Getting started beekeeping in Alameda County
Interested in beekeeping? You’re probably wondering how to get started! This page has tips for beginners.
Keep in mind that this page intentionally simplifies some things, and might make an “opinion” sound like a “fact”. That’s because brand new beekeepers typically want an answer, rather than choices they can’t yet make sense of. There are many different ways of beekeeping, and you can successfully do things differently than what’s suggested on this page. The hope is that it will answer some basic questions so you can learn enough to seek out and understand other opinions.
- First of all: Join the club!
- Next: Read the “Bee Talk” Google group
- Attend a hive dive
- Is beekeeping for me?
- When should I start beekeeping?
- How do I learn about beekeeping?
- What equipment will I need?
- Where do I get the equipment?
- How much will it cost?
- How much of my time will it take?
- When will I be able to collect honey?
- What about a Flow Hive?
- How many hives should I start with?
- Where do I get my first bees from?
- Will I get stung?
- How can I avoid the biggest mistakes in the first year?
- How can I see other people handle bees?
- How can I solve problems with my hive?
- How can I improve this page and give feedback?
First of all: Join the club!
The first step is to join us — the Alameda County Beekeepers Association (ACBA). It’s only $10 a year, and you’ll get access to the resources and experience of hundreds of members of a club that’s been around for more than a hundred years. Some of the suggestions below describe things that are only available to members.
After you join, try to attend a meeting, either in person or on Zoom. The speakers and presentation changes each month (and honestly, some presentations may not be that interesting for new beekeepers in some months), but there’s always at least a half an hour to talk about bees and make friends before the presentation. Mention that you’re a new beekeeper looking to learn more and people will want to help!
Next: Read the “Bee Talk” Google group
The Bee Talk Google group is the primary place members discuss what’s happening with the club and in their hive. You’ll find lots of announcements and discussions; if you can, “subscribe” to the group by email under My membership settings on the Google page.
Attend a hive dive
The club occasionally has “hive dives”: opportunities for anyone to handle honeybees and see the inside of a hive up close. You can participate as little or as much as you want, and we provide loaner beekeeping suits so you don’t need to worry about getting stung. Check our hive dive event page for upcoming events.
Is beekeeping for me?
People take up beekeeping for many reasons. Our members include people who took up an age-old pastime to relax, people who are interested in bees but don’t want to own any hives, commercial beekeepers, and more. If you come to one of our meetings, you’ll find all sorts of interesting people who are glad to talk to you about it!
That said, we’re occasionally asked if people should start beekeeping to help “save the bees”. The answer to that is “no”: the number of honeybee hives worldwide has grown from about 80 million in 2010 to 100 million in 2021. Honeybees in the US are an introduced agricultural livestock species that’s widely distributed here and not in any danger. The real threat is to native bees.
If you’re mostly interested in helping bees in the wild, you can make a difference by creating habitat for native bees, reducing your use of insecticides, and so on. The Xerces Society has an excellent article about this on page 10 of their Spring 2023 issue, titled Want to Save the Bees? Focus On Habitat, Not Honeybees. Another article in the New York Times talks about similar issues.
When should I start beekeeping?
The best time to start beekeeping is February through June. A beehive grows and “breeds” in the spring and summer, and it’s easy to obtain bees then. The earlier you start, the stronger your hive will grow in the first year.
It’s still possible to start in the fall if you can get bees from somewhere, but they’ll be hunkering down for the cold weather and short days, and it will be more difficult. In those seasons, you might want to instead learn about beekeeping and attend club events and presentations, preparing for spring.
How do I learn about beekeeping?
Depending on your learning style, you might consider reading books, reading internet sites and watching videos, making beekeeper friends, and/or taking beekeeping classes.
The type of beginner books with “Urban”, “Backyard”, “Dummies”, or “Beginner” in the title are good for getting an overall picture of beekeeping. They also describe the equipment and explain the language of beekeeping so you can have productive conversations with others. (This page is sort of a really short version of one of those books.) These kind of books are common at your local library, and the club library has many available for members to checkout.
Websites and videos
The Internet is full of websites and videos about beekeeping, ranging from the dry and scientific to… well, showing off. You can easily get lost for hundreds of hours.
The club’s own recorded videos should be useful, and other recommended resources include:
- Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper
- Rusty Burlew’s Honey Bee Suite
- Beesource forums, discussing a wide range of bee topics from around the country
- University of Arkansas online beekeeping courses
Club members Mimi and Andie Edwards offer classes in your own backyard; contact BayAreaBeeks@gmail.com or 925-699-1626.
