Most people who know little about bees assume that hives have to be kept in the country where there is plenty of open space and much vegetation. While such settings are ideal, bees can be kept in much less likely places as well. Suburban backyards are usually fine (provided local laws permit and neighbors don’t mind), and even some protected small-city rooftops can be suitable for a few beehives.

If you’re interested in learning more about the how-to’s of beekeeping, here’s a short course, but it is suggested that you follow up the subject by pursuing some outside sources.

Cultures as well as many books on the subject offer beginners sound information and advice. There are on-campus and correspondence courses at most state universities, and meeting of local and state beekeepers are good places for beginners to learn some tips. Don’t neglect to visit—and learn from—experienced beekeepers in your own community.

To get started you’ll need some basic equipment, namely, a hive consisting of one or more standard (deep) boxes or supers and possibly one or more shallow supers. Each super holds ten frames, and inside each frame a thin sheet of beeswax, called foundation, on which bees build their comb. You’ll also want to buy a bottom board on which the hive stands and an inner and outer cover. Smokers to calm the bees, a hive tool to pry open the hives and separate the frames, gloves, and a hat to complete the basic equipment.

Other equipment includes bee escapes, which permit bees to exit, but not reenter supers of honey where they are not wanted; a queen excluder, which prevents queens but not worker bees from going from one super to another; a wiring board, used to embed wire in sheets of foundation to give them support; feeders that are used to feed bees honey or syrup when their own supplies run out; an extractor to remove honey from the combs; and a capping knife to slice the top layer of beeswax from the comb and release the honey.

Of course, you’ll also need bees. You can get yours by catching a swarm of wild bees or by buying packaged bees through bee supply houses. For the beginner, packaged bees are easier and safer to handle. They usually come in a three, four, five, or six-pound package that will, in a short time, grow into a bursting, energetic 85,000 bee colony. Packages arrive with a queen inside in her own apartment, and since you must transfer them at once, you need to have ready a large, empty hive in advance. Bees should be ordered in late winter so that they will arrive in early spring and have time to get established before the major honey flow begins in late June or early July.

Although there are many races of bees, the three most popular among American bee-keepers are Italian, Caucasian and Carniola bees. Italian bees are generally recommended for the beginner because they are relatively easy to work and produce good amounts of honey. They don’t produce a great amount of propolis, which can glue up the inside of hives, and seem to withstand cold well. Italians are also relatively resistant to European foulbrood, an infectious disease of bees.

You must decide on whether you want to make section (comb) honey, or extracted honey. If you choose the latter, you will need an extractor and a few additional items of equipment. Extracted honey has many advantages over comb honey. It is easier to store; easier to use in cooking; there is no wax when you eat it; and you reuse the combs in which the bees store honey as only the caps are cutoff and the honey is expelled by the centrifugal force of the extractor.

Guide to Beekeeping

Here is a method of beekeeping that is especially suitable for the small diversified enterprise that may well include gardening, fruit growing, poultry, or any other line of endeavor now practiced by millions of homeowners on relatively small holdings.

The secret is to make two standard full-depth hive bodies the home of the bees the year around. Package bees are first hived in a single full-depth body; as soon as they fill it, the second is added. Two full-depth bodies give the bees abundant room, allow them to store honey enough for their own use so that feeding should never be necessary and help prevent swarming (when a queen leaves the hive with a band of workers to start a new colony). All the complicated manipulation described in some methods is done away with. The beginner may open his hives and study his bees if he wishes, or they will do very well with no more attention than is advised in the description of seasonal operation.

Bees should be checked at midday when it is warm and the sun is bright. At this time there is good flight to and from the colony, most bees are foraging and the beekeeper will find it easier to inspect the colonies.

Light-colored, smooth-finished materials should be worn when inspecting the colonies. Rough materials irritate bees, causing them to sting more readily. The face and ankles most attract bees. A good veil and boots will protect the beekeeper against stings in these areas.

The procedure of seasonal operation, be-ginning in the spring of the year, for established colonies in two full-depth bodies, is as follows:

When settled warm weather arrives, the hives are opened to be sure that each colony has a laying queen, plenty of honey to use and is otherwise in normal condition. If an occasional colony seems short of food, honey is borrowed; that is, combs exchanged with one that has abundance. Bees should never, never be fed honey from a hive in which disease is even suspected, and many beekeepers prefer to feed sugar syrup to obviate against inter-colony spread of diseases.

