Casaubon's Book

Beginner Bees

So I’ve spent a lot of the last few months reading beekeeping books – all the ones you’d think plus a few others. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to various local beekeepers as well. There’s an old saying “one Jew, three opinions” – well, let’s just say that my major observation has been that that Jews have nothing on beekeepers ;-). I am now thoroughly versed in the arguments for and against top bar hives and traditional box hives, for and against foundation comb…and etcetera and etcetera and etcetera.

What I haven’t decided is what I actually think about these things, and what I’m actually going to do. I have to decide in the next week or so, and hey, I figure what does one do in a state of information overload, other than ask for more. So I’m curious – what’s your take on the best starter approach for a new beekeeper? If you are giving advice, I’d be glad also to know how long you’ve been doing this, how it has gone and how many hives you have.



  1. #1 Edward Bryant
    January 15, 2010

    Go with top bar… then show me how to do it!

  2. #2 vera
    January 15, 2010

    I am going with top bar. I like the barefoot philosophy behind it. Haven’t decided yet, though… horizontal or vertical (Warre)? Warre seems less work. Less work = good.

  3. #3 Prometheus
    January 15, 2010

    Call Binford Weaver’s family.

  4. #4 Tree
    January 15, 2010


    First: Can you arrange to have a mentor or take a class? I really recommend one or the other, but if you think you might take a class, you need to enroll as soon as possible; as they fill up fast.
    Most classes will teach the traditional hive with foundation, etc. A mentor may use different methods. My advice is to choose one and follow their methods.
    I got a couple hives in trade and so I keep bees according to this equipment. It has gone well, so far. I may add a top bar hive some day, but I want to be very good with the methods I’m now using before I make any changes.
    Bees make a huge difference in the crops of several fruits. I’m so glad I started keeping bees.


  5. #5 Lynne
    January 15, 2010

    Hi Sharon,

    I myself don’t have bees but I grew up on an apiary and my parents still have a commercial business, though they are winding it down now.

    My thoughts…

    I think top bar might be an excellent way to go for a small operation (I’m assuming you’ll be under 20 hives or so…, maybe I’m wrong). The reason that I think this is that for a small operation, the costs of purchasing foundation, plus an extractor and a spin dry might be a bit much right off the bat. No “economies of scale” so to speak, so I suspect things like foundation will be relatively expensive. Seems to me with the top bar situation, the bees will certainly put more energy into creating more of their own wax, rather than starting from foundation, so your honey yields will be lower, but you won’t need an extractor that holds frames – you could get away with just some type of wax press or spin dry. Plus, usually with bees and small operations there is more of a problem with what to do with all the honey, rather than having too little. Do you have a plan for the wax?

    Now I’m speaking as someone who has only ever used foundation, traditional box hives, extractors, uncappers, etc. Someone with experience with top bar may not like them for some reason.

    I am sure you have given thought to mite control, renewing queens, etc, all of which is a bit easier in the US than here in Canada due to some border regulations and whatnot. If you haven’t been thinking about those things just put up another question on your blog 🙂

    What a fabulous and massively time-consuming project you are embarking on! 🙂 Good luck!

    From the lucky blog follower who gets to eat free honey every day.

  6. #6 Prometheus
    January 15, 2010

    The reason I suggested Weaver is because they started early with selective survivor breeding for varroa resistance and because the varroa prevention protocols in organic bee keeping are very labor intensive and can still adulterate honey.

    Danny is good at asking questions and finding out what kind of set up will suit you best whether you are buying from Weaver or not.

  7. #7 Bob Sonnenberg
    January 15, 2010

    I started last year with a 6 frame nuc. Bad year for bees here in Erie,PA according to local beekeepers. I am building a top bar frame for next spring. Warm and sunny here yesterday so I had a bit of a die off. Part of the deal my local mentor says. Get yourself a local mentor if you can. I also took a couple of courses in Vermont. One from Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping. I won’t know until spring how well I’ve done. No matter what the outcome,I’m glad that I got them. They are fascinating.

