An Introduction to Beekeeping
Student Blog post by Kathryn Alvarez and Braedan Drouillard
Recently, the Pacific Horticulture College's 2023 cohort were treated to a presentation by local renowned beekeeper, Gordon Mackay, who shared an introduction to beekeeping as well his passion for apiculture. In this blog post, we provide an overview of what to keep in mind for “new-bees” who are interested in learning about beekeeping, as well as a first-hand account by Braedan of his experiences as a backyard beekeeper.
If you are interested in having your own hive and you live in the Capital Regional District, first check the beekeeping bylaw for your municipality to see what it allows.
When selecting a site to place your hives, there are several factors to consider. The most important factor is food. Approximately 75% of foraging bees fly within 1 km while young bees only fly within the first few hundred meters, so make sure there are plentiful flowers, such as fruit tree flowers, wildflowers, clover, blackberry or even dandelions, nearby.
Other factors include protecting the hive from winds (especially north winds), animals, and water. Ensure the hive is in a sunny spot to keep it warm and dry, away from housing, foot traffic, and play areas. And place the hive a little bit off the ground (using a hive stand, bricks, pallets, etc.) to prevent rot and to make it a little easier on your back when you lift it.
When you first start out, you'll need to invest in building the hive, beekeeping equipment and, of course, bees themselves. When building the hive, you'll need to get the bottom board (screened or solid); hive bodies; inner cover; telescoping top cover; frames (plastic with wood frame, all plastic, or beeswax foundation with wooden frame); drone frames; feeders; hive stand; smoker; hive tools, gloves and veil.
When you buy your bees, it is advised to buy a nucleus colony, aka NUC. A NUC is an established colony of bees on four or five frames that you put into your wooden hive box between other new frames. These frames have a queen, lots of bees, eggs, brood (larvae or pupae), nectar and pollen plus some space for the queen to keep laying. For information on suppliers, please see: capitalregionbeekeepers.ca/buy-and-sell/ and cowichan-bees.com/.
The First Year
Managing your hive and your bees to ensure a strong and healthy colony is a year-round commitment, and the type of hive management depends on the season. For instance, spring is when the bee colony grows and strengthens so during this time, beekeepers need to check on the queen bee to see if she needs replacing, check on the colony to see how fast it is growing, and watch out for swarming and the colony splitting. In the summer, beekeepers need to be alert for robbing–the removal of nectar or honey from weak colonies by bees from strong colonies, or yellow jackets. Summer is also when disease may spread. And in autumn, you need to ensure the bees have enough food for the winter months and are protected against disease.
If all this sounds a bit daunting, thankfully there are local mentors and clubs (such as Capital Region Beekeepers) who will work with new beekeepers to help them succeed and have healthy,
Read on to learn Braedan's experience as a beekeeper…
Words from a former beekeeper of 2 ½ years:
It was back in 2017 that I got my honeybees. It was an exciting time and like many others who got bees on a whim, I was excited at the thought of harvesting my own honey and giving bees a home. However, despite my enthusiasm, and hours of research and care, my hives didn't last longer than 2 years. It was quite disheartening, but with hindsight I'd like to share some of my experiences and things I wish I knew before and during my time with honeybees.
The upfront costs of beekeeping are expensive! I bought and signed up for a NUC hive before I had much knowledge about bees. That was my first mistake. If you want to get into bees (or any hobby that requires a certain level of responsibility), DON'T DO THIS! Fortunately, I had a few months to do the research and prepare for their arrival in the spring. What most books I had read didn't discuss much is how much everything will cost. My NUC hive was about $270, but including the new hive box, frames, tools, smoker, gloves and veil, food supplements, and books, I was looking at about $1000 of stuff right out of the gate.
Prepare for the Swarm
For the first year of beekeeping, I read not to expect to harvest any honey as the bees will use their first year to build their hive and increase their numbers. I prepped for this and got a second medium size box primarily for honey frames. However, my bees didn't really figure out they had a second floor in their house and mostly stuck to the first box. Eventually, my hive swarmed and your hives will also likely swarm regardless of the steps you take to prevent it. I thought I'd only need one hive box and didn't think I'd need another. Suddenly, my one hive has turned into two which means buying and building another bee box (all within one year). The first of two ‘nails in the coffin' for my bee hobby occurred when my hives swarmed a second time the following year.
Bee Friendly Neighbours
I was fortunate to have a large enough property with big maples for my bees to feed from. However, a honeybee can travel several kilometers to find food so it's good to note what and who surrounds your home. If your home backs a park or a large neighborhood with many gardens your bees won't have a problem finding food. Having hives in dense urban areas probably won't be fruitful for your bees and you might get complaints from neighbors. It's also good to know if any of your neighbors are using insecticides on their properties. I wish I had thought of this earlier before finding a pile of a thousand dead bees outside my hive (This was the second nail in the coffin). Though pesticides are meant to target one kind of insect, they can still have catastrophic effects on other species in the ecosystem 🙁
Though I got a decent amount of knowledge from research, there was still lots that I thought had to be learned from experience. In hindsight, I wish I found a professional beekeeper to mentor me and apprentice under BEFORE I got into beekeeping. Though I did find a bee expert to get help from occasionally, I did feel more like a customer than an apprentice beekeeper when around them. I think finding an experienced keeper who can mentor you, is friendly, and who you can trust is a great first step to growing your interest in beekeeping before you make the plunge yourself. Joining the Capital Region Beekeepers Association (see the link above) is a good place to start.
The Money isn't in the Honey
As the heading implies, most commercial beekeepers don't actually make their money from honey production. Their income comes from NUC hives, breeding queens, personal beehive products, and pollinating fruit trees. Now that doesn't mean there isn't a market for locally produced honey (just go to any farmers market). It's important to know that if you had the dream of harvesting and selling sweet, golden honey for a living, know that you'll need to do a lot more to keep your business and finances going.
It's the Hard Drone Life
Drone (male) bees are kicked out of the hive in the winter to die out in the freezing cold! This fact didn't affect the health of my hives, it's just really sad 🙁
Too much Buzz
Not long after my hives had either died or swarmed off, I learned that the European Honeybee is not native to North America (facepalm). In fact, honeybees will often compete with and outpace native bee species. Most native bees either only travel a few acres to find the food they need, meaning they're more impacted when an ecosystem drastically changes. Meanwhile honeybees can travel up to 3 kilometers to find food, often pushing out native bees for food. This has put many species of native bees at risk along with the decreased population of flowering plants that rely more on those species. One of my main interests for going into beekeeping was to help and protect bees, but learning that such an act could actually do harm to bees was quite disheartening. That doesn't mean we shouldn't still have honey bees as they are crucial to our food production. This is why it is important to consider where you are in relation to native bee populations. A good alternative is to have Mason bees which are native to the west coast, require much less maintenance, and are actually better at pollinating fruit trees than honeybees.
Beecause they're great!
Despite the troubles I had, I don't want to dissuade anyone from getting bees when they might really want to. Honeybees are amazing creatures and they're wonderful to watch as they work and grow. Even though I only had them for a short time, what I enjoyed the most was seeing them work, the sounds they made, and the smells from their hive. There are many challenges to beekeeping so it's important to work together to support our fuzzy little companions. And remember to bee kind 😉