A little further afield, the Fairfax Backyard Farmer offers classes in San Rafael.
Get a little help from your friends
A common saying is that “all beekeeping is local”. Reading about what happens in other parts of the country or world can be informative, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what should be happening, or what you should be doing, in your own hives in Alameda county. Even locally, microclimates can change the experience greatly. The finer points of local beekeeping are something you learn from your bees and fellow beekeepers.
You can make beekeeping friends by attending in-person ACBA meetings, but you can also match with beekeeping friends on the Bee Buddies page. These are people looking for friends to share their beekeeping journey: if you don’t see someone close to you already listed, add your own name so someone can find you!
If you’re looking for something a little more formal, the club can connect you to a mentor to help you learn. Just email the mentor coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What equipment will I need?
At a minimum, you’ll need:
- hive boxes with frames and entrance reducer
- a smoker
- a hive tool
- a suit, veil and gloves
You may also want a
- bee brush
- queen excluder
- hive stand
Let’s look at these one by one.
Hive boxes are what most people think of as a “beehive”. There are many different designs, but the most common is called a Langstroth hive. It’s a set of wooden pieces and boxes you stack on top of each other, adding or removing boxes throughout the year to change the size of the hive. You should choose a Langstroth hive to start with unless you’ll be learning from someone who uses and recommends a different type.
The pieces you will need are a bottom board, one or more brood boxes, one or more honey supers, an inner top cover, and an outer top cover. (Galena Farms has an excellent page showing these parts of a beehive.) You can buy these individually, or as a complete kit.
There are two different width sizes for Langstroth hive boxes. You’ll probably want to pick a width and stick with it, as the two widths are not interchangeable. The larger ten frame width was the original size, popular for decades, but the large size means the boxes are very heavy to lift — exceeding 80 pounds if they’re full of honey. The narrower eight frame width has become more popular because it’s lighter and easier to handle. However, the narrower boxes hold fewer bees and less honey, so you may need more of them to stack into a taller tower if your hive grows large.
Anecdotally, experienced hobby beekeepers seem more likely to wish they could switch from ten frame to eight frame equipment than vice-versa, so if you have no idea and you’re starting from scratch, the easier-to-handle eight frame equipment is a good choice.
Boxes also come in different heights:
- “Deep boxes” (aka “deeps”) are 9⅝ inches tall; and
- “Medium boxes” (aka “mediums”) are 6⅝ inches tall.
Other sizes are available but uncommon, and new beekeepers will not use them.
“Deep” boxes are commonly used towards the bottom of the hive for the “brood chamber” (the place where the queen lays eggs and the baby bees grow), and “medium” boxes are commonly used for “honey supers” toward the top of the hive. (The name “super”, by the way, comes from the upper boxes being used as the “superstructure” of the hive.)
Why are there two different heights? It’s again because of weight. People once used deep boxes for everything, but a deep box of honey is too heavy for many people to lift, so they started using smaller “medium” boxes for parts of the the hive that contain honey.
Ideally, the queen will lay eggs that turn into larvae and pupae in boxes towards the bottom of the hive (all these stages of baby bees are collectively known as “brood”), and worker bees will store honey towards the top of the hive. So the traditional advice is to use one or two “deep” brood boxes at the bottom of the hive (giving the queen plenty of uninterrupted space to lay eggs), plus one or more “medium” honey super boxes above that for honey. In a good year, a well-established hive might need three or four medium boxes stacked on it at once, although that probably won’t happen in your first year. (Baby bees — “brood” — are not very heavy, so a deep box full of bees is not a problem, and you won’t be moving those much anyway.)
But keeping two different depths of boxes around is annoying, and some people prefer to only use one depth — either all deeps or all mediums, depending on how comfortable they feel with heavy boxes. In practice, a problem with this plan is that if you buy a common nuc of bees, they usually come on deep frames (see below about frames), so you’ll want at least one deep box to put those frames into… but if you use deep boxes for everything, the honey boxes are too heavy. So that’s why most people end up with a mixture. (In a pinch, you can temporarily put deep frames into two stacked medium boxes, but the bees will make a mess of the comb if you leave it like that, which is hard for beginners to fix.) You can certainly try to use only one size (and if so, “all mediums” will be easier to handle than “all deeps”), but most beekeepers end up with multiple sizes anyway.
Each hive box contains eight or ten frames that the bees build their wax comb on. Beekeepers remove the frames from the boxes to inspect the bees and to harvest honey.
You’ll need eight or ten frames per box, depending on the width you chose, and the frames will need to match the height of the box. For example, if you’ve chosen the eight frame width, and you have one “deep” box and two “medium” boxes, you’ll need (at least) 8 “deep” frames and 16 “medium” frames to fill them.
