Getting Started in Beekeeping
Useful beekeeping links to local, state, and other resources.
Getting started in Beekeeping
There is no shortage of information for one who has an interest in becoming a beekeeper. We provide this guide as a quick list of actions that one should consider but it is by no means a comprehensive all-inclusive resource, just a place to get a start. While we provide some structured guidance here, the first and most important recommendation we can make is that you seek out your local beekeepers association. Having access to a contingent of beekeepers is an invaluable resource and will shortcut the learning curve tenfold.
Starting out as a beekeeper: Considerations
As with any endeavor, safety is the first concern. As a beekeeper, you will get stung on occasion and there is a risk of an allergic reaction. This consideration may apply to family members, neighbors, and anyone that will visit the property where the bees are housed. You must make considerations for keeping bees in a place that is safe and not a nuisance. There are ways to control bees to some extent but if you are in a situation where there is any doubt about placement, consulting a knowledgeable beekeeper should be the first logical step for guidance combined with reviewing the “Guidelines for Keeping Bees in Populated Areas” published by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Division of Plant Industry. If your property is not suitable, there may be options. Perhaps an arrangement with another property owner in exchange for honey would allow you to keep bees if your property is not suitable.
The laws governing beekeeping in New Jersey changed in 2014 with Assembly Bill 1295 and establishes the State with regulatory authority over apiary activities (keeping bees) and allows for delegation of monitoring and enforcement authority to municipalities. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDOA) is the governing agency.
This means that the previous regulations and restrictions at the municipal level have been made obsolete and municipalities can no longer enforce restrictions against keeping bees by a municipality. This of course does not negate a beekeeper from following accepted practices and the State provides a “Guidelines for Keeping Bees in Populated Areas” to follow.
The NJDOA is actively working on revised instructions and it is likely that additional information will be coming in late 2018 or 2019 and when it is available we will update this information. It is safe to assume that the NJDOA will provide up-to-date information on their website as they complete the regulatory process being designed for NJ beekeeping.
If you want to know something more specific you are encouraged to inquire with the New Jersey Beekeepers Association (NJBA) in lieu of your local municipality. Municipalities are often are not as versed in beekeeping regulations as our state organization and often defer to the NJDOA and/or NJBA officials. Inquiries to the NJBA can be through their website at www.njbeekeepers.org or write their email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The location in which you place your equipment is important for the survival of the bees:
- Locations should have proper protection from the elements, be near a water and food source, and in a location that provides proper protection from the elements. A variety of plants in the vicinity of the apiary is desirable as it provides the best chance for nectar stores and pollen throughout the active seasons.
- Most beekeepers recommend full sun. Shade can sometimes foster pests such as small hive beetles, ants, and wax moths. Typically hives do best facing in a south-easterly direction or toward the morning sun. This warms up the hive and gets the bees active. It also dries out the hive from morning dew and moisture. - Sites should be level if possible and low areas or hilltops should be avoided to stay away from moisture or wind problems. Protection from the wind, especially in winter is advisable. Windbreaks can be erected from hay bales or even planting some shrubs or small trees.
- Hives should be placed where you have easy access to them and where you can get in to do whatever you need; be it by hand truck, wheelbarrow, truck, lawn tractor, etc - note that a box full of honey can weigh 100 pounds!
- Bees will fly from the hive on 'cleansing flights' and surfaces under the flight path can be stained or damaged with spots as a result. Hives should be placed where bees are not flying over cars or other items that could be damaged. You also do not want the bees to be flying over sidewalks, walking paths, or any places where pedestrians are possible. One could erect a fence that will cause the bees to go up and over a sensitive area and not through it, again, consultation with an experienced beekeeper is probably a good recommendation here.
How Much Time?
Taking care of bees is an all or nothing consideration. If you don't take care of them it is possible that they will not survive and you will lose your investment. While one might not consider bees as 'pets' a similar approach to keeping them can be considered. You will have to inspect your bees for health, you may have to feed and medicate them. You will have to do some hive maintenance, spring, summer, and fall management.
So how much time? The general rule of thumb is that it takes about as much time to care for bees as it does for say chickens or outdoor cats, but less than it takes to take care of a dog. The difference is a dog needs attention every day - several times a day. Chickens and cats (outside ones) can be looked over several times a week. Another analogy is keeping bees is like keeping a garden, general upkeep and looking after is required but if you miss a day or two or three, it's not going to be terrible. It can't be weeks at a time though.
Beekeeping typically follows a spring to late fall calendar. Beekeepers ramp up for season activities in the Northeast around February and March and should be fully ready to go when the first dandelions appear in the yard. That means when starting out, the best time of year to get engaged is in January or February. The general rule of thumb is that you'll start your hives in the spring so they can flourish through the spring nectar flow and be strong enough come summer end to overwinter. As a new beekeeper, that means you'll want to get your order for bees in early (see the section below on obtaining bees).
When is the right time to begin beekeeping?
How many hives should you start with?
Most experienced beekeepers will tell you to start with two hives. Having two gives you twice the learning curve and allows you to contrast one hive against the others so you can judge how they are doing. This becomes valuable when you're starting out and you're not sure if one hive is doing what it is supposed to. Typically with two hives one will operate normally (hopefully they both do!) and give you a good point of reference in case one is not doing well. With one, you just don't have that point of reference. In addition, a common tactic for novices is to be more 'intrusive' and do more inspections on one hive while leaving the other to thrive on its own. Over time the inspections and intrusions can be less with experience and then you'll have two thriving hives to produce honey.
Is Beekeeping an Expensive Hobby?
It could be! A complete hive with the necessary tools and equipment, including bees, will cost about $500. Compared to the startup costs of other pastimes, beekeeping is a relatively inexpensive hobby and there are ways to keep costs down. Once hives are operational, the annual costs are not as high as the initial investment.
