These are the questions aspiring beekeepers regularly ask….
1. I’d like to get into beekeeping. What’s the best way to do this?
*Join a club (or better yet – join several! Local, regional, provincial, international – there are lots of great organizations offering webinars and amazing guest speakers!).
*Take a course, read and learn everything you can about bees, their biology and life cycle, management, equipment, diseases and pests, integrated pest management (IPM) and Varroa destructor.
*Do your own research, watch YouTube videos, check out online sites, visit the local library.
*Find a mentor, spend a year assisting an experienced keeper, talk to the local bee inspector, try to get some hands-on experience before you make the decision.
*You may wish to find out BEFORE you invest in beekeeping whether you have a severe allergic reaction to bee stings: either through allergy testing or by spending time in an apiary with an experienced keeper.
*As with everything online, be cautious – not all sites offer good advice, and due to weather/ climate differences, suggested management practices may be very wrong for our area. Always confirm online information with experienced local beekeepers.
2. Am I allowed to keep bees on my property?
Beekeeping in BC is governed by the BC Bee Act:
…and you will need to register your apiary every two years with the Ministry of Agriculture:
..and have your hive(s) inspected by the North Island Bee Inspector:
Note: Inspections and check-ups are a free service focused on ensuring bee health and prevention of disease spread.
As well, you will want to be aware of municipal bylaws:
As a courtesy, you could also discuss your beekeeping plans with your neighbours, and meet the local bee inspector for the North Island, Wendi Gilson firstname.lastname@example.org. She can advise you and suggest other resources.
3. How expensive is beekeeping?
It’s probably more expensive than you think, even if you are a woodworker or know one who will work for honey.
The following article https://capitalregionbeekeepers.ca/so-you-want-to-become-a-beekeeper-eh/ will give you an approximate idea on costs involved in beekeeping.
BEFORE YOU READ IT: you do not need a full bee suit (the top half and attached veil are sufficient – and essential at first – although you may eventually become comfortable working without it); a smoker is essential; a $20 family membership in the Comox Valley Bee Club (cvbeeclub.com) gives you free access to a mentor, experienced beekeepers, vaporizers (and oxalic acid at cost) and a honey extractor.
You do not need all the gear in your first year of beekeeping: you can purchase some things gradually over time. Also, it’s quite common for beekeepers to join several clubs in order to have access to online resources and conferences/speakers, so membership fees are an additional cost.
You should recognise that high colony losses are very common among new beekeepers (in fact, in recent years, beekeepers of all levels of experience have experienced heavy losses), and you may have to purchase replacement bees (nucs/packages/queens) throughout your beekeeping career. You also have to factor in the cost of sugar (to feed young colonies through most of their first year and as insurance for all colonies through the winter). After your second year, you will need to replace 30% of your frames every year (for disease and pest reduction) and repair, replace, or upgrade basic hive components. Plus as you become more experienced (or if you are a gear nut), there are other things you will want to try, and you will need more equipment: refractometer, harvesting tools, bee escape board, overwintering nucs, queen-rearing tools, a solar wax melter, your own vaporizer, spare pots for processing wax, etc….
4. Is beekeeping a lot of hard work?
In winter (December-January) there is not a lot of work (unless you still have to process wax or honey, or repair equipment or make new frames or boxes, or order equipment, or learn more!). That doesn’t mean there is no work, however (see the note to snowbirds at the bottom of this section). From mid-February to mid-October, plan for weekly inspections of one hour per week for a single colony (90 mins/week for 2 colonies), although in your first year, you will probably spend more time than that, particularly if you plan to take good notes. You will become more efficient in your second year. March to end of June is busy with inspections, feeding, and managing colony growth. July to September is also busy and very physical, with honey harvest, feeding, mite treatments and preparation for winter. A 10-frame deep box full of honey can weigh well over 80 pounds (there are ways to get around this, but at a minimum you should be able to lift 50-60 pounds and move it short distances).
As well, it can get quite hot in the summer (remember the “heat dome”..?), and you will be wearing gloves, long pants tucked into your socks (or tall boots), long sleeves and a bee suit. Harvesting and extracting honey is a time-consuming, repetitive process (although the first time, you won’t notice that!).
If you are a woodworker, there is the time and labour of building or assembling equipment (and you will need more than you think). If you are handy, and own some tools, you can save money by purchasing pre-cut hive kits and then assemble your own boxes and frames.
In addition to the physical labour, there is a very steep and somewhat irregular learning curve – beekeeping is not a “by the numbers” type of activity. There is a lot to learn, it is not always straightforward (beekeeping is a science AND an art), and there is still some mystery, controversy, and unknowns to be discovered. Plus – beekeepers can be very individualistic, and a NewBee must learn to navigate varied opinions and the roller-coaster experience of online information. If you aren’t good with ambiguity or you need everything in black and white, this will be an eye-opener for you!
NOTE: If you are a “snowbird” and leave home for extended periods in winter, you will need to find a bee-sitter to check on your colonies (emergency feeding, mid-winter OAV treatment, clearing entrances, checking weatherproofing and animal disturbance, etc.) If you want to travel in the summer, you will need to plan holidays that are 10 days or less (or find a bee-sitter).
Finally, it’s a mistake to think that you can put hives in your backyard and let the bees fend for themselves. You wouldn’t do this to a dog or any other farm animal. If you undertake beekeeping, you must take care of your bees – they won’t make it without your care, and you may actually cause harm to other colonies that are located within your bees’ flight radius.
