How to Start Beekeeping

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How to Start Beekeeping Ė The Parker Plan

This is a sensitive subject for many reasons. Weíve come to a time in beekeeping history when there are perhaps more people trying to start beekeeping and failing than ever before. This leads to a great number of disaffected former once upon a time newbee beekeepers. I donít want this. I donít know of any beekeeper or experienced beekeeper who doesnít think this is a terrible thing. Beekeeping as a career is diminishing. Beekeeping is becoming harder to do and make money. And while Iím not terribly concerned about the maintenance of the commercial beekeeping profession, I am concerned about assuring that new beekeepers have a positive and fulfilling experience. So Iíve given this a lot of thought and Iíve come up with a plan and a philosophy that I havenít heard from anyone else and I havenít at the time of this writing told anyone else. I think it can help to make a difference and give the freshman treatment-free beekeeper a leg up on the status quo.

Before you get the bees
Guideline #1: Never purchase your bees in the same year as you decide to become a beekeeper.
What Iíve seen happen is every spring, a whole new crop of beekeepers come in and plop down their $200 for their starter kit with a deep hive body and a medium super and a veil and a smoker and a hive tool and the other little accessories that come along with it. Then theyíll plop down their $100 for their 3 lb. package of bees, which due to some natural disaster will not be delivered on time. This throws the newbee into a nervous fit because everything is not working out exactly how they planned. Little do they know that this is the way of things and that they will subsequently receive a whole bunch more of the same. There are so many threads which start on the beekeeping forums which are something like the following: ďHelp!!! Something about this is going totally different than I expected!!!Ē It causes a whole lot of problems for queen and package producers.
So, take the time. Take the time to study and prepare. This isnít like buying a hamster. Bees are sophisticated insects. They shouldnít need you to survive, and if they had the intellectual aptitude, they would most certainly reject you as their manager. Study. Never stop learning. Open your mind and if all else fails, simply do nothing. You canít make it much worse by doing nothing. You can certainly make it worse by jumping the gun and doing the wrong thing.
Buy some good beekeeping books and read them cover-to-cover. I recommend The Complete Idiotís Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer and The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush. Michaelís book is much thicker and more expensive, but at the same time, virtually all of it is available on his website Spend a lot of time there. You wonít regret it, and you won't need to buy the book.

Guideline #2: Donít start with just one hive.
There is simply too much to go wrong to consider this as an option these days. There really is a serious chance that one hive will die in its first winter. If itís not due to mites, it could be due to related viruses or infections or it could be starvation or it could be a failed late season supersedure or it could be by robbing from neighborhood colonies. There are just so many things that could go wrong that first year or any year for that matter.

Additionally, having more than one hive gives you many options for helping out your other hives. Call it socialism or Robin Hooding or whatever, but itís really helpful to be able to pull a frame of open brood out of a neighboring hive and be able to give it to a queenless hive so they can make their own queen. Itís also very helpful to be able to equalize stored honey in the fall when some hives may have more than they need and some may be a bit short.
When I started, I started with 20 packages. But that was back when packages cost $35 apiece whereas now, they may cost $100. That many would only be for the most serious of starting beekeepers as I was. I was intending to become a commercial beekeeper. I didnít end up doing that, but I did learn a vital lesson. My recommendation is to start with no fewer than five hives. As to how to start them, Iíll deal with that in a minute.
Be serious. Starting with five hives is a serious investment and if you want to be a treatment-free beekeeper, a serious investment is necessary, not only in bees and equipment but in study and planning. At this point in time treatment-free beekeeping WILL NOT WORK by buying bees and putting them in a hive and leaving them in the back yard. Do not be fooled. It is not as easy as that. Thereís a reason most of the beekeeping community are still using treatments. Treatments help avoid big and immediate and hard-to-stomach losses. They are the easy way to do things and they do produce results, for a while. But as it has been shown over the years, eventually the effectiveness of the treatment wears off and then youíre still stuck with the same problem. To succeed in treatment-free beekeeping, much attentiveness and study and work is necessary.  But itís worth it, for you and for the bees, in the long run. Take it seriously.

