Beginning Beekeeping

  • Posted on: 25 March 2017
  • By: Cathy McGuire


Once again, I speak as a beginner rather than an expert, but as I attempt to turn my garden into a full circle of grow-harvest-recycle, I have decided to introduce honey bees into my yard. I’m extremely excited about this, and I am very grateful that there are so many people sharing their expertise on YouTube and in local organizations, so that people like me can help preserve honeybees, which are in sharp decline.

There are a number of methods, and the most common is the Langstroth box hive, which is what you generally see in the fields if you drive by. However, ready-made hive kits can cost up to $300 each, so I went the low-tech route and built myself a top bar hive. This hive is common in places like Africa, because it can be built from scraps, and it is gaining enthusiasts in the US as well. It differs in that there is no frame premade for the bees to work their cells on. Instead, there are strips of wood on top (the “top bars”) that have either a piece of beeswax-coated string, or beeswax-coated wood along the middle, which the bees then work down from, creating freeform combs. (Update: a friend was selling her bee stuff, so I also bought a Langstroth for "cheap" - but it's already cost me much more than the top bar!!)

bee hive 1 low

This is my top bar hive in progress – notice the three holes for the bees to enter and exit. I have chosen to put hardware cloth on the bottom, to help remove any droppings more easily. But there will be a solid bottom as well, because the bees need a temperature of between 90° and 100° in order to work the wax and to keep the eggs and larva alive. The Pacific Northwest has some notoriously cool summers, although our winters are not nearly so bad as other places, so I am preparing a bottom that can be removed if it gets too hot and also a top that can be insulated if it gets too cold.

bee hive 2 low

This is the hive with about half the bars sitting on top – so you get the idea. There will be a solid top above the bars, to make the hive waterproof and warmer. I will also be building a stand, because they recommend the hive be at least 17 inches above the ground to keep skunks (of all things) out of the beehives.

This video does a pretty good job of showing how to built a top bar hive. Note that there are several theories about the best kind of entrance for the bees - and some variation in other details, so there's room for DIYers to experiment.

This one gives some good hints about maintaining a top bar hive, and shows how someone opens and inspects one.

Since bees are rather expensive (prices for 3 pounds and a queen around here range from $80 - $120), I want to do this correctly. And I also want to document my failures and successes, so other beginners might be encouraged to keep bees.

I am now a week away from getting my two colonies of bees - very excited and nervous. One of the things that is unnerving (but expected) as I delve into the details, is that various folk give conflicting advice. For instance, I was at the local beekeepers meeting, and the speaker advocated installing bees (in a Langstroth - the focus here seems to be box hives) by placing the screened package in an empty box under the main box of frames - and letting the bees find the queen (installed as usual in the top) themselves, which avoids shaking them out, and apparently he does this especially in cold/rainy weather, when it is death to leave stray bees outside. There are more details, but it was yet another option that I have to think about. And don't we all prefer a simple, one-size solution? Sigh... Anyway, I have both the Langstroth and the TopBar hives done and installed:

langstroth hive done

This is the Langstroth - but only the bottom box is used at first. It may be a bit too tilted.

NEW: Here are some videos that helped me prepare for installing my bees, and basic hive care:

This is from Dadant - one of the big bee supply folks

This one covers a hot, dry climate (Australian)

And once you get to these videos, there are many more on the right side - just keeping watching, and you'll see how much variation there is!

One thing that the local experts all stressed is that - due to our damp and cool climate in the PNW, it is essential to have more ventilation than other areas need. So - I altered my usual solid bottom board for the Langstroth to be a screened board (they can be purchased readymade, but I'm working on a shoestring here and also trying out my skills).

screened bottom board

It needs 1/8" hardware mesh, which was impossible to find, so I took 1/4" and doubled it, shifting the mesh slightly to get the 1/8" that will keep bees from getting through (no one wants robber bees coming from below!)

And to finish the added ventilation, I adjusted my inner top board - but I haven't photo'd that yet (soon!) And as I'd mentioned, I already had installed a screened bottom on the top-bar hive.

screen bottom

This is the top bar hive, ready to go - really different, huh?

top bar

There are just a few small - but important - details that I'm trying to get finished. One is the feeding arrangements. When it's cold and/or rainy in the first months of the hive, it's essential to feed them. The predicted weather looms ominously, so I've bought some pollen patties (and some dry pollen mixture to make my own if I run out), and I will mix up sugar water (like hummingbird "nectar") to give to them until they can find their own. I have a standard Boardman feeder for the Langstroth (which I'll photo when I install it), and this morning I just finished the feeder for the top bar, which - like many people - I have attached to the back of the follower board (this is a solid but temporary wall placed to keep the bees in one area until they grow enough for more space - provides warmth and organization).

