The earliest archaeological evidence of humans intentionally raising honeybees is in ancient Egypt where their honey and wax were likely used as food and medicine. Elsewhere in Africa, foraging for wild honey was a common practice and continues to be to this day. Beekeeping evolved in many ways as the practice spread around the world and today there are a number of different styles to choose from.
Honeybees form large colonies around one sexually mature female, known as the queen, who is the mother of virtually every bee in the hive. The worker bees, who are infertile females, are responsible for raising the young, collecting nectar and pollen for food, defending the hive, and building the wax honeycomb. Male bees, called drones, are more or less sperm donors and their only real responsibility in life is to leave the hive and attempt to mate with a new queen on her mating flight–after which they die.
When a new queen leaves the hive for her one and only mating flight, she will mate with multiple drones from other hives and store their sperm in a specialized organ from which she can release it as needed to fertilize eggs for years to come. Once you have a functioning hive with a fertilized queen, honeybees do a remarkable job of caring for themselves. They maintain a fairly consistent temperature in the hive throughout the seasons, remove dead and diseased bees from the hive and defend the hive from predators. That said, caring for a honeybee hive is a hands-on job, and they do require regular maintenance.
The primary ongoing task in caring for honeybees is inspecting the hive. The standard recommendation is to check your bees every one or two weeks to ensure that the queen is laying eggs and the hive has plenty of room to expand. Ensuring that the queen is laying eggs is important because without a steady supply of new bees, the colony can collapse. Alternatively, if your colony is expanding so rapidly that they run out of room in the hive, they may decide to leave the hive entirely to find a bigger home—this is referred to as “swarming.” You can prevent a swarm by adding more frames to the hive before the bees begin to run out of room and feel cramped.
During your hive inspections, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for diseases and parasites in the hive. Mites can be very detrimental to the health of your bees, and you’ll want to treat the hive annually to keep their numbers down. Hive beetles are small black beetles that damage honeycomb, and you’ll most likely have a few of them running around your hive. As long as their numbers are kept at a manageable level they shouldn’t cause too many catastrophic issues.
If you are in a temperate environment where there are periods of the year when no flowers are blooming, you’ll likely need to provide supplemental food to your bees. Many people feed their bees sugar water in the Winter to keep their hives fed. We choose to let our bees overwinter a little more naturally and just leave them with enough honey to make it through the doldrums.
The two primary styles of honeybee hives are Langstroth hives and top-bar hives. Langstroth hives are the stacked rectangular boxes that most Americans picture when they think of a commercial beehive. The boxes hold horizontal frames that run the length of the box on which the bees build honeycomb. When it comes time to harvest this honey, the frames are pulled out individually and run through an extractor to remove the honey. There are modified versions of this frame style available where synthetic honeycomb is made from food-safe plastic which can be cranked open when it’s full, allowing the honey to pour out the back of the frame into a container for easy collection.
Top-bar hives are more commonly used in Africa but are gaining popularity in other parts of the world as well. These hives consist of one large rectangular box, which simulates a hollow log, with small sticks or “bars” laid across the top of the box for the bees to build honeycomb off of. This style of hive is much cheaper to build than a Langstroth hive which makes it a great option for folks on a budget.
Beekeeping is an incredibly rewarding hobby, and over time it will pay for itself in delicious honey and beeswax, but the upfront costs can be considerable. At an absolute minimum you’ll need to purchase hive boxes, a bee suit or veil, and a small colony of bees with a queen—called a “nuc.” It’s also helpful to have a proper smoker which allows you to blow smoke into the hive before opening it to distract the bees.
If you are using a traditional Langstroth hive, you’ll need a honey extractor which is a large centrifuge that spins the frames of honeycomb and spills the honey out through a spigot at its base. These are very expensive so instead of every beekeeper owning one, they are often shared among beekeeping clubs.
Once your bees are well established in their hive and have produced significant stores of honey, you can begin harvesting some. Honey harvests usually take place in the late spring and fall following big flushes of blooming flowers. If you have a significant winter or dry season when there is little for the bees to forage, you’ll need to leave a portion of the honey for your colony to survive the doldrums. How much you leave will depend on the length of time that your bees are without flowers so refer to local recommendations.
The first time you taste fresh honey from bees that collected and synthesized it right in your yard is truly life-changing. While it might seem like magic, remember that they are only able to do this because they have access to a thriving ecosystem of wildflowers and flowering trees. Caring for your ecosystem and replacing grass lawns with pollinator gardens is arguably just as important as anything mentioned above when it comes to honey production.
My final recommendation for new beekeepers would be to reach out to a local beekeeping group and try to find a mentor to learn from. There is a wonderful community of mentors and mentees in the beekeeping world, and like the bees, we can all do better by working together.