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Getting Started with Honey Bees

Keeping honey bees is an increasingly popular activity for both leisure and profit. Many people have become interested in recent years after hearing alarming reports about large-scale declines of honey bees and other pollinators.  Others are seeking to increase pollinator success in their gardens and orchards. While others are primarily interested in producing honey and other hive products.  Whatever their motivation to take up their first hive tool, most find beekeeping a fascinating and rewarding endeavor.

Honey bee hives can be managed safely and productively, even in urban areas. Keeping bees can be a relaxing and enjoyable pursuit, immersing you directly in the natural world. As a hobby, or a sideline business, keeping honey bees can be a perfect activity for you and your family to enjoy together!

The time required for beekeeping varies considerably by season (see Arkansas Beekeeping Calendar).  During the first year, a new beekeeper should expect to spend more time among the hives than someone with more experience.  Spring is the busiest season for both bees and beekeepers.  The winter months require less time in the hives, but can be spent repairing and preparing for the spring season.  Honey bees are living creatures.  Beekeeping requires the same commitment of responsibility as owning any other pet or livestock.  Providing your bees with adequate shelter and care takes an investment of time, energy and money. 

Expect to spend a minimum of $350-400 to get started in beekeeping. While this initial price tag may seem high, remember that most of these expenses are start-up costs. After the initial purchases of hives, tools and bees, the equipment should last for many years if properly cared for. And as long as the bees are healthy, they should perpetuate themselves for many years as well.

To get started keeping bees, you will need a little space, some special tools, some honey bees, and a hive for them to live in. Everything you need is available from mail order suppliers who specialize in beekeepers' needs. An internet search can instantly connect you with many of the leading manufacturers. A great resource is the website www.beesource.com, which lists many suppliers of equipment and honey bees, and provides plans for building your own hives as well.  To find local suppliers of honey bees and equipment in Arkansas, check the listings from the Arkansas Beekeepers Association.

Honey bees are usually not available for sale before mid-April.  However, in recent years they have been in high demand and short supply.  Begin shopping for your spring bees in early January to ensure a timely delivery date.  Set up your bee yard before your bees arrive; they will need a place to live right away. In Arkansas, beekeepers must register their apiary locations with the Arkansas State Plant Board. There is no fee for registration, just a simple form to fill out. For more information on this process, contact the Apiary Section of the Plant Board at (501) 225-1598. Honey bee hives don't require much space, but should not be placed near areas of excessive activity by your family, pets or neighbors. Use common sense and be considerate. A barrier of thick vegetation or a 6-foot privacy fence will encourage your bees to fly higher as they come and go from the hive, avoiding most people.  Beekeeping is legal in most communities.  However, some municipalities may restrict the number of placement of bee hives within city limits.  A property owners association may also have restrictions.

bee smoker Honey bees are not naturally aggressive creatures, but they may react defensively (by stinging) when they feel that their hive is threatened. Honey bees communicate their alarm to each other by emitting a chemical odor, which the other bees detect, and which may cause them to become defensive as well.  Beekeepers use a smoker to temporarily mask the bees' communication. By applying a bit of gentle smoke, honey bees will remain calm and docile, and working with them will be much easier.  Most beekeepers wear some protective clothing while working with their bees. A bee veil keeps the bees away from the face and head, while bee gloves protect the hands and arms. Protective clothing is available in many styles, ranging from a minimal hat to full length coveralls with an attached zip-on veil.

Bee hives can get a bit sticky. A hive tool is designed to help open the boxes and more easily remove frames for inspection. It is also used to scrape excess wax and propolis from the parts of the hive.  A bee brush is used to gently move bees around on the combs and hive without upsetting them. It is also useful to brush a stray bee from clothing after examining hives.

The bee hive is the bees' house. It is where they live and raise their young, and where they store their delicious golden honey. A bee hive is full of wooden frames, each of which hold a single wax comb. By encouraging the bees to build their combs in these wooden frames, beekeepers can remove the combs to examine them without disturbing or destroying all of the bees' hard work. This modern style of bee hive helps us to keep bees healthy and aids in harvesting their surplus honey. The internal dimensions of a modern hive are standardized and should be very precise.

