So You Want to Be a Beekeeper…Or Just Be There for the Bees

NRDC senior IT specialist Jason Thomas (left) and his friend Bruce Brown tend their rooftop hives in Brooklyn, New York.

Alexander Spacher/NRDC

Whether you’re simply fascinated by the superorganism that is a humming hive, want to pollinate your garden, or hope to harvest some honey, the ancient art of beekeeping offers much for beginner apiarists. “It blew me away how complex and organized the bees were,” says Jason Thomas, senior IT specialist at NRDC, who began his hobbyist beekeeping career maintaining the hives on the roof of NRDC’s New York City office. Here are tips from Thomas and other bee advocates on how to get started.

Join a beekeeper’s association.

Beyond books and YouTube tutorials, your local beekeeper’s association can offer guidance and insider tips as you learn the ropes. The American Beekeeping Federation offers a good jumping-off point, with listings by state. Once you find your local club, see if it offers classes for newbies. That’s how Nicole Rivera Hartery, who now owns her own New Jersey–based beekeeping service called Bees on Main St., got her start: by taking an intensive course through Rutgers University’s agricultural program. “I was fortunate enough to assist the members on their hives, and they became my mentors.”

Keep native bees in mind.

While honeybees get the attention, there are about 4,000 species of native bees across North America. Some, like the underground-dwelling mining bee and the solitary mason bee, help pollinate agricultural crops. And like honeybees, native species, too, face myriad threats: climate change, pesticides, and toxic pollution. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that one in four native bee species are in peril. To protect against further decline, advocate for measures that support the health of all bees. Urge your lawmakers to ban harmful uses of neonics, a pesticide responsible for killing birds and bees, and encourage your community to cultivate a “pollinator pathway” lined with bee-friendly habitat and food sources.

Grow your own pollinator garden.

Bees feed off of nearby flowers, carrying sticky pollen on their legs and pollinating plants as they forage from two to four miles. Plant annuals that bloom throughout the season or perennials that bloom in sequence to provide food all year long. The ideal plants depend on where you live, but bees love native wildflowers and flowering trees—like wild cherries, horse chestnuts, tulip trees and crepe myrtles, for example—as well as fruit and vegetable gardens. (Read more tips on attracting bees and other pollinators here.) Watch out for toxic plants, like azaleas and rhododendrons, or ones that produce less nectar, like pansies. “If we all do this, we have a real opportunity to create a good stretch of pollinator habitat,” says Guillermo Fernandez, executive director of the Bee Conservancy, “and to enjoy watching the wildlife that stops by for a sip of nectar.”

Learn the local laws.

Whether you’re tending to a single hive on your city roof or dozens in the country, get to know your local area’s rules. Common ordinances include mandatory registration, limits on the number of hives, or restrictions on distancing from neighbors. In New York, for example, beekeepers are required to register their hives with the health department and renew their license annually.

Set up your hive.

Where you live, the amount of space you have, and your budget will influence how you set up your hive. The standard design since 1852 has been the Langstroth hive: It’s more manageable because of its modular box and vertically hung frames—like folders in a filing cabinet—which help prevent them from fusing together. This where the bees make their honeycomb, store resources, and lay eggs. While plastic frames are durable, Thomas recommends natural materials like wood. “Anything plastic—the bees won’t want to use that,” Thomas says. Other designs include top bar, flow, and hex hives. Be sure to elevate your beehive off the ground—6 to 10 inches—to help keep it away from pests and ground moisture.

Nicole Rivera Hartery of Bees on Main St. with her rooftop hives in Riverton, New Jersey

Courtesy of Nicole Rivera Hartery

Get equipped.

No hobby is without its gear. Start with what you’ll wear for protection: Most apiarists recommend a sturdy suit (with ventilation for warm days), gloves, and a veil. As for tools, the basics include a hive smoker, which helps calm bees naturally and mask their alarm pheromones when you’re disrupting their hive; a bee brush, to safely move bees without squishing them; and a hive tool, for prying open lids and separating frames. You may eventually want to purchase things like a queen clip, which allows you to catch and hold your queen bee, or a honey extractor.

Buy (or attract) some bees.

Most beekeepers purchase their starter bees online—typically the Western or Italian honeybee. A standard package has about 10,000 bees, including a queen. (Thomas recommends picking them up from a nearby retailer; shipping can cause bee loss.) After introducing the bees to the hive, set up a feeder—for initial sustenance—and remove it once the bees find nearby nectar. Some beekeepers choose to capture a wild swarm or attract one to a swarm trap, although Thomas cautions that this technique is best attempted by more experienced beekeepers.

Learn to read your frames.

Apiarists must tend to their hives throughout the year. Conduct check-ins every 7 to 10 days. Use your smoker to calm the bees and be careful not to crush any as you remove frames for inspection. Being able to “read your frames” takes experience, but be on the lookout for a healthy queen; a brood distributed in solid blocks within the comb cells; abundant pollen and nectar; and no pest or disease issues. Hive maintenance also changes through the seasons. Spring is when most hives grow. In winter, populations naturally shrink and hives need to be insulated. (In New York, Thomas aids overwintering by keeping a Canadian species that’s more acclimated to the cold.)

From top: Thomas (left) and Brown inspect their frames and check on the health of the queen bee; worker and drone bees on a honeycomb.

Alexander Spacher/NRDC

Ensure your hive is “queenright.”

Your hive may have thousands of worker bees and drone bees—but often just one queen, who lays all the eggs and whose good health—a state called “queenright”—determines the health of the hive. Learn to spot the queen quickly by watching for her longer abdomen and hairless back. You can also identify her by the way worker bees encircle her. Signs that your hive may no longer have a healthy queen include a lack of eggs and brood, a population decrease, and an agitated temperament.

Plan for pests and disease.

Even in the best-maintained hives, pests are unavoidable. “I thought I’d only have to worry about wasps,” Hartery says, “but when I found out everything I’d have to protect them from, it was a shock.” Varroa mites are most common (and often treatable with remedies like oxalic acid), but other threats include mice, wax moths, and small hive beetles. Your bees may also catch diseases, like the nosema fungus, but many are treatable if you catch them early. Aim for “Integrative Pest Management,” which prioritizes nontoxic, preventative, least-invasive measures, before resorting to potentially harmful options, like miticides.

Reap the (sweet) rewards.

If you’re mostly in it for the honey, keep in mind that it could take a while. “Usually, don’t expect honey your first year,” Hartery says. Thomas advises buying frames with existing honeycomb to start. When the honey comes, it will have the unique flavor of the plants the bees feasted on. Apiarists can also use their hives’ comb, pollen, and wax to make everything from candles to pollen patties, which can be fed back to the bees before winter.

Stay the course.

“As beekeepers, we dedicate so much to these hives and we just want them to be healthy,” Hartery says. “When we lose one, it can be pretty devastating.” Her advice? Know that losing a hive is inevitable. But the rewards of the job have always won out for Hartery. “I get done working, and I’m able to sit back and observe—just watch them work together. It definitely opens up your eyes to life in general. You think, this is how we should be as a human race; this is how we should work together for the greater cause.”