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Beekeeping: Backyard basics

Jul 13th, 2010 | Category: Skills

Photo by Rachel Vilders

by Bruce Vilders

Thinking of raising and keeping honeybees?  Having your own backyard hive is becoming increasingly inviting for those of us who want to guarantee that our gardens and fruit trees will be pollinated. Your decision to keep bees will also promote bee health in the face of the ubiquity of chemical weed killers and pesticides now taking its toll on the U.S. bee population.  In the hopes of giving you a nudge in the right direction, this article is designed to help find the resources needed to get you started in backyard beekeeping.
First and foremost, beekeeping is fun. You will find that it is a relaxing hobby which has a multitude of benefits. Personally, I have found that raising bees not only helps my fruit trees bear more fruit but it definitely gets me outside more, contemplating nature’s interconnectedness, complexity and her simplicity.  Second, backyard beekeeping is not expensive. An average cost of a colony of bees (including a queen) is about $80. Several hive boxes with frames will set you back about $150-$200. Some of the basic equipment (gloves, veil, smoker, etc.) will be about $100-$150. So, at the very least, you will have about  $500 invested in your new hobby.
Generally speaking, not much room is needed to keep a hive of bees. Whether you have acreage, a lot in a subdivision or even an apartment building roof top, bees can be kept just about any place.
Usually there are no ordinances against keeping bees but if you do live within city limits  it would be wise to check if there are any regulations.
Hive boxes come in different sizes, usually 10 frame or 8 frame. An 8 frame hive is more compact and can be more easily moved, especially when it is full of honey.  I recently bought an eight frame hive bottom and top, along with a bottom board and hive cover. Total cost with 16 frames was a modest $96.  After some minor assembly (nails, glue) and two coats of paint, the hive was put into my backyard and was fully functional within two hours of purchasing.
The amount of honey one can anticipate is dependent on how large your colony is (queens can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day), their access to pollen and nectar-bearing plants, and the weather. Bees in our region need approximately 40+ pounds of honey to make it over the winter months. Anything over that is surplus and can be taken for home use. It is not unheard of to get 20-30 pounds of honey surplus from a healthy hive.
There are many excellent resources available to help you understand the pragmatic techniques necessary to be successful at keeping and cultivating honeybees. I would strongly recommend that your first step be to contact your local beekeeping association. There are a number of very active organizations in the region that bring together novice to master-level beekeepers. Introductory and inexpensive classes can take a beginner through the step-by-step  process of raising bees. From ordering bees, to keeping them in your backyard, to harvesting surplus honey, you would do well in taking a class.
Another way of learning about bees is to befriend a local beekeeper. Most keepers are more than willing to share their knowledge and expertise, often won through trial and error, with someone who has a genuine interest. Within the beekeeping world we know that the more beekeepers there are, the better off we all are.
My interests in beekeeping started back in 1981 when a friend brought two hives to my 40-acre Michigan farm in order to gain access to a nearby cherry orchard. I watched, listened, asked questions and learned from him and his bees. It is because of his passion for bees that I became a beekeeper as well. Thirty years later the farm is long gone but I still keep hives in my suburban backyard here in the Northwest. Most beekeepers love to share, so don’t be shy in approaching your local beekeep er and asking questions. Don’t know a beekeeper? Try your local Farmer’s Market.
My supplier of bee equipment is Belleville Honey outside of Burlington (see side bar with address). They are commercial beekeepers (meaning that they provide large-scale pollination services) but they also keep an ample supply of equipment for the backyard keeper.
Belleville is also the place I order bees in the Spring. They’ll take your order and some time in mid-April the call will come that your bees are in. It’s an amazing scene. Imagine well over 300 colonies (each box holding three pounds of bees or approximately 10,000 bees along with a smaller cage, holding the queen)  in wooden screened boxes all sitting there waiting for their new owners to arrive. Talk about a buzz!
Books and magazines are another great way to learn about this fascinating craft.  My first recommendation is “Beekeeping for Dummies” by Howard Blackiston.  I had never read any of the “for Dummies” series of books and, truth be told, I was always turned off by the inference of their titles. But I kept hearing about this book and when I finally read it I couldn’t put it down. The author is incredibly knowledgeable, an excellent writer and he takes you step by step on how to raise bees.  If I lived on a deserted island, had no access to classes or a beekeeper and I could only have one bee book, this would be it. Other invaluable books are “The Backyard Beekeeper” by Kim Flottum and “The Natural Beekeeper” by Ross Conrad, all of which can be found in a good bookstore or on Amazon.
There are two national magazines, both well over 100 years old and still thriving; Bee Culture and the American Bee Journal. These are not generally found on commercial magazine shelves but can be obtained by subscription. These magazines offer ongoing news of the bee world, honey prices, informative articles and will keep you connected to the beekeeper’s world.
Internet sites abound and these do well in offering beekeeping supplies (see sidebar).  But before I would go to the internet for my supplies I would first check with my local supplier.  This is where I order my bees in the spring and add to my collection of hive boxes, frames and hardware.
Beekeeping is a worthwhile endeavor on so many different levels. It is a skill, a hobby, a craft and it is a personal decision that literally impacts our environment for the positive.