The Bee Hive

A modern movable frame bee hive, is also known as a Langstroth hive.  It is named after its inventor, Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth.  While many types of hives are used around the world, some version of this design is the standard for efficient honey production.  The secret to the success of these hives was understanding and utilizing the bee space.  This is the amount of space that bees always leave between two honey combs, and is around 3/8 inch.  It is just sufficient room for two bees to work on opposite combs, back to back.  Honey bees will tend to build additional honey comb in any space larger than the bee space.  Any space smaller than this is considered unusable by the bees, and they will seal it off with a substance called propolis, composed primarily of resins they collect from trees.  Honey bees will coat the inside of the hive with additional propolis, which is naturally antimicrobial, and helps to protect a colony from bacteria and fungi.  A bee hive is an efficient factory for producing honey and raising honey bees.

Each component of a modern bee hive has a particular function:

(1) Hive Stand - Supporting the hive off of the ground keeps it dry, free of termites, and improves ventilation beneath the hive.

(2) Bottom Board - This is merely the floor of the bee hive. A solid wood bottom board is traditional, but many beekeepers now use a floor of 1/8" mesh. The screened bottom allows for better ventilation and helps to passively eliminate some varroa mites (a honey bee parasite).  When equipped with an oil-filled tray beneath, it can help to eliminate small hive beetles (another pest).

(3) Entrance Reducer - A notched wooden block can be placed across the entrance to help a small colony of bees better guard their hive. It may also be placed on the hive during winter to keep out mice.

(4) Brood Chambers - These boxes contain the bees' living quarters. The queen bee lays eggs in the cells here, and the developing brood is nurtured. Pollen is also stored here, to feed the bee larvae. Some honey is stored here for the bees' immediate use.

(5) Movable Frames - Wooden frames fit into each hive body.  A sheet of foundation (beeswax or plastic) inserted into the center of the frame provides the bees with a place to begin building straight honey combs.  The success of modern beekeeping is greatly due to a beekeepers' ability to remove, inspect and rearrange individual combs.  It is against the law in the U.S. to keep honey bees in any type of hive that does not allow combs to be removed for inspection. 

Separate wooden pieces of a bee hive suspended in air stacked from top to bottom in order of assembly 1 thru 9.

(6) Queen Excluder - This device keeps the queen bee in the brood chambers, as she is too large to pass through the excluder and deposit eggs in the honey combs above; another optional but sometimes useful item.

(7) Honey Supers - Boxes of frames are added on top of the hive as needed to give the bees more room to store their surplus honey. These boxes are removed by the beekeeper when the honey is harvested. Various standard size boxes are widely available from beekeeping suppliers.  In recent years many beekeepers have trended toward using medium sized supers for honey because they are considerably lighter (50 pounds) when full of honey, compared to the traditional deep boxes, which can weigh up to 90 pounds when full of honey.  Smaller shallow supers may also be used, but are mostly employed for comb honey production.

(8) Inner Cover - This creates a dead air space for insulation from the heat and cold, reduces condensation in the winter, and it makes the telescoping cover much easier to remove.  Some may incorporate a vent to allow excess moisture to exit.  The hole in the center should precisely fit a one-way bee escape.

(9) Telescoping Cover - The telescoping outer cover protects the hive from the elements. An aluminum or galvanized metal covering sheds water and helps to reflect some summer heat.  Although fairly heavy, high winds can sometimes lift the lid off the hive, which can quickly kill a colony in the winter.  Other lids may be made of plastic or polystyrene.  While functional, they are not suitable for resting a hot bee smoker upon.

 

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Local beekeeping clubs

Arkansas has around 20 organized beekeeping associations or clubs.  These groups are composed mainly of hobbyists, who meet on a regular basis to socialize and discuss current beekeeping conditions and issues.  New beekeepers can learn from those with experience, and can often find a mentor who can give them some one-on-one help with their hands in the hive.  Some clubs purchase expensive equipment, such as honey extractors, for use by members.  Clubs hold educational workshops that demonstrate techniques, or may bring in guest speakers with expertise in specific areas of beekeeping.  Arkansas also has a state-wide organization that hosts two conferences each year to promote advances in beekeeping knowledge and techniques. To locate a beekeeping club near your home, visit the website of the Arkansas Beekeepers Association.  If there is not a club convenient to you, start a new one!