Follower board showing bottom of feeder

feeder with jar

What the installed sugar water feeder will look like.

feeder jar

Looking at feeder from lower viewpoint - note the drilled hole on left so bees can get in from the main area.

feeder jar hole

Anyway - stay tuned! I'll let you know how the bee installation comes out, and how the bees adjust to my yard.


handing out bees

I got my bees yesterday, and have "installed" (that's the term they use) them into their two hives. It was not great weather for this, so instead of having lots of time and a neighbor to photo the process, I had to run out between rainstorms and move as fast as I could to get them in mostly dry and warm! My "method" ended up a combo of several others - plus at least half the mistakes that could possibly be made! But I think we've both survived (except for a very few bees) and in the interests of education, I'll tell you how it went.

Firstly, I'll confess that even though I was lent a bee suit, I didn't wear it - I literally didn't have time to put it on for the 10-15min break in rain (yes, I could have sat around the house in it - didn't think of that). I did wear the hat/veil, but not the gloves - I could never have gotten them in with those huge gloves on!

I had wanted to use a "softer" method of installation that allows bees to escape the box on their own, but it was so chilly that I ended up shaking out most of them, as standard instructions say. But they also say don't spray too much sugar water on if it's chilly, so I did end up with a lot of flying, angry bees - which didn't upset me, but just be forewarned. I can see the advantages of "installing" on a warm day when one can spray them down with sugar syrup without fear of harming them. Like I said, they did not bother me - and it was a great proof that they do not want to sting - and won't unless trapped or really defensive. I was mostly focused on getting the queens installed correctly - that is key! And of course, with a lot more bees swarming around than could have been, I was brushing bees off every few seconds. And then trying to get them to move aside so I could close up was tough - but I was trying not to squish any of them. Twice I found that I'd walked a bee into the house on my sleeve or shoulder, and I felt compelled to walk her back out and brush her off by the hive.

And experts also say some bees just don't make it into the hive - but between my compulsive personality and the wrong attitude (wanting to save every bee), I tried to get the last stragglers in, too. I first placed the screened box just in front of the hives, but instead of leaving, they were clumping in the corners of the screened box (see above) and not moving out. I could not resist walking out several times that evening, when rain stopped briefly, to see if they had made it safely in. Not all of them. So then I made a classic mistake of standing in front of the hive and bending to pick up as many stragglers as I could (in bits of twig or grass, preferably) and setting them at the opening - I feared these were so chilled they couldn't fly. So, okay, with no protective gear at all - and, predictably, I got stung a couple times. It doesn't hurt much (to me, anyway - I've pierced fingers with sewing needles at least as painful as that) but I felt bad that I'd killed the bees I was trying to save, and confused/angered a lot more... obviously, as I said, the wrong attitude. Experts say you have to focus on the colony, not the individual bee... I will try to be more detached, I promise. :-) But as you can see, I'm really "bonded" with my bees so far.

cathy with bees


Okay - I've had several "bee adventures" since I brought the bees home - some good, some bad. First, the bad: the colony placed in the top bar hive didn't like it - and voted with their wings. I happened to be there when they swarmed (ie: vamoosed) and it was quite shocking to see them explode from the hive, swirl around like crazy, and then leave. I didn't see which direction because I was running for my helmet and sugar spray to stop them - I didn't know that at that point I couldn't, and all I did was spray down a few bees that then became orphans and died. So if the colony swarms, at that point it would be better to see if you can follow and re-collect them. Lessons learned.

Okay - I was depressed the rest of that day. And confused. I called the place where I'd bought the bees, and the young woman was sympathetic - she said it did happen, rarely (irish luck again), but nothing she could do. However, the next day, she called to say she had a small "secondary swarm" in a backyard that if I could catch it, I could have it (that's a nice offer because they are sought by almost all beekeepers). What did I know about catching swarms? So, once again, I (very quickly) watched a You Tube video ( ), plus read some instructions online, gathered what equipment I had, and drove off! If I'd been thinking rationally, I'd say it wouldn't have been a great idea to do this alone (there was no one home; the young woman couldn't join me there) - but I think it worked (I think, because I still have at some point to search the new hive for eggs -that is the real proof). I will tell the rest of the story later - it's sunny out and I'm behind due to all the bee adventures!


I'm very pleased to say that both hives of bees are still existent and that I have added a 2nd box to each! And now, finally, the warmer, sunnier days seem to have arrived (we have possible frost danger through til June each year). Because temperatures should be in the 70's before I open hives, I have only checked them twice, contenting myself with feeding them sugar water and watching bees coming in with pollened legs on those few non-rainy days we've had. But they seem to be managing and expanding.

Here's a frame from the green hive (wild swarm):

green main far off

And here's a frame from the pink hive (purchased colony):

pink 2nd

I can't really tell the difference, but OTOH, I don't look all that closely, being much more concerned about not leaving the hive open too long (they actually need temps in the 90's, so 70's is just barely acceptable) and not killing the queen (who is very hard to see)... that's why I take photos - so I can study them later.

