How do I get started?
The first place to start is by educating yourself.
- Review our guidelines for responsible beekeeping.
- Buy a few books (or check them out from the library) and read them. Learn about the lifecycle of the bees and the beekeepers role in that lifecycle.
- Gather information from reputable resource on the web.
- Start coming to Guild meetings.
- Take a class.
- Accompany another beekeeper on a hive inspection or two.
The Guild organizes hive visits every spring for new beekeepers, so come to a meeting and sign up for one. Also ask around at the meeting for someone to take you on a hive tour. Let you desire be known, and someone will be happy to let you tag along.
By educating yourself, you can determine if beekeeping is right for you. Most beginning beekeepers will read 2-3 books and come to 3-4 guild meeting before taking the plunge. It’s not uncommon for a newbee to come to meetings for a year or so before getting his/her first hive.
When should I start?
New beekeepers in Santa Cruz should almost always start with their first colonies in the spring, usually in March or April. This is when there is plenty of forage available for the bees and the colonies are building up their population. It is also when packages are available for purchase and when swarms happen (which can be captured). You should start in the spring to give your new colonies a chance to build up sufficient stores to survive their first winter. If you start too late in the year, they will not be able to store enough food to make it through the first winter.
Before you get your first colony, you should already be well into your self-education and also have your equipment purchased and set up. Consequently, you should start doing these things at least several months before March or April. At a minimum, you should start reading and attending Guild meetings around the first of the year.
Where should I put my hive(s)?
Hive placement is probably one of the most important decisions a beekeeper will make. As a responsible beekeeper, you’ll want to consider what is best for your bees and your community. The following factors are all important:
- Sun and wind exposure.
- Water availability.
- Screening and the bees’ flight path.
- Proximity of neighbors and public areas.
A special note to urban beekeepers: Before siting hives on your property, talk to your neighbors! Let them know of your plans, and that you will be considerate of their wishes. If you cannot get agreement from your neighbors, place your hives elsewhere. (Note: free honey goes a long way toward keeping up good neighbor relations!) More specifics about hive placement can be found in the reference books we list and the websites we link elsewhere on this site.
Also, consider your local municipal codes. Some links to local codes:
- City of Santa Cruz (search for “Bees”)
- City of Scotts Valley
- County of Santa Cruz
- City of Watsonville (search for “Bees”)
Where do I get bees?
As you are educating yourself, you will discover there are several ways to get bees. These include buying a full colony of bees, buying a nucleus colony, buying a package, and capturing swarms. All of these methods have advantages and disadvantages, so you will need to decide which is right for you. Do your reading, come to Guild meetings, and talk with other beekeepers about it.
Some years, the guild places a large order of package bees for its members. The bees usually arrive in April or early May (depending on the weather). Come to a guild meeting for more information.
Will I get stung?
Getting stung is part of being a beekeeper, so yes, you will probably get stung. However, how often you get stung does depend greatly on how you choose to work with you bees and how much time you spend working with them. For instance, many beekeepers find working without gloves gives them greater dexterity while manipulating their hives. They will of course get stung more often than a beekeeper who uses gloves, perhaps as often as a few times every time they inspect their hives. Other beekeepers may only get stung a few times a season. Also, if you are gentle, careful, and time-efficient while working your bees, you are less likely to be stung.
How much honey will I get?
Beekeeping is an agrarian activity, so the harvest depends greatly on many factors. These include the weather, disease, pests, colony health, geographic location, and your colony management practices. In your first year, your colonies will be building up from nothing, and you will need to be sure they have enough honey to survive the winter. Do not expect to have a honey harvest your first year – the bees will likely need all of their stores to survive. If your colonies are strong through your second year, you will probably get a honey harvest. This could be just a few pounds or as much as 100 pounds per hive, depending on the factors above.
How many hives should I get?
Generally, we recommend beginners start with two hives. This allows you to compare them to one another during your first year – you will have one stronger hive and one weaker hive, and you will get better as assessing colony health and strength. Also, it is likely that at least one hive will not make it through the year, and starting with two give you a better chance of avoiding the disappointment of losing your only hive. It will greatly increase your chances of getting a good start in your second year, as well.
How much will it cost?
As with many things, that depends… The necessary equipment can be purchased pre-assembled, in knock-down form (you assemble it), or you could build your own. Another major factor is if you are going with traditional Langstroth-style hives, Warré hives, top-bar hives, or something else. Do your research and decide how you are going to do your beekeeping, first.
As an example, assuming you decide to go with the Langstroth-style hive, you want pre-assembled and painted equipment, you don’t mind using plastic foundation, and you’ll go with medium-depth hive bodies, a starter kit might cost $250-$300 per hive. Buying knock-down equipment and assembling it yourself will be somewhat less. Other equipment (bee jacket, gloves, smoker, hive tool, etc.) might add another $200 or so. As your hives grow, you’ll need more hive bodies and frames, so you’ll need to factor that in as well. You will also have ongoing yearly costs, such as foundation to refurbish frames, replacement equipment, etc.
Our supplier links have lots more detail on costs.
Should I be concerned with Africanized (aka “Killer”) Bees in the Santa Cruz area?
The general consensus is that Africanized Bees are not a significant problem in the Santa Cruz area. Having said that, a few Africanized colonies have been found nearby, notably one in Prunedale in 2006. Because of this, it is likely there are Africanized strains in Santa Cruz county, but the beekeepers here have not encountered them frequently, if at all.
How do I get help?
First, help yourself. This is where your self-education comes in. See if you can find the answer to your questions in your books or online. Ask the other beekeepers at the Guild meetings or on our Yahoo! group – almost all beekeepers like to talk. (Be aware that beekeepers can also be an opinionated lot, though – if you ask three beekeepers the same question, you’ll likely get four opinions.)
You can then take your own knowledge and those four opinions and make an informed decision.
The Guild also has a mentor program – a mentor can get you going in the right direction and can help you learn about beekeeping.