Beekeeping 101

Melissa Witherell, DVM
By Melissa Witherell, DVM on Dec. 16, 2022

There are 17,000 species of bees in the world and around 80 million beehives. There are 115-125,000 beekeepers in the United States and beekeeping has been around since 15,000 BC.

Honeybees are integral to agriculture and crops. A third of the diet in the U.S. comes from insect-pollinated plants alone and 80% of those crops are pollinated by honeybees. These crops include blueberries, cranberries, apples, pumpkins, and peaches. 90% of all wild plants depend on animal pollination. Without bees, these crops would not thrive. There are other pollinators, like insects, birds, and bats, but honeybees can be moved wherever they need to pollinate. In addition, without honeybees, it is costly to produce certain fruits, legumes, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Keeping Bees

There are many options and avenues the beekeeper enthusiast can pursue. Honeybees produce various products in addition to fresh honey, like beeswax, pollen, royal jelly, and propolis which can be utilized in a home or sold for profit. Other ways people use beekeeping for profit is to loan out their bees and move them to help pollinate crops for a fee. Some beekeepers also sell equipment, whole colonies, queen bees, or packages of bees. Other beekeepers use this primarily as a hobby to consume honey and pollinate home gardens and orchards.

In 2014 President Obama issued a Pollinator Health Task Force to promote the national health of pollinators. Honeybees were declining, so this plan was implemented to figure out the best practices for pollinators. Pollinators are critical to our economy, food supply, and environmental health. Honeybee pollination adds approximately 15 billion dollars in value to crops each year.

Honeybee Sales

Before acquiring bees, check with your local and state ordinances to see what laws are in place for beekeeping at your home and where you can safely keep hives. Ideally, hives should be in a quiet area, away from sidewalks, roads, and pedestrians.

Once you have decided where to keep your hives, acquiring bees in the spring is the best time for them to prosper. There are four different ways that you can acquire bees that have pros and cons for each.

  • Established colony: bees, laying queen, frames, and hive from local beekeepers

    • Pros: All the equipment is present and assembled, the queen is laying eggs, and a honey crop is possible in the first season. You can have your state bee inspector inspect them to ensure they are disease free.

    • Cons: Costs the most. These bees could have diseases, strong colonies can be hard to handle for beginner beekeepers, and frames could be old and need replacing.

  • Nucleus colony: 4-5 frames of brood (larvae, eggs, pupae), honey, pollen, adult bees, laying queen

    • Pros: Cheaper, queens are new, can be purchased locally, easier for beginners, and if there is a lot of nectar honey crop can be produced in the first year

    • Cons: Risk of diseased bees and old frames

  • Package bees: 2-5 pounds of worker bees, queen in a cage with sugar that can be purchased online and delivered via the postal service

    • Pros: Cheaper, easy for beginners, little chance of disease

    • Cons: Less likely to have honey crop first year, no brood, shipping can cause stress and lead to queen death

  • Swarms: When honeybees reproduce to the point where half of the colony leaves the hive and goes elsewhere, they are often caught by local beekeepers who volunteer to retrieve swarms. You can add yourself to the swarm list at your local fire and police departments.

    • Pros: Free, easy, and fun to collect; easy for beginners

    • Cons: Unlikely to produce a honey crop in the first year, and swarm availability is unpredictable

If you are a beginner beekeeper, it is good to have 2-3 colonies over just one because sometimes you need another colony to help manage the needs of the first colony. A young mite-resistant queen and placing your hives in a good location with lots of diverse flowering plants and food resources are best for a strong colony.


Most keepers use a Langstroth beehive on a stand. On top of the stand is a bottom board that is solid or screened, followed by a series of boxes (or supers) that contain 8-10 wooden frames. The frames typically have an outline of cells made of beeswax or plastic that the bees can use as a foundation to create a beeswax comb, or hexagonal cells that bees use to store honey and where eggs are laid. The supers come in different sizes: deep, medium, and shallow.

The colony typically lives in the bottom deep supers along with the brood. Excess honey is stored in the above shallow supers. You can have 1-2 deep supers and 1-3 or more shallow honey supers. On top of those supers is an inner cover with a hole to allow bees to leave the hive, followed by a final outer cover. A queen excluder board is optional.