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  Arkansas Beekeeping Calendar

This information is meant to be a general guide to some of the main activities of honey bees during each month of the year. Being mindful of the bees' activities can help beekeepers to schedule their activities as well. Many local factors - particularly the weather and temperature, abundance of floral resources, and the presence of hive pests - will influence the exact timing of beekeeping chores. This is merely a suggested checklist for beekeepers to consider throughout the year. Nectar flows can vary considerably each year and in each region of the state. Beekeepers should be aware of local conditions and adjust their activities accordingly.

Jump to:  January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December

   
January 

Bees:

With temperatures still low, the queen bee should be deep in the cluster, surrounded by workers. These workers will consume a considerable amount of honey to generate the heat needed to survive the winter. There is little other activity in the hive unless outside temperatures reach about 50°F, when some workers may take advantage of the weather for a cleansing flight. Winter bees are longer-lived than summer bees, but many will die of old age during the cold months. It is normal to see some dead bees on the ground around the hive entrance. A strong hive will normally remove their dead.

In years with very mild winters, the queen may begin to produce a small brood nest, even though pollen may not yet be available.

Beekeepers:

Check the food supply of the hive periodically by gently tilting the hive forward to judge whether the bees have sufficient honey stores. If not, they may require emergency feeding. In very cold weather, the bees may not be able to leave their cluster for long periods to feed. Avoid opening the hive in very cold weather. If there has been snow or ice, make sure hive entrances are cleared to allow for ventilation. Also remove dead bees that may be blocking the entrance.

In windy areas, place a brick or rock on top of your hives to keep the lid in place. Now is the time to order new equipment, build and repair hives, frames and other woodenware for the coming season. Clean your smoker and hive tools. Order package bees and queens early to ensure earliest delivery. Read a good book or two to refresh and improve your beekeeping knowledge.

   
February 

Bees:

The queen will be spending a lot of time in the cluster, but a few warm days will lure some workers outside to investigate. When the first spring flowers begin to bloom, they will return with pollen. Fresh pollen will stimulate the queen to begin some limited egg-laying activity. Workers will take cleansing flights on warm days.

Increased activity and brood-rearing will cause the bees to consume a substantial amount of stored honey this month.  Unless an unusually warm and early spring promotes early flowering, their surplus food supplies may be running low.

Beekeepers:

Check the bees' food supply, and provide emergency feeding if needed. Continue to read up on bees. Attend your local beekeeping association meetings. Finish your workshop chores so that all your hives are ready for spring. On a mild, sunny day with little wind, it may be possible to have a look inside the hive. Don't remove any frames, which may risk chilling the brood, but you can estimate the size of the cluster between the frames. Patties of pollen or artificial pollen substitute can be provided to promote earlier brood production. However, in periods of extended cold temperatures the worker population may not be large enough to incubate a large brood nest. If weather permits inspection, weak colonies (those with less than 2 full frames of bees) will probably not recover adequately and can be united with other colonies. Medicate with Fumidil-B for Nosema, if necessary. Excessive condensation on the inside of the lid may mean ventilation is inadequate.

   
March 

Bees:

Days grow longer and warmer, and hive activity increases. As pollen-collection increases, the queen's egg-laying will increase. Bees will require more food to care for all the brood and to fuel flight activities. In years with a late spring, sufficient flowers may not be available for a rapid build-up. The bees can risk starvation and may require feeding.

Drones will begin to appear in the hive. If conditions are good, early swarms are possible.  

Beekeepers:

You may inspect the hive on warm days to estimate food stores and see how much brood is present. Evaluate the brood pattern and decide if requeening may be in order. If you plan to medicate the hive for varroa mites or nosema, treatments should be timed according to label recommendations so they are finished before the honey flow begins (usually about 4 weeks).

Reverse brood chambers to provide the queen adequate space to lay eggs. If hives were overwintered in a single hive body, consider adding another brood chamber to accommodate the spring population. Remove entrance reducers. Replace any old or damaged combs before the workers turn them all into drone comb.

Keep an eye out for queen cells, which you can use to divide a rapidly increasing colony. Pollen patties can help boost the population in advance of the nectar flow. You can equalize hives by moving frames of capped brood from strong colonies into weaker ones before the major nectar flow begins. This may also delay swarming by strong colonies.

