How to start beekeeping, create good habitat and tell bees and wasps apart

What does it take to become a backyard beekeeper? Bee expert discusses the popular Colorado hobby, dealing with wasps and what you can do to strengthen the native bee population.
July 6, 2022
A honey bee.
A honey bee. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

Looking for a new hobby? Maybe you want to enjoy fresh honey from your backyard. Or perhaps you want to help the declining bee populations.

Deciding whether to start backyard beekeeping comes down to your personal goals, said Lisa Mason, horticulture agent and interim county director for Colorado State University (CSU) Extension Office in Arapahoe County. She is also the coordinator of the Native Bee Watch project.

“Beekeeping is a fun hobby,” Mason said. “Maybe you want the experience. Or you have small-acreage crops you want to be pollinated.”

If your goal is to “save the bees,” you should consider a different strategy than backyard beekeeping.

“Raising honey bees to save the bees is like raising chickens to save the birds,” she said.

Honey bees pollinate some crops, like apples, melons and almonds. But in Colorado, native bees, butterflies, flies, hummingbirds and some wasps, pollinate most of our native flowering species and our gardens. Some native bees pollinate other crops. For instance, squash bees pollinate pumpkin and squash plants. Bumble bees pollinate tomato and pepper plants.

“Most people think honey bees are threatened, but that’s not true,” Mason said. “They face various challenges and are an important economic species, but they are managed like livestock. We breed and buy them, similar to chickens and goats.”

We will get into more on how to save the bees at the end of this article. First, Mason explains how to start beekeeping in your backyard, where to find resources and essential tips for beekeeping beginners.

Beekeepers inspect their hive, something you'll learn in a "how to start beekeeping" class, which you should take first.
Beekeepers inspect their hive. Photo: Kathleen Monroe, CSU Extension Office.

How to start beekeeping: rules, needs and neighborly respect

Backyard beekeeping is very popular in Colorado, and most counties and municipalities have regulations around this fun hobby.

“First, check with your homeowners’ association, city or town and learn the regulations around residential beekeeping,” Mason said.

No Colorado laws mandate the registration of beehives, but local counties have set their own regulations. For example, many local entities require a backyard beekeeper to maintain a flyway barrier of at least six feet high, such as a privacy fence along the property line.

“A flyaway directs bees to fly up and over the fence which helps the bees avoid human contact,” Mason said.

Join your local beekeeping group and network

“Anyone can be a beekeeper, but there is a steep learning curve,” Mason said. “You must invest the time to take classes and join your local beekeeping club, a tight-knit community where you can bounce ideas off of other beekeepers.”

Your local group, which consists of new and experienced beekeepers, can help you find supplies and bees, and provide a source of education on beekeeping (because bees’ needs are too complex to fully explain in one article).

“There are a wide variety of beekeeping books to help you get started, but at a minimum, take a beekeeping class,” Mason said.

Classes are available through local bee organizations, some county CSU Extension Offices, and some gardening centers and businesses.

A healthy frame from a beehive, something you're learn about when you start beekeeping.
A healthy frame from a beehive. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

Gearing up to be a beekeeper

Now that you know your local beekeeping rules, understand the time commitment of your new hobby, and gotten beekeeping education, it’s time to get your beekeeping equipment.

“Beekeeping is not a cheap hobby,” Mason said.

A new beekeeper needs to get bees and a queen. Your local beekeeping group can help you find your new colony but could cost upward of $150. And equipment can cost around $500.

The basic beginner beekeeping starter kit will include:

  • Hive box with bottom board, outer and inner covers and an entrance reducer.
  • 8 or 10 frames to put inside the box.
  • Hive tool: used to separate and lift hive components and scrape off excess propolis and comb.
  • Bee smoker.
  • Protective gear that includes a veil and gloves at a minimum.

Collecting honey from your backyard hive

Once your colony grows to about 20,000 bees — hopefully after your first year — you can think about collecting honey.

Learning how to start beekeeping will help you keep your bees healthy, like this group eating honey in a hive.
Honey bees eating honey in their hive. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

“Bees need about 60-80 pounds of honey to survive the winter, so if you take too much, they won’t survive,” Mason said. “You must wait until they fill up their first hive box and then add a second. Once they fill that up, you can put on a honey super with a queen excluder, where the queen can’t get to lay eggs, but the bees can make comb and honey.”