Guideline #3: Start with nucs. (This means two things.)
Before you can get bees, you need something to put them in. As I mentioned before, newbees commonly jump on the internet or run down to their local beekeeping supply store and grab a beginnerís kit. Donít do it. You donít need all this stuff yet, and as far as I can tell itís overpriced, anyway.
The first problem is, they give you the most expensive equipment, the ĎSelectí grade stuff. You donít need this. Itís made specifically for people who donít know any better. You want commercial grade stuff. Itís just as good, not as pretty, but it will be painted anyway. Second, you canít pick your frame size and often foundation is included so you canít pick cell size either. I will only ever recommend small cell. You donít need gloves (you might like them, but if you can't handle a few stings, quit now). You donít want an entrance feeder. Youíre not going to want the tiny smoker theyíll give you (get the big one). You donít need inner and telescoping covers, you can use migratory or plywood or something simple. Theyíre not going to give you the kind of veil you want or need (get a jacket instead). You donít need a screened bottom board. You donít need the book theyíre gonna give you and you donít need their video. Thatís what YouTube is for in this generation.
Some thinking is required.

One thing you should decide right at this point is what size frame youíd like to deal with. Many Bee-ginnerís kits include two boxes with two different sizes of frames. However due to a lot of issues I discuss on the Size Considerations page, you should pick a single frame size and, generally speaking, Iíd recommend the medium. I have used a single frame size in my entire beekeeping career and have never regretted it. All those frames were deeps and at times I have been disappointed with that choice but never with the choice to use one size.
The next decision is what to purchase to start beekeeping. In most cases, your choices are to buy established hives, buy nucleus hives, or buy packages. Thereís also the option of catching swarms, which I heartily recommend at all stages of beekeeping, but itís not really reliable as a method on acquiring bees. If you have the opportunity to buy established treatment-free hives pay whatever it takes. However, since that is a near impossibility, my recommendation is to purchase treatment-free nucs. Those are also few and far between, so the next best option is to purchase treatment-free package bees. But those are also hardly available. There are small cell versions of both those and that would be the next best option. If you get in early enough, you should be able to get small cell nucs without too much hassle. I got some from Dixie Bee Supply without too many problems a few years back.  However, I would strongly recommend as local as possible.
Now for the second part of ĎStart with Nucs.í
Thus far, the things I have recommended are pretty standard. But the next part, I have never heard anyone talk about. I think you should do a year or two keeping only nucleus hives. I think you should increase as much as possible, I think you should overwinter them, and I think you can use them to continue to develop your treatment free operation long after youíve switched to full size hives.  I'm saying I think a lot because I'm not certain.  If you are willing to put more into it, perhaps you should start with larger hives.
There are a number of reasons why I think you should do this. First of all is cost. The cost of five five-frame nucs is significantly less than five hives with lids and bottoms. It gives you an excellent opportunity to make your own nucs and pretty good quality ones for $5 each. Thatís right, $5 each! Hereís how you do it:

Nuc Plan
This is what they look like when theyíre done.


Note:  You will need a table saw to make these.  You can also have them made by a handy family member or a friend.  Each one of these nucs costs about $5 to make not including the entrance disc and frames.  Compare that to $20-$55 for one professionally made and purchased. 

These nucs are 5-frame deeps, but you can easily adjust the sizes of the sides and ends and tops to make them for any type or size of nuc you want. This is a simple five frame nuc design that uses ĹĒ nominal (15/32Ē actual) plywood and you can make four of them (5-frame deeps) from a single piece of plywood costing about $16. I do not yet know how many you can make in mediums. Iím thinking about doing 6 frame medium nucs just because it gives a little more space for overwintering. Iím not sure yet how successful it can be to overwinter medium nucs but I know that Michael Palmer and others overwinter 4-frame deep nucs in Vermont and 6 medium frames approximately equals 4 deep frames in deep so Iím confident that it can be done.  Overwintering nucs requires feeding however.
This is a fantastic opportunity to get started with a minimum amount of investment and with the maximum chance of success due to the capability for rapid increase. With nucs, youíll need to take a more active management direction because they fill up so fast and can swarm. As a new beekeeper, youíre gonna want to do this anyway. So hereís your opportunity. If your hives are bringing in a goodly amount of nectar and pollen, youíll probably have to take a frame out of the hive every week to make sure they donít fill up and swarm too fast. If you have five five-frame nucs, that means every week, youíll have five frames that youíll need to do something with. Start a new nuc. Here it is your second or third week of beekeeping and youíre already learning how to increase. Pay attention though, small nucs have a habit of absconding if weather is too hot in the summer and it may be profitable to build little supers to go on your nucs and give the bees some extra space. Or, this might be a good time to start to build or purchase full size boxes that can be used as 8-10
frame nucs themselves.
10 frame
This is the kind of steep learning curve you can really sink your teeth into. And to keep ahead of the mites, youíll need rapid increase especially if you started with poorer stock. Thereís no reason why you shouldnít be able to at least double your number of hives in your first year. If you do well and have favorable conditions, you might even get up to 20 nucs from five in your first year. If feeding is necessary, itís a whole lot easier to feed 20 nucs to full than it is fewer bigger hives.  Conveniently, you get a discount when you order frames in lots of 100. 
The first winter will be the first real challenge. Many if not all hives will be seeing increased mite loads, some to the point of crashing. This may be a good time to consolidate your five frame nucs into 10 frame nucs. Kill off the poorly performing queen and unite the nucs using one of several methods. You can do a newspaper combine, or you can place both into a neutral box. Bees know within seconds if you place a frame into a hive which is not their own. Youíll know this by watching and listening to them. A neutral hive leaves everybody without the need to defend something. Use it. It may be useful to stack the nucs together in a sheltered spot to give them the best opportunity. Find out what works best.
Make sure you watch this video: several times to glean the necessary information to succeed in this venture. Victory favors the prepared.