I did have one distressing incident where about 50-75 bees drowned in the fancy sugar water feeder a friend gave me. It's an 'in hive' feeder, meant to slot in next to the frames. There are two "ladders" inserted in the middle and it can take a couple gallons of sugar water... but the bees somehow got into the main part, where there was no ladder, and drowned. I was horrified, and removed it and went back to the old feeder, which is a Mason jar upended with holes punched in top... at least it can't drown the bees!

(I have yet to find out what went wrong - if anything - with my top bar hive. Not many TB experts in my area, apparently).

Anyway, I am grateful that they have stayed alive and stayed in my hives. And now that the berry bushes are just about to open, I should have an easier month ahead. BTW, I have started a beekeeping topic on the Forum, so head over there to discuss it!


Okay, it's only beginning June, but I wanted to update - I have had many more ups and downs with these hives! (Note: despite the photo above that has green and pink boxes mixed in one hive, I did separate them and one hive got the pink boxes, one got the green.) I had an expert come over and look at the hives with me. The good news is that there seems to be no varroa mite (a rather serious bee pest) and the green hive looked really healthy and fine, but when he checked the pink hive, we found beginning queen cells on the brood frame (below):

supersedure cells

Note the big "bubble" like cells - those are where the workers decided to raise a few of the regular larvae like queens - in order to replace the old one! (If they were descending from the bottom of the frame, they would indicate a plan to swarm). The guy was puzzled because it looked like the queen was laying well (this was the other "bought" hive, so that's two for two on problems). I checked a week later and the cells were completed... and then it got wet/cold again for a while... and suddenly one day, I noticed the green hive bees looked ready to swarm! I panicked and tried to keep them from going by sugar-water spray (they can't fly again til they clear off the sugar) and a quick addition of another box on top... but it didn't work. About three days later, I saw a huge swarm and a smaller one hanging about 40 ft up near the hive:

swarm in tree

They looked like the world's biggest pine cones! And the fact that there were two made me think that both hives had swarmed!! But both hives still had bees left in them, and so I could only watch the huge cluster of bees hang there for 3 days, then leave. One thing I did do was to put pollen patty and a bit of honeycomb in the empty top bar hive (see photo above - the blue/yellow one), just in case they'd be interested... I don't think they did go there, but about three days ago, I began seeing bees going in and out of that hive! I have been watching and I don't think it's bees robbing the pollen patty... I think I may have a third colony! So - it has been interesting, frustrating and confusing working with my new bees... and for now, since it's hot and sunny and the berries are blooming (thus the "honey flow is on"), I am leaving them alone except to check to see if they need additional space. I believe the green hive swarmed due to crowding... not sure about the pink hive, which looks very small (not even filling the 2nd box yet). I can see why folks say that it can take years to figure out how best to work with bees! But it's still worth it!.

July Update:
comb honey

Finally, after an iffy summer as a first-time beekeeper, I have harvested the first three combs! There are 10 honey supers of capped honey - but I found that I simply could not lift the box! It was a combination of very heavy combs (wow!) and the fact that this hive really makes a lot of burr comb (I need to ask an expert if my boxes somehow don't match the length of the frames). Anyway, as is too typical for me, I realized I needed a fast Plan B - so I got a clean TupperTote and loaded three individual frames plus a few bees (see above) into that, and replaced the hive cover. I also didn't have frames to fill in the gap (it's amazing the details one must work out ahead of time) and the honey was dripping, so I decided to just move straight on to the scraping/filtering.

honey in tub

I followed a very manual process I'd found on YouTube:

All I needed was the bucket, a filter (which was an embroidery hoop with sheer material) and a big metal spoon. Because the honey was still at bee-temps (about 90 deg), it poured right out. But of course, you can't get every bit of honey this way. But that solved my problem of the missing frames - I simply put them back for the bees to clean and start again! :-) I've been watching them since, and there is a bit more excited activity (I'm sure they're not happy with honey dripping into their nice clean lower boxes) - but putting them inside prevents robbing by other bees. And I'm amazed to see that less than 2 hours later, almost all the wax is dry - ie: honey is below. I also wanted the wax for candles, so I didn't mind basically ruining their lovely comb - but folks who want the bees to make honey faster usually use extractors and are left with drawn comb.

I think this is a good example of low-tech processes versus what is more expected these days. My low-tech version can be done almost anywhere, but the extractor, etc. takes a bit of set up (and at the beekeepers' meeting, the lecturer recommended cleaning the extractor by taking it to a car wash and just blasting it with hot water - that seems like a big waste of water and honey!)

Anyway - it tastes really good, and I'm grateful that my first year ended with such a sweet result!

PS - the top bar hive IS occupied: I checked inside and the new swarm had created 11 combs. That hive has no frame or foundation, so it goes much slower, but they are active and seem to be a workable colony! So - three hives total. :-)