When to Start a Beehive
When I first got interested in beekeeping, I wanted to get started right away! But then I looked outside at the snow and realized it was January, and maybe now wasn't such a great time.
When should you start a beehive? Spring is an ideal time of year to start a new hive. April is best in most areas. Before your bees arrive, you should have everything in place. Including having your hive set up and ready to go, and already owning all the equipment you'll need. You might be able to start as late as June or July, but this will put extra strain on your hive during their first winter.
In this article you'll learn the best time of year to start your first beehive, what supplies you'll need, and how to get your bees through their first winter.
What is the Best Time of Year to Start a Beehive?
The lives of bees are greatly impacted by the changing seasons. Every month changes how your bees will act. In most places a beehive is most active in warm weather, because this corresponds to the season when local flowering plants are blooming. A colony of bees varies its activity in accordance with available food sources which can vary depending on your climate. The times of the year when vegetation produces blooms is referred to as nectar flow. Nectar flows can vary even throughout the seasons. Most places typically encounter a spring flow, a main summer nectar flow, and a fall flow.
A nectar flow is the period of the year when there’s a boost in native blooming vegetation and nectar sources are in abundance, providing pollen and nectar for bees.
A beekeepers rule of thumb is to plan for your new packages of bees to arrive a week or so before the first spring nectar flow.
So what's the best time to start a beehive, in warmer or colder months? Understanding how bees function in different seasons will help you determine when is a good or bad time to start your beehive.
When is it Too Late to Start a Beehive?
Winter can be a very stressful time for bees. They'll need the honey they collected during the year to stay fed during the long cold months when there are no flowers producing pollen or nectar. On average, one hive of bees needs to eat about 50 lbs (23 kg) of honey during the winter!
With no blooming vegetation available to provide food the colony reduces activity. When conditions are cold the queen stops laying eggs and bee populations reduce considerably during winter. At this time the bees only concern is to protect the queen. Worker bees form a tight cluster around the queen during winter months to keep her warm.
In fact, bees normally reach spring almost in a state of starvation, and often won't make it through the winter if not carefully provided for. You'll probably need to provide supplemental feed for the hive toward the end of winter to make sure they don't starve.
Because winter is such a rough time for bees, starting your beehive in the winter is a terrible idea. Even if you could find some bees, you're setting yourself up for failure. I know that getting excited about beekeeping can make you want to start right away, but holding on for a few months will ensure your first batch of bees is happy and healthy.
The one thing you should do in winter is order your bees. January or February is a good time to order a package of bees to make sure you're near the top of the supplier's list.
Spring – The Best Time of Year to Start a Beehive
Spring is the ideal time of year to start your beehive. The weather is getting warmer, and flowers are starting to bloom so bees can start making their own food again.
At the beginning of spring, it's a good idea to feed sugar syrup to your bees until the hive is in full production. Especially for a new hive, they'll need time to start building comb and getting themselves established before they can really start foraging for pollen and nectar.
In most places, April is the ideal time to introduce a new package of bees to your hive that you should already have set up. In warmer places like the southern United States you might be able to start as early as March.
By May, your hive should have produced a full batch of bees and the hive will be in full production.
Can I Start a Beehive in the Summer?
It's possible to start a hive in June or at a stretch July, but it will be a bit harder. Your hive won't get itself as established as it would if you started earlier in the spring. So be ready to feed your hive syrup to get it through its first winter, since it won't have the same amount of food reserves.
Even more than the amount of honey, your hive needs time to create a full brood. A well-populated hive is more likely to survive the winter than an empty one.
During the summer, an established hive is busy collecting nectar and pollen and producing honey. Predators and other kinds of insects can get attracted to your hive during the warm summer months, so it's critical that you keep up with maintenance, especially if your colony is starting out.
Don't be alarmed if it suddenly seems like the population of your hive starts to drop around August. After the main nectar flow in summer it’s normal for the bee population to reduce in size. This is just a natural adjustment to the amount of available nectar sources.
Can you Start a Beehive in the Fall?
Activity in a beehive starts to slow down after the summer nectar flow and will drop during the fall. Even though most places experience a slight increase in nectar sources (known as the fall flow), bee populations usually continue to decline during the fall.
The fall is not the ideal time to try and introduce new bees to a hive, because they won't be able to make the preparations to survive the winter. Flowering plants begin to wane at this time of year making foraging difficult for bees. When you introduce bees to a hive their first job is to fill frames and build out wax comb. This in itself takes a lot of energy and they won’t be able to start rearing brood.
