Tapcomb's® Beekeeping Guide - Beekeeping 101

The A-Bee-Cs of Having a Hive

We have created this guide as introduction to beekeeping for beginners, but we do recommend that you join your local beekeeping club and also enroll on a beekeeping course, we want you to keep a healthy and strong colony and the only way of doing so is gaining knowledge, learning from others and hands on experience.

1. Getting to know your bees
2. Setting up your Tapcomb® hive
3. Where do I get my bees?
4. Apart from the hive, what equipment do I need?
5. Looking after your bees
6. Harvesting honey from a Tapcomb® hive
7. Wintering your Tapcomb® hive

 

Getting to know your bees

There are three types of honey bee in every colony, each with a distinct role: the queen bee, the male drones, and female worker bees. A colony contains a single queen, a few hundred drones, and over 50,000 workers, though this number varies with the size of the hive.

types of bees, bees in a colony, types of bees in a colony

The queen can live up to three years. Though she is rarely seen outside the hive, she certainly knows how to make the one time she must leave count. It’s called her mating flight and takes place early in life. During the flight, the queen stores up to 6,000,000 sperm from the male drones she mates with. The young queen then returns to the hive and turns herself over to the care of the worker bees. She will essentially be their ward for the rest of her life. The drones, however, aren’t so lucky. No longer needed for the colony's survival, they die in the process of mating.

Worker bees wear many different hats and are literally the embodiment of the phrase “busy as a bee.” A young worker's tasks include hive cleaning, nursing the larvae and attending the queen. Workers move up to the position of hive guards, then eventually become full-fledged foraging bees. During the colony’s active season, a worker can live up to six weeks. Workers populating the hive during the less active months have a much more generous lifespan, living from four to eight months.

Because they’re so large, drones are often mistaken for queens. Unlike queens, however, these males have huge eyes and a rounded abdomen. Developed from unfertilized eggs, the primary purpose of drones is to mate with a queen. Drones don’t contribute to the hive’s upkeep, nor do they forage for nectar, make honey, or care for the brood. They’re also the first to get kicked out of the hive when cold weather hits. Even when the weather is warm, drones begin to leave the hive six short days after they’re “born.” While this exodus may seem like proof that they’re expendable, drones play a vital role in honey bee survival by ensuring genetic diversity. Their presence is also a sign of a healthy hive. And don’t feel too badly if you see one of these big guys get evicted. After getting kicked out, a drone can move to just about any other hive without confrontation.

 

Setting up your Tapcomb® hive

The first thing you need to do is find the best location for your new Tapcomb® hive. Climate plays a very important role. If you live in a colder area (average temperatures generally below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) placing your hive in direct sunlight will help the bees keep warm year round. If you live in a warmer climate (average temperatures generally above 70 degrees Fahrenheit) your bees will benefit from living in partial shade. All colonies, however, love morning sun, as this allows for a quicker recovery after a cool night.

Keeping your hive elevated is key to giving vermin and pests set on invading a real challenge. Because your hive won’t be on the ground itself, moisture is less of a problem, too, and this means the brood box and super will last longer. The hive should be at least 18 inches above the ground. Beekeepers often make their own platforms, but a level set of bricks works just as well.

Backyard and urban beekeepers need to situate hives away from any neighbor’s property. If you're in this group—which includes most of today's new beekeepers—make sure your hive’s entrance is facing away from doors, windows and pedestrian walkways. Be aware that bees are attracted to lights. Because such hard working insects need to quench their thirst, they’ll also be attracted to swimming pools. You can make things more pleasant for bees and swimmers alike by simply setting up a water source closer to the hive.

You do need to assemble your new Tapcomb® hive, as it comes flat-packaged.We ship it with an easy-to-follow instruction manual. Most new beekeepers build their hive in about 40 minutes. 

 

Where do I get my bees?

Once your Tapcomb® hive is assembled and elevated, it’s time to fill it with tenants. A good first move is checking with your local beekeepers’ association to see if they know anyone selling bees, but an easy alternative is to hit the web. Like so many things these days, bees can be bought online and delivered straight to your door.

bee nucBees differ in temperament. For beginners, we recommend Italian bees, as these are particularly docile, but even if you choose another type, start with something gentle.

 

You can order your bees in packages or Nucs. Packages include roughly 10,000 worker bees and a single queen that need to be emptied into the hive. A Nuc is a small, active colony. This usually arrives with three frames of brood and two frames of honey and “bee bread” to help sustain the colony. Simply move the frames into your brood box. The bees will begin to work on their new home without missing a beat.

Apart from the hive, what equipment do I need?

Beekeeping has rewards as well as risks. Getting stung is certainly in the latter camp, but a bee suit, veil and gloves go a long way to protect you from stings. A good smoker also helps. (And we’re not talking about your Uncle Ed, though he can always put down his cigarette, don a bee suit and pitch in. We’re talking about a smoke pot.) When the smoke is flowing, the bees stay calm.

