The Beginning Beekeeper: How Many Hives Should I Start With?
By Liz Fulghum
The husband and I are entering into our third spring as beekeepers with hives flourishing. This puts us firmly beyond “beginner” but still somewhere quite far away from “expert” as we’ve not raised our own queens or successfully lured a swarm. But we have harvested honey for the past two years, learned how to manage the particularities of winter in the South, and built enough confidence to add a few more hives to our backyard apiary this year.
Essential to our success so far has been a lot of online reading, trial and error, along with the community and education provided by our local Beekeeper’s Association.
The interesting thing about the beekeeping community in general is that there are different opinions of “what works” for almost every single aspect of managing bees. And beekeepers can be a prickly lot, who are very happy to vigorously debate the merits and successes of their preferred methods. The saying is oft repeated and very true: ask a room full of beekeepers a question about something; you’ll get at least five different answers and they all might be right.
When you’re just getting started with beekeeping, this can be a little frustrating. In our lifetimes, science has removed much of the mystery of our world and provided us with the comfort of “the definitive answer.” Beekeeping really has very few definitive answers, but I would personally argue that this is part of the charm of being an apiarist.
That said, there are a few things that the beekeeping community does seem to agree on, and this is one of them: if you are just starting out, get more than one hive.
For most beginner beekeepers, the idea of getting one hive is daunting enough. There is a vast new vocabulary to learn, hive types and parts to be understood and decided upon, pests to identify and manage, and the sudden responsibility for so many tiny little lives in your inexperienced hands. Let us not even discuss the constant fear of inadvertently crushing the queen during one of your inspections and not knowing it because you could never really identify her to begin with…
Beekeeping makes us all naturalists, and good management requires a scientific approach. Classes and mentorship go a long way to making that first season easier, but nothing really replaces what you learn by simply observing and documenting how your bees behave, both inside and around the hive.
Each hive has its own rhythm and pace, its own personality and particularities. When you have more than one hive, you have instant context: it’s much easier to spot what’s normal or not and to identify when a colony is thriving or struggling when you have something to compare it to that’s in the same environment.
When a hive does struggle (and it will, I promise you), like when you have lost a queen, have spotty brood production, or slow growth, having a second hive can mean the difference between losing your colony or saving it. You can take a few frames of brood from your strong hive to bolster a weak one or help a hive that has lost a queen produce a new one.
And sadly, the reality of beekeeping is that even the most experienced beekeeper will lose hives over the winter. When your apiary consists of just one solitary hive, winter losses are even more crushing, both emotionally and financially. There is no opportunity to do an early spring split to save on the purchase of a new nuc or package.
Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby to start. You should expect to pay around $600 for just a single set up that includes your hive(s) and beekeeping gear… so it can be a hard bullet to bite to double up on hive bodies and your spring packages. But in the long run, having more than one hive increases your chances of making it through your first season successfully and will probably save you money.
And after all, it’s one of the few things a room full of beekeepers can agree on.
Liz Fulghum is an entrepreneur and technologist who also has a passion for low-maintenance, productive gardening. Her urban backyard homestead is an oasis from busy days and home to raised vegetable beds, fruit trees and shrubs, bees and a small flock of chickens.
After getting involved with beekeeping several years ago, she launched Beek Supply Co. with her husband, which has t-shirts and accessories designed for the modern beekeeper. You can follow her on Instagram @lizfulghum
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