5. Can I support bees without getting into beekeeping?
Absolutely! If you are a gardener (or just interested), you can improve bee forage by planting appropriate trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, veggies and native species. Check out this plant selection guide (Selecting Plants for Pollinators, Eastern Vancouver Island Region) to decide what to plant. https://pollinatorpartnership.ca/assets/generalFiles/E.Vancouver.Isl.2017.pdf
Bees need water too, so you can create a pebble-water garden in your yard.
You can also choose to support local beekeepers by purchasing their products: locally produced honey and other products of the hive are superior to mass-produced commercial stuff. There are also Farm Holiday experiences and Apiary Tours offered by local beekeepers. (link coming soon)
You can also do all the things mentioned in #1 above – becoming knowledgeable about bees helps everyone in the bee world, whereas being a bad beekeeper harms your own bees, the bees within their flight radius, and native pollinators as well: don’t be a bad backyard beekeeper! https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/some-backyard-bees-doing-more-harm-than-good-experts
6. What about bee stings?
You WILL get stung, often. And this is a good thing because if you only get stung once or twice per year, there is a chance you could develop a major allergic reaction over time. Ideally, you will want to find out BEFORE you invest in beekeeping whether you have a severe allergic reaction to bee stings (either through allergy testing or by spending time in an apiary with an experienced keeper). You should always have an Epi-Pen in your bee gear box, close to you while you work your bees. Always wear appropriate protective gear in your first year. Guests in the apiary should be advised carefully and wear full protective gear. You may have to allay neighbours’ fears before you install 3 colonies along a shared fence line. However, well managed colonies are not generally problematic – it’s more likely that your bees will poop on your neighbour’s car or their freshly hung laundry, or drown in numbers in their swimming pool (…and you can manage these issues).
A final point: as you gain experience, you will realize that bees generally warn you before they sting – and both the warning and the stings are reminders telling you that you are being too rough, or abrupt or disrespectful to your bees…. So learn from them and correct your actions and your handling techniques.
7. Will I get much honey?
Most NewBees start with a nuc. If you follow your mentor’s advice and do well, you may get a taste of honey in your first year. In your second year, depending on weather, local forage and water, nectar flow conditions, and your ability to manage colony growth and diseases (in short, if you are a good beekeeper and it’s a good year), you will have honey and possibly bees that are excess to needs. You can take that honey for yourself, and sell or share your bees, or create more colonies. However, there are no guarantees with beekeeping (as with other farming activities): you may be an excellent beekeeper and still end up with high colony losses and zero honey to harvest.
8. How many colonies should I keep?
It’s tempting to start with one colony, but that’s a mistake – you will learn faster and become a better beekeeper if you start with at least two colonies. It is not twice the work (in your first year, you can expect about 90 mins per week for two colonies from mid-February to mid-October), and you will be able to compare growth and changes when you are regularly inspecting two colonies. As well, it’s a better investment, because if you lose one colony over winter, you have the potential to replace your loss the following year at no cost. (And if financial considerations are not an issue, more than two colonies can be fascinating!)
9. What basic equipment do I need?
Basic terminology and parts of a hive:
YouTube – Glen Anderson Beekeeping Basics
Check out these more detailed diagrams:
Oregon Master Beekeeper Program (complete list):
And BC Min of Agriculture Beekeeping Bulletin #106 is a good introduction to equipment terminology.
Before you purchase anything, you will need to decide which hive configuration suits you best, and one of your first conversations with an experienced beekeeper should be a discussion of the pros and cons of each configuration. It would be useful to see and manipulate several different hive types yourself so you can make an informed decision. Definitely ask an experienced keeper to review any planned purchases before you make them! And beware of “great deals” on used equipment (which can harbour disease and should always be inspected prior to purchase). You’ll enjoy your first year more if you start with clean, new equipment.
10. OK, I’m going to do this. Where do I start?
Become a member of the Comox Valley Bee Club (cvbclub.com). Ask to be paired (through our Mentor Program) with an experienced keeper for some hands-on experience. Join the NewBee Q&A group (Zoom meetings every 2 weeks) and attend monthly Club meetings. Check out the starter links below. Then go back to #1 and start absorbing! You may feel tempted to start shopping right away, but it’s strongly recommended that you do your research, get some hands-on experience, and chat with a mentor or experienced beekeeper before you purchase anything (it may save you some costly mistakes!). GOOD LUCK!
NewBee Starter Links (Free Resources!)
Introduction to Beekeeping Course (BC Min of Agriculture)
Sign up for this free 4-session webinar offered every year (was held in Feb 2022) by BC’s Chief apiarist, Paul van Westendorp: Paul.email@example.com
6-Week Course “Begin at the Beeginning” by Janet Wilson
This is an amazing site with lessons, review notes, references, photos, and a final exam.
Written for Tsawassen/US Pacific Northwest, so the climate is similar to ours.
Honey Bee Suite.com – Notes for Beeginners
Also West Coast/Washington-based site with LOTS of resources.
Click on top line “Contents > Beeginners”
University of Guelph Honeybee Research Centre
The Research Centre offers more than 65 short “how-to” video lessons on practical aspects of beekeeping. This is a good resource for beginners and experienced beekeepers alike.
Honey Bee Lab Videos: https://hbrc.ca/beekeeping-videos/