Finally, using a hive tool to pry apart the various compartments within the hive makes the job a lot easier. Bees glue these sections together with propolis, so having a tool certainly helps.


Looking after your bees

Now that you have the ball rolling on your new hobby, you’ll have to move to the next stage: making sure your bees get all the love and attention they need. This is especially important during nectar flow season, since this is when hives grow the fastest and can rapidly reach a population of 50,000 bees.

brood inspection, brood frame, brood, bee health checks

During nectar flow, it’s vital to check your brood at least once a week. Since your hive's super must be taken out then put back on when doing this, be extra careful not to crush or trap any bees. The purpose of these checks is to make sure your queen is laying eggs productively and efficiently, but checking for disease is also a factor. Catching a disease or mite infestation early makes it easier to handle. It’s also important that there’s enough space for egg laying and honey storing.

 

Otherwise, the bees may swarm. When this happens, the queen decides there isn’t enough room in the hive and leaves to create a new colony, taking about half of the workers with her. The workforce left behind will sense the queen has gone and begin to create a new one by feeding the larvae royal jelly. Although swarming will not destroy your hive, it will have a major impact on how much honey you’ll collect that season. With half of your workforce gone, expect a much smaller harvest.

 

Harvesting honey from a Tapcomb® hive

Now it’s time for the moment you've been waiting for. Turn your hive's tap and collect that sweet liquid gold. You know a Tapcomb® frame is ready for harvesting when roughly 80% of the cells have been capped by your bees. Another sign is that nectar flow is over and winter looms large.

If you wait too long, the bees will start to eat the honey—which is why they made it in the first place—or move it deeper into the hive. If it’s cold when you harvest, you also run the risk of dealing with crystalized honey, which prevents flow. In this case, it’s best to soak the frame in warm water. You’ll lose the honey, but at least you’ll save the frame.

When you’re ready to harvest, place an empty jar below the tap, pop a honey harvest tube onto the bottom of the frame you’re harvesting from, insert the high-torque key and twist. This releases the honey in each cell. It slowly collects at the bottom, then passes out of the tube and into your jar below.

The first time you do this, be prepared to feel rewarded. The experience is so amazing, you’d swear you weren’t a beekeeper but had actually been out there collecting pollen with the bees.

It’s good to have a few extra jars handy, because the first jar will fill up and you don’t want to waste a golden drop. Some beekeepers also like to cover their jars during harvest. This stops bees or other insects from swooping down for a taste and ultimately getting caught on top of all that thick sticky gold.

It should take about 20 to 30 minutes to harvest a full Tapcomb® frame. Once this is done, the honey needs no processing. You can eat it, store it, share it, or even sell it. What you do with it is completely up to you.

 

Wintering your Tapcomb® hive

Wintering a hive means getting it ready for the colder months, when nectar flow has ended and the bees stop foraging. This is also when the queen stops laying her brood and the entire colony’s focus shifts from brood growth and honey storage to keeping warm. Since there are many ways to winterize a Tapcomb® hive, it’s smart to get advice from a local beekeeper or beekeepers’ association and find out what the best practices are for people in your area.

When nectar flow has ended, it's generally recommended that you leave a fairly full super's worth of honey for the bees to feed on during winter. Don’t forget to remove the queen’s excluder, as the colony usually “circles the wagons” when feeding. If the excluder is still in place, the queen may be left behind to starve. Once the weather starts warming up, you’ll need to replace the excluder and put the queen back into the brood box, otherwise she'll start laying brood in your super’s frames.

We also recommend insulating the space between your inner cover and hive roof to minimize cold draughts. Wool insulation usually does the trick, but some beekeepers in particularly cold climates go the extra mile and cover the outside of their hive with Styrofoam as well.

Another thing many beekeepers do is take off the super and leave the brood box and two frames worth of honey at either end of it. Beekeepers can supplement their bees with sugar syrup once the frames start to look depleted. Living in a smaller space means the bees will retain heat better. It also eliminates having to deal with the queen excluder. If this is what you want to do with your new Tapcomb® hive, drain your frames at the end of nectar flow season, remembering to put the cells back into their “ready to be filled” position using the high-torque key. Leave this alone for a few days so your bees can clear off any excess honey. Once they’ve done the cleanup, remove the super and queen excluder, then replace the inner cover and roof. Don’t forget to insulate the gap in between. You can then soak your bee-cleaned frames in warm water and store them in a dry, dark place, waiting to be used again next spring.

Though the bees need to stay warm, temperature concerns should be balanced with other concerns, including good ventilation and access to water, so you need to push dead bees and snow away from the hive’s entrance and always keep it clear.

We know it can sound like a lot to a newbee, but once you get into the swing of things, you'll be surprised how quickly it all falls into place. If you take these steps every winter, your hive will be ready to thrive each spring.