  8. #8 Bob Sonnenberg
    January 15, 2010

    I forgot to tell you that my bees are in my backyard here in the city.

  9. #9 Ecologystudent
    January 15, 2010

    I’m going to start keeping bees this year as well, and I’ve decided to go with the top bar hive. It just seems simpler, more natural to me, and what I’ve read about going foundation-less makes a lot of sense to me. We’ll see how this year goes.

    I’m starting small, probably only one hive, and I’ll be attending the local bee keeper’s meetings this year. I’m still trying to decide if I should try to hive a swarm, or order a package- but I think I still have time to think on that.

  10. #10 Mike Cagle
    January 16, 2010

    I don’t know anything about bees, but I have a friend who does! I sent a note to Susan Brackney, author of _Plan Bee_ — — and told her about your request for info. Perhaps she’ll have thoughts to share.

  11. #11 MadScientist
    January 16, 2010

    Hang around with the apiarists and get them to teach you the tricks (and don’t believe that “after you’ve been stung a few times you’ll get used to it”.) Learn all the different techniques you can then decide which works best for you. The apiarists I’ve known over the years were primarily concerned with genetic diversity, bee diseases, keeping a hive “alive”, and the type of flowers the bees hang around (who would want a hardwood honey – yuck).

  12. #12 Joyce Paski
    January 16, 2010

    I want bees at some point, but for now am content to try and attract the wild native bees. I do like to check out Linda’s Bees blog at for inspiration.

  13. #13 Karen
    January 16, 2010

    Hi Sharon,
    When you asked me over the weekend what I thought, I was not able to organize my thoughts quickly enough for an answer. After finishing _Fruitless Fall_ and _Spring without Bees_ and watching Nicotine Bees on video (I also kept 2 beehives for a couple of years in the 80’s) (I saw a demo of the top bar hive at a fair in Maine and was very charmed by it!), I would say this:
    The most important thing that has been missing in beekeeping is letting the bees build their own comb. So I would say either get a top bar hive or use your Langstroth equipment but don’t use foundation. Let them build the sizes of comb they would naturally. If you use your Langstroth frames maybe leave a little comb or attach some comb to the top of the frame to get them to build as much as possible aligned with the bars of the frames. One of the things about the top bar hives is that it is probably a little easier to use a long knife to detach the comb from the hive walls because they are angled. If the bees are building their own way in a Langstroth, it will be harder to get the comb out but not an impossible task since you will probably be taking comb and honey together to extract and not replacing comb but letting them rebuild. Without an extractor you will drain the honey from the comb in buckets. When I was learning beekeeping, another thing I was taught was to have at least 2 hives. Since you already have the Langstroth equipment, I would use it without foundation, get a top bar hive and have one of each (or more of each). I would also try one of the Russian bees from Kirk Webster and get one set of Italians. Also key point is to take honey in the spring and NOT the fall which has been the practice forever. This was such a no brainer revelation when I heard it, I hit myself over the head and said “of course”. Take only what they didn’t use AFTER the winter in over. They are so vulnerable in the winter and here we were taking their honey right before winter sets in then FEEDING THEM. I know this sounds crazy but that is what beekeepers were doing for years!

    Assuming you are not planning on pollinating 500 acres of fruit trees (which Iknow you are not)you do not need to use a centrifugal extractor which one needs for a large operation.
    My 2 cents,

  14. #14 Julie in MI
    January 16, 2010


    I started beekeeping in 2009. The class at the local community college was DEFINITELY worthwhile. It included watching the instructor hive 5 packages of bees, and I was calm when I hived my own. I use Langstroth hives with foundation, because that’s all I knew a year ago. They are easy for a beginner to manipulate. This year I will use the Lang equipment, but not foundation. The bees need a “starter strip” of foundation and also need one drawn frame in an added super so that they can crawl from the bottom to the top. At the state conference, there was a demo of this technique (Lang frames, no foundation). The presenter claimed to use extractors to harvest honey with good success. As mentioned above, it seems that bees benefit from building their own foundation.

    Beekeeping is fascinating. Have fun!


