Thinking About Keeping Bees? Part 2: Varieties, Where to Put Them, and How to Get Them
In Part 1 of our series, we covered some initial beekeeping considerations and outlined costs and time factors.
We also made these assumptions for this series of articles, and they continue. They are:
- Assumption 1: You will purchase equipment
- Assumption 2: You will use a Langstroth hive
- Assumption 3: You will purchase bees
There’s a who, what, where, when, why and how to every good story, and the same will hold true for your beekeeping story. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already answered “why”. Whether it is for honey, money, to help save the planet, or something else, your reasons for want to keep bees are personal and admirable. The world needs bees.
THIS POST FOCUSES ON THE WHO, WHERE, WHEN, AND HOW TO GET STARTED KEEPING BEES.
WHO, OR RATHER, WHAT KIND OF BEES?
When you purchase honeybees, you’ll need to specify the variety, from options like Italians, Carniolans, Russian Hybrids, etc. Each variety has distinctive traits that impact factors like honey production, cold tolerance, gentleness, etc.
Which bee is best for you depends on many things, like your geographic location and what kind of beekeeper you will be. You may also want to talk to local beekeepers and clubs for their recommendations. Chances are, if you talk to a half dozen people, you’ll get approximately that many different answers. Like many things in beekeeping, there are few definitive answers. But learning why beekeepers have their preferences will be helpful information in deciding which variety is best for you.
WHERE SHOULD YOU SET UP YOUR HIVE(S)?
We’re addressing “where” next, because if you don’t have a good place for bees, you shouldn’t and possibly can’t have them.
So, what’s a good place for bees?
Good question—so many places are. Thriving hives may be found atop buildings in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and rural cabins in Canada, public parks in Florida, backyards in South Carolina, alleys in Chicago, beautiful farmlands of Pennsylvania, or the near-deserts of Arizona. And ultimately, it is the bees who decide if their location is a good place or not.
SOME PLACEMENT GUIDELINES
To encourage bees to live happily where you want them, there are considerations for hive placement that are helpful. The hive should:
- Face the morning sun to get the hive warm and working early in the day
- Have sunlight in the afternoon, perhaps dappled to reduce summer’s heat if it gets too intense in your location
- Be near water, preferably within a half mile, but not where it is too wet and humid in the summer
- Allow for the bees to easily enter and exit, like planes at a busy airport
- Not be placed where it is a public nuisance or outright hazard/temptation. For example, not next to an elementary school, or where curious passerbys might be tempted to investigate
- Be sheltered from prevailing winds if you have tough winters
- Be placed where it is legal according to the law—check your local ordinances, restrictions, etc.
- Be where you can tend to it. Too far away or too difficult to get to in certain seasons may result in them not getting the attention they deserve
AND WHY THESE ARE ONLY GUIDELINES
I was once on a Q&A panel at a beekeeping meeting, and answered the question of “what’s the best place to locate a hive?” with the guidelines above. My co-panelist, a man who does swarm removal, laughed hysterically at my answer, and rightfully so. He’s removed hundreds of hives, and knows bees will build where they want to build. He’s removed them from dark, damp buildings, from northern-facing structures, and captured wild hives in heavily forested areas he could hardly get to because of the dense foliage. He’s seen them build so deep in structures that they fly several feel through duct work to enter the hive. Only bees can tell you if a location is ideal or not. Unfortunately, they don’t tell you in a memo; they will communicate it with an awful thing called “absconding.”
WHEN SHOULD YOU ORDER BEES?
So, you’ve decided you want bees, and you know the kind you want and where you’ll put them when they arrive. Next comes ordering your bees. When does this need to be done? In about the next 10 minutes. Seriously.
The way to obtain package bees (or nucs) works is like this: There are only a certain number of bees available throughout the season (generally April through May.) When you order your bees in, for example, January—you’re not getting them immediately, you’re simply reserving them to ensure they’ll be available when you want them. Select a date for either picking them up or having them shipped to you. You need to order your bees as soon as possible because dates sell out. You don’t want to find out too late that there are no bees available for any of the dates that work for you.
WHEN SHOULD YOU OBTAIN THEM?
So how do you decide what date(s) you should obtain bees? There are two major factors: Your location and your availability.
1. LOCATION PARTIALLY DETERMINES DELIVERY DATE
Typically, southern USA locations have ideal honeybee weather earlier; northern (Indiana, Ohio and northward) tend to order bees for delivery toward the end of April and later. Check with local beekeepers for their advice. Generally speaking though, sustained temperatures should be over 45 degrees, allowing for bees to take supplemental liquid feed during the critical first weeks. We have to speak generally, because weather varies widely, and sometimes wildly, from year to year. A package installed in Wisconsin mid-April one year had already missed some of the blossom season; in previous years it would’ve encountered snow storms. It is dicey no matter when you get the package. Aim for later rather than earlier. That first warm spring day in April in Massachusetts has everyone in the north wishing they’d selected an early delivery date. But those warm days in the north don’t usually continue. A subsequent hard freeze to a newly installed colony that has not unified and has no stores could be dangerous. It is probably best to select a date later rather than earlier or have two different dates if you’re obtaining multiple packages, because unexpected nasty spring weather can diminish a colony’s chances for success.
2. YOUR AVAILABILITY ALSO DETERMINES DELIVERY DATE
Package bees require TLC in the beginning, so be sure to only obtain them when you know you can care for them. That care has three critical components:
- Care upon getting them home, even while still in the box they are packaged in they need attention to minimize the stress of their transport
- Installing them, which should be as soon as practical, weather permitting
- Care for them when they’re first installed in the hive, to get them well on their way to being all they can, well, bee.
Nucs are fairly self-sufficient for a while, although supplemental feeding may be helpful if the weather isn’t cooperating.
HOW SHOULD YOU GET THEM?
When you order, you’ll need to specify whether to have them shipped or if you’ll be picking them up. If you’re obtaining bees from Kelley Beekeeping (and we hope you are!) you might want to consider picking them up (nucs are available for pick-up only, so you can skip the rest of this section—because we’ll see you anyway!).
There are two great reasons to pick-up your bees at Kelley Beekeeping:
- Bees tend to do better when you pick them up than when they’re shipped. You can provide the most efficient trip, and better control temperature and variations.
- You’ll get a chance to see our headquarters, chat with beekeepers, see an installation demonstration, and generally have a great time
Of course, there’s also a good reason to have them mailed: the look of the faces of the folks at the Post Office when you thankfully arrive to take away the box of stinging insects!
AND MARKING THE QUEEN?
Another question you’ll need to answer while ordering package bees is whether to have the queen marked or not. If so, the top side of the queen is dotted with a marker. Spotting the queen will likely be one of the most challenging things about beekeeping for a beginner, so having her marked, while it costs a few more dollars, is helpful. Sean Burgess, former Kentucky State Apiarist, notes “I recommend a mark be put on your queen. This is especially important to aid new beekeepers to help locate the queen from the thousands of other bees in the hive. When doing inspections it is important to be aware of the queen’s location so you don’t accidentally injure her.”
So, it’s January. You’ve decided to keep bees, determined you have a good location, and now you’ve ordered them. Salut! You’ve just taken the first step on a grand, often extremely addictive adventure! You can catch your breath for a bit, because for most of our readers, you don’t have to have the apiary ready yet. Bee arrival is a few months away. Our next post, Part 3, will cover preparing the hive and its location, considerations for bee transport, what to do when you get them home, and their installation.