Honeybees prefer to get their complete diet from flowers. Nectar is a good source of carbohydrates, and bees prefer to eat fresh nectar if available. They will store excess nectar for winter in the wax hexagonal cells of the comb and dehydrate/dry the nectar to make honey. Honeybees also collect and consume pollen. Pollen is an excellent source of proteins, vitamins, fats, and minerals for bees. They will also store excess pollen in cells, add nectar, and ferment it into bee bread.

Bee Colonies

Bees are social insects that live in large communities communicating and working together. The queen of the hive lives for about 2-3 years, sometimes up to 5 years. She will produce 250 thousand eggs per year, or 1500 eggs per day, and a million eggs in her lifetime. She is the biggest bee in the colony.

The worker bees make up most of the colony. They are all female and perform all the hive's labor. They feed the brood, care for the queen, defend the hive, build the beeswax comb, remove debris, cool the hive, and ventilate it. They are the smallest size bees in the hive. Their lifespan is five weeks to 5 months.

Drones are all male bees and are larger than the worker bee. They are typically only present in spring and summer and are kicked out in the winter to conserve food supplies. They have no stinger, and their purpose is to mate with the queen and die. Their lifespan is about two months.

The brood or the eggs, larvae, and pupae laid by the queen are present for most of the year except for late fall and early winter. If the hive is stressed or low on food sources, the brood might not be present at this time.

Honey Farming

On average, a hive can produce 25-60 pounds of honey per year. The best time to harvest honey is late summer or early fall or when the hive is fully capped with honey.

To harvest the honey, use your smoker with or without bee spray to drive the bees down into the bottom supers and then open the top of the hive. Remove the honey supers from the hive. Take the frames out and remove the wax caps to get the honey out. You can use an uncapping knife (cold or electric), fork, a serrated kitchen knife, or an uncapping tank. Then place those frames into an extractor or centrifuge that spins the frames and extracts the honey. The honey should then be filtered through a strainer and placed into storage containers or jars. The FDA has a guide for labeling your honey and honey products for sale.

Bees are self-cleaning, but if you wanted to reuse a frame from a dead colony, you can bleach them and scrape off any debris. If that hive died from American Foulbrood, a fatal bacterial disease, please do not reuse the hive or any of those materials.

In addition to honey harvesting, it is important to inspect the hive every couple of weeks or a few times a season to check on the queen and ensure there is enough pollen and nectar stores to feed the bees. Ideally, this is done during their active foraging period between 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and with temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is crucial to make sure the queen is laying eggs appropriately and that the worker bees are capping those cells. A spotty shotgun brood pattern can indicate underlying health issues and disease in the hive. You must routinely monitor your hives to ensure the bees are healthy and free of disease and pests. If you have any questions or concerns about the health of your hive, please consult with a veterinarian that sees honeybees or your local state apiarist for guidance.

Honeybees are an excellent investment, whether for recreational purposes or if you want to sell bee products like honey or loan your bees out to pollinate crops for a fee.

Honeybee Supplies

Supplies for the beehive:

  • Stand for your hive

  • Queen excluder board (optional)

  • Shallow honey supers

  • Top bottom and inner covers

  • Supers with frames and foundation

  • Feeder

  • Varroa mite chemical control

Supplies for honey harvesting:

  • Extractor

  • Bottle tank with cover and strainer

  • Pale

  • Storage tank

  • Sieves

  • Stainless steel capping scratcher

Supplies for working the hive



  2. ‌AVMA. Honeybees 101 for veterinarians.

  3. Pennstate Extension. Beekeeping-honeybees. 2013.

  4. Maggie’s Bees and Beekeeping. How to Buy Bees and Install Them in Your New Hive. 2022.

  5. Dan Wyns. FEEDING BEES – TOP FEEDERS. Bee Informed. 2021.

  6. University of California. Bees in the Neighborhood: Best Practices for Urban Beekeepers. 2018.


  8. Hilary Kearney. How to Clean a Dead Hive. Keeping Backyard Bees. 2019.

Featured Image:


Melissa Witherell, DVM


Melissa Witherell, DVM


Dr. Melissa Witherell is originally from Connecticut. She attended undergrad at Fordham University to study Biological Sciences. After that...

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