Tom Butzler is a gardening columnist in the Lock Haven Express and also blogs in Gardening in the Keystone State. He is currently a horticulture educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

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The Buzz: Beekeeping Basics
by Tom Butzler    

They are pollinators and they are honey makers. Ever think about keeping bees? Here’s a primer on where to start.

My first experiences with honeybees as a child were mixed. Running barefoot through a dandelion-covered yard as a young boy resulted in a sting as I stepped on a foraging honeybee. I learned to stay away from those stinging insects as they could deliver a powerful punch! My other experience was one of wonderment that stayed with me into my adulthood. I was playing catch with my dad in the yard one late spring day when a loud buzzing noise emanated from the neighbor’s yard. The noise got louder and a large black cloud started to move over the yard. Not really sure what was going on, we ran down to the porch. The black cloud, a swarm of honeybees, moved over the yard and into the adjoining woods. Shortly thereafter, an old man in a white suit came running through the yard, chasing the swarming bees. That second experience stuck with me as I moved through life.

One of my responsibilities in my first job was to work with the local beekeeping community. I didn’t have any formal training or experience with bees, but I jumped at the opportunity to explore this world. After working with these beekeepers, attending meetings and reading literature, it was time to start my own hive. I have been a beekeeper ever since.

There are two ways to keep bees: in Langstroth hives or top bar hives. Interest in top bar hives has increased lately, but this article will delve into the method that has been utilized by American beekeepers for many decades.

Before bees are purchased or brought into the backyard, you want to have their home set up and ready to go. The Langstroth hive consists of wooden boxes that contain movable frames. These movable parts allow the beekeeper to inspect the hive easily but also extract honey without completely destroying the comb (allow for re-use). There are many beekeeping equipment companies that sell these items to get started. Woodenware can be purchased assembled or unassembled — it’s your choice, depending on skill, time and sense of a “do it yourselfer.” Wood that is exposed to the outside elements needs to be painted with an exterior paint. Any leftover paint in the garage will do and this is a chance to let your artistic flair show.

Although not wooden, foundation will need to be purchased and placed in each frame. Foundation serves as a template or guide for the bees to start building their wax combs.

Although not part of the hive; a smoker, hive tool and protective clothing are no less important. A smoker is needed each time a beekeeper opens a hive. Smoke is created in the smoker by a smoldering fire. Fuel sources can be almost anything that will burn and is of organic matter. Several gentle puffs of smoke into the hive before opening up tends to calm the bees down and allow the experience to be enjoyable for both beekeeper and honeybees.

Once bees start inhabiting your hive, they have a habit of “gluing” everything together with propolis. This substance is derived from plant resins and the honeybees place it all over the interior of the hive. A hive tool becomes necessary to pry apart various parts of the woodenware for inspection during the warm months. Don’t rely on any other tool, such as a flat-headed screwdriver, as it will destroy the woodenware.

The last piece of equipment is protective clothing. Always wear a veil over your face as a sting around the eye can be dangerous. Gloves are optional. For a beginner beekeeper, gloves give a sense of comfort as the hive is inspected and bees are crawling all over. Gloves, however, can be a bit cumbersome when trying to manipulate hive bodies and frames. Once a hive is smoked, honeybees are pretty calm and most beekeepers will work without gloves. It is a matter of feeling confident and at ease with the honeybees.

Now that everything is set up and ready to go, the last piece to the puzzle is the honeybees. Honeybees can be introduced into your hive by capturing a swarm, purchasing a nuc (short for nucleus) or buying a package of bees. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, but the most widely used method is package bees.

Three Castes of Honey Bees

One per colony, she is the only honey bee in the hive with fully developed sex organs. Once mated, she is mated for life. A queen can live for several years. Her main responsibility is to lay eggs. 

Although a female, she cannot reproduce like the queen. A strong hive in the summer can contain 50,000 to 70,000 workers. They only live six weeks during the warm months (they literally work themselves to death) but live longer (four to five months) during the winter.

The male of the colony with the sole responsibility of mating with a queen. During the summer, a hive may contain a few hundred drones. The males are not needed during the winter months and are removed from the hive by the worker bees.

The package bee industry resides in the southern U.S., where they can manage bees much longer than the northern U.S. and create packages for the spring season (most package bees are shipped out March through May). Package bees can be ordered through local beekeeping associations, beekeepers or beekeeping supply companies.

A package will contain 3 pounds of bees, which consists of several thousand workers and one queen suspended in a cage from the top of the package. The queen is kept separate from the workers as she most likely originated from a different hive. This separation in transit allows the workers and queen to get used to each other’s chemical scent.

The bees can live in this package for several days, but it is best to introduce these into a hive as soon as possible. So how do you introduce them into the hive? Simply open the package and dump them into the hive that you have set up. It is a good idea to reduce the hive entrance once the bees are inside until they have settled down. 

Since package installation often occurs when nectar is scarce or it is too cold for bees to forage, feeding is mandatory. A sugar syrup is fed to the bees in variety of ways, such as an inverted mason jar (with small holes punched in the lid) or plastic bags. This should continue until the bees no longer take it up.

Honeybees are installed into a hive by opening the package and pouring them into an empty hive.

Newly installed bees need to be fed sugar syrup until they get established. Feeding can occur with jars, plastic bags (in picture), buckets or whatever is on hand. The tin can in the picture also contains sugar syrup and is part of the package. It allows the bees to feed while in transit.

Before the mid-1980s, backyard beekeeping was a relatively easy endeavor. The only major problems were bears and American foulbrood (a bacterial disease). Since then, a whole host of problems have presented a challenge to beekeepers. It is highly recommended to join a local beekeeping association to learn how to manage bees beyond the installation of packages. Package bee orders are typically taken in the winter months, so read up and get educated for an exciting project!

For More Info

An online course from Penn State Extension, Tom Butzler is one of the instructors
Mid Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium
Beekeeping Basics Missouri State Beekeepers
Pennsylvania State  Beekeepers Association
Ohio State Beekeepers Association
Indiana Beekeepers Association
Wisconsin Beekeeping Clubs


The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro (Cornell  University Press)

Honey Bees and Beekeeping: A Year in the Life of an Apiary by Keith Delaplane (University of Georgia Extension)

Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Dewey Caron (Wicwas Press)

The Hive and the Honey Bee by J. M. Graham (Dadant and Sons, Inc.)

From State-by-State Gradening September/October 2012. Photos by Tom Butzler.


Posted: 11/28/12   RSS | Print


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John Packard (Lake Geneva, WI.) - 11/30/2012

Excellent!  Bee-keeping is on my winter to do list, and this straight forward primer is really helpful.  I can’t wait to explore the links and get started.  Thanks so much!

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