Beginning Beekeeping

We always say we want our kids to learn with hands-on projects in our homeschool, and it doesn’t get much more hands-on than this.  We decided to start beekeeping as a new family hobby a few years back. We thought it would be a learning experience for our kids and as a bonus, we would also get fresh honey.  On top of that I also heard they do wonders for flowers, fruits, and vegetables, so I was excited to see if being beekeepers would pay off in my garden bounty.

These are our honeybees. We call them “our girls.”

Starting Out

Beginning beekeeping can seem scary, but we were really excited when we started.  Before our first bees arrived we prepared a little spot for them in our backyard, bought some basic beekeeping equipment, and set up their boxes. We also several weeks reading and learning about bees.   (We highly recommend reading Beekeeping For Dummies.  This is an affiliate link, but it has been an awesome asset to us as we learned beekeeping from almost zero knowledge to begin with.)  We learned not only how to take care of them, but also how to understand their behavior and watch their productivity. Each kind of bee has different roles and assignments. It’s fascinating to watch them carry out their specific jobs and work together.

The nervousness about them starts to disappear as you learn more and more about them. Our kids even play with the drones (male bees who DON’T have stingers).

When we started we bought trays of bees and put the trays right into the bee boxes.

Here is a box of bees. If you look closely you can see the bees using the entrance/exit at the bottom of the box. They like having a small door so they don’t have as much to guard from predators and robbers (bees from other hives who come steal food). The bucket on the top has a drip system that drips sugar water down to them, helping to provide food for the colony.

After Gaining Some Experience

After we moved and had to replace our hive we installed nucs instead.  We went to a honeybee farm nearby and purchased cardboard boxes full of bees, including a queen in each box.  We dumped the honeybees into the empty hives we already had.

Our kids do a lot of the beekeeping. They’ve learned how to handle the bees and take care of them. This is my daughter, age 11, installing a nuc in her own hive.

The smoke that you see beekeepers use doesn’t hurt the honeybees at all. It just calms them down. It actually signals to them that they need to get to work. They get busy with whatever their jobs are and don’t worry so much about the big guy handling them!

At first we used lots of smoke to calm them, but as we’ve grown more calm and used to them, we’ve learned to work with them without using the smoker much. We’ve also come to wear less and less protective gear as we’ve gotten better at beekeeping.

Over the years we’ve expanded to three bee towers.  When the bottom box fills up, we add another box on top of the tower.  As the hives grow, the towers grow.  We have to watch carefully and make sure the hive doesn’t outgrow their bee tower, or the bees will swarm to look for a new home.

My daughter adding boxes to the towers. The boxes hold brood (baby bees) and honey (food for the bees).  Later in the season we also add supers – shorter boxes that are for holding just honey.  The supers are what you take off when you harvest the honey in the fall.

Checking Our Hives

We have to check on them regularly.  We are looking for eggs to make sure the queen is laying, and also watching for any signs of disease among the hive.  And of course, checking on them allows us to see if they need another box, extra food in their bucket, or medicine.  We also like to try to spot the queen to make sure she is alive and well.  She is the most important member of the hive, and the only one we can’t do without.

We inspect the hives thoroughly, but quickly. Checking on them is important, but opening their box actually sets back honey production quite a bit and is a disturbance to the hive. We try to make it as quick and painless as possible for our girls.

I spent my life in fear of bees, but I’ve learned that honeybees are incredibly gentle.  They make my garden and orchard really grow, and give me the best honey I’ve ever tasted.  In return, I paint their homes cutely, make them medicated syrup, and check on them.  I don’t personally do the in-the-hive checks very often, but I do help with visual inspections of the hive, check on their door, and see what they’re up to every day.

It’s really neat to watch them retrieve water and pollen. We can see several of them at the door with their rear ends up in the air. Their job is to send a pheromone signaling the bees about how to find their way home in this new place.  We make sure bees are going in and out, check for plenty of pollen being carried in (bright colors stuck to their legs), and watch for any peculiar behavior or other animals disturbing the hives.

Sharing Our Hobby

One of the cool things about having honeybees is getting to share what we’ve learned with others.  Lots of families come have “field trips” to our beehives and get close up honeybee experience.  They are pretty fascinating to see close up.

Harvesting Honey

And the absolute best part is when we get to harvest all of their liquid gold.  The honey trays that come out look like this.  The honey is inside the cells and is capped by wax.

We use a hot knife to remove the wax.

Then the whole tray goes into a spinner.  The tray gets spun around and around as we spin the handle on the outside as fast as we can.  All of the honey ends up in the big metal spinner, which has a pouring spout at the bottom.

Then we filter the honey through cheesecloth several times.

And finally, we put it in sterilized jars.  We also keep the beeswax for making candles and soap.

We have to make sure to leave enough honey for our hives to last through the winter though.  After all, honey is their food supply.

Having honeybees has been a perfect hobby for our family, even better than we expected.  We’ve learned a lot not just about bees, but also about responsibility, caring for our pets, and about the hard work it takes to get a great harvest.  We’ve also learned that even something that takes a lot of work can be really fun.

Additional Layers

  • Learn about bees, their life cycles, and their behavior.
  • Find out what the job of each member of the hive is.
  • Look up how honeybees find their way back to their own hive.
  • Make a honeybee water tray.  Bees often drown when they try to drink from deep pools or ponds.  If you give them a shallow water source it keeps them from drowning.  Fill a pie pan or the saucer of a terra cotta pot with marbles.  Fill in the cracks between marbles with water.  The bees can stand on the marbles to drink. Just like you put a birdhouse in your yard to help the birds, you can build a bee water tray to help the bees.
  • Don’t want to own your own bees?  Take a field trip to a honey farm.
  • Plant a few flowers that bees really love.  Our bees love Bachelor’s buttons, Hollyhocks, Sunflowers, Daisies, and Black Eyed Susans.  Did you know that the flavor of their honey changes depending on what plants they collect pollen from?
  • Learn about the history of beekeeping.  How long have people been raising and caring for bees in order to harvest honey?

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