A honey super is an additional box with frames placed on top of the hive. The super is where the bees place honey that you can harvest.

Harvesting honey can be complex, she said. You can do it yourself or pay a local business to do it for you. Beekeepers use a honey extractor that uses centrifugal force to exact honey without destroying the comb. Often your local bee group will have harvesting equipment for people to borrow. That’s another great reason to join your local organization, Mason said.

What about bee stings?

Honey bees only sting when provoked. They sting once, and their barb stays in the skin, killing the bee.

“If you know you have a severe reaction to bees, you may not want to keep a hive in your backyard,” Mason said.

But in general, backyard hives are kept in a more remote and unused lawn area. Stings often happen when opening the hive or when your pet or child plays around the flowers and accidently steps on a bee. Mason said the risk of being stung is not much more than in a yard without a hive.

And in most incidences of getting stung, bees are not the culprit, Mason said.

Backyard beekeeping and neighbors

Mason said having a reliable water source near your hive is important.

“All bees need water, and they’ll go to the closest source,” Mason said. “I get a lot of calls from people with bees in their hot tub, and there is always a hive nearby.”

Any shallow water dish, such as a bird bath, will keep your bees from disturbing your neighbors’ water sources.

swarm of honeybees that have outgrown their hive. It's important to understand why they do this when you're learning how to be a beekeeper..
If you see a swarm of bees like this, call the bee hotline at 1.844.779.2337. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

If you plan to raise bees, it’s not a bad idea to talk to your neighbors in advance. Assure them that your responsible beekeeping will keep the bees from bothering them, Mason said.

“There is a lot of fear around swarms, but when bees swarm, that means they’ve outgrown their hive,” she said. “Before they leave, they fill up on sugar and honey, so they are full and docile. And they don’t have a hive to protect, so they’re not a threat.

“People shouldn’t panic if they see a swarm. Instead, call the bee hotline (1.844.779.2337) because many beekeepers want to get that swarm into a hive.

“But as a beekeeper, you don’t want bees to swarm. You lose half your colony, and they take the queen with them. Before that happens, you can split the hive and start a new colony. And that’s why having a network of beekeepers is important.”

Disease challenges to know before you start beekeeping

Raising honey bees must be done correctly as these bees face many challenges, including pathogens and diseases that, if not controlled, can spread and impact other hives, Mason said.

One issue is the Varroa mite, she said.

“These are little tiny mites that feed on the bee’s body,” Mason said. “They feed both on adults and on the young growing bees in the cells of the hives. If the mite problem gets out of control, it weakens the colony, and the bees can’t survive the winter. Because the mites jump bee to bee, they can spread to other hives.”

How to check your hive for mites

Mason said beekeepers need to do a hive inspection for mite once a month to assure they don’t have a problem. There are a few different methods, but Mason said she prefers the alcohol wash method.

To use the alcohol wash method, take a half cup of bees (about 300 bees), dump them into rubbing alcohol, and shake it around. The mites fall off the bees and into the bottom of the cup. If there are six or more mites, your hive needs to be treated, and if there are one to six mites, the beekeeper should continue monitoring the hive for mites.

“It can be devastating to beekeepers to kill 300 bees, but you have to look at that bigger picture, the social structure,” Mason said. “Bees are altruistic. They are all about the colony’s survival, and they give their lives to protect their colony. There are about 25,000 bees in a colony, so the loss of 300 is much better than not checking and them not surviving winter.”

Another method to check for mites is to use sugar. With this method, you take cover about 300 bees with powdered sugar. That should force the mites to fall.

Mason said, however, some research supports that the powdered sugar method is less accurate than an alcohol wash.

“Alcohol is more accurate, and I want to ensure I have an accurate count so I can properly care for my hive,” she said.

A variety of treatment options are available for beekeepers needed to treat their hive for Varroa mites.

What’s the difference between a bee and a wasp?

One of the most significant differences between a bee and a wasp is that honey bees can only sting once. But how do you tell them apart? A bee looks hairy and has a shorter, slightly rounder body. In contrast, a wasp has a skinny body with a narrow waist and is mostly hairless. Bees can also be seen carrying pollen on their bodies.

