Learning What We Can About Homestead Beekeeping

homestead beekeepingI have become fascinated with the new project on our spring horizon. I don't think I've looked forward to something along these lines so much since we started searching for a homestead a few years back. I'm talking bees. Carniolans, and at the end of April. Two 3 lbs packages. In our two new hives. Woot! Now, I'm just as nervous about beginning our homestead beekeeping expansion as I am excited. The reason is I have yet to actually do it for myself. I've handled bees before as a guest in other bee yards, but this will be our my first time doing it for myself. Wendie is excited to a degree as well with the prospect of honey and some wax for candles coming in, but for me it's not all about the honey. It's about starting something new that I hope will continue on for years.

Bees had always been a sort of bucket list item for me, even before Wendie and I met. I toyed with the idea of being a beekeeper in the old urban homestead backyard, but didn't have the confidence to really pull the trigger. As soon as we locked in to our new home the idea resurfaced and I made the call. We would become beekeepers during our first spring homesteading. And the time is drawing closer.

Homestead Beekeeping

For many in our situation, homestead beekeeping is as important as their canning garden and tractor. There aren't a great many wild bees in our parts, so having hives means ensuring pollination of fruit trees and crops. No bees means no fruit, no fruit means no income. For others, it takes on a hobby-aspect. Can I help nature run it's normal course? Sure, the bees produce honey and that's good, but with our wild weather patterns during the year it is much more important that the hives are managed so the colonies survive, if not thrive, through winter. Just as with other livestock, keeping bees relies on paying attention to what they're doing and understanding what it means. Knowing the difference between a queen cell and a swarm cell. Knowing what a honey-bound hive looks like and what measures to take to relieve it. Knowing how to check for verroa mites early and how to treat for them, or in some cases, not treat them. It's like a puzzle made of drawn frames mixed with a riddle of the waggle dance.

homestead beekeeping
We ordered two of the Flowhive kits last fall during a back order rush and finally received them around Christmas time. The set up cost a bit more than buying regular langstroth hives, well, quite a bit more, but the marketing was so damn good that we couldn't pass it up. Rather, I couldn't. But as I learned more and more about bees, there could be years ahead where we won't be using the very cool looking Australian supers. Cold region bees need to build up stores in a very short nectar and pollen season, while in warmer climates they have much more time to provide excess honey. That means our focus is on building up the hives, or rather, helping the bees build up their hives.

Beginner Beekeeping Kit

beginner beekeeping kit
The standard Flowhive beginner beekeeping kit comes with a brood box and a super with the fancy no-touch honey frames, a sloping-roof lid and a veil. Everything is laser-cut Australian cedar and dovetailed to be weather resistant and provide a tight fit. Sammy and I put the first hive together nearly perfectly with an error on my part of putting the honey shelf arms on the wrong side, but that was an easy fix. Now, being in a cold weather climate in New Hampshire, we also opted for an additional brood box for both hives. This provides more room for stores of nectar, pollen and honey for the hive. If during a the spring or late summer we can put on the super frames, we will, but that's not a goal for this first season. We want strong hives with strong queens going into winter.

The frames that came with the Flowhive are open with no cross support to strengthen the combs as they are built. I'm wavering on my approach to getting the brood and stores frames started like this. Either I'll let one hive build their own and the have the other start with waxed plastic frames I can buy off Amazon, or I'll let them both start with waxed frames. I don't know yet. I do know that I want healthy drawn combs.

beginner beekeeping kit In the coming weeks, I'll be picking up a few other essentials to add to our beginner beekeeping kit. Mouse guards, for one. These little metal gates let the bees come and go while keeping mice from taking over a hive. I still need a smoker and the fuel to go with it as well. I've seen what happens if you trying inspect a hive without it and that's one experience I'd like to put off for as long as possible. Agitated bees only give so many warning head butts before coming at you with stingers drawn. I also need a hive tool, a multi-purpose everyday carry that looks like a flat cat's paw crow bar for opening comb-bound hive lids and frames. And of course, the waxed frames. I think that's a good list for now. I want to be prepared, but not spend a fortune on little gadgets.

On the DIY side of additions to the beginner beekeeping kit, I'm going to put together some syrup feeders from our collection of canning jars. A few holes in the lid turned upside down is a great 1:1 sugar/water feeder for growing hives. I'm also going to try my hand and building a few dovetailed nucs (nucleus hives), and spacing frames, with an eye on getting ready for winter by building a couple of Vivaldi boards, a construction that lets the hive release moisture, lets me feed them fondant but minimizes their weather exposure.

