For those who love bees and want to spend time with them, beekeeping can be a great hobby or even a profession! Humans have been keeping bees for roughly 9,000 years and collecting honey from wild bee colonies dates back even farther. For those with gardens or an interest in honey, bees, or the environment, beekeeping can be an interesting way to be involved. However, it’s not something you can do on a whim, as it does require some education and other resources.
What Exactly Is A Beekeeper?
Before getting into how to become one, let’s discuss what exactly a beekeeper is and their regular duties. Beekeepers, also known as apiarists, spend their time making sure that, at the very least, their hives are healthy and productive. There is a lot of work and financial investment that goes into becoming a beekeeper, as the industry is a blend of weather forecasting and understanding of the seasons, keen observation, animal husbandry, patience, a willingness to constantly learn, woodworking, and so much more.
Most beekeepers will work in one of a different environments like large commercial farms, small farms, or hobbyist operations and can specialize in specific areas like pollination services for farmers, breeding, or simply producing honey. Some beekeepers have also worked in schools, like in university animal science departments or even elementary schools. But even those keeping bees as a hobby will have to invest plenty of time and resources into their hives, even if they only have one or two. Regular responsibilities of a beekeeper can include:
- Assessing the health of the hives and keeping an eye out for issues like mite, vermin, or parasite infestations
- Keeping detailed records of the hive’s health, medication, and honey production
- Replacing combs and doing equipment upkeep, such as cleaning
- Raising and replacing queen bees
- Harvesting, processing, and bottling honey
What Kind of Education Do You Need?
The type of education needed for beekeeping depends largely on whether or not you’re interested in doing scientific research, monitoring, and conservation management. But if you are interested in those aspects of beekeeping, college degrees in conservation biology, zoology, environmental biology, fish and wildlife management, or botany could potentially help you go down that path. Some universities also have beekeeping related certificate programs or courses, like:
- Cornell’s Master Beekeeping Certificate
- Rutgers’ Beekeeping Courses
- University of Montana’s Online Beekeeping Certificate Program
For those interested in just keeping bees as a hobby or side business, you don’t need a formal degree to get started. However, you’ll still need to do plenty of research into beekeeping to know exactly what your bees will need, seasonal and daily chores and upkeep, signs of illness or infestation, and more.
How To Get Started
If you’ve decided that you are, in fact, committed to keeping bees (instead of just having them), there are still a few more things to do before buying a bunch of supplies or quitting your day job. Consider joining a local beekeeper association to start making connections with nearby beekeepers. Some associations will have educational or networking events throughout the year and talking with local beekeepers can give you an idea of what beekeeping looks like where you live.
Finding the right placement for your hive(s) on your land is also important, as hives have some space requirements. They generally need early morning sun and some afternoon shade (if in a warmer climate), to be in an area with a wind break and no direct wind, and a relatively quiet location. If you have predators in the area (like bears or skunks), strong fencing around the hives can help ensure their safety. Additionally, there should be a water source (like a bee water dish or birdbath) nearby but the hives themselves should have a slanted roof/cover to help keep the inside dry. For you, have the hives up on cinder blocks to make checking them a bit easier and leave room all around the hive so you can walk around it as needed.
Next, look up the ordinances and rules around having bees where you’re planning to have your hives and communicate with your neighbors that you’re starting your beekeeping journey. Different municipalities, county, and state governments are going to have their own regulations around bees. It’s entirely possible to have bee hives while living in an urban area, as some cities require that you register your hives or have certain permits. Other areas don’t require any documentation and more rural areas are usually less likely to have regulations compared to more urban and densely populated areas.
Essential and Helpful Equipment
The next step before getting your bees is acquiring and setting up all the necessary equipment. For handling and housing your bees, you’ll need a smoker, an actual hive structure, frames to go inside the hive, protective clothing (gloves, veils, etc), hive tools, bee brush, queen catcher, feeders, and sugar (used as food). The size and type of equipment will also depend if you’re working on a commercial farm or beekeeping as a hobby/side business.
Some beekeepers don’t need a smoker for every time they interact with a hive but this item can help calm your honey bees long enough for you to check the hive’s frames for honey, pollen, and any potential issues. A smoker hampers the bees’ ability to communicate with each other so when the hive is open, some bees don’t get the message to attack the intrusion.
Hive With Frames
Hives, in this context, are the structures where the bees live and what kind you need will depend on if you’re planning on beekeeping as a profession or hobby. Frames are simply wooden frames, like the one pictured here, where the bees will build their comb, make honey, lay eggs, and live during the winter. Some frames include a foundation, which is usually some material stretched in the frame to help the bees make the comb.
The protective gear is what most people might think of when you say ‘beekeeper’, as many folks will wear the hooded veil, suit, gloves, and boots to handle some hives to prevent getting repeatedly stung.
There’s smaller tools that you’ll need for handling or transporting the hive. A queen catcher allows you to separate the queen from the rest of the hive while also keeping her safe and in one spot. This also comes in handy if you ever need to move your hive, as the rest of the bees will follow the queen. Another helpful tool is just called a hive tool, which like a small crowbar that helps you to pull the frames apart. Bees will line their hive with propolis, a glue like substance that helps hold everything together and acts like insulation.
If you like bees, honey, and spending time outside, beekeeping can be incredibly rewarding. With the declining populations of different bee and pollinator species, beekeeping is also incredibly important for our food, ecosystems, and other species! Whether you decide to work on a commercial farm, do it just as a hobby, or work in some other area, becoming a beekeeper comes with all sorts of responsibilities. There is so much more about beekeeping than what’s covered here but hopefully, this post can be the first step of many in your beekeeping journey.
Have you ever thought about becoming a beekeeper? Or is there a beekeeper in your life? Let me know in the comments!