A green metallic sweat bee.
A green metallic sweat bee. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

Bees are vegetarians, collecting pollen and nectar to feed their young. Wasps are predators, collecting insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers and flies, which they put into their egg chambers for newly hatched larvae to eat. Some adult wasps feed on nectar but are minor pollinators compared to bees.

Wasps also live in colonies, but there are many solitary wasps that nest in the ground or in natural cavities (like in your bee hotel).

Wasps play an important role in controlling pests. But like any species, there are wasps, such as the European Paper Wasp, that are “invasive,” meaning they are not native to the area and cause ecological harm.

Invasive wasps in Colorado

A European paper wasp, an invasive species in Colorado.
A European paper wasp, an invasive species in Colorado. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

A common wasp found in urban areas is the European Paper Wasp. These wasps are usually not aggressive unless their nest is threatened, and make open nests, often found hanging in sheds, house eves or sometimes, playgrounds.

“They are an invasive species, so you don’t have to feel bad spraying them as they have changed our ecosystem significantly. They hunt pest caterpillars which is beneficial, but they also feed on butterfly caterpillars. The best thing is to use wasp spray at night when they’re in their nest. Be sure hose down the area so they don’t try to rebuild the nest. Follow directions explicitly so that sprays are applied effectively and safely,” Mason said.

The yellowjacket wasp

Most "bee" stings actually come from a yellowjacket wasp, like this one, and not a bee at all.
Most “bee” stings actually come from a yellowjacket wasp, like this one, and not a bee at all. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

“Of all insect stings, 90% are from the western yellowjacket. If something is pestering you, it’s probably a western yellowjacket. They are a nuisance, sometimes aggressive. Since they are scavengers, they are often attracted to human food sources like picnics, BBQs, and trash cans,” she said. “So when you think you’ve been stung by a bee, it’s probably a wasp.”

Yellowjackets are the most aggressive native wasps in our area, Mason said. They nest underground, often in very hard-to-find places, and will sting if their nest is threatened.

“They can be dangerous, and spraying pesticides in a yellowjacket nest won’t do anything because their nest is protected well underground,” she said. “If you find a nest close to human activity, hiring a professional is safest. But if it’s not nearby, it is best to leave it alone because that current colony can’t survive winter. Placing yellow tube traps early in the spring is one of the easiest management strategies because you can catch the new queens when emerge from hibernation before they start a colony.”

Learn other ways to prepare your yard during spring.

Native wasps in Colorado

A black and yellow mud dauber, a solitary hunting wasp that's considered beneficial to our ecosystem.
A black and yellow mud dauber, a solitary hunting wasp that’s considered beneficial to our ecosystem. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

Colorado has hundreds of species of native wasps. Though wasps have a bad reputation, most don’t pester people and are hugely important to our gardens.

“They kill pests,” Mason said. “And many of the native Colorado species are solitary nesting wasps and won’t sting unless you handle them. Sometimes they nest in people’s bee hotels. There is no need to be alarmed if you see a solitary wasp nest in a bee hotel. They are not harming anything or competing with bees.

And that brings us back to saving Colorado’s native bees.

Saving bees in Colorado

Colorado has 946 species of bees, and many of their populations are declining, Mason said.

“They are not managed,” she said. “They are wild and need our help. They are losing their habitat. But there is a silver lining. These bees only need small areas to live in so anyone can plant flowers and provide a pollinator habitat. Urban areas have a big opportunity to help.”

Bombus nevadensis bumble bee.
“Bombus nevadensis” bumble bee. Photo: Lisa Mason, Arapahoe County CSU Extension Office.

Pollinator habitat is an area with various flowering plants that provide food and nesting space for native bees. Mason said people can convert unused lawn areas into pollinator habitats by planting native plants and flowers.

“Bees live solitary lives and generally don’t interact with each other unless they are mating. They nest underground and in cavities, like small tunnels. You might come across holes in the ground and think it’s ants, but it could be from nesting bees. These bees don’t have social colonies to protect, so they’re not aggressive, and these holes should be left alone. Also, male bees don’t sting, only the females. It is very difficult to get stung by a female native bee. You would have to handle them to get stung.”

Another way to help native bee populations is to add a bee hotel to your landscape. These are small wooden structures with small tunnels where the bees can nest. The hotel tunnels should be replaced every few years. These hotels can be homemade or found at most garden centers.

Having a small water source nearby the hotel for your native bees is also essential.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.