Guideline #4: Be Realistic.

If thereís one thing you must know as a treatment-free beekeeper, it is that some and occasionally all hives will die. What Iíve tried to do on this page is prepare you for that eventuality. You need to get used to it. You need to plan for it. You need to prepare for it. You need to be able to handle it emotionally. Itís hard to watch a hive die, but thatís how nature works. Thatís how natural selection works. Thatís how it NEEDS to work. Itís that process that you must rely on to winnow your bees and leave you with the best ones. Having more to winnow gives more chances for success.
Secondly, donít expect any honey in the first year. Donít even try. You can scoop a little out with your finger to get a taste and maybe you could pull a frame early in the summer and crush and strain it to whet your appetite, but donít go buying an extractor. Donít get ahead of yourself. You need a little experience and to start to get good at it before you can reliably expect any honey. Keep that in mind and be okay with it. If you do the right things at the right time and learn the right things before making the wrong mistakes, youíll get all the honey you could want. Have patience. Learn how to make bees first, then you can learn how to make honey.

Guideline #5: Donít freak out.
Youíre new at this. Things arenít going to go well at all points in the process. On my first try, I didnít get the foundation installed correctly and it was all falling out and causing huge messes. I was literally reduced to tears. It was a really bad day. Of course, it wasnít just a handful of hives - it was twenty. But I learned from it. I didnít do that again. I learned how to put comb into frames like doing a cutout of a feral colony. This is the sort of thing youíll do too. Itís okay. Thatís why I suggest you start with so many hives. It gives you a greater number of chances to succeed (or fail, depending on how you look at things.)  The more hives you have the less the chances that all of them will die at once.
If you do have problems, an online forum is a fantastic place to get them figured out. But donít scream and cry and foam at the mouth (textually speaking). Slow down and ask your question patiently and intelligently. If you follow my advice, hopefully it wonít be all of your hives that are in dire straits. In fact, you might just for fun leave one completely alone for the first year, kind of like a control group in a scientific experiment.
Then, if things do go seriously south, hopefully youíve expended a smaller amount of energy and money than you would have had you gone in other directions. I really do want you to succeed as a beekeeper, whether it is as a backyard beekeeper, a hobbyist, a sideliner, or a commercial. We all do.

Guideline #1: Never purchase your bees in the same year as you decide to become a beekeeper. 
Guideline #2: Donít start with just one hive.
Guideline #3: Start with nucs. (This means two things.)
Guideline #4: Be Realistic.
Guideline #5: Donít freak out.

Don't get me wrong, I know that very few newbees are going to read this plan and say "Sounds good, let's do it."  It's daunting to look at.  I've been told by a number of people whose opinion I value that it's too overwhelming, and that may be so.  But I cannot in good faith recommend something that I know won't work, and in all probability, a one or two hive plan won't work. 

This plan stands with the rest of this website, not just by itself.  You'll need to understand how to make queens which you can learn from the queens page.  You'll need to learn how to identify disease which you can learn from the I Have a Problem! page.  You'll need to learn about feeding and comb and the lifecycle of the bee and a whole bunch of other stuff which you can learn on this site and others.  If I give you bad advice and something goes wrong, it's my fault.  But if you don't study up and something goes wrong, it's your fault.  Capitalize upon your successes and hedge against the effects of your failures.

To succeed at beekeeping treatment-free and sustainably, you gotta jump in with both feet and get to increasing your numbers as soon as possible.  The sooner you realize that learning how to do new things is enjoyable, the easier this will be.  I'm telling you to start doing new things the first year that some beekeepers never end up doing themselves, ever.  Hit the ground running, the world will not slow down and let you catch up.

Just remember, this is only year one.  Stay tuned for year two.