Once adult drones are seen in colonies, it is safe to begin rearing queens.

   
April

Bees:

Spring is in full swing. Foraging activity and brood production should be in high gear. Crowded hives are likely to swarm. As brood increases, Varroa mite populations may begin to increase. Newly emerged queens will begin mating flights. However, excessively cool and wet weather can keep bees in the hive, depleting their honey stores. Eggs laid during the first part of this month will become the foragers that bring in much of the spring honey crop.

Beekeepers:

For strong, established colonies, feeding should cease as the main spring honey flow begins. Examine the hive every 8-10 days for queen cells and swarming activities. If weather is poor for flying, some feeding may still be required to sustain the bees. If weather is good, and flowers are available, you may need to begin adding supers for honey. Remove all medications as directed before honey supers are added. Mail-order package bees and queens will begin to arrive, and should be promptly installed. Splits can be made from strong colonies.

   
May 

Bees:

In the hill areas of Arkansas, the spring honey flow will be near its peak toward the end of May. Bees will be foraging constantly and the queen can be laying in excess of 1500 eggs per day. Swarms are still possible if hives become too crowded or honey-bound.

Beekeepers:
Some beekeepers will add a queen excluder to prevent brood in the honey supers. Be sure that the queen has sufficient comb for egg-laying. Super all hives as needed. In general, if a honey super is 3/4 full of nectar, you may want to add another. Supers full of capped honey can be left on the hive.

Many beekeepers will add new supers below those that are capped, so that bees don't have to travel through to add honey to empty combs. Top-supering is more convenient for the beekeeper, however. While opinions differ, there is no evidence that either method impacts the amount of honey stored.

   
June 

Bees:

The bee populations are high, and hive activity is bustling. If the weather is favorable, nectar and pollen will continue to be brought in vigorously.

Beekeepers:
Hives should be checked weekly to ensure the colonies are healthy and the queen is laying. Provide adequate room for both brood and honey. Monitor pest populations but avoid chemical treatments before the honey is harvested.
   
July 

Bees:

As the weather trends toward hotter and drier, the nectar flow typically ends in the hill areas. The queen's egg production may also slow somewhat. In heavy agricultural areas, nectar flow from irrigated soybeans and cotton will be strong. Bees may be seen spread across the front of the hive cooling themselves on humid nights.

Beekeepers:
Continue to regularly check hives for colony health and activity, monitor for pests, and ensure adequate room for honey stores. Ensure that bees have access to fresh water during dry periods. Honey may be harvested as soon as it is capped. However, be sure to leave bees enough for the bees own needs during the summer dearth.  Ensure that hives have sufficient ventilation.
   
August  

Bees:

Colony growth rate slows as the nectar flow dries up in hill areas; bees will still forage for clean water. During times of summer dearth, bees can often consume more honey than they are storing. There is little chance of swarming during this period. In the delta regions, nectar flow from agricultural crops may still be strong.

Beekeepers:

Ensure that bees have access to clean water. Watch out for robbing activities, which may indicate a weak colony. In some locations, honey should be harvested before bitterweeds bloom and ruin the flavor of the entire crop. Bees may tend to be cranky and more prone to stinging during times of dearth, so be careful opening hives. Varroa mite levels will be reaching peak numbers.

   
September 

Bees:

Cooler, wetter weather may produce a fall nectar flow, allowing bees to collect more winter stores. Drones may evicted from the hives as workers sense changes in temperature and food availability. Egg production will be reduced as the days get shorter and cooler.

Beekeepers:

Any remaining honey is harvested. Each colony will need about 50-60 pounds of honey for winter. After honey is removed, medications for colony pests can be applied. Some beekeepers will requeen colonies now, temporarily breaking the brood cycle and encouraging good egg-laying by young queens in the early spring. Clean and safely store all empty supers away from rodents and wax moths.

   
October 

Bees:

The queen's egg-laying continues to decrease, and the colony population will also decline. No more drones will be produced, and those remaining will be expelled from the hive. Workers continue to forage for winter food stores as long as they can.

