish your queen.  Place the lid on your hollow log and place them in their new location during the night.  At this point you would want to also take all the honey you can. 


There are two ways to extract your honey.  The first way is to buy or make an extractor.  Using centrifugal force the honey is spun out of the frame, collects in the bottom of a vat or bucket and then can be poured from a gate/nozzle near the bottom of the bucket into containers.  The second way to extract honey is to crush the comb and honey together and then strain the wax out of the honey.  One reason most people use an extractor is to save the bees the work of making beeswax.  For every pound of beeswax formed in the hive the bees could have made around 10 pounds of honey.  By using a machine that will spin the honey out of the frames the bees do not have to work to make more beeswax.  They spend their time and energy refilling the wax that is ready.  Extractors bought from a bee supply company range in price from $199.00 to $2,000.   Many people make their own extractors out of scrap metal, a food grade bucket, and a tool like a grout mixer that fits onto a drill and allows the frames to spin.  Many plans can be found online how to make an extractor.

Post TEOTWAWKI, unless you have an extractor, you will extract honey by crushing the comb and honey.  When a frame is 80% capped off (the bees seal the honey with a white/ yellowish waxy seal) you can harvest the honey.  Materials for your gravity extractor include two buckets, one of those buckets needs a lid.  To get a mental picture of what your setup will look like when you finish you will have two buckets stacked one on top of the other.  The bottom bucket will have a lid for the top bucket to sit on.  Poke or drill 3/16 in. holes in the top bucket to allow honey to drip down through.  This bucket will be placed on a bucket of the same size that has a lid.  Cut the middle section out of the lid.  This will allow the honey to drip down from the top bucket into the bottom bucket while sitting comfortably and securely on the lid of the bottom bucket.   If your frames have plastic foundation inside them you will cut or scrape the comb and honey into a pot or pan.  If you have wax foundation in your frames you can cut the foundation right out of your frames and place it a pot or pan.  Working in small batches crush the comb honey in the pot/pan and place it in the top bucket.  The honey will separate from the wax, for the most part, and move down through the holes into the second bucket.  Once your honey has moved to the bottom bucket, which can take hours to days depending on how warm the honey is and how much you have, it is a good idea to strain it again using a cheesecloth or strainer.  Make sure you do this in an area the bees can not get to.  They will rob you of your honey quickly if allowed the opportunity.  
Once you have completed your project, put your sticky tools and buckets outside near your hive.  The bees will usually clean the honey off of them and take it back to the hive.  Bees can not reuse their wax.  You can take the beeswax from the top bucket and use it.  Here are a few recipes for bees wax:

Candles:  Place wax in a pot or a crock pot and heat until liquid.  Use old metal food cans or small jelly or half pint jars, place a candle wick inside and fill with beeswax

Taper candles:  Cut a long piece of flat braid wick.  Heat beeswax in a pot and dip the wicks into the wax to make them the desired length.  Tapers are made in pairs because you dip both sides into the wax which allows them to hang while drying.  For the first dip leave them in the wax one full minute to allow the wick to soak up the wax.  Thereafter keep dipping until they reach your desired width.  When you pull them out hang them over a dowel or a rolling pin to dry.  This process will usually take a few hours so give yourself ample time.  Let them sit for a day before using them. 

Hand lotion:  1 part beeswax, 4 parts olive oil- heat the beeswax and mix in the olive oil.  You can add essential oils but that is optional. Mix thoroughly, place in a small container while still liquid.  It will harden up.

Chapstick:  2 parts coconut oil, 1 part beeswax a few drops of vitamin E.  This can also be used as a hand salve.  Use a cheese grater to get small pieces of beeswax.  Heat these, mix, then use.

Honey is amazing when I think about the health properties it has.  It is full of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.  It tastes great and can be substituted for sugar in smaller ratios.  I am fascinated as I stand by my hive watching them come in and out interacting with each other.  Whenever someone asks me about my bees I tell them, “I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner.  They are fascinating little creatures.”  If you have thought about bee keeping in the past, just start.  Honey bees are very easy and beneficial to have around.      

Recipes using honey
Cough and sore throat remedy: 1 T of honey, 1 T of lemon juice, 1 c. of hot water

Soft Whole Wheat bread
2 1/2 c. very warm water
1 Tbsp. yeast
3-4 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. vital wheat gluten (secret ingredient)
1 Tbsp. dough enhancer (opt.)
1 Tbsp. Lecithin (opt.)
2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. softened butter
6-7 c. freshly ground wheat flour
Put water in mixer. Sprinkle yeast on top, then drizzle honey over it. Let sit for 3-4 minutes, or until yeast has bloomed and risen to the surface.
Mix in vital wheat gluten, dough enhancer, lecithin, salt, butter, and 1 cup flour. Slowly add 5 more cups flour. Let mixer knead dough for 8-10 minutes, then add more flour if the dough is still sticking to the sides. Add flour until dough pulls away.
Take dough out and knead on OILED surface. CUT, do not tear dough into 2 equal parts, and shaped into loaves. Place in greased bread pans, and allow to rise 1 hour uncovered. Place in cool oven and turn on to 350°F.
Bake for 30-35 minutes.
Remove from pans immediately, brush tops with butter or spray with a fine mist of water. I usually let them cool to room temperature while enjoying a few pieces with jam or honey, then slice completely and store in bread bags. I recommend freezing and thawing out the pieces as you need them – it is not hard, they defrost very nicely. Just make sure not to put it in the freezer while it is still warm, or the pieces will stick together and break when you try to pull them out.


Adams, John, 1972: Beekeeping: The Gentle Craft
Delaplane, Keith, 2007: First Lessons in Beekeeping
English, Ashley, 2011:Homemade Living: Keeping Bees with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Tend Hives, Harvest Honey & More   
MacBride, Roger Lea, 1995: In the Land of the Big Red Apple (Little House series)
Readers Digest, 1981: Back to Basics