Bees and other pollinators are an integral part of a healthy environment. Keeping a beehive in your own yard provides extra pollination to plants in your neighborhood, helps add to the bee population (which has been adversely effected by pesticides and other problems), can provide a food source for animals that feed on bees, draws interest to protecting bees, and can even be a source of homegrown honey if you choose to manage the hive for honey production.
Beekeeping vs. "Bee-Having"
Some people who choose to add a beehive to their yard want to spend time doing beekeeping tasks such as managing the hive and harvesting honey. Others simply want to provide a home for bees, but aren't interested in beekeeping or getting honey out of the hive, and would rather take a totally hands-off approach. These people may call themselves "bee-havers." The type of hive you decide to get depends on whether you want to be a beekeeper or a "bee-haver," and how much time you want to spend maintaining the hive.
Before you get your first beehive, if you are interested in doing hive maintenance and beekeeping tasks, it's a good idea to take a beekeeping class so that you'll know what to expect and how to keep your hive healthy. The Santa Barbara Beekeepers' Association is one organization that offers such classes.
Types of Beehives
When deciding to keep bees, you have various hive options, each with their own pros and cons. Below is a list of some common ones. There are other, less common types which are not listed, as well as variations of the listed types.
Langstroth hive: This is the standard model for commercial use as well as for many backyard beekeepers. In the standard setup for a Langstroth hive, shallow boxes called honey supers are stacked on top of deeper brood boxes. In each box, there are multiple frames containing honeycomb. The frames in the brood boxes contain brood (eggs and larvae), while those in the honey supers contain honey. You can either use foundation (premade sheets of wax that the bees build honeycomb on) or let the bees build comb from scratch, which is a more natural approach. Langstroth hives are ideal for beekeepers looking to get a lot of honey, since extracting the honey from the frames lets you reuse the comb in the hive so that the bees can put their resources into making honey, not replacing comb. However, the drawbacks to this design include the cost of equipment, such as the boxes and frames as well as a honey extractor, and the heavy lifting of boxes associated with maintaining the hive.
Top bar hive: This hive is a long horizontal box filled with bars, not frames, on which the bees build comb. It is designed to better mimic natural situations, such as beehives in logs, in which comb is arranged horizontally instead of stacked. Brood comb is usually located close to the entrance, while honeycomb is located at the opposite end of the hive. There is often a Plexiglas window on the back of the hive for easy viewing, which enables you to observe and learn about your bees in between hive inspections. Maintaining a top bar hive doesn't involve heavy lifting, as there are no stacked components, and you don't need an extractor to harvest honey. You won't get as much honey from a top bar hive because it takes longer for the bees to build comb, but if the nectar supply is good you may be able to harvest a couple bars of comb in a season. One thing to be aware of with these hives (and other foundationless hives) is the potential for cross-combing, which is when the bees build comb in directions other than straight along the bars, or attach comb together. This makes it difficult to open the hive without damaging a lot of comb, and to prevent it you will need to inspect the hive frequently and remove problematic comb.
Warre hive: This combines certain features from both top bar and Langstroth hives. It is stacked (from the bottom, not the top like a Langstroth hive) and uses bars like a top bar hive. It may include a Plexiglas window for observation. Like a top bar hive, it is designed to better mimic hives in the wild.
Log hive: This is simply a hollowed-out log with closed-off ends that provides a home for bees. It is ideal for the most hands-off of "bee-havers" who aren't interested in harvesting honey but just helping the bees. It is the most natural hive you can get. You can either set it in your yard and wait for bees to colonize it, or if you buy or capture a swarm, you can put the bees in the log and then close off the end.
Siting the Hive
If you plan to do any sort of maintenance on the hive, your first priority should be safety when siting it. Make sure that you have enough room around the hive to easily and quickly get away from it if anything goes wrong (e.g. a bee gets into your bee suit) while doing hive maintenance. In addition to safety, you need to make sure your hive is legally placed, which depends on your location. (See the section at the bottom, "Following the Law," for links to applicable ordinances.) Aside from these considerations, an ideally placed hive also follows these guidelines:
- The location should get morning sun.
- The hive should be protected from wind.
- Unless your primary goal is to feed animals like skunks, you should raise the hive off the ground and avoid putting it directly in an animal pathway.
- If you have more than one hive, the entrances should face different directions so bees don't accidentally go into the wrong hive.
- The hive should be placed away from artificial light sources, such as windows of your house, to reduce the number of bees attracted to the light at night.
Items To Have
Before you get bees, you should have the following items on hand (other than an empty hive):
- Bee suit and gloves. There are many brands and designs of bee suits. You may want one that is fully ventilated for a more comfortable beekeeping experience in hot weather.
- Smoker. Used in moderation, this reduces the number of agitated bees flying up from the hive while you are maintaining it. It makes them think there is a fire nearby and triggers their instinct to fill up on honey for survival instead of trying to defend the hive. Don't use it too much because it stresses the bees. Practice lighting it before you open the hive for the first time.
- Hive tool. This is a metal tool that helps you remove the frames/bars from the hive and do other tasks, such as removing cross comb. There are different hive tools for different types of hives, so make sure you get the right one.
- Optional: Extractor, for Langstroth hives with foundation. You won't need this until you are ready to harvest honey though.
There are a few ways that you can get a bee colony for your hive. One is to buy mail-order bees. This is expensive, however, and puts a lot of stress on the bees. Another way is to provide a home for a feral bee colony. During the spring and early summer (swarm season) you may be able to acquire a bee colony from a beekeeper who has removed it from an unwanted location, or even capture a swarm yourself if one ends up in your yard. (You may want help from an experienced beekeeper if capturing a swarm that collects in your yard is your first beekeeping task.) The easiest way, however, to get bees in your beehive (although it requires patience) is to simply put out your empty hive, "baited" with honey, beeswax, or lemongrass essential oil, and wait for bees to show up. This works especially well if you have a used hive, since the old bits of wax already are attractive to bees.
If you take a beekeeping class, it will teach you about the details of hive maintenance, but here is a basic list of important tasks you will be doing:
- Inspecting the hive for general health as well as issues such as cross-combing and parasites
- Minimizing parasites such as small hive beetle. There are pesticides on the market for this, but the more natural approach is to monitor comb for signs of the beetle and cutting out infested comb to eliminate the pest.
- Correcting cross-combing by leveling the hive, gently bending crooked comb back to a straighter position, and harvesting/removing more extreme crossed comb
- Adding frames, supers, or bars if the bees are running out of space
- Harvesting honey only when you are sure that the bees have enough extra to sustain themselves when nectar flow decreases
Following the Law
Your jurisdiction may restrict where hives can be sited, how many you may have, and other aspects of beekeeping.
Image credits: Langstroth hive beekeeping: Public domain image, publicdomainpictures.net, Creative Commons CC0. Top bar hive- The Skunk Corner. Warre hive- Kevin Pauba, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 4.0. Log hive in a Polyscias fulva tree- Scamperdale, Flickr, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2.0.