Getting your first hive can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Several well known vendors such as Dadant, Mann Lake, Brushy Mountain, and Betterbee among others offer hive equipment for sale. There are also local sellers in and around New Jersey that are well worth a look. Typically new beekeepers purchase hives that have to be assembled and painted but one can buy hives that are all ready to go. Beekeeping suppliers will also offer pre-packaged 'beginners kits'. The kits range from well packaged to including things that you just don't need. If it has numerous things that you just don't know what they're for you can probably save money by doing some research into each component and tailoring your selections wisely.
Also typical is the use of the Langstroth hive design in the United States or what you probably know of as a common beehive - there are other forms of beehives available: Top Bar, National, etc. but the recommendation is that you want a Langstroth hive configuration.
Hive building packages come with instructions on how to build and mostly entail hammering nails and painting. A square, tape measure, and a few other basic tools are probably called for but most can meet the challenge with little difficulty. It's a good project to get some friends involved!
In addition to hive equipment, you'll need a veil, a smoker, and a hive tool. Instead of a veil, one might consider a bee suit or half jacket. These are a little more expensive but you'll have it for a long time. A veil will work with a long sleeve heavy shirt and long pants. Over time many beekeepers even forgo the heavy clothing but we encourage you to wear a veil always. Incidentally, many novice beekeepers do prefer a suit as it offers more protection and therefore more comfort. They are somewhat costly as noted earlier but if you feel that you need more 'insurance' from a bee sting then a bee suit might be an option for you.
A quick word about the consideration of purchasing used equipment. This can be an acceptable way to get started but it can also be troublesome. Bees are susceptible to different maladies when living in a hive and when you purchased used equipment, you can't be sure that it isn't contaminated or problematic. If you do have your eye on used equipment it's probably best to get a second opinion from a knowledgeable beekeeper before you make the sale.
There are other things that one could purchase to get started and the beekeeping catalogs are tempting. Start with the basics and build from there. Incidentally, if you live in an area that has pests (Bears, skunks, etc.) you might consider adding an electric fence to your initial package.
Bees can be obtained in a few different ways. Ordering packages, a Nuc (a pre-arranged small beehive with frames that you transfer into your hive box), or even someone capturing a swarm of wild bees (referred to as feral bees in beekeeping circles). A package of bees is just that, a box of bees packaged and shipped through the mail to you. They come in a box with wire sides and when you receive them you are paramount to dump them into your hive box to get started. With a Nuc you'll bring your hive box to a beekeeping supplier and they'll transfer 4 to 6 frames of honey bees into your hive box and you'll go home with them. If you are lucky, sometimes they even bring them to you!
When obtaining bees, there are some fundamental questions. One of the primary bees is what kind? Many beekeepers choose "Italian" bees. These are a strain of bees of Italian origin that were brought to the US and are in widespread use because of their beneficial behaviors and gentleness. In addition, there are other types such as Carniolian Bees, Russian Bees, and more. Different types are said to have or be bread for different characteristics - good grooming, gentleness, tendency to stay within one hive and not steal from others, better weather adaptability, and so on. Whatever bee you type you might choose, we suggest that you review the suppliers certified by the NJ State Apiarist to be free from disease when considering a purchase. The link to the list can be found here. If you choose to purchase your bees outside of NJ we will suggest what we've been professing throughout this guide and encourage you to seek counsel from an experienced beekeeper.
Incidentally, New Jersey Laws require that all Bee Yards in New Jersey where bees are overwintering be registered annually with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. To obtain a form for registration click here.
It is advisable that you review the information for beekeeping in the state provided by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. The information is available at their website via this link.
When can you expect to get honey?
Getting honey is an 'it depends' proposition. The objective and success benchmark for the first-year beekeeper is to get each hive sufficiently established to overwinter and be a healthy productive colony. The reward is the honey you'll get to harvest at the end of the season if all goes well. Fortunate as that would be, most times you can count on a honey crop for the next spring if it doesn't pan out in the first year. There's a caveat to this, if in the first year you don't look after the bees, they might not survive the winter and then you'll have to start over in the spring. Truth be told, many beekeepers get a handful of jars in the first year and do just fine at taking care of the bees if they're even moderately active in upkeep.
This primer is just a quick run-through of considerations. There are facets like how to do an inspection, what medications are needed? Will my bees get CCD? that are beyond a beginner's guide and so that is not covered here. Those topics and many more will require some additional education or book learning.
There are beekeeping courses that operate in the state, and there are numerous books, magazines (Bee Culture and American Bee Journal are two popular ones), podcasts, blogs, and more on the topic. We recommend that you consider taking a beginner's beekeeping course or at minimum picking up some books that explain some core and common tasks that are the essence of beekeeping.
If it hasn't been made quite evident yet, the best bet is to seek out an experienced council through a beekeepers association or organization. To do that for the state of New Jersey, click on the Membership link on the menu of this page or visit the New Jersey Beekeeper's Association webpage. Incidentally, if you're not from New Jersey, you can still go to the NJBA website for information. On the NBJA links page, they have a listing of beekeepers associations for many states in the US.
Our guide is summary level for those who want a modest preview of how to get started. There are other guides that go into more detail and if you're one of those that crave more detail we suggest you preview the (MAAREC) Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium's getting started guide. It can be found here.
One final recommendation. MAAREC has a free Beekeeping Basics document that is comprehensive and well written for the novice beekeeper. This booklet is available for purchase at the PennState College of Agricultural Sciences website at this link. It can be downloaded electronically here*. Highly recommended.
Thank you for taking the time to read our primer and good luck!
*The link to this resource comes and goes on the internet. The link we provided was live at the time this guide was written but the internet is of course subject to change. If you find that it is not there please let us know.