There is a lot of paperwork that comes with starting an apiary. Provincial and local laws apply to all beekeepers. In addition, your home (or farm) insurance provider will often require independent coverage for your apiary.
Depending on where you live, maintaining an apiary on your property may be in violation of local by-laws. This may depend on your zoning. Properties zoned for agriculture are less likely to be impacted by by-laws, yet may still face restrictions. Some by-laws forbid common beekeeping practices, such as electric fences. This will affect the placement and management of your apiary.
Beekeeping is a regulated, registered activity in British Columbia (see Animal Health Act, Bee Regulation). It is a requirement that anyone keeping bees in British Columbia register their bees and apiary location (see BC Beekeeper Registration). Once registered, you will be assigned a beekeeper number. Each of your apiaries will also be assigned an identifying number.
Once registered with the province, joining the British Columbia Honey Producers Association (BCHPA) is highly recommended. Insurance for your apiary may be obtained through the BCHPA (see BCHPA Group Liability Group Insurance Options). Your home or farm insurance provider is likely to request proof of independent beekeepers' insurance in order to continue their coverage of your property.
Updated: May 9, 2022
Location of hives
Placing, and arranging, your apiary will require planning, and possibly landscaping. Sun, moisture and wind must be considered when deciding where to place your bees. This applies to all seasons. Human factors must also be considered.
In northern British Columbia, place hives in an area with full sun. Bees should be placed in a sunny, south-facing area, shielded from strong wind, particularly from the north. The area should be dry and not prone to flooding. If possible, position apiaries away from greenbelts and bush lines. Once an area is selected, hive entrances should face away from the prevailing wind. The area chosen should be large enough to accomodate expansion of the apiary at a later date.
The impact of an apiary on neighbours, human and animal, must be considered. The bees flight path should be directed away from areas of high activity. The ideal area may require landscaping or other modification to meet the needs of humans, livestock and bees. Human activity may also require selection of an entirely different location.
Updated: May 9, 2022
How to get bees
There are many ways to obtain bees, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of source, the new beekeeper should have assistance available from a local, experienced beekeeper.
Packages are often imported from the southern hemisphere and arrive in late April or early May. This is often a cardboard tube containing about 1 kilogram of bees and one fertile queen. Packages of bees are randomly inspected at the port of entry and may be shipped throughout British Columbia upon arrival.
Packages of bees consist of only bees. There is no comb, honey or brood present. Package bees may be installed into any hive type. If using a top-bar hive, packages may be the most practical way to populate your hive.
Package bees from the southern hemisphere are often from New Zealand or Chile. As such, they are entering their autumn when arriving in British Columbia. As such, they may not adapt to our seasons as well as local bees.
Nucleus Colony (aka "nuc")
Nucs are often produced locally and are usually available in May or early June. The nucleus colony consists of a fertile queen bee, a colony of workers and a series of combs. Often, a nuc will contain five frames, with at least three frames of brood.
Most nucs are for populating a Langstroth hive, which is most common in British Columbia. Top bar nucs may also be available from some producers, if a request is made early in the season. A deposit is often required for the nuc box, which the producer often wants returned.
Bees leaving their district must be inspected prior to sale. This is done by your regional Apiary Inspector (see BC apiculturist-inspectors). As nucs are generally from British Columbia, the bees are adapted to winter in their area of the province.
This is possibly the most exciting way to obtain bees. It is also a high-risk and unpredictable option. Swarms may occur any day of the week, and acquiring one is uncertain. If wanting the challenge of collecting a swarm, add your name to the local "swarm call list". It is recommended to accompany an experienced beekeeper when collecting swarms.
Honeybees swarm for a variety of reasons. Swarming is the honeybees natural mode of reproduction. Honeybees suffering from diseases may leave their hive and this appears similar to a healthy swarm. If the beekeeper losing the swarm is known, the swarm should be offered back to them.
If hiving a swarm, it is best to place these bees in a hive at some distance from any other honeybee colonies. This is to decrease the chance that any diseases present will not spread to healthy bees.
Honeybee swarms are often located 3 - 5 kilometres from their original hive. These bees, if healthy, are adapted to the local environment.
Occasionally, it is possible to purchase an entire colony from another beekeeper. The beekeeper may be downsizing, retiring or moving. If purchasing an entire colony, it is recommended to have the entire hive inspected by your regional Apiary Inspector before purchase (see BC apiculturist-inspectors). This is a service provided, free of charge, through the Province of British Columbia.
While rare, it is possible to have bees on your property without committing to being the sole keeper of those bees. If having a farm, meadow or other area suited to bees, it is possible that an established beekeeper may want to place some of their colonies on your property. Such an arrangement is best made, in writing, between the landowner and beekeeper. Shared bees may come from a variety of sources.
Updated: May 9, 2022
Your first season
The first year of beekeeping is for learning, as are the nineteen more that follow. People keep bees for a variety of reasons. Honeybees are excellent pollinators, produce delicious honey and are fascinating to watch. For the best chance of success, in whatever form that may be, locate an experienced beekeeper with similar goals as a mentor. The ideal mentor will live nearby.
Beekeeping comes with a steep learning curve. Everyone makes mistakes. Weather, wildlife, disease and nature will also have effects on your apiary throughout the year. Learn the language of beekeepers, honeybee behaviour, biosecurity and how to use the different equipment. Learn to recognize signs of disease. Speak and work with other beekeepers and your local bee inspector. Read books on honeybee biology and management.
Honeybees have been around for 30 million years, and their behaviours well-established. Honeybees will build comb, raise their brood, gather nectar, pollen, propolis and water without our help. Swarming and absconding are natural behaviours. Drones, workers and queens all have their place in a healthy hive. It is best to understand the biology of the honeybee and work with it, rather than attempt to bend them toward human ideals.
When first collecting your bees and placing them in the hive, you will likely be enamoured with them for some time. The colony must not be disturbed, yet it may be hard to resist. Follow a set schedule for inspections, and let the bees be. During your first few inspections, it is wise to have your mentor with you. Make detailed notes after each inspection. Some beekeepers will maintain a book for each colony.
If your colonies are newly established from packages or nucs, this is their year to grow. The summer is short in northern British Columbia. Your bees will require most, and likely all, of their honey to survive the winter. An occasional taste may be obtained by trimming off burr comb with your hive tool. Resist the temptation to fill jars in the colony's first season.
As the first year progresses, it is best to follow a monthly schedule for hive management (see our Seasonal Task Guide). Be aware of seasonal changes and stressors as they apply to your bees. This may be overwhelming as you are suddenly aware of "nectar flow" and the bloom stages of various plants. Embrace the new knowledge. Continue to communicate with other beekeepers and observe your bees.
You may spend much more time than necessary observing, inspecting and learning from your bees in the first year. This is exactly as it should be. Enter your first year with the expectation of a few tastes of fresh honey and nectar, a few stings and an overwhelming amount of knowledge to carry through to the next season.
If you are the curious type, have a viewing window installed into your hive before your bees arrive.
Updated: May 9, 2022
How to Install an Observation Window in a Hive
Hive Location & Set-Up
Introducing a Nucleus Colony