Beekeepers:

Colonies may require some feeding to ready them for winter. Fall feeding is done with 2:1 (sugar:water) syrup.  Mite treatments should be removed at the appropriate time (consult product label). Mouse-guards can be installed. Watch for robbing activities. When finished readying hives for winter, don't open them again unless necessary. Each time a hive is opened, the bees must re-seal the cracks with propolis to keep out winter drafts.

   
November 

Bees:

As the weather turns cold, bee activity will be reduced outside the hive. The temperature will send bees into a loose cluster as necessary.

Beekeepers:

Install entrance reducers. Finish winter feeding. Don't open hives is cold weather. In windy areas, secure hive lids with a brick or rock. Now enjoy some honey. Review your records and evaluate colony performance. Consider what you might do differently next year. Attend your local beekeeper meetings and compare notes. Evaluate equipment and consider repairs or replacements.  Render and clean any leftover wax.

   
December 

Bees:

The bees are in a tight cluster, alternating between generating heat with their wing muscles and resting and eating on the outside of the cluster. The queen is taking a much-needed break from egg production.

Beekeepers:

Leave your bees alone. Periodically test winter stores by gently tilting the hive, but do not open the lid. Order new tools and supplies for spring and get all of your equipment in order. Consider expanding your apiary. Enjoy a few books and drink some tea with honey in it. Turn your excess wax into candles and give away a few jars of your finest honey as holiday gifts.  Plan to place your orders for spring package bees and queens early to ensure you are at the top of the list.

 

  Keeping Bees in Populated Areas (Urban Beekeeping)

Bees can be safely and successfully kept in populated areas. Many people keep bees in their back yards. Rooftop beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in some larger cities. However, keeping bees in urban or suburban areas requires slightly more vigilance than keeping bees in an isolated rural setting. Most towns do not have laws forbidding honey bees within city limits however some communities may have regulations that restrict the number or placement of hives you can maintain. Also, individual property owner association agreements may provide additional restrictions. Some communities have laws that ban the keeping of "dangerous animals" as pets. Depending on the interpretation this language, the concept could be applied to honey bees. Bear in mind that you will likely be blamed in the event that a neighbor is stung, despite the burden of proof that a particular bee came from one of your hives. In the event of a problem, even communities without regulations may choose to deal with bees as a public nuisance, and you may lose you beekeeping privileges. Use common sense and follow all state and local laws to show that you are a conscientious beekeeper.  Members of your local beekeepers association may be able to tell you if any restrictions are in place in your community.

Locating Colonies

Many people have an unnatural fear of honey bees and other insects. Keeping hives out of sight keeps them out of mind. If your bee hives are not visible, many neighbors will remain unaware of their presence and your hives will be less obvious targets for vandalism or complaints. Hives should be kept away from sidewalks and other areas of high foot traffic. If possible, conceal your hives from view with vegetation or a privacy fence. By forcing bees to fly up and over a fence or hedge, they will be less likely to bother people as they forage for food and water.  Remember to register your hive locations. If a dispute with a neighbor does arise, you should not be found guilty or negligent of state apiary law. You are legally responsible for your bees, just as you would be for a dog or other animal you own.

Food and water

Urban and suburban trees, gardens and landscaping can provide superb nectar sources for honey bees. Even in the hot summer, normally a time of dearth for wild nectar sources in many parts of Arkansas, well-watered urban landscapes can be lush forage grounds for bees. Be aware that many urban and suburban homeowners use (and misuse) a great deal of chemical pesticides in their yards and gardens. This is a hazard of maintaining urban bees, and one for which you and your bees have little defense. Bees should always be provided with a source of fresh water near their hives. Otherwise they may be drawn to neighborhood pools, hot tubs, bird baths, and fountains. If you are using an open watering container, fill it with rocks or provide floating pieces of wood, bark, or mulch for the bees to land on while they drink.

Management and control

Be a courteous and informed beekeeper. Read up on and understand honey bee biology and behaviors, so that you will know what to expect from your bees. Check your bees fairly often (every 1-2 weeks) to stay aware of their condition and temperament. It is imperative to maintain gentle bees when you live in close proximity to others who may not share your interest in apiculture. If you live in an area where Africanized honey bees have become established, or where people may be at risk due to their proximity, you should maintain your bee colonies with marked queens of a known genetic stock. If you find that your queen has swarmed or been superseded, you should re-queen your colony as soon as possible form a reliable source. Africanized bees may not appear aggressive or defensive when their populations are small, but as they increase and have more brood and honey to protect, their disposition will change. The risk is not worth the few dollars you may save by not requeening.

