BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pitfalls of Ordering Hives Online and Buying Kits

Updated 12-23-2020 - Most beginner beekeepers feel over-whelmed and are grateful for the option of ordering a kit online. Most folks running beekeeping retail operations selling these kits are beekeepers themselves and hope for your success, so these kits are pretty much well thought out; however, if you do not have the wonderful advantage of a beekeeping club's Bee School and mentor program to guide you in your desire to start beekeeping, listen up.

In our New Hampshire climate, there are important considerations. Florida and Arizona beekeepers look at us sideways when we tell them our bees are confined to their hives for as much as 6 months of winter weather. This is not the norm for the rest of the U.S. and most hive kit producers, especially the one-box hardware store mass-marketed kit makers, are in the dark about such beekeeping challenges. 

Cost: Beekeeping is in no way a cheap hobby, but I've seen displays at hardware stores with mass-marketed kits for way more dollars than the informed beekeeper would need to pay. One box of plastic frames "ready to go" for $175 will not get you through a season. Some promise a lead on bees only to have you call the number to find yourself in a one-year queue.

Plan on about $250 for enough supers (boxes) with all the thoughtful extras like a weighted telescoping cover, notched inner cover, frame assembly kits with beeswax foundation, slatted rack, screened bottom board with a back to stop drafts, appropriate beespace (see below). The one locally made at my shop is $265 with these features and more. The bees themselves run about $150 to $200 depending on your choices in bees and availability.

Plastic frames, for instance, might be fine in the short run, but I personally would not want my bees dependent on them through a long winter's confinement period. Honey bees communicate through their beautiful beeswax hexagons; vibrations, smells, and sounds are important. Studies done in southern or mid-western climates may indicate no difference between plastic and beeswax, but I want my girls to have every advantage possible when over-wintering.

New Hampshire shares few of its growth hardiness zones with other states and bees eat what grows in those hardiness zones in a very short season in this neck of the woods. This is another consideration with several supers being necessary to hold the honey and pollen stores they will need during confinement. Sugar, as well as pollen substitute, are not long term solutions to the nutritional needs of your over-wintering colony.

Here are other things I've had to consider that have helped me keep bees successfully in New Hampshire's unique climate:
  • Langstroth concept or vertical design. Horizontal hives are doable and convenient for the beekeeper, although more hands-on; but clusters in winter do not naturally reach horizontally for food stores.
  • 8 Frame-wide Hives are my choice so colonies can follow the heat of the cluster up in winter without bypassing their honey stores. 10 Frames have been used up here since the beginning of beekeeping-time; but colonies are reportedly smaller going into winter these days. Any experienced beekeeper can keep bees in any kind of hive as honey bees are very accommodating, but my goal is to make things as uncompromising as is natural for the colony being asked to wait out our winters indoors.
  • Moisture-wicking winter set up
  • Brood box protection using a slatted rack as a brood buffer for traffic coming and going as well as providing a hangout for foragers during rain or cold weather.
  • Bee space planned into a hive design varies with manufacturers. Once you invest a substantial amount into hive equipment you should make sure any additional equipment you buy fits with what you have. A common error I see on hive inspections among my shop customers is a brood box with beespace built into both the top and the bottom of the box; when stacked to make up a two-brood box set up, as some breeders of northern bees recommend, the beespace doubles and burr comb complications are the result.
  • Hive width: Ten frame hives have dominated the market because commercial beekeepers can conveniently keep syrup feeders in them on the road to pollination sites. Backyard beekeepers normally do not leave a feeder in the hive all season long. The newer 8 frame designs were made wider than beespace so these feeders could be used with them as well. As a result, backyard beekeepers find 8 frame hives "wonky" or too wide for the frames, but again, bees are very accommodating and will make it work with deeper combs, but is that good for them when held up for winter?
  • My 8 frame hives at my shop are made tight so the frames line up box to box so as not to impede traffic for the bees or encourage burr comb building. This was all brought to my attention by the beekeeper carpenter who makes the hives we sell at my shop. John of Hampshire Hives custom makes these 13.5-inch hives for my students to accommodate proper beespace for the frames we use built next door in Maine. 8 frame hives offered online are usually 13.75 or 14 inches wide. If you have my hives or want my hive kit, keep this in mind. The choice is somewhat of a commitment to proper beespace. Bying a supplemental super for a commercial 8 frame will be slightly wider than my boxes. A huge plus is that John makes the hives with sustainably harvested pine and they can be seen here for details.
  • Painting Your Hive - click here to learn about that important step.
What else? Attend bee school as soon as it becomes possible during our current COVID situation; and attend club meetings, online or when they start up again, to help you with your equipment choices. Beekeepers keeping bees in our climate or a similar climate can be found online, if no local school is available. As I write this the COVID-19 virus is responsible for this winter's in-person Bee School cancellations but most of us are learning to teach and learn online. See here for those programs scheduled for winter 2020-21. I can't stress enough how much trouble and failure can be avoided by working with and learning from other beekeepers. HOWEVER, and this is important, please respect the volunteer mentor. So many seasons teaching I find myself knowing more about my students' bees than I do my own simply because of the time required to respond with support. Do your due diligence where preparation and follow through are needed.

Thanks for coming by, and good luck this season. It will be spring before you know it and the bees will be coming!
Athena Contus, Athena's Bees

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