Besides, after mid-july you most likely won’t find any suppliers selling bee packages anymore.
Your first year objective is to get your bees through the winter. A hive needs to already be well established to to do this. A stronger colony stands a much better chance than a small evolving population. You could theoretically set up a beehive in the fall and feed your hive fondant all autumn and winter. That's a lot of work, and it makes more sense to just wait until spring.
However, the fall is an ideal time to begin your preparations for the following season. At this time of year other beekeepers don’t have so many urgent tasks to attend to and are much more available to help educate new beekeepers. A local beekeeping association might begin preparatory classes at this time. You can also start planning everything you need to begin your new hobby and you can even start getting in touch with bee suppliers to be sure to get your order in.
No matter what time of year you plan to introduce new bees to your property, you need to do some preparation work and planning ahead of time. You should have obtained your hives and get them set up long before your first bees arrive.
Here are some things you'll want to have before your bees come home:
Your bees will need somewhere to live! You don't want a box of live bees to arrive at your door without anywhere to put them. You can buy a fully assembled hive, or even try to build one yourself if you've got a wood shop and you're extra adventurous.
In general new beekeepers are advised to start with two hives. This is because it makes management easier in case you have problems which one of your colonies during the year.
You'll need somewhere to order your bees from. Some suppliers only ship their bees a few times per year, or for a few months of the year. So it's important to get your bee order placed early.
Decide where you want to place your beehive
You'll need to find a place on your property without much foot traffic, and far enough from your property lines to comply with any local beekeeping regulations. Think about what taking care of your hive will be like all year, including during winter weather.
Try to face the entrance of the hive away from strong winds. A hive that faces south or east is ideal. Somewhere that gets shade (like under a big tree) is a good idea to keep your bees from overheating during hot summer afternoons as well. You might also want to raise your hive off the ground with concrete blocks to make it easier to work with. Adjust as necessary to make sure your hive is sitting level.
Buy Protective Clothing
Bees aren't as aggressive when they're initially getting installed into the hive and getting themselves established. They have more critical things to worry about than fighting off humans. So having protective clothing is less important at first, but I'd still recommend having it from day one.
I would at least get a veil to protect your face from getting stung. You might want a full suit, or you might be able to get by with just a long-sleeved beekeeping jacket.
If you're not sure if you're allergic to bees, now is a good time to get a test from your doctor to make sure!
Some things you don't need if you're on a budget. However I would recommend at least to get a good bee smoker and smoker fuel. Your bees will be a lot calmer and easier to work with if you have a smoker. Practice a couple of times and learn how to use it in advance, not for the first time when bees are flying everywhere and you actually need it!
Get at least two hive tools which you’ll need for prying open hive parts. These aren’t expensive and they’re easy to misplace, so get a spare one!
You'll need something to feed syrup to your bees during the colder months when there aren't flowers around. You can make one from a gallon can with some holes poked in the cap, but they're pretty inexpensive and I'd just buy one made for the purpose.
Trust me that this tool makes the job of catching your queen a lot easier and gentler on her.
Spare boxes and parts
You don't know when you'll need to add extra supers to your hive. Once you realize you need to expand your hive, it might be too late. So it's worth having extras on hand in advance. Make sure they include frames.
Learn everything you can!
Beekeeping isn't something that's taught in schools, so you'll have to teach yourself every part of the process. Books are great resources, but online courses and videos that walk you through the steps are even better, especially if you're a visual learner like me. Joining your local beekeeping association is a bonus!
Learn as much as you can, including setting up your hive and working safely with bees before the big day comes.
Can I harvest honey from the hive in its first year?
Many beekeepers expect that honey will be flowing from their hive in its first year, but this isn't the case. Your goal for the first year of your hive should be just to get them through the winter and get their new frames built out with comb. That might mean you don't take any honey from your hive at all during their first year while they're still getting established.
Getting a strong flow of honey in your first year is definitely the exception, not the rule, when it comes to beginner beekeepers.
Can I start more than one hive at the same time?
For a beginner beekeeper I'd recommend starting small. I'd suggest starting with two hives in your first year and then you can grow from there. Two hives is often a recommended minimum because if one of your colonies has problems you can take measures, and you won’t be left with no bees at all for the following season.
When you are ready to install more hives, you should do it at least thirty feet away from your first one. Bees do something called fanning when you first install them in a new hive, where they spread out and use pheromones to let other bees know where the new hive is. If you're trying to establish two separate hives at once, this can get confusing for the bees.