  15. #15 Greenpa
    January 16, 2010


    Find a professional beekeeper looking for some pasture- and swap him your bee pasture for a coupla quarts of honey, or whatever.

    We had 6 big hives on the farm for 4 years this way, until the price of gas made the beekeeper pull back.

    If we’d WANTED to, we could have swapped him for a little tutoring, too…

  16. #16 Jill
    January 16, 2010

    I recommend reading the book Toward Saving the Honeybee (available at before deciding.

    Also, just for inspiration, I recommend watching the amazing videos on the Melissa Garden website ( and cruising around their informative site.

  17. #17 nadiaamacintosh
    January 16, 2010

    What kind of land would a beekeeper be interested in putting his hives on? We are mainly forest, with some pasture-type areas (60 acres). What kind of trees, plants would be necessary. Many thanks.

  18. #18 greenpa
    January 16, 2010

    Nadia- they call it “bee pasture”; and there are many kinds. Forest is sometimes good pasture; I’m not as familiar out west, though. Here, one of the most valuable honeys is basswood; also prized is black locust. On our farm, most of the honey turned out to be clover and alfalfa; both fine. Buckwheat is great if you’ve got it. It’ll vary a lot depending on region; I guarantee any local beekeeper will have tons of details for you.

  19. #19 Sharon Astyk
    January 17, 2010

    Well, in terms of mentors, my neighbor, Frank kept bees for 61 years until he finally sold his hives 5 years ago (I wanted to buy them then, but was really, really pregnant and Eric was a little panicky about the idea of having to help me move bees – now he’s mellowed on the subject), and is excited to help me. I’ve also sat in on a couple of classes from different perspectives.

    My only concern about the top-bar method is that it feels like people are leaping too rapidly to a “that’s the natural method” conclusion. That is, either way, this point, I’m probably going to go top bar or strips on langstroth hives, but I’m a little wary of the hype on top bars – although I find them appealing too. I’m sort of inclined to go that way, simply because the equipments costs are so much lower, but I’m fascinated to hear what people think.


  20. #20 Sharon Astyk
    January 17, 2010

    We had bees on our pasture for a while, until Frank sold off his hives, and were happy to have them. But I want my own – I really, really like bees. I find them totally cool and fascinating. Honestly, I always find that’s the best reason to take up anything in agriculture – because it fascinates you.


  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    January 17, 2010

    For those using topbars in cold climates, how have the been wintered over? And has anyone used a Warre top bar?

    Karen, I agree that building their own comb looks to be important – either way, we will be going with build-your-own approach.


  22. #22 Greenpa
    January 17, 2010

    Aha! the true reason emerges! 🙂 yeah, have to agree; there are few reasons better than just plain old fascination.

    And boy are you in the clover to have a neighbor like that.

    Nadia- one other thing you can offer beekeepers- security. Someplace they know the hives won’t be molested or robbed, either by humans or, like, bears. 🙂

    And; I’m pretty sure I’ve already shared this bit by Eddie here; but just in case; all beekeepers need to be familiar:

  23. #23 Hugh
    January 17, 2010

    Hi Sharon,
    I recommend going for two bog-standard Langstroth hives. The equipment is readily available, any beekeepers who come to assist you will be familiar with it, and if you decide to change to something different later on you will have no problem selling your equipment. Also, just about any textbook you buy will assume you are using Langstroth kit. Get two or three years experience under your belt before deciding whether you would prefer something different. Also, join your local beekeeping association, they will be a rich source of advice, especially when things go wrong, which happens a lot when you’re starting with bees. You may also be able to hire expensive equipment such as an extractor from them. Top-bar beekeeping is fine, but unless you have another top-bar beekeeper close by to help you get started you will really be at the steep end of the learning curve, and that can be a nerve-racking place to be if you have to deal with 60,000 irritated bees. I’ve been keeping bees for about 15 years now, just a few hives (currently eight). Every second beekeeper has his or her special way of keeping bees that they want to evangelize about – stick to the standard system until you’ve learned a little. There are a huge number of books available – Roger Morse and Kim Flottum are well regarded authors, and although I have not seen his books I have always like the articles written by Keith Delaplane.
    All the best with the new enterprise.