Urban beekeepers should practice good swarm control and prevention practices. Make sure your bees have adequate space for brood and honey. Maintaining a healthy young queen also reduces swarming. Beekeepers know that swarms of honey bees are usually very gentle and easy to collect. But thanks to Hollywood, bee swarms may be a terrifying sight to those who are not familiar with honey bee behaviors. If your neighbors report a swarm of bees, take the time to explain the process to them, and show them how gently the bees can be collected and moved. Help them to understand that swarming is natural and normal, and that honey bees are a vital part of the natural environment.

Prevent robbing by maintaining strong colonies. Italian bees, while generally gentle and productive, can be particularly prone to this. If you have more than one hive, cover the supers you remove to check your colonies, preventing other bees from accessing them. Particularly when food is scarce, the sudden appearance of free honey can initiate a feeding frenzy among the bees, and may trigger an aggressive searching mood, which may bother your neighbors.

Be a good neighbor

Be considerate of your neighbors and their property. Don't open your hives during conditions that cause bees to be irritable. Also, avoid disturbing your bees when nearby neighbors are working, relaxing, or entertaining in their back yards. Power equipment such as lawn mowers and edge trimmers can disturb bees and make react defensively. Locate your bee hives away from these potential situations with neighbors.

Take the time to educate your neighbors about the relatively gentle nature of honey bees. Remind them that foraging bees are only looking for potential food sources, and will not sting unless they feel threatened. Point out the differences between honey bees and wasps, hornets and yellow jackets. And emphasize the tremendous value of honey bees as pollinators of urban ecosystems, particularly in the absence of feral bees. If you have extra protective gear, invite your curious neighbors to suit up and join you next time you open a hive. Once they have seen how calm and gentle your bees really are, up close and in large numbers, they will certainly be more comfortable seeing the occasional honey bee buzzing past them in their garden.

And of course, a jar or two of pure sweet honey will always go a long way toward good public relations with neighbors who are wary of your flying friends. A preemptive gift of honey is much more effective than an apology after someone has been stung.

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Arkansas Apiary Laws

In Arkansas, laws regarding the sale, transport and keeping of honey bee are regulated by the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Registration

State law requires that the location of all apiaries (bee yards) be registered with the Plant Board and that all honey bees that are transported through or within the state have a valid certificate of health to ensure that diseases and hive pests are not accidentally introduced or spread. Arkansas beekeepers are asked to complete the registration process 20 days prior to setting up a new apiary site. Hives should be registered within 10 days of ownership or possession, or before moving hives from out of state.
Instructions and Application for Registration (PDF) can be found online.

Inspection

The law requires that authorized Plant Board personnel be allowed access to bee hives in order to inspect them for contagious diseases and pests. All managed honey bees must be kept in hives with movable frames to facilitate inspection. Beekeepers may be required to treat, disinfect or destroy diseased colonies as instructed by their apiary inspector. If foulbrood disease is found, all bees, hives, tools and other equipment at an apiary site may be put under quarantine. A certificate of inspection will be provided for healthy colonies. This certificate is valid for one year, and represents blanket permission to move hives within the state. The sale, gift, or other transfer of ownership of hives cannot be made without a valid inspection certificate. The transport of bees into Arkansas from out of state must be accompanied by a certificate from that state's inspectors, which must declare the hive(s) apparently free from foulbrood and other contagious diseases. This certificate must be current within 90 days of shipment.

The "three-mile" rule

It is against Arkansas Apiary Law to establish a new apiary within 3 miles of an established bee yard without that beekeeper's knowledge and consent, unless placed on your own land. This law is intended to protect bees from diseases and pests that can be spread through drifting and robbing. It also protects the pasturage rights of established beekeepers.  When you apply for apiary registration, other beekeepers within three miles of this location will be automatically notified, if necessary.  If you wish to establish an apiary on your own property, permission will automatically be granted.

You can view or download the full text of the Arkansas Apiary Law (PDF) from the Arkansas State Plant Board website.

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Beekeeping Classes and Events

The U of A Cooperative Extension offers numerous beekeeping classes around the state.

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