If a colony has died, as one will once in awhile, the dead bees are brushed from the combs and the whole hive scraped and cleaned. These combs are then given to an extra strong colony, not only to protect the combs from wax moths, but to give the strong colony more room. The exception here is a colony that has been infected by American foulbrood (AFB), a dreaded killer, or another infectious disease. Such combs and frames are best burned and the inside of the hive bodies well scorched with a blowtorch before reusing.

Normal colonies in two full-depth hive bodies will need more room at about the second month of settled warm weather or at the start of some major bloom.

The standard beehive consists of several boxes or supers, each with ten frames on which the workers build their combs. The brood is hatched in the large bottom super while the smaller upper ones are used for storing honey. As the season progresses, more storage supers are added.

States this will be at the outset of clover bloom. For the purpose of easier handling it is best to use shallow supers for this extra room, although more full-depth bodies may be used if you are capable of heavy lifting. When filled with honey the shallow super weighs about 45 to 50 pounds, the full-depth body about 80 pounds.

The rule followed in giving extra room is to add one or more supers at any time that the colony shows signs of being crowded. The term “boiling over with bees” aptly describes a crowded colony, and extra room should be given before this stage becomes acute. If there any question of when extra room is needed, it is better to give it a week early than a week late. At least one of the major causes of swarming is a crowded condition within the hive, and by giving abundant room, swarming is reduced to a minimum. The occasional swarm that does develop may be hived if convenient, but if it does get away, don’t be too concerned.

As fall approaches, the honey gathered (that in the honey supers only—don’t take any from the bottom one or two brood chambers) should be removed and the hives gradually reduced to two full-depth bodies. It is important to remember that in this method honey is never removed from the two lower bodies. The success of the whole thing revolves around having a strong colony of bees in a large self-sustaining hive.

Location of Hives

Hives should be located on hive stands four to eight inches high in a protected area. Thus, bottom boards will not be in contact with the ground when it is damp, and grass growing in the area will not shade the hives. Weeds must be kept low in the vicinity of the hives.

Bees must always have fresh water; they use it to dilute food, feed larvae and cool the hives when too warm. If there is no fresh water source, like a pond, stream or spring, within a two-mile radius of the hives, you will have to supply water for your bees.

In all sections of the country, hives should be located out of prevailing winds. In the North they will usually need some extra protection for winter. If you are located in a section having severe winters, first, determine that the hive has abundant stores. Second, reduce the entrance to prevent mice from entering and to help keep out the cold. Finally, give added protection by first wrapping the hive in a mineral wool blanket and then capping that with tarred building paper.

In the desert areas of the western states it is too warm to place colonies directly in the sunlight. The beekeeper in these areas must construct a shaded area for the hives. It must be remembered that often colonies cannot obtain enough nectar and pollen in deserts and heavily wooded areas of the country to sustain themselves through the year. Mountainous areas do not have large foraging areas, but in certain cases one colony might survive.


Some commercial and hobby beekeepers practice annual requeening and others only requeen hives which have failing queens.

Swarming is less of a problem when there is a young queen present in the colony. She produces more of the secretions that maintain social order and has a strong colony that can withstand disease. A young queen also lays more eggs and lays them earlier in the spring and later in the fall. The best time to requeen is in August. September is a satisfactory month, but at this time not all colonies will readily accept a new queen. The common method frequenting is to first find and kill the old queen. Second, place a queen cage with a young queen in the brood nest. In a day or two the young queen will be released by the bees. This method is not recommended for beginners and those not familiar with bee behavior.

The preferred method of requeening is to introduce a young queen into a nucleus colony in mid-July. The nucleus colony should contain one frame of brood and two or three frames of bees. Under these conditions the new queen is almost always accepted. The queen in the old colony can be found and killed around August 1.

Next, the old queen’s brood nest is covered with a single sheet of newspaper. The nucleus colony is placed on top of the sheet. Over this honey supers are placed. If there are too many bees in the supers, shake them out or place a second sheet of newspaper between the nucleus and honey supers. Colony odors will be the same and the young queen will be accepted by the time the sheet is chewed away.

The beekeeper must wait a week or two before placing a queen excluder in the colony. At this time the young queen may be success-fully driven into the lower brood chamber.