Buy extra frames and boxes if possible: Every time you harvest honey, do a split, collect a swarm or add a super to your hive, you’ll need more frames. Stocking up at the beginning of the year will make life much easier. Buying twice as many as it seems that you need will be helpful.
Frames come with or without foundation, which is a flat plastic or wax guide for the bees to use when creating the wax comb. Whether to use foundation is a matter of great debate amongst beekeepers, but if you’re new, frames with foundation are probably easier because they encourage the bees to build comb in straight lines, which mean fewer problems for you to worry about. If you buy plastic foundation, get the kind that’s pre-waxed to encourage the bees to build comb on it.
You’ll also need an entrance reducer and/or robbing screen at certain times of the year to discourage other bees from stealing the honey in your hive. They work in different ways: an entrance reducer allows your bees to protect the hive more easily because there’s only a small hole to defend; a robbing screen confuses bees from other hives about where the entrance is. Beekeepers use one or both. Many bottom boards come with an entrance reducer included; it’s possible to make your own out of a small piece of wood, too. Some people make their own robbing screens out of mesh.
A smoker is used to calm the bees while inspecting them. You absolutely need one of these. Get one that’s either double-walled or that has a wire frame around the outside to protect you from burns. A metal bucket with a cover is helpful to keep a hot smoker fire-safe. A plug to stick in the spout/nozzle and extinguish it can be carved from a wine cork (an acorn can also work if it’s the right size).
A hive tool is also important. It’s shaped to allow you to unstick the boxes and frames that the bees will try to glue together with propolis; without a hive tool, this is very difficult. There are different designs of hive tools: all of them tend to have a flat edge for prying boxes apart, with the other end being either a 90° angled part for separating frames, or a “J-hook” for extracting frames from boxes. All three of those are useful at different times. Many beekeepers either have two different tools, or use a combined tool with all three surfaces.
You’ll also need a bee suit with a veil and gloves. You may see online videos of people working bees barehanded and without other protection… but even those people own suits, veils and gloves, and they use them regularly. Don’t be fooled by Instagram visions of other people’s best moments. Many beekeepers decide how much protection to wear based on the season and what kind of mood the bees are in, but everyone needs that protection available.
Bee suits and gloves are available at many price points. If you’re not sure whether you’re going to be beekeeping for many years, you can buy relatively cheap ones to start with — almost anything you see advertised will work in the sense of preventing stings. If they cost more, it’s likely because they have better ventilation, are lighter, etc. If you continue beekeeping, you’ll probably want a spare suit for friends who want to look at your bees anyway, so you can always buy a second more expensive one later. (Put it on your birthday or Christmas gift list!)
You may also want a soft bee brush to move bees off frames, but some people dislike these and think they make the bees agitated. It’s definitely not required.
Another common piece of equipment is a queen excluder, which (usually) restricts the queen to the bottom boxes of the hive. This makes her easier to find during inspections, and makes it easier to harvest honey by keeping brood out of your honey supers. Again, it’s not required, though: Some beekeepers swear by queen excluders, while others feel they’re unnecessary.
Finally, you’ll need something to put your hive boxes on so they keep off the ground. (Putting them directly on the ground encourages pests.) You can make something yourself out of scrap lumber, old furniture, etc., or buy a hive stand intended for that. Make sure it’s stable: a hive blowing over in a storm will kill your bees. You may also want to use a strap to hold the hive together in case of an earthquake.
Where do I get the equipment?
BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley has most of this equipment in stock year round, and some of their workers own bees and can give good advice about what you’ll need. If you want to shop local and support local beekeeping, BioFuel Oasis is a great choice.
As a newbie, it’s best to pass up used equipment because it may have hidden pathogens in it.
How much will it cost?
It really depends. Many suppliers offer “starter kits” that run between $150 and $400, and those will work fine (here are some starter kits from Mann Lake, Dadant, and Galena Farms; you’d need to buy extra hive boxes and frames as your bees grow). But it wouldn’t be surprising to see an enthusiastic new beekeeper spend $1000 on equipment for two or three hives in the first year.
How much of my time will it take?
In the spring and summer, 3 hours every two weeks per hive is probably about the minimum to learn about it and properly care for your bees. You could easily spend double that time (and learn more quickly) by inspecting them every week. The time commitment will decrease in the fall, tapering to almost nothing in the winter (you’ll likely close up the hive in November and not open it again until February or March).
When will I be able to collect honey?