  24. #24 vera
    January 17, 2010

    Hugh, I am kinda bewildered by what you say. With bees vanishing and falling prey to gobs of illnesses… isn’t it a good thing for a newbie to get going with another system, rather than doing more of the same that has brought us here? I mean… isn’t it like saying oh when you grow potatoes, just fumigate the heck out of them, everybody does that, and only once you learn how to do that right, you can switch to organic… 😉 Sorry, maybe I am missing something here?

    Yikes, Greenpa, bears… short of massive chain link fence all around, how do you stymie them? I had not thought of that… hmmm… maybe I need to move…

  25. #25 KM
    January 17, 2010


    I am really hoping you can get this one all sorted out for me. I have set out to start keeping bees the past two years and keep running up against the problem of too much information and too many differnt opinions. I don’t know where to start! Especially since I have to do this with a small budget.

    Maybe with your help I can finally get bees going *this* year…

  26. #26 wedje
    January 18, 2010

    i’m definitely a beginner – 2 yrs in, 2 hives, both langstroth. i recommend diving in, using langstroth only because it is more common, and, once more comfortable, start looking at alternatives based on your own observations. picking up one of those full supers is a chore but being able to pick out a frame to harvest makes it worth it. i’m not sure how top bar harvesting works but a comb full of honey is a heavy thing.

    i wasn’t aware of the top bar method when i spoke with people and i’m glad i wasn’t because i can see the appeal. i was hoping to expand to 5 hives this year but now you have me thinking that trying a top bar for one of the hives might be fun.

    bees, to me, are easy and not a lot of work. that being said, a bear decided to tear apart the hive nearest the house this fall and now i have to put something in place that deters the bear in spring which is going to be a pain. he ate the entire bottom super full of brood and i’ve decided that i’m not going to fill this super up with frames in the spring – the bees can build as they please. i don’t touch the bottom 2 supers which are reserved for brood and both hives have been flourishing. my current theory is that a strong hive will fight off any disease and the less i touch it the better. although i die of curiosity and really want to look. my overall approach is to always consider what weakens a hive but, since there’s so much conflicting info out there, i filter what i think are key points and am currently winging it.

    i recommend joining the local beekeeping association. the one where i am located has a conference every year – a two-day event. one of the presentations is an all day event for beginners. very handy and you meet many people. i also don’t go in for big investments on equipment and was hunting around on the ‘net for how to harvest this year. i stumbled across who demonstrated crush and strain. i also haven’t entirely bought into the “just feed them sugar syrup” approach and am looking for alternatives. i left honey in with the hives this year for them to consume and will be harvesting anything that is left in the spring. gunther hauk (toward saving the honeybee) used to offer multi-day courses and i think it would be worth the expense to travel to one these. he does not have a traditional, consumer, money-making outlook on bees.

    i could go on and on but it looks like you have plenty of info from all corners and my comment has turned into a small novella. happy beekeeping.

    oh – the best thing? we harvested our own honey this fall and it was delicious. nothing purchased has come close in flavour.

  27. #27 Greenpa
    January 18, 2010

    Hugh’s advice to join the local beekeeping association is 100% on the nose.

    You should find oldtimers and newbies there- an awful lot of brains to pick.

    2 years before I broke ground for my first greenhouse, I joined the greenhouse growers association. Went to meetings; read books, talked, listened, eventually gave a talk at a meeting about my plans, asking for feedback.

    Priceless. Now, a couple of hives is not necessarily that big a deal; but the pathway is sensible. You really don’t have to reinvent everything all alone.

  28. #28 Raeferd
    January 18, 2010

    Top bar first as it is more compact and user-friendly. Then, if all goes well, I plan to expand to traditional.
    I have been mentoring with a traditional beekeeper who is open to top bar concept. I plan on taking a class starting in March as well as joining the local beekeeping association knowing that as a top-bar beekeeper I will be in the minority. I am waiting for a warm weekend to begin building the top bar from scrap wood. My husband is supportive and my 7 year old is excited as she wants to be involved.
    If all goes well, I hope to incorporate top bar at the medical rehab center Rec Therapy dept for accessibility for clients who have an interest. We started a garden last year at the center. BOL with your decisions.

