If You Want to be a Beekeeper

By Alice Toler

Is this your year to become a beekeeper? March is your month to consider the types of bees and hives available, and place your order. You want to be all set up for the bees, which will arrive in April. Then the fun begins!

What kind of hive?

• Langstroth Times were, every beekeeper (or “beek”) ran Langstroth hives. These are the familiar white boxes you so often see; actually stacks of wooden boxes of different depths, allowing the beek to assemble a hive according to the needs of the bees. If they need more room for honey, a new “super” box full of empty frames goes on top, and the hive can expand. Those supers, when full of honey, can individually weigh 50-70 pounds!

Being a beek has traditionally required a strong back. Nowadays there’s an array of new hive styles available on the market, all of them with different features that may make them more attractive than the traditional Lang­stroth.

Top-bar The top-bar is a horizontal hive that mimics a hollow fallen log. The bees create comb from removable bars, and there are no heavy boxes to lift. The top-bar hive is a simple design and is easily constructed from a variety of salvage materials.

• Warre The Warre (pronounced “war-ray”) hive is basically a vertical top-bar hive, simple to build and easy to use. These hives are “under-supered”—that is, the beekeeper adds boxes of empty frames to the bottom of the hive rather than the top, which agrees with the bees’ natural instinct to build down rather than up.

• Slovenian New on the American beekeeping scene, the Slovenian AZ beehive is getting attention from new and old beeks alike. The Slovenians have been keeping bees in these cabinet-style hives for 100 years now, and adopted this design (by hive builder Anton Znidersic) because it allowed them to continue their tradition of using decorative “bee-house” sheds to shelter multiple hives in one location. Slovenian hives are more complex than top-bar or Warre hives, but because you open the back of the hive into a dark shed rather than disassembling the hive as you do for a Langstroth or opening the top to the sky as you do with a top-bar, working the hive is much less invasive to the bees. To inspect frames, the beek opens the back of the hive and slides the frames out one at a time on rollers.

• Eco Bee Box Made and sold by a local Utah experimental beekeeper, Albert Chubak (5033 Commerce Drive, Murray (801.263.6666), these “mini urban hives” are like tiny decorative Lang­stroths, with boxes that each contain five small frames. These hives are much easier for a “newbee” beek to maintain and inspect, and can house even weak colonies through the winter if they’re brought into a sheltered area such as a garage.

Bees and beekeeping tools

These Utah businesses carry all the tools you’ll need to build and maintain

Langstroth hives. They supply package bees in either Italian or mixed Carniolan-Italian breeds. Hives are around $220; bees run $105-140 for 2.5-4-lb. packages.

• Jones Bee 2586 West 500 South, Salt Lake City. (801) 973-8281.

• Deseret Hive Supply 1512 Wash­ington Blvd., Ogden. (801) 866-3245.

• Cache Valley Bee Supply Located in Hyrum, they likewise supply either Carniolan or Italian package bees. 7011 South 650 West, Hyrum. (435) 764-2111.

Bees are typically ordered in March, for April delivery. Order your bees soon; supplies may be limited.

Bee breeds

The two most popular breeds of bee, and the ones available locally, are Italians and Carniolans. Italian bees, light golden in color, are great at rearing brood and are good honey producers. They are less defensive than other breeds, though they do have a tendency to rob other hives.

Carniolan bees are native to Slovenia, and do well early in spring building up both brood and honey stores. They are docile and good wax builders, but they have a tendency to swarm.

If you are interested in a different kind of bee, you may purchase a specifically bred queen through the mail and “re-queen” one or all of your colonies—the new queen comes already mated, and will lay workers of the same breed that she is.

Two other commonly available breeds are the Buckfast bee and the Russian bee. Buckfasts were bred in England to resist tracheal mite, a common disease of bees, and they also do well in cold, wet conditions. They are moderately defensive, but hives have a tendency to become “hot” if they aren’t managed. (A “hot” hive is a chronically angry one that’s likely to attack the beek.) Russians were imported because they have evolved resistance to the terrible varroa mite: Their hygienic housekeeping behaviors resist both varroa and tracheal mite. They rear brood only during good nectar and pollen flow, so populations may fluctuate.

Also available are hybrid “survivor” queens from a number of different breeders. For example, Zia Queenbees (505.929.8080) has two breeding locations, one on Lake Superior and one in the mountains of New Mexico. Their queens are cross-stocks bred from Carniolan base mothers, but integrating Russian, Italian, and “Suppressed Mite Reproduction/Varroa-Sensitive Hygiene” genetic lines. All their breeder queens are certified tough survivors, having successfully overwintered a minimum of two winters.

A final note: Whether you choose to raise bees or not, please help support the bee population. First, avoid using herbicides and pesticides. Next, plant flowers they like. Some common choices: yarrow, hyssop, hollyhock, columbine, asters, coreopsis, cosmos, sweetpea, flax, bee balm, zinnia, cleome and many more. Utah State’s Cooperative Extension publishes a helpful (and beautiful) guide for bee gardening.

Alice Toler is a small-scale experimental beekeeper. Currently she’s keeping a tiny colony of Italian-Carniolan honeybees and a hybrid hygienic queen in an observation hive in her attic, where they have been doing surprisingly well over the winter. This spring she’ll be installing a full-sized Slovenian hive in a converted coal room in her basement, and a smaller colony in a Mini Urban Hive in her back yard. In addition, for years she and her husband Trent have provided homes for native bees on their front porch. See “Gardening With Native Bees,” AliceToler, CATALYST: April 2012.

This article was originally published on March 1, 2016.