Best Bees for a Beginner Beekeeper

best bees for beginners
For beekeeping in these parts, many apiculturist's (fancy term for beekeeper), the genetics of their hives tend to be Carniolan and Italian. These two breeds are European in origin and have been proven winners in both cold weather hardiness and honey production. I'll be starting with two Carniolan packages, with no real definitive reason why. Maybe it's the wordsmith in me but I think Carniolan sounds pretty cool when spoken aloud. I mean, it's a little more complicated than that when you factor in the research we've done. These are still hardy little suckers that just happen to have a hip name.

Just as with any livestock, the best bees for a beginner beekeeper will be the ones that are tried and tested in your area. Not only for honey production, but also for hardiness and temperament. A bee might produce honey like the dickens, but if it's ornery, getting that honey could be an event each and every time.

Inside a Beehive

inside a beehiveI'm excited to get my hands inside a beehive that we've help grow. The components are wildly simple, as bees just need a warm and dry place to do their thing. Any of the extras are just there to help the homestead beekeeping dad manage the hive better. Mouse guards, lids for inserting food, queen excluders for keeping any harvestable honey separate from eggs and brood. Our education in beekeeping has been dedicated this winter, but the real lessons start when the bee packages arrive in the spring.

I'm looking forward to weekly inspections and searching for swarm cells. I'm excited to adjust brood frames around to entice the queen to increase her egg laying. I'm eager to get my hands inside a beehive again. A hive split during our first year would be fantastic. This will be a great season, I feel it in my bones, and by October I hope we have at least two healthy hives that will be well-prepared to go into winter.

Are you a beekeeper? We'd love to hear your take on our plans and are always open to beekeeping advice. Whether it's your thoughts on our beginner beekeeping kit or suggestions for the best bees for a beginner beekeeper, we'd appreciate your voice. What do you think of the Flowhive? Please add to the conversation below!


Anonymous said…
We have two flow hives and love them. One thing we noticed right away is that the roof they come with are not water-tight, so we cut out a piece of corrugated metal and attached so it has a nice waterproof roof. While we live in Oregon, the first year we had our bees while in Portland, they survived a freak 2 feet of snow that we had for a couple weeks just fine. The interesting part of watching them in winter is when it hits about 40 degrees the undertaker bees will come out and dump their dead out like they always do, but because of the white of the snow, it will be VERY obvious - we freaked out at first then realized, they do this all year long, it's just more visible in the snow and the bees don't travel as far with the bodies when it's cold as they want to go back in where it's warm!!

We did not have an additional box - we simply fed them regularly and they sucked down the sugar water happily. Ironically, the one year we did do an extra box trying to be on the safe side, they got too much cold air because they weren't building enough come to insulate it and they died - we cried it was so sad! Now we are raising Italians and love it - they are much more docile than the first gang which I'd caught from when a local swarm occurred, but I will say the biggest lesson? Don't even consider doing a hive check on a cloudy day - they get PISSED. Even if you are wearing a Storm Trooper thickness bee suit, they will find a way to f*** you up, haha.

Anyhow the first year we harvested 40 lbs of honey from one hive so we have a second one this year so that we can sell some to neighbors and friends. We live 10 minutes from the coast now and so have them placed next to a windbreak to protect them as they love the morning sun but hate the wind.

Best advice? Make sure you have the muscles to lift or invest in a hive lifting tool as once they get honey in them they are HEAVY! We had to end up moving our hives in the middle of summer (not ideal as they're about 175 lbs and fortunately found a brave friend to help because I have a bad back). Crazy! :) But...awesome. You will LOVE it.
Anonymous said…
Oh PS disregard anyone who disses the Flow Hive - yes they are expensive but if you buy a nice extractor it's the same cost, and the bees do JUST FINE when you are removing the honey - we never lost any and in fact, the number one thing we had to do was make sure the lids were covered as the little guys wanted to come over and sip the sweet stuff :) At the end of the season we lay out the flow frames in the garden and let the bees clean them up - it's pretty awesome. We'd love to do a Warre hive someday as well but right now the Flow Hives are great for us and add much needed pollinators to our neighborhood (when we moved to the Coast we noticed lots of bumblebees but no honeybees...oy!).
WT said…
Hi Aimee! Wow, thanks for the advice! We're excited as can be, and a lot of what you have mentioned has filtered through to us before in pros and cons. We really appraise the time you took to share with us:)

Warre hives have just started to cross our radar, and maybe in the future we'll have a few of them as well.

Are you using the first generation of Flowhive? We ended up with the Flowhive IIs, and I know the roof was something that was adjusted.

Anyhow, thank you, and hope to hear from you again!
CanChasin said…
Great Read! I have always been intruigued and have often thought of becoming a beginner bee keeper however I am still at the buy the good stuff from a local farmer point lol Good luck to you! Sounds like a great adventure :)!
WT said…
I know exactly where you are at your bee-stage:) We just had the waxed deep frames delivered, as well as our smoker and fuel. The next task is to set up our 'bee-keeping' station for all the gear in our veggie barn-