  29. #29 WNC Observer
    January 19, 2010

    Been beekeeping for 2 years now, have 2 hives.

    -First, try to find a beekeeper club near you if you possibly can – contact your county extension agent if you are having trouble finding them. That will be your best source for information and support. And maybe equipment. My club has extractors for rent, so I haven’t had to make that investment yet.

    – Hopefully your bee club will have a beekeeper’s school; if not, look for one nearby. This is how I got started, and it is well worth doing. Absent that, or maybe in addition to that, find an experienced beekeeper willing to serve as a mentor. You might have better luck finding a small-scale backyard beekeeper who is will to spare some time to be a mentor than is likely to be the case with the larger-scale operators. The latter will probably be happy for you to come along and observe/help out, though.

    – Make sure you have ordered and assembled all your equipment first, before you have your bees. The equipment is easy to assemble, but it does take a little time.

    – You will also need to set up your bee yard. Any good beginner beekeeper book will tell you about this, but one thing in particular MUST be addressed: BEARS!! I cannot emphasize strongly enough the danger that bears are to your hives if there is even a small population of them active in your area. One bear will destroy all your hives in minutes. Since you live in upstate NY, you probably are in bear country. If there is even a small risk of bears coming on your property, then you MUST surround your hives with an electric fence. I am talking about something serious and substantial enough to really keep the bears out. I did some internet research and constructed mine per USFS standards for Grizzly country, just to be safe. That means 7 strands, separated 6″ apart, alternating 4 hot and 3 ground. You also need an energizer that kicks out a full 1 joule of juice, and unfortunately eliminates those nice looking solar-powered jobs. If you want solar, buy a real solar panel and hook it up to recharge the battery that powers your energizer. Since you have other livestock, the good news is that your investment in electric fencing for the beehives can be extended to protect chickens and other livestock from preditors, as well as to keep them in.

    -Try to find someone who will supply you with a NUC (a nucleus colony with queen on five frames). If you can get MN Hygenic Italians or Russians, so much the better, for those are a tad more resistant to public enemy #1: variola mites. Best of all are bees sources locally, as they are best adapted to your area. While some people start out ordering packages of bees by mail, this seems to me to be a much less desirable approach.

    -Don’t be too greedy about harvesting honey. Make sure they have two full deeps from the get-go, and make sure that they are plenty far along with filling that up for the winter before you even think about putting any supers on. Be forwarned that you might not harvest any honey at all your first year. Local beekeepers will be your best source of advice as to what to expect and to do when.

    -The non-commercial beekeeping community seems to be gravitating towards either of two approaches toward variola mites: 1) treat with natural/organic methods (essential oils, powered sugar, drone cell foundation, etc.); or 2) laissez faire survival of the fittest – let the weak colonies die out, the survivors will be the ones best able to adapt to the mites. You WILL have to adopt one of these two strategies.

    -You are farther north than I, so you might need to provide some minimal wrapping around your hives over the winter. Or maybe not. Again, experienced local beekeepers will be your best guide, but be prepared for multiple opinions. In any case, do assess how much honey the bees have stored up in each hive. If it is not plenty (30-40 lbs is what most people seem to say), be prepared to supplement feed with sugar syrup over the winter. You might want to do this in any case, just as an insurance policy.

    -Once you’ve established at least two hives, then you can start thinking about expanding by doing splits. You can also ask experienced beekeepers if you can assist with swarm captures, and then start volunteering to do this yourself (just ask the county extension agent to be put on the list).

    – As I’ve said, if you can rent or borrow an extractor, you can put off investing in that equipment for a few years until you’ve expanded your operation quite a bit.

    Hope this helps!

  30. #30 WNC Observer
    January 20, 2010

    Article today on BBC website:

    Bee decline linked to falling biodiversity

    Backyard beekeeping is the way to go, both for the bees and for us.

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