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Beginning Beekeeping

How many hives should I start with?

Whenever I think of the beekeeping community this odd, errant image pops into my head of a group of old southerners gathered on a front porch in a hot, lazy evening of summer engaged in a rigorous and lengthy debate about whether or not it will rain tomorrow.

I don't mean to imply that the beekeeping community is populated solely by older gentlemen and ladies. That’s not it at all - because it is a diverse and vibrant community with all kinds of participants of all ages. But there is something about how every beekeeper has such stubborn opinions on the right way to keep bees that reminds me a little bit of grumpy old men.

The saying is true and oft repeated: ask a room full of beekeepers a question about something, you’ll get at least 5 different answers and they all might be right.

When you’re just getting started with beekeeping, this can be a little frustrating. In our lifetimes, science has removed much of the mystery of our world and provided us with the comfort of "the definitive answer”. Beekeeping has no such thing, but I would argue that this is part of the charm of being an apiarist.

That said, there are a few things that the beekeeping community does seem to agree on and this is one of them:

If you are just starting out, get more than one hive.

For most beginner beekeepers, the idea of getting one hive is daunting enough. There is a vast new vocabulary to learn, hive types and parts to be understood and decided upon, pests to identify and manage, and the sudden responsibility for so many tiny little lives in your inexperienced hands. Let us not even discuss the constant fear of inadvertently crushing the queen during one of your inspections and not knowing it because you could never really find her to begin with.

How many hives should I start with?Classes and mentorship go a long way to making that first season easier, but nothing really replaces what you learn by simply observing your bees and how they behave, both inside and around the hive.

Beekeeping makes us all naturalists and good management requires a scientific approach. Each hive has it’s own rhythm and pace, it’s own personality and particularities. When you have more than one hive you have instant context: it’s much easier to spot what’s normal or not and to identify when a colony is truly thriving or struggling when you have something to compare to that's in the same environment.

When a hive does struggle - you have lost a queen, or have spotty brood production, or weak growth - having a second hive can mean the difference between losing your colony or saving it. If you need to, you are always able to borrow a few frames of brood from your strong hive to bolster a week hive or to help them produce a new queen.

And sadly, the reality of beekeeping is that even the most advanced beekeeper can lose hives over the winter. When your apiary consists of just one solitary hive, there is something even more crushing about losing it over a rough winter and having to start from scratch.

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby to start. When you're starting out you should expect to pay around $600 for just a single set up... so it can be a hard bullet to bite to double up on hive bodies and your spring packages.

But trust us (and all the other old beekeepers), having more than one is worth it. 

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