Bees invest a lot of nectar in producing wax comb the first year, so don’t expect much surplus harvestable honey at least until the second year.
Most beekeepers consider their honey a precious thing, but keep in mind there are far cheaper and easier ways to get local, natural honey if that’s your main interest. As a hobbyist, it’s best to take up beekeeping with the goal of enjoying the centuries-old experience of beekeeping, and to treat the honey as a bonus if and when you get it.
What about a Flow Hive?
A product called the Flow Hive is a clever, more expensive honey super and set of special frames that makes it easier to harvest honey. It stacks on a Langstroth hive like any other honey super (they also sell entire hives, but those are normal Langstroth hives with their special honey supers).
A Flow Hive definitely makes the sticky, messy process of honey harvesting much simpler and cleaner, which many people like. But keep in mind that it only helps with honey harvesting, which is not the majority of the time you’ll spend beekeeping. You’ll still need to spend just as much time inspecting and managing your bees.
How many hives should I start with?
Even experienced beekeepers can lose 30% of their hives a year, and you can’t learn beekeeping if your single hive dies out. Having multiple hives also allows you to compare them and get a idea of what’s “normal”, which is difficult with only one.
Consider getting started with two or three hives, even though it costs more. In a 2021 club presentation, Dr. Dewey Caron recommends two-and-a-half(!) hives.
Where do I get my first bees from?
The Need Bees? page can help with this.
Will I get stung?
Yes. It’s unavoidable, particularly at first, unless you fully suit up with protective gear every single time you interact with your bees, which most people don’t. (That said, it’s not common for bees to sting other people who aren’t interacting with them. The author of this page has four hives in a smallish yard, and my spouse, who is a gardener, has been stung only once in the last five years, and that happened when she stepped on a bee while barefoot.)
It gets better, though. Learning how to work with bees so that they don’t want to sting you is actually part of the process. And many people find they get used to an occasional sting without it bothering them too much. Benadryl (generic Diphenhydramine Hcl, inexpensive at Costco as Kirkland Signature Allergy Medication) helps reduce the swelling.
Some people are concerned about allergic reactions from bee stings. Keep in mind that swelling at the sting site is common, but different from a much-less-common severe systemic allergic reaction that requires medical treatment like an EpiPen. If you have medical insurance that allows you to get an EpiPen cheaply, though, it might be a good idea to have around your household even if you personally aren’t allergic, covering the unlikely event that someone with a severe allergy gets stung by your bees. Tell your doctor you’re a beekeeper and ask if they can give you a prescription for an EpiPen (or generic equivalent) to keep around.
How can I avoid the biggest mistakes in the first year?
- Test your bees for varroa mites every month using the sugar roll or alcohol wash tests. If these show more than 10 mites, use Formic Pro, Hopguard, Oxalic acid, or another treatment as necessary to reduce the mite levels. This is the number one thing you can do to avoid having your hive die; if you don’t, your bees are likely to die of deformed wing virus. Almost no beginning beekeeper tests or treats enough — this is really important.
- Feed your bees with sugar syrup (and maybe with pollen patties, available from BioFuel Oasis) if the hive is small and they aren’t visibly bringing back lots of pollen on their legs when they enter the hive. You don’t want your bees to starve, which can happen when the hive is small and vulnerable.
How can I see other people handle bees?
Use the Bee Talk Google group to ask other beekeepers in the club if you can watch a hive inspection. Don’t be afraid to ask this: Many people love to share their knowledge and love of beekeeping.
Go to workshops, like the Randy Oliver workshop the club usually books for summer. The morning is in a classroom, and the afternoon is in a bee yard. In the yard, you’ll get to watch a very experienced beekeeper go through frames. Many lessons to learn.
Find a bee buddy. Bee Buddies benefit in many ways by pairing up to inspection each other’s hives, and talk bees. Two pairs of eyes see more details on the frames; the more frames we see the quicker we learn. Two pairs of hands make lifting heavy boxes easier.
Consider taking beekeeping classes (see above).
How can I solve problems with my hive?
Ask questions on the Bee Talk group. You’ll probably get more advice than you can handle!
Attend a meeting of the ACBA, either by in person or by Zoom, and ask questions there. Show photos and videos of what’s happening.
Remember that although there are many books on beekeeping, bees can’t read, and they’ll do their own thing. A beehive colony is an animal, and every animal is different. Try things. Make mistakes and learn from them. Don’t beat yourself up when things go south, because they may have gone south anyway.
How can I improve this page and give feedback?
This page is a living, changing document, and feedback about improvements and fixes — especially from experienced ACBA members — is welcome. Please send it to email@example.com.