Bruce Vilders lives in Mount Vernon and is a WSU certified beekeeper. He is the owner of B.V.’s Bees, a small-scale, backyards and gardens, pollination service.


Regional Association
Mount Baker Beekeepers mtbakerbeekeepersassn.org
Serving Whatcom and Skagit counties, meets the second Wednesday of each month (except in July) at the North Bellingham Grange.

Skagit Valley Beekeepers
Serving Skagit Valley, meets in Mount Vernon. For more information, contact Ed Markus, (360) 466-4296.

Stanwood-Camano Island Beekeepers
stanwood-camanobeekeepers.com Serving Skagit and Snohomish counties, meets the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Stanwood Library.

Northwest District Beekeepers
Serving Snohomish, meets the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in Snohomish at the Christ the King Lutheran Church building.

British Columbia, Canada
Various beekeeping associations serving lower B.C.

Books & magazines
• Natural Beekeeping; Organic
Approaches to Modern Apiculture
by Ross Conrad
• Beekeeping for Dummies by
Howland Blackiston & Kim Flottum
• Backyard Beekeeping by
Kim Flottum
• Bee Culture (beeculture.com)
• American Bee Journal

Beekeeping Supplies
Belleville Honey Company
(purchase bees, hive boxes, honey)
Hank Thompson, (360)757-1073
18898 Dahlstedt Rd., Burlington

Brushy Mountain (online)


Amongst Bees

I currently have three honeybee hives in my backyard.  I often sit near the hive openings just so I can watch and listen to the bee’s comings and goings.  On a warm sunny day the hives are often quite active, what with the workers bringing in large sacks of pollen on their hind legs. Pollen so heavy that the bees look like over-loaded planes trying to make a landing, hovering in front of the hive, looking to hit the runway just right, often missing and coming back for a second or third try.
But it’s the sound that most fascinates me.  A working hive, one that has a Queen within laying eggs, makes a humming noise that is unmistakable. It’s a happy hum and it speaks volumes.  It says that the bees are going about their chores, the Queen is home, the foraging bees are dancing within and that honey is being made.  It’s a comfort to sit and listen.
Honey bees (Apis Mellifera) are considered to be a “semi-domesticated” insect.  I love that term: semi-domesticated.  It means that over many generations bees have been bred to have certain characteristics.  Characteristics such as non aggressiveness, increased egg laying capacity, resistance to mites, weather tolerances, and high honey production. I can literally buy a breed of bees (I prefer  Italians) and a matched Queen that has the bred-in characteristics that allow me to actually work with them in my backyard.
But semi-domesticated also means they have wild characteristics as well. Their instincts and ways of doing things are still dictated by the sun, ambient temperatures, their external environment and their relentless drive to survive.  Bees know direction by using the sun and the earth’s magnetic fields. Flying up to five miles to find food, they can unerringly find their way home.  Once back in the hive they communicate by dancing which tells the other bees where to find food and water.  Temperature affects their foraging as they don’t come out of their hive until the temperature rises to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Blossoms filled with nectar and pollen are the foodstuffs of the honey bee, but few of us realize the amount of work it takes to make honey. Researchers find that it takes 12 bees their entire lifespan to make one teaspoon of honey!  The will to survive keeps the entire hive on alert to fight off predators or to leave the hive if more room is needed.  When the queen approaches the end of her lifespan (up to three years) the bees know that it is time to ‘create’ a new queen in order to supersede the failing monarch.
As I sit amongst the bees the contented hum tells me all is well, but knowing just some of what is going on inside that hive box makes me all the more in awe of the semi-wild honeybee.


3 Comments to “Beekeeping: Backyard basics”

  1. […] Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page at 4:30pm Room 309                                          with a guest appearance by local beekeeper Bruce Vilders of BV’s Bees, who will answer questions after the film. Here’s a link to a Grow NW magazine Beekeeping article on Bruce. […]

  2. Bob Linn says:

    Hi Bruce,

    After seeing the article about you in the COSTCO publication, I wrote my self a note to send a congratulations. I promptly lost the note and am just now getting around to that intended e-mail. You always have been an enterprising guy – it looks like you did it again. Retirement must be good for you. Good work.

    Bob Linn

  3. Terri Brigham says:

    I just have a question and am in hopes that maybe you can direct me to whomever I need to speak to. I live in Snohomish and have 5 acres of land. part of it is just a field. I am concerned about the diminishing number of honey bees and would be willing to let part of my field be used for hives. I don’t have any knowledge of bee keeping nor do I really want to take on the responsibility of maintaining the hives and all but am more than happy to offer up the space if it is needed. Is this even something that bee keepers would be interested in? If there is someone to contact about this, please let me know. Thanks.

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