Top Five Beekeeping Tips for Farmers and Gardeners

Five tips for a successful start to beekeeping.

By Daniel Johnson and Samantha Johnson

Beekeeping has benefits for both farmers and gardeners.

Beekeeping has benefits for both farmers and gardeners.

Don the protective clothing, wave the bee-soothing smokers and discover the satisfaction that comes from the popular pursuit of beekeeping. If you’re considering joining in or you’re ready to get started, here are five tips to help you succeed in your apicultural adventures.

Start small. While it might seem exciting to begin with a dozen colonies of bees, it’s best to start out on a smaller scale and expand. For your first year of beekeeping, we suggest two or three hives, which gives you a solid foundation as a beekeeper without being overwhelming. We don’t, however, propose that you forge ahead with just a single hive, as you’ll want to have at least two hives for comparison. If you only have one hive, it can be harder to determine whether it is thriving or struggling.

Know the law. Before you plunge headlong into the world of beekeeping, investigate regulations and ordinances for beekeeping in your area. Some states and provinces require beekeepers to be licensed; others call for annual apiary inspections. Many municipalities enact regulations that specify parameters for hive placement (such as 500 feet from a roadway, for instance). Contact your local beekeepers’ association for details on legalities in your area. If you find you’re unable to keep bees on your own property, don’t despair. Other farmers and gardeners may allow you to keep bees on their land in exchange for the pollination benefits.

Choose the best location. It’s crucial to select the best placement of your hives. You’ll want to consider criteria such as the presence of a windbreak (always helpful), the availability of a water source and the proximity of the hives to your neighbors, animals and your home. A hive stand is also critical, as it elevates the hive away from the damp ground and prevents easy access by critters. The hive stand need not be elaborate, just functional.

Stay safe. Protect yourself when working around your bees by investing in a full-body coverall, beekeeping gloves and a veil. These simple articles of clothing will safeguard you and allow you to work comfortably around your bees without fear of being stung. (Beekeepers who have reached a more advanced level often find they enjoy working without gloves, as it allows them more dexterity.) A smoker is also a necessity; smoke calms the bees and lessens the chance of stings.

Keep your bees safe. One way to protect your hive from bears and other predators is to avoid leaving honey, comb or other attractively scented items outside the hive. A small amount of electric fencing can also go a long way toward discouraging predators. (For more on installing electric fences, see myFarmLife.com/electricfence.) You’ll also need to secure your hives in other ways, such as keeping snow from blocking hive entrances and protecting the hive from harsh winds. Also, keep a vigilant watch for pests and diseases, and take steps to prevent swarms by adding space in the form of extra supers or splitting the hive.

Beekeeping has an additional upside beyond honey and beeswax. For farmers and gardeners, there is the added bonus of crop and garden pollination—critical to ensuring yields on many plants, from apples to squash to soybeans. Simply put, we all benefit from the work of the honeybee, whose body structure and behavior make it an excellent pollinator. Some advanced beekeepers even offer crop pollination services to farmers, setting up multiple hives on or near a farm, with an emphasis on pollination rather than honey production. This can be challenging, difficult work, albeit important.

Daniel Johnson and Samantha Johnson are a brother-and-sister team and the authors of The Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping (Voyageur Press, 2013). They